Prince Achmed, Peri Banu and pioneering women in film

In the blue dusk, a sandy path shows between fronded plants. This is the time of bird voices, when the deer come down to the water’s edge. A woman wades out toward a fallen tree with her long hair loose down her back. A man sits in the fern, in shadow, looking out.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

The birds’ voices ripple on a keyboard, and the people are delicate shadows against the sky. Prince Achmed, stranded by a magical flying horse, meets Peri Banu on a warm south sea island. (Peri, in Persian,  means a spirit, a good djinn (genii), and Banu means lady, woman of power.)

They meet in silence — the kind of silence I can imagine by a lake on a warm night touched by frogs or crickets. But they are silent on film. “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” is the first full-lentth animaged film, an Arabian Nights kind of adventure told in Chinese shadow puppet play. Pioneering film director Lotte Reiniger created it in Berlin in 1926, and I’ve just gotten to see it for the first time, tonight at the Little Cinema.

And it’s beautiful. It’s impishly funny, powerful, delicate. Reiniger took three years to make it and more than 100,000 still frames. With a camera, paper and scissors she has made a fairy tale of night skies, mobbing spirits, lamps in the dark and love and freedom. Ben Model, the MOMA’s silent film accompaniest, came up to perform and improvise the score for us. And I waled through the late fall night afterward thinking I’m still surprised, day by day, at the magical places I can find so near home.

 

Movement of a conversation online

Have you ever lost the thread of a conversation online, or set it aside for a few weeks when life intervened? I’ve just been reminded of the way a connection can come and go. A friendly man wrote me a note on social media, and by the time I read it, a few days later, he had vanished from the site. I seem to have a warm and kindly soul reaching out — and no way to answer. I’m left ruefully thinking you want to talk to me, and I want to talk to you, and it should be easy. 

But I have also set social media aside. You could say the same thing to me about this blog, after all. Sometimes other responsibilities come up, and for a few days or a few weeks the conversation here slows down. Summer Previews season in late April, and high summer, late July to mid August, are usually our all-the-running-you-can-do-to-keep-in-one-place times, when we hit full stretch.

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In this last month, we have gone through transitions at The Eagle. If you read the print newspaper, you’ll have seen them — a redesigned layout, a new system of software. So we have stepped back a pace from the blog and Twitter and Facebook as we adapted. But we know that this online conversation has to stay steady. We like talking with you all, and we’re never short of things to say. My list of blog post ideas goes on more than a page just off the top of my head.

So let’s begin again. The sun is setting through the cloud, the oak trees and the late maples are still ripe yellow in the valleys, and it’s still October. We are looking for ghost stories and talking about different kinds of pie pumpkins and keeping an eye out for jack-o-lanterns. Let’s talk about the fall. And if you’re the man who wrote to me last Friday, give me a way to reach you and I’ll get in touch.

 

 

Bluegrass and the walls of Troy

Any day that begins with farm carrots and Sandy boys played fast under the upside down trees (a southern reel with fiddles and guitars, flute and whistle, banjo and mandolin and one gobsmackingly versatile piano accordion) … includes the Ladies’ Auxiliary Ukulele Orchestra strumming “Wipe out” and Dave carter’s “When I go” … and ends with one actor and one musician on standing bass invoking the entire force of the rage of the siege of Troy?

Is a good day.

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Last Saturday I finally got to FreshGrass. Mass MoCA’s annual bluegrass festival fills three days, and I play (when I can) with a fiddle jam that meetsat the museum coffee shop on Saturday mornings. This time they asked us to play in the courtyard, and we stood on the grass trading waltzes.

Then I wandered around listening to Cricket Tell the Weather’s alto lead singer recalling factory towns. Berklee Music School graduates sang murder ballads and “Turtle Dove Done Drooped His Wings” a cappella.

It’s a new festival and getting larger year by year, a welcoming crowd, a lot of small children (one of whom poured sand industriously all over my shoes) and booths selling pitas and chicken korma and chocolate chip raspberry cookies.

The ukulele ladies are Bernice Lewis, a local folksinger, and her daughter and a friend, and when they started out with “Walk Like an Egyptian” I started laughing out loud. Thinking back, Bernice sang to the Williams students waiting to take WOOLF hiking trips at First Days — so she was one of the first people I heard when I first came to the Berkshires, these many years ago.

In the dusk I ducked out to meet my friend Shannon, to see a performance of “An Illiad” at Williams College.

One man on a bare stage replays and adapts Homer. He has been telling this story through time, and every time, he says, he hopes will be the last.

As props, he has a suitcase, a chair, a table and a bottle of water. The standing bass player gets effects out of his instrument I’ve never heard before, low, ominous thrumming of tension, thunder, fingers pounding on the wood.

And this one man becomes Agammemnon lounging and debauched and leading the council by fear, Achilles raging at his arrogance, Hector and his wife embracing on the walls, Patroclus on the battle field blind with adrenaline, King Priam pleading and old …

He makes you see what Troy looked like in peace — a city where everyone had a tiled pool, where every house had private places spilling into a public courtyard, and when you walked through the city, you saw everyone and everyone saw you. You heard flutes and lyres. It sounded like the courtyards where I had been walking all day.

It made me cry.

Like I said. It’s a good day.

In praise of playfulness

Sunday afternoon I was sitting in a former church with the pews taken out and the sunlight bright in the stained glass windows, with a dozen actors around me. Most of them had driven or flown in — probably less than 24 hours before — for the Berkshire Fringe Festival’s opening gala. They were punchy and jet-lagged, with the rush of the first day of vacation. They live spread out, they told me, and this time together really was time off in many ways.

Maybe I was punchy too. I haven’t laughed so hard in ages.  They riffed off each other. They’re actors, they’re old friends, they’re familiar with their bodies and several are professional clowns, and they traded energy with an easy familiarity I remember from late spring in college quads and late nights in exam weekends when the college radio station ran its semi-annual trivia contest.

Josh Matthews of the Under the Table Ensemble Theatre put his finger on it when he told me that play is an important tool for his group.

As I walked home down North Street, and stopped in at Brits R’ Us for a Cadbury bar, I thought — it’s important for us, too.

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The way we look at the world has a lot of playfulness in it. When I look down North and South streets and see them through the magazine’s eyes, I see the stories in it — I see the Eagle float in the 1909 July 4 Parade, the old livery stable, the original Wood Bros. truck delivering pianos a century ago, the dumplings simmering two weeks ago, the butterflies at the Berkshire Museum.

People I have talked to, rehearsals I’ve sat in on, flavors and sounds come back to me. I remember the nasi gorang I tasted on my first visit to Flavours, the poetry at Y Bar, Autumn Doyle telling me the Byzantine origin of the phraise “in the van guard” and the young man who taught me the right way to say the name of one of my favorite writers, the Polish poet Wislawa Zymborska. I remember Jeff Winslow at Wild Sage telling me how he got to talk with Stephen J. Gould at a Dowmel lecture, and draft horses standing in the downtown circle to commemorate the state’s first agricultural fair, and live music at Mission Tapas, and Incan-Jazz fusion at Third Thursday.

It makes the place three- and four-dimensional. I think of what’s there and what was there and what could be there. Mohican families camping in the fall share the road with Shaker sisters and the actors rehearsing today at Barrington Stage Company.

It’s the same kind of playfulness that I want to bring into this blog. I want magic in the city and fairy mischief in the park, like the Charles De Lint novel I found at the Eagle book sale last week — where buildings can have souls, and doors open between worlds at folk music open mics, where a city street remembers the moose and manitous who lived there and a biker paints watercolors and speaks Navajo sign language, where walking out the door can make you a friend for life — and anything is possible.

Where do art and industry meet in the mountains?

Did mill architecture influence Frank Lloyd Wright? Writing about Field Farm this summer, and David Smith’s sculpture at the newly renovated Clark Art Institute, I’ve kept running across Wright. His theory of organic architecture led to grass roofs and inner waterfalls, but it also seems to have led to a lot of long, low cement walls.

This mix of industrial materials and the outdoors keeps cropping up. Smith filled his Adirondack fields with welded steel sculpture. Field Farm, built by a local architect influenced by Wright’s designs, has walls the color of concrete and a meadow full of bobolinks.

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It seems fitting for the Berkshires, a lot of people would say. Wooded hills, limestone in the streams, moose and striped maple on the ridge lines — and brick buildings along main streets, and flood chutes sealing the Hoosick. We have industrial sites planted on the river banks. As I write about Pittsfield’s Arts + Industry art show opening this week at the Litchtenstein, I’m asking myself how they reconcile now.

Art and industry may meet in the design of the buildings, in the look of the spaces. Wright seems to have combined art, industry and outdoors by designing an industrial-style building with the outdoors growing in it or opening wide windows on it.

But I would not have called his style organic. Low-slung, snug against the ground, involving elements of natural designs, all that. But materials can have both a manufactured durability and a natural feel — slate, cedar shakes, stone blocks — the Clark’s granite walls. Imagine in this day of fractals how the practical physics of nature could map to architecture? (I’m borrowing this idea from Douglas Adams, who played with it in columns and his last half-finished book, “The Salmon of Doubt.”) How could the veins of a leaf, the geometry of a nautilus, the facets of a geode shape buildings? Or honeycomb, sedge, horse-shoe crabs, snow banks, birch bark.

(Not all manufactured materials have to look flat, steel-grey and uniform, and not all of them have to have toxic side-effects. I have seen barns with siding that looks very much like red-painted wood but lasts, I’m told, longer than clapboards in New England weather.)

Rising Paper Mill

What I find most beautiful in the look of our old mill buildings comes with age. The patina on Mass MoCA’s walls, the mottling on the bricks, the striking metallic shapes of old machinery all can have beauty. Seven years ago I got to tour the A.H. Rice Silk Mill not long after it had closed, and two knitting machines remained on the second floor, spidery and weirdly compelling. The man who then owned the buildings said when he bought them the room where the mill workers tested the dyes still held a rack of assorted glass jars and beakers.

We have also, of course, seen art meet the mills simply by moving into them. Mass MoCA has shown that our old mill buildings can offer compelling gallery and studio space. And exhibits have filled their brick chambers with tiny fern-filled green-houses (with holes in the floors to stick your head through, to put you at eye-level with the leaves and nose-level with the earth) — or images of life-sized bison, picnickers seen from tree-climbing height, cherry trees in bloom, moonlight on water.

And then again, we have seen artists draw on the lives of the people in the mills. In my column this week I talk about Tracy Winn’s “Mrs. Somebody Somebody,” one of my best dicoveries of the last year, stories set among the Lowell cotton looms. Her people, her mill girls sweating in the summer night, popping tar bubbles in the road, tired and scared and laughing, bring that time alive.

Industry comes with a lot of costs, and with a lot of ugliness. We are still trying to clean our poisoned rivers, and those massive machines could be deafening and dangerous. Industry allows me to type this right now on this computer. As Xu Bing’s colossal Phoenixes make clear, the costs and benefits come together.

So when I heard about the Berkshire Arts Association’s challenge for the art show that will open this Friday — to create art involving industry, only that — I wondered how I would have answered it. My usual artform is this one, and so I am drawn to Tracy Winn’s answer, to telling stories out of the mill towns and families, and I love her stories in part because she makes the people as real and varied as their work is not. Working 10 hours a day at hard physical labor can leave you too tired to think. She does for her characters what some of them can’t do for themselves.

If I wanted a visual medium though … maybe I would think about the industry of ants and bees and tides. Maybe I would wonder what the repetitive motion of a large, coordinated group could do, if it evolved within  a real organic system.

 

Fallen for a flageolet — the joys of fiddle camping

Sunday night in North Egremont, I walked into the opening night concert for the Berkshire Summer Strings, a new week of music jams and workshops and children’s programs. The instructors held a concert, and I learned that several of them teach at Maine Fiddle Camp — that camp has inspired Erika Ludwig to launch this new festival. I’ve been there and fallen in love with it, and seeing the beginnings of it here is elating. This is what it was like. (I wrote this in August 2007, when I came home.) 

For the last three days I have been back here, sleeping in clean sheets, wearing dry socks, sitting on the grass completely entirely alone. If you want a sense of how much you take for granted, spend six hours in the woods in the rain in a damp sweater, wondering whether your bedding will be dry at the end of the day. Because climbing into your sleeping bag later and feeling yourself thaw — that slow building warmth comforts to the marrow.

And getting yourself out of the dining hall in the afternoon, listening to the fiddles and drums ripping through reels under a yellow tent in the rain — getting yourself to pick up the whistle and work out a note, maybe a run, maybe a key, until they start on a tune you know and you can actually play it that fast when there’s a rhythm behind you, and who cares that over six fiddles and four drums you can’t even hear yourself, because you can feel yourself and the music in your hands — let me tell you, that turns a body on.

Banjo Residency with Rich Remsberg

Reels, recorders and flying high

Fiddle camp comes to the Berkshires

Sunday night in the rain I drove to Egremont for a concert of contradance musicians — the opening of Berkshire Summer Strings — and walked into one of my favorite memories.

Erika Ludwig, a teacher of stringed instruments in Great Barrington, wants to start a folk festival in the Berkshires. And she told me she’s inspired to do it after spending a week at Maine Fiddle Camp. Five young musicians will teach this week of children’s camp and adult workshops, and at least three of them are Fiddle Camp regulars.

I’ve been there too.

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When I lived in New Hampshire, getting my MFA from UNH, I went up two summers running.

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Five days in a tent uner the white pines, five days learning music by ear with a group of whistle players, five days of concerts and jams and gingerbread and not enough sleep — it’s a natural high.

Here’s what I wrote after that first week.

An afternoon at the Montague Bookmill

Yesterday I took a field trip I’ve had in mind for months — maybe a year. I spent half a day at the Montague Bookmill.

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I have been hearing about the Bookmill for some time. Props where they’re due, I first came across it in a copy of Yankee Magazine I picked up at Breakwater Books, the independent bookstore I grew up with. In a roundup of New England second-hand bookstores, the Bookmill came up high. And any place with the slogan “books you don’t need in a place you can’t find” suits me down to the ground.

In February, their website showed ice along the river and live music indoors. They sounded warm and companionable in a wooden-beamed, laid-back, word-savoring way. They are also open late — and the accompanying cafe and restaurant keep open still later — and they happen to be about five minutes away from the weekly contradances at the Guiding Star Grange in Greenfield.

So on a blazing 80-degree July day I rolled down the Mohawk Trail to explore.

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Coming up the path from the sandy lot, I walked along the river. This old mill is built into the river bank, and the wooden bridges and walkways between buildings feel almost over the water. You can hear the current from almost anywhere.

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I walked in at a side door, open to the world with a fan and an armchair beside it. This place is full of open doors and nooks, wooden tables and old sofas, wooden stairways and window ledges piled with books. You feel invited to sit down with the novel you have just taken off the shelf, to dip into the life of a Japanese-American school teacher in northern Nebraska weary of explaining that she was born here. I remember Roger Shimomura saying the same thing, when I talked with him a year ago about his artwork in last summer’s Kidspace exhibit at Mass MoCA.

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In fact the bookshelves keep up a running conversation with me about my job. Here in the New England section I meet Smith professor Newton Arvin, a highly respected and quiet man arrested for his homosexuality and devastated by the aftermath. I wonder about the Northampton he lived in 60 years ago — and I wonder what he wrote about Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Did he ever walk the college streets on a summer night and feel he belonged? Did he ever meet E.M. Forster, when Forster visited Tyringham?

And as I wonder what it felt like to walk those streets, or what it would have been like to talk with him after class, I wonder what it was like to stand by the salmon falls in Shelburne, where the sign for the glacial potholes hangs now, when the Kanienkehaka walked the trail. (The Mohawk do not call themselves “Mohawk.”) And I wonder about life in this valley now — its students and farm stands and live music, the powwow coming up along Route 2 later this month, and farmers washing spinach under the tap.

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Later, on the second floor, I stand with an armfull of books from many shelves and look at the travel writing section. I am holding a western woman’s year in Baghdad, “Zazie dans le Metro” in French, Joy Kogawa’s “Obasan” (a novel), stories from all kinds of places and from many different shelves.

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Who, I am thinking, is writing about my New England today and about places like this?

I want a writer like Calvin Trillin, who can make parking on the Lower East Side sound like an adventure and can lose to a chicken at tic-tac-toe in Chinatown with grace. He will make a place feel alive and unexpected.

I look around, and the fans whir gently, and students sit by the windows with their laptops. This old grist mill building was newly built in 1841 — at the peak of the Lowell mills, more than 30 years before Smith opened its doors. Who are the people sitting around me? Who are the regulars here, and who comes in for coffee in January, or sits by the river at the restaurant tables?

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At the cafe, I lingered over a ham and onion marmalade sandwich and salad with farm beets. My farm share had young beets today for the first time this summer, and I’m sure these are local too. The room is full of quiet conversation, with the sound of the river running under it.

I understand that Jim Murphey and Allen Ross founded the bookstore here in 1987, and that Susan Shilliday took it over 20 years later and runs it today. Let me lift a bottle of local ginger beer in a toast and a vote of thanks. On this sunny afternoon, I’ve fallen in love with Kamila Sharmsie’s “Kartography,” a book I would never have known existed if you hadn’t preserved it for me to find. The 13-year-old lifelong friends at its core have just found a petrified cuttlefish in the garden in Karachi. Excuse me while I find out where it leads them.

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Adventures in Berkshires Week’s past (1969)

E.M. Forster, a novelist I have loved for years, for his quiet, wilful originality, often visited old friends in Tyringham. (If you haven’t read “A Room with a View,” find the scene with George Emerson, Freddy Honeychurch and the Rev. Mr. Beebe swimming in the frog pond — and read it out by Pontoosuc on a quiet summer evening.)

Mark Twain visited Richard Watson Gilder here too, in the summer after Twain’s wife died. Stephen Rosenbaum, exploring Tyringham’s history in a companionable and rambling story in 1969, describes Twain and Gilder “retiring to Lucien B. Moore’s Riverside for a … Sunday supper of cornmeal mush and Riverside Jersey Cream.”

Twain began writing his “Diary of Adam and Eve” here — exploring the land in and outside of Eden with a child’s deep curiosity.

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I am nose down in a two-foot-tall bound book that weights about 20 pounds, reading Berkshires Week stories from the summer of 1969. I could do this for days.

Berkshires Week — the Massachusetts taproot of our Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont magazine — will reach its 60th anniversary tomorrow, and my interns and I have been exploring the magazine’s past.

We have microfilm going back to the first publication, on July 10, 1954, and we have bound books and paper copies going back, with some gaps, to the mid-‘60s.

And the characters they contain are glorious.

Here, in 1969, Eugene Ionesco, the French absurdist playwright, talked with an Eagle writer before his “Hunger and Thought” opened at the Berkshire Theare Group. The reporter, expecting a flashing-eyed bohemian, found “a small, compact, dapper and delicate man with haunted eyes — bottomless, humorless, weary. … Absurdity is no joke to him. Once in our interview he smiled, and that was a paradox.”

Maybe the journalist had never seen Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros,” in which people begin turning into thundering rhinoceri, until fewer and fewer people are left human.

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In the same summer, Erica Anderson, Oscar-winning documentary film-maker, was opening the Friendship House in Great Barrington as a memorial to Albert Schweitzer. Two 9-year-old twins who had survived open heart surgery rested at a local recovery center. Joe Elliot, proprietor of the general store in North Egremont, kept up his record as a professional dowser. Debbie Sue McFarlane, Pownal’s only woman jockey, won her first race.

And at Williams College, students and tutors worked with black high school students in the newly founded ABC program to prepare them for college. Any student who completed the program had a guaranteed place. (Dartmouth founded the program in 1964, and Amherst, Carleton, and Mount Holyoke had also pitched in.)

The students were reading Ralph Ellison’s ”The Invisible Man” and studying African American History. And when they needed a break from “all this whiteness” in a small town, they took a weekend trip up to Canada — to hear James Brown.

Berkshires Week turns 60

Hail fell on July 4, with thunderstorms. French troops were pulling out of Hanoi, causing panic in South Viet Nam. The U.S. army announced that it had finally completed its program to desegretate its troops. The Canadian government announced the find of a nesting site for one of the world’s last 24 whooping cranes. The IRS ruled that a martini mixed with five parts gin to one part vermouth must be labelled as “dry.”

It was July 10, 1954. In the Berkshires, Tanglewood was preparing to celebrate Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 150th birthday, and the modern artists George L.K. Morris and Suzy Frelinghuysen had work on display at the Otis Library. And the Berkshire Eagle decided to cover the summer art scene.

Sixty years ago today, this magazine began.

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(It began as a black and white section inside the daily newspaper — color covers like this one and the standalone magazine came later.)

This week, Rachel Fitterman and Christopher Huffaker — my summer interns — and I have gone looking for the past. While Rachel has talked with Shakespearean actors, Chris has pored over bound books of back issues, unspooled microfilm and dug into decades of stories.

We swapped notes as he went. He found Sinclair Lewis’ bid for a Williams professorship. (Lewis owned a house on Oblong Road in Williamstown and ran his guests ragged.) I told him I’d flagged an ad from a used bookstore in Pittsfield in August 1962 Robert Frost’s daughter ran the shop, and she was announcing a new collection of his poetry, “In the Clearing.”

He found Bill Tague’s Eagle Eye photo page of Louis Armstrong performing at the Music Barn in Lenox. And I told him Dizzie Gillespie taught classes on the lawn at the Lenox School of Jazz.

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Who knew that Eagle editor Mark Miller once helped playwright Arthur Miller to prime a pump in his fish pond?

After reading those sobering 1954 headlines, I am somewhat encouraged to read here about the Japanese Philharmonic Orchestra performing at Tanglewood, and to find photographs of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, in its first years, warming up to perform at Jacob’s Pillow.

And here is Sushil Mukherjee, a painter, print-maker and teacher at Windsor Mountain School in Lenox in 1962, explaining the history of printmaking back to 770 A.D. (and the difference between a print and an original.

Today I sit here and look at the list of events I can’t fit into these pages. Bang on a Can returns to Mass MoCA this week, to play in the galleries with Teresita Fernandez’ skyscapes and Izhar Patkin’s luminous veils. Mass Live Arts brings film and performance to the campus of Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

We have ‘A Great Wilderness’ at Williamstown Theatre Festival, Harpeth Rising at the Guthrie Center, Dafnis playing percussion at PS/21, jazz at Bascom Lodge on top of Mount Greylock, music from Charlemagne’s court at Tanglewood and Seeds of Harmony concerts on a Lanesborough farm and live caterpillars at the Berkshire Museum — the list is long.

At MCLA, Brian jones will perform a play by Howard Zinn, the internationally acclaimed historian who wrote “A People’s History of the United States” — or he edited it — from the accounts and letters and archaeology of the kind of people who often don’t make it into history books: the Mohican families who caught smallpox from the colonists, the colonists’ slaves, the children working in the mills, the strikers and the strike breakers.

I wonder what a People’s History of the Berkshires might look like. Looking at the papers around me, I think: It might look like this.