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The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Spotlight on … Bob Flanagan Slave Sonnets (1986)

 

‘Bob Flanagan, a performance artist and poet whose writing and sadomasochistic performances centered on his lifelong battle with an incurable illness, died on Thursday at Long Beach Memorial Hospital in Long Beach. He was 43 and lived in Los Angeles. The cause was cystic fibrosis, said his companion and collaborator, Sheree Rose. Mr. Flanagan was said by doctors to be one of the longest-living survivors of cystic fibrosis, which is genetic and usually kills before adulthood. An older sister, Patricia, died of cystic fibrosis in 1979 at the age of 21.

‘A former cystic fibrosis poster boy, Mr. Flanagan recalled that he grew up being told that he had only a few years to live. And he attributed his longevity in part to his ability to “fight pain with pain,” by which he meant that he took control of his suffering through the ritualized pain of sadomasochism. In time, he made his art out of this proclivity. His work related to the often painful performances of such early 1970’s body artists as Chris Burden, Arnold Schwarzkogler and Carolee Schneemann. Mr. Flanagan’s work was the subject of a disturbing exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in SoHo in the fall of 1994.

‘Mr. Flanagan was born in New York City on Dec. 26, 1952, and grew up in Glendora, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles. He had little formal art training but began painting as a teen-ager and then switched to poetry. He studied literature at California State University, Long Beach, and at the University of California at Irvine. After moving to Los Angeles in 1976, he became involved with Beyond Baroque, an alternative literary center in Los Angeles, where he gave readings of autobiographical poems about his illness and his sex life.

‘In 1978 he published the first of five books of poetry and prose, The Kid Is a Man. He also worked as a stand-up comic with the Groundlings, an improvisational theater group that included Pee-wee Herman. His readings and comedy routines gradually evolved into performances involving masochistic acts in which Ms. Rose, a video artist and dominatrix with whom he worked for the last 15 years, participated. The New Museum show, first organized by the Santa Monica Museum of Art, was Mr. Flanagan’s only exhibition and it generated widespread debate about its claim to be art. In it, he displayed sculptures, videos and also spent time in a hospital bed in the middle of the gallery, talking to visitors.’ — Roberta Smith, NY Times, January 6, 1996

 

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In action









 

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Further

Excerpts from Bob Flanagan’s ‘Pain Journal’
‘Bob Flanagan’s Body: Ecstasy and/or Self-Annihilation’
Philippe Liotard ‘Bob Flanagan: ça fait du bien là où ça fait mal’
Interview w/ Bob Flanagan
Lisa Carver on Bob Flanagan @ nerve
Bob Flanagan & Sheree Rose @ WESTERN PROJECTS
Transcript of the film ‘Sick: The Life And Death Of Bob Flanagan Supermasochist’
Bob Flanagan & Sheree Rose Collection @ ONE
‘Ode to Bob Flanagan’
‘Masochism for Masses’
Bob Flanagan’s ‘The Kid is the Man’
Bob Flanagan & Sheree Rose ‘The Wedding of Everything’
‘Sheree Rose: A Legend of Los Angeles Performance Art’
Bill Mohr ‘Bob Flanagan’s Birthday Bash’
‘Listening to Sheree Rose’
2 poems by Bob Flanagan & David Trinidad
Book: ‘Bob Flanagan: Supermasochist’
Book: Bob Flanagan ‘Pain Journal’

 

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Extras


Why? by Bob Flanagan


Bob Flanagan: Visiting Hours


Bob Flanagan ‘Fuck Sonnet’


Trailer: Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (1997)


From The Dead: Bob Flanagan (Supermasochist)

 

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FLANAGAN’S WAKE: RIP Bob Flanagan
by Dennis Cooper

 

Bob Flanagan and I met in the late ‘70s. At the time he’d published one thin book of gentle, Charles Bukowski—influenced poetry entitled The Kid Is the Man (Bombshelter Press, 1978). We were both in our mid 20s, born less than a month apart. I was sporting a modified punk/bohemian look and hated all things hippieesque. Bob looked like one of the Allman Brothers: thin, junkie pale, with shoulder-length hair, a handlebar mustache, and an ever-present acoustic guitar that he’d occasionally strum while belting out parodies of Bob Dylan songs. His style put me off initially, as mine did him, but I found his poetry amusing, edgy, and odd, and his clownish, sarcastic personality belied a deeply submissive nature.

There was a new, upstart literary community forming around Los Angeles’ Beyond Baroque Center, where Bob was leading a poetry workshop. I had met the poet Amy Gerstler in college, and she and I began to hang out at Beyond Baroque in hopes of meeting other young writers. After a few months of hunting and pecking through the crowds, a small, tight gang of us had begun to form, including, in addition to Bob, Amy, and myself, the poets Jack Skelley, David Trinidad, Kim Rosenfield, and Ed Smith, artist/fiction writer Benjamin Weissman, and a number of other artists, filmmakers, and the like. We partied together, showed one another our works-in-progress, and generally caused a ruckus in the then-dormant local arts scene.

Very early on, Bob told us he had cystic fibrosis, and that it was an incurable disease that would probably kill him in his early 30s—if he were lucky. But apart from his scrawniness, his persistent and terrible cough, and the high-protein liquids he constantly drank to keep his weight up, he was, if anything, the most energetic and pointedly reckless of us all. At that stage, Bob’s poetry only obliquely described his illness, and barely touched on his masochistic sexual tendencies. In fact, it took him a while to reveal the details of his sex life to his new chums. I think the fact that my work dealt explicitly with my own rather dark sexual fantasies made it relatively easy in my case, and I remember his surprise and relief when I responded to his confession with wide-eyed fascination.

Bob was working on the densely lyrical, mock-humanist poems that would later be collected in his second book, The Wedding of Everything (Sherwood Press, 1983). He began to encode within his poetry little clues and carefully offhand references to S/M practices, and gradually, as his vocabulary became more direct, the sex, and in particular his unabashed enjoyment of submission, humiliation, and pain, were revealed as the true subjects of his work.

Writing was difficult for Bob. One, he was a perfectionist. Two, with his sexual preferences finally out in the open, he was more interested in talking about and enacting fantasies that had already played themselves out in daydreams and in private autoerotic practices. It was around this time that Bob met Sheree Levin, aka Sheree Rose, a housewife turned punk scenester with a master’s degree in psychology. They fell in love, and, profoundly influenced both by her feminism and her interest in Wilhelm Reich’s notions of “body therapy,” Bob changed his work instantaneously and radically. For the rest of his life, Bob, usually working in collaboration with Sheree, used his writing, art, video, and performance works to chronicle their relationship with Rimbaudian lyricism and abandon.

Bob began to live part-time at Sheree’s house in West Los Angeles, along with her two kids, Matthew and Jennifer. Bob was an exhibitionist, and Sheree loved to shock people, so their rampant sexual experimentation became very much a public spectacle. It wasn’t unusual to drop by and find the place full of writers, artists, and people from the S/M community, all flying on acid and/or speed, Bob naked and happily enacting orders from the leather-clad Sheree. During this period Bob published two books, Slave Sonnets (Cold Calm Press, 1986) and the notorious Fuck Journal (Hanuman Books, 1987). He also began an ambitious book-length prose poem called The Book of Medicine, which he hoped would explore the relationship between his illness and his fascination with pain. At his death, the work remained incomplete, though sections had been used in his performances and have appeared in anthologies.

I was programming events at Beyond Baroque in those days and, as we were all interested in performance art, I organized a night called “Poets in Performance,” in which we tried our hands at the medium. Bob and Sheree’s piece involved Bob, clad only in a leather mask, improvising poetry while Sheree pelted him with every imaginable food item. It was such a hit, and Bob was so thrilled by this successful merging of his fetishes, his art, and his exhibitionist tendencies, that he and Sheree began doing similar, increasingly extreme performances around town. Perhaps the most famous and influential of thee works, Nailed, 1989, began with a gory slide show by Rose and concluded, after various, highly stylized S/M acts, with Bob nailing his penis to a wooden board. The performance made Bob infamous, and he was subsequently asked to perform in rock videos by Nine Inch Nails, Danzig, and Godflesh, as well as being offered a role in Michael Tolkin’s film The New Age. Nailed also interested Mike Kelley, who later used Bob and Sheree as models in one of his pieces and wound up doing several collaborations with the duo.

Coincidentally, interest in S/M and body modification was growing in youth culture, especially after the publication of Modern Primitives (RE/Search), which profiled Sheree’s life as a dominatrix. Bob was a hero and model to the denizens of this subculture, even as he found much of their interest to be superficial and trendy. Bob was always and only an artist. He never cloaked his masochism in pretentious symbolism, nor did he use his work to perpetuate the fashionable idea that S/M is a new, pagan religious practice. His performances, while exceedingly graphic and visceral, involved a highly estheticized, personal, pragmatic challenge to accepted notions of violence, illness, and death. For all the obsessive specificity of his interests, Bob was a complex man who wanted simultaneously to be Andy Kaufman, Houdini, David Letterman, John Keats, and a character out of a de Sade novel. So his performances were as wacky and endearing as they were disturbing and moving. For example, at the same time he was making a name for himself as a shockmeister, he was performing on Sundays with improvisational comedy troupe The Groundlings, in hopes of fulfilling his lifelong ambition to be a stand-up comedian.

By the early ‘90s, Bob’s physical condition was worsening. He was having to hospitalize himself before and after performances just to get through them. He and Sheree proposed a performance/ installation piece to the Santa Monica Museum of Art, which was accepted and became Visiting Hours, a multimedia presentation comprising sculpture, video, photography, text, and Bob himself poised in a hospital bed acting as the work’s amiable host and information center. Visiting Hours was popular and critically well-received, eventually traveling to the New Museum in new York and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In 1993, RE/Search published Supermasochist, a book entirely devoted to Bob’s life and work. Also that year, filmmaker Kirby Dick began to shoot a feature-length documentary film about Bob and Sheree entitled Sick, which will be released this fall.

There was some hope during this period that Bob might be able to have a lifesaving heart and lung transplant, but, after months of tests it was determined that his lungs has deteriorated too much to allow him to survive the operation, and he began to accept that he had maybe a year yet to live. He and Sheree concentrated on visual art pieces, some of which were exhibited at Galerie Analix in Geneva and at NGBK Gallery in Berlin. The duo collaborated on a last installation work, Dust to Dust, which Sheree is currently completing, and Bob kept a year-long diary of his physical deterioration, Pain Journal, which will be published in the future. Even as most of Bob’s life began to be taken up with stints in the hospital and painful physical therapy, he was still on the scene, frail but good-natured, using his omnipresent oxygen tank as a comical prop just as he had once used his acoustic guitar. Right after Christmas, Bob went into the hospital one final time and died on January 4, 1996. In the 15 years I knew him, Bob grew from a minor poet into a unique and profoundly original artist who accomplished more than he ever imagined he could, and whose loss, predictable or not, is one of the greatest difficulties those of us who knew and loved him have ever had to face.

 

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Gallery

 

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Book

Bob Flanagan Slave Sonnets
Cold Calm Press

‘An unpaginated poetry chapbook collection of eleven brief sexually-charged prose works by Bob Flanagan with cover art by Mike Kelley. One of five hundred trade copies. Though his first volume of poems was published in 1977, it was not until “Slave Sonnets” (1986) and “Fuck Journal” (1987) that his idiosyncratic work gained respect — and notoriety.’ — collaged

 

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The entirety
















 

 

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p.s. Hey. If you don’t keep up with the PERMANENT GREEN LIGHT page, we just announced that the film will screen in NYC during a two-day special event focused on PGL at Lincoln Center on September 5th and 6th. More details coming soon. I’m really excited, and, if you’re in that neck, I hope you’ll come. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. Yeah, right, re: Dern vs. the parents. Ah, I see, about the Schrader. Well, I’m sure I’ll see it when it gets here. ** Ken Baumann, Hi, Ken! It’s so true. Excited to read more by Johanna, and I apologise for the misgendering. Very big up and respect on your political organizing and direct action. Cool, a new book by you! I’ll watch FB for the pub info. If the blog can assist by doing a ‘welcome to the world’ post, I’m more than happy to. Have you sent ‘A Task’ to Ira Silverberg at Simon & Shuster? St. John’s College … I thought you meant you were moving to the UK for a sec. Awesome on the full-time gig as long as full-time doesn’t eat your work. I’m sure you’ll find the way. Give Aviva my love, and take a bunch for yourself, buddy! ** Josh, Long time indeed! Good to you see you, pal! My weekend wasn’t quite that varied, but what weekend could be, I guess? Your year sounds to have been intense. But you sound pretty good and strong, actually, so fuck the immediate past ultimately. Yeah, excellent to see you, J! Hope to get to do that more often. ** Mark Gluth, Hi! I know this is lunatical, but I haven’t watched ‘The Return’ yet. I keep imagining it will eat me up, and I keep waiting for space when I’m not busy outputting, but I never get any, so I have to just get dangerous and go for it. I’m really excited about your new book with Michael! Listen, he does not suffer writing fools irregardless of their friendly proximity, so if he’s way into it, you can take that prop to the bank. I do know that Burial track, yes. Fascinating. I always try to the do that ‘total forgetting’ every time I start something. It’s impossible, obviously, but the imposed filtering seems to ward off laziness and expectedness, and that’s usually plenty. Great! Yeah, the TV project involves levels of the hierarchical that I’ve never quite experienced before, and, man, I cannot recommend it, although I’m still hoping it’ll end up to be a progressing experience. We have a big meeting with ARTE, and also an intense showdown with our producer, today. Take good care, man and maestro! ** Steve Erickson, I haven’t seen ‘The Tale’ either for the same reason. I have heard ‘Errorzone’. I’m intrigued but not quite excited yet. ** JM, Hi. Oh, I greatly disagree about Anderson’s symmetry. It drives me crazy with excitement and inspiration, and I tend to spend months afterwards trying to unlock it. Hm, yeah, you might have to tell me more about why you like ‘Speed Racer’. I thought it had some pizazz-y visual ideas, but I thought its core and structure were really dumb and conventional. ** H, Hi. Get the busyness totally. Thank you a lot for your lists. I’ve noted what I don’t know and will seek out their experiences. Thank you about the Lincoln Center event. Yeah, Zac and I are over the moon excited about it. You have a nice week too. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi, Ben. Thanks about ARTE. I really don’t know what to expect, and I’m a bit worried, but we will see very soon. I’m hoping for a France vs. England final, which doesn’t seem remotely far fetched. Safe trip to Leeds if I don’t talk to you before you take off. ** Jamie, Jamie! Hey hey hey, pal! I’ve missed talking with you too, man. I’m glad for your, and, of course, my sake that you chose socialising as your curative. ‘Them’/NYC went really well, yeah. Better than I’d imagined. Since then … finishing the new film script mostly, and we’re ultra-close now, and about to face the music with ARTE today about how close or far they think our script is. I unfortunately suspect there is a lot of work ahead. I’m fairly happy, yes, thank you. Have you managed to work on any of your projects? Are you firmly upswinging from low to high or already high, I sure hope? May Monday turn everything beneath your feet into either a moving sidewalk, escalator, or elevator. Hot fudge sundae love, Dennis. ** Misanthrope, Ha ha, you card. Thanks for infecting more people with ‘Try’. The multi-birthday shebang sounds big fun. Good way to cast out the melancholy that birthdays can bring to lonely celebrators. Yeah, I guess those boys are making it out of that cave bunch by bunch. Don’t want to speak too soon though. ** Alex rose, Hey, Alex! Your list is pretty in the good/best way. The moon, perfect. ‘Lucky’? I don’t know that film. I’m on it. And other stuff. A book on beheadings. Zac and I almost had a beheading in our next film, but decided against it, mostly ‘cos it actually costs a pretty penny to make it look real-ish, and it would need to in our film. Seriously fuck the sun and everything it stands for, my God. Love avalanche (the snowy kind), Dennis. ** Corey Heiferman, Hi, Corey! How very nice to see you, man! Thank you very much for the link to The Public Domain Review. I bookmarked it almost the very fraction of a second I saw it. Very glad your life there is still feeding you everything. I remember how high you were on it when you first relocated, and that its still working is a sign of true love, I’m sure. I hope NYC isn’t boiling hot when you’re there. Boiling hot in NYC seems more boiling than it does in other comparably boiling places. Lots of words coming out of me for Zac’s and my new film script and, much less interestingly, for the proposals necessary to fund it, and some TV script stuff. That’s the nutshell. I don’t know Warsaw at all, but, hey, just in case someone here does. Everyone, fine guy/DL/etc. Corey Heiferman has a layover in Warsaw coming in August. Anyone here know (or know of) that city well enough to suggest some interesting local time consumers to him? Thanks! Take care. Hope to see you again soon. ** Right. Not only have I focused on Bob Flanagan’s ‘Slave Sonnets’ today, I’ve also included the whole thing, which is good because it’s massively out of print. Enjoy. See you tomorrow.

10 Comments

  1. Howdy Dennis,
    Nice to be back – was going to say ‘chewing the shit’ with you, but that’s not a phrase, is it? Nice to be back chatting with you, for sure.
    Thanks for this excellent introduction to Bob Flanagan. Something tells me I’ve heard of him or his art a long while ago, in pre-internet days, but it’s great to look at and read all this, and special thanks for putting up the whole book. It’s excellent.
    Exciting that you’re almost at the end of the new film script! And crazy-exciting about the screening/event in NYC??!! I take it you’ll be present?
    Sorry to hear about the ongoing problems with That Pesky Producer, man. I read what you said over the weekend. I can only hope that you can work something out whereby you can just get on with the project, with minimal interruption/interjection/annoyance from her. What a palaver.
    I lost enthusiasm for everything I’ve been working on of late, but I’m attempting to rekindle things this week. The start of my projected play passed the Writing Gang test and will be getting looked over this afternoon.
    Hannah got the position in Brussels! It’s very exciting and the feedback she received from the panel was so effusive and complimentary it’s put a real spring in her step. I was very, very impressed reading it too. So, we’re now deliberating over how things are going to work, living-wise.
    How was Monday? What happened?
    May Tuesday be so good so you want to go back to the start and do it all over again.
    Promethean love,
    Jamie

  2. Bob Flanagan was REALLY something else

    Very excited about PGL at Lincoln Center in September

    Tab Hunter R.I.P.

  3. One of the reasons why I left Beyond Baroque was because of Bob Flanagan’s passing. I couldn’t get over the loss and be being in that landscape. Not the sole reason mind you, but a big deal with me at the time. For one, his presence was always a nice light for me, and I often think of him being a living saint. I remember when he died, and I can’t remember who told me, and I think it was Amy, and I just immediately stayed on the phone for the next few hours calling people on the board, and beyond about his passing. His work is great. I hope there will be a huge reissue of his writings and everything else. He’s too important to be on the sidelines of art/poetry history.

  4. SICK is an excellent documentary, but there are images in it I never want to see again: an installation where one screen shows Flanagan’s underwear slowly filling up with blood, the scene where he hammers a nail into his penis. I had to be talked into going to see it in the first place by a close friend, but such difficult scenes are put into a context that’s moving and really explains how he used pain he could control to deal with the pain he couldn’t control.

    Since HBO doesn’t air in France (?), is THE TALE getting a theatrical release outside the US? I was really hoping they would license it to an indie distributor for a short arthouse release before airing it, but they bought the rights in January and played it in May.

    Congrats on the public announcement of the Lincoln Center screenings. I am really happy Gay City News will be running my interview with you and Zac. I hope they’ll be willing to run a largely unedited transcript on their website, since we talked on the record for 35 minutes, far longer than they could fit in the paper.

  5. Hi!

    Thank you!! About SCAB. And for your nice words about the acting class too! I am pretty excited about where it all goes from here.
    But… the ARTE situation. Or rather the situation with your producer. It is so extremely, hideously infuriating that I honestly can’t find civilized words to comment on it. It’s as if she was deliberately working on destroying the project but it doesn’t make any sense since she’s the fucking producer. It’s hard to believe she has the right to withhold ARTE’s original feedback from you, this is ridiculous. And of course, I understand how tough of a situation you’re in because it would be awful and embarrassing and highly unprofessional to have the whole thing blow up at the big ARTE meeting. Which was… today, if all went as planned? What happened? How was everything? Christ, I’m so very sorry you have to go through all this!
    Huge congratulations, though, on the nearly finished film script draft!!
    Did you end up seeing any art and/or movie this weekend?

    I, as usual, met Anita on Saturday and spent Sunday just lying around – reading and watching series, etc. Nothing major. I’m pretty excited because the Iceage gig is on Thursday! The only part I’m not looking forward to is the traveling because the festival they play at isn’t in Budapest and I’ve never been there before. It takes a little more than two hours to get there. But oh well, I guess. I’m pretty sure it’s gonna be worth it.

    I kept my fingers so very crossed for the ARTE meeting!! Please do tell me about it! Have a great week, Dennis!

    P.S.1: Huge, amazing congratulations on the ‘Permanent Green Light’ news!! New York City!!

    P.S.2: today’s was an absolutely amazing post, thank you so much for it!! I have a very shitty day and it made me so… hm. Happy, haha.

  6. Pure herringbone, the sweetest most authoritative writing on Bob Flanagan I’ve ever witnessed.

  7. Flanagan’s work is fantastic but I’ve never read anything of him as a person before. Cool post. Well, Speed Racer’s visual ideas really are the core of why I like it; and I think the “core” of the film as you say is more reliant on its visual ideas than the other way around. i.e. the entire formal element of the film is very tied to what ‘queer art’ usually is, though I wouldn’t consider Speed Racer ‘queer art’ other than the fact that its makers are trans, but: if queerness is in many ways about intersectional thinking, Speed Racer is the first (only?) movie with an intersectional aesthetic, i.e. one that bridges the gap between film cultures [there’s a heap of Indian filmmaking in there as of course there’s American neo-western archetypal storytelling] as well as bridges the gap between different ideologies and time periods [explicitly in the Great Train Robbery riff that happens inside the action-movie-body of a car chase with CGI and guns]. The film is obviously about intersectionality with its corporate and minority focus, but I think viewing the film just as a narrative in this sense is a little too base; the entire aesthetic of the film is both intersectional and a study of the train of thinking.

  8. Dennis, Bob Flanagan. One of those oft-heard names for me that I’ve never followed up. What an interesting life he had. I’m reading his little bio up there and thinking, “This guy LIVED.” I wonder if the CF inspired that living of his, if that makes sense. As in, I only have so much time and I’m gonna make the most of every little second. CF is horrible. I just learned the other day that it’s a quite common genetic mutation in Ashkenazi Jews. Something like an occurrence of 1 in 24 are born with the mutation. But yes, thank you for the introduction. I like his writing too. Or what I’ve read here.

    Congrats re: PGL. It goes without saying, but I’m there!

    Yes, eight boys are out! I wonder if they’ll leave the coach in to teach him a lesson. I’m kidding. I saw a little thing on them the other night and they’re really cute boys and seem like they’re really good kids. Let’s hope they all get out all right.

    I like how in the letters they wrote to their parents, it wasn’t all a bunch of despair but rather typical teenage stuff. “Don’t forget my birthday!” “Get me some candy!” Etc. Pretty sweet.

  9. Hey Dennis, do jump in to Twin Peaks, feet first and with wild abandon. I mean, that’s my vote. But yeah, consuming art while being creative is always a balance, sometimes I feel like I need to block out most everything and just write from a very closed of place w/r/t other art . Case in point my obsession with the current womens basket ball season in the US. It has next to nothing to it that could influence my book in progress. It’s fun to just be a fan of something I dont understand. Hopefully your producer and ARTE stuff turns out as best as it can? About forgetting your previous work, I was listening to this BBC doc about Aphex Twin, and this one in-the-know guy said the reason Richard James is always working with new tools….archaic synths, weird software, stuff he’s invented… is that he never wants his process to become rote, and he never wants his understanding of his tools to cause him to keep traveling the same paths. hmmmmmm

    Anyway, this is a ways off, but September 2019 Erin and I planning on being in Paris for a week. Aside from seeing you, which I would love to do, Michael suggested I try to organize a reading, and that I should ask you if you would be interested in joining me?

  10. Thanks for the book Bob.

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