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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Friday, October 31, 2003
    Mike Yaconelli RIP
    Pip's blog brought me the news: Mike Yaconelli died in a car crash late on Wednesday night. I'm about to leave home to lead a weekend on the theme of saints. Here's to Mike, one of those in glory: there will be laughter in heaven with that big holy guffaw of a man in there. There will be laughter... but just now shock, numbness, sadness, pain. All mixed up with tender thankfulness for all the deeply-earthed wisdom and encouragement he gave us...

    "I can't remember everybody's name; I often can't remember where I am! You don't have to have my gifts or skills - and I don't have to have yours. The most seemingly unimportant thing can make all the difference in the world. A teeny weeny act of kindness can make all the difference... That's what spirituality is - simple kindness, the significance of the insignificant. When's the last time you wrote a little note to your parents telling them you think they're great? Really. That says more than all the religious and Bible talk, and will mean a great deal to them. It's an act of kindness any of us can do." (from Jerk-Free Christianity in Yak Yak Yak, Marshall Pickering 1991)

    [Youth Specialities news release about Mike's death]
    Pic of the month
    Pic of the month up already, as I'm away for the weekend with the parish. It's a Cecil Collins Fool. Collins features in a new Resurgence art book, Images of Earth and Spirit. The page also features one of my favourite self-penned poems. Enjoy.

    Thursday, October 30, 2003
    The brilliance of dedicated simplicity
    It's a measure of the reach of the internet that I managed to find Tom's name on it at all. This man doesn't have a telephone. He lives in a large house which, thirty or so years ago, his architect brother and he designed and built with their own hands. It's within the city boundaries but, given that, as hidden a place you could imagine: on a turn in one of the city's fastest arterial roads there is a tree with a white circle painted on it - the house is in a deep clearing some way along the wooded track this signs.

    He lives among others, Tom, in a religious order. Devoted to a disciplined life with a routine of prayer at its heart. At work in the kitchen making simple bread and soup for visitors (and there are many of those), in the garden carefully planting, nurturing and gathering the ingredients for that homely fare, and in the grounds caring for the animals, stock and wild who share that space with Tom and the brothers.

    Tom's engaged - not maritally, but politically. Typical of so many people who live lightly on the earth, he's far more aware of world events and sharper in his perception of reality than most mobile-carrying, Google-eyed, Amazon-resourced media junkies, ie folk like me. That can be a cliche but in his case it really is true. He once wrote a small, insightful book on politics and prayer; last time I saw him he was giving daily reflections at a national conference on globalization.

    I think of Tom and his community sometimes, not least in the winter when the cold and darkness invite contemplation, warm soup and - I would suggest - hibernation. In looking his address up for a friend I realise I haven't visited Tom's place for many years, and feel I've probably been denying myself a great pleasure.

    As my modem blinks menacingly at me and Outlook Express locks up again, sending waves of frustration through my upper body, I lift my keyboard hand in thanks for those who don't need any of this, who without any arrogance at all demonstrate the brilliance of dedicated simplicity.
    Tuesday, October 28, 2003
    Cope - gettin' on with it
    "How do I get this thing started?" Asked Julian Cope of a band member as he fiddled with the controls of a newly strapped-on guitar, "Do I just turn everything up high?"

    This captured the mood of a night of full-on Cope rock at Liverpool Academy, the self-styled post-punk primadonna with an electric rock'n'roll band turning up the volume and again thrilling the city which was once his home. Cope was wearing a full military outfit with stack bovver boots and pink-rimmed shades: face barely visible with a full beard-moustache-hair thing going on, he would have been unrecognisable but for his trademark camping it up, swinging on that heavy-duty extendable mikestand/platform which has been his onstage companion for many years. And for the songs, of course, from 'Love, Peace and F***' to 'Safesurfer', every one a thriller.

    His band consisted of The Cope, Skinner Major and Skinner Minor, Doggen and Holy McGrail, and as a post to his Head Heritage site said today, "what an awesome sound they blew up. Early songs, new songs, Brain Donor songs, and loads from Peggy Suicide, all done full on and stomping."

    Funny this should happen late in the same day the family and I took a look at The Calderstones, remains of a chambered tomb which dates from the late neolithic/early bronze age. The oldest rocks in Liverpool, sacred stones, now enclosed in a greenhouse in Calderstones Park, locked up, labelled, randomly assembled, whatever sacred energies or positive powers they once held diminished by their captivity.

    At the turn of the 1980s, at the height of the Liverpool Erics / Teardrops scene, Cope was a radical rocker, often stoned. Since then he's become The Modern Antiquarian, a seeker after ancient landscape mysteries pursing a passion for rocks and stones across Britain's prehistoric fields. His guidebook to our megalithic remains is a great travel companion, and carries essays examining our prehistoric beginnings "in order to help us reconcile where we are Right Now".

    The beauty of Copey is that he holds these seemingly irreconcilable differences together, this full-on rocker / field mystic / interpreter - always winningly. It was a rock night tonight, without doubt, but he managed to integrate into an audience heckle session some words of ancient wisdom, summarising weeks of 'time management' workshop waffle in one pithy rock'n'roll phrase:

    COPE (mimicking heckler): "Get on with it? Get on with it? Hey, dude, me just standing here doin' nothin' - I call that gettin' on with it!"
    Monday, October 27, 2003
    Glowing from the inside
    The autumn light made the trees of Calderstones Park shine as is from inside - a last glow of life, like embers, before they shed their last leaves. The park whispered green, red, gold and yellow as we walked it and the mallards quacked.

    And then rush-hour dusk-light: queuing on Upper Parliament Street was a rare pleasure because here it was the buildings which glowed from inside - Edwardian terraces, Georgian mansions, freshly-refurbished, illuminated rooms on display through generous windows, whetting the appetites of mortgage-market motorists considering the currently-fashionable move out of the suburbs into the city. Filling my heart with gladness at the invention of those who built our city and at those working at reinvention today.

    The perfect autumn day: capped by the long-awaited release of The Real New Fall LP (formerly 'Country on the Click'). Smith's taken a year remixing this. Still working through my first play, nevertheless I'm certain this cd will amuse and thrill me well into the winter. He's a curmudgeon, people like to say about Smith. Hard to dispute with lyrics like "I hate the countryside so much / I hate the country folk so much" ('Contraflow'). But he's desperately funny and street smart with it (as celebrated in this Guardian review c/o Fall News Service). So for me this acute observer of our crooked life is also one who glows, yes, as if from the inside.

    Sunday, October 26, 2003
    On Blake
    In the visionary imagination of William Blake there is no birth and no death, no beginning and no end, only the perpetual pilgrimage within time toward eternity.

    Peter Ackroyd's Blake begins with this breathtaking sentence; I started reading it today. Struck by the amount of Blake references already on this website: seems his influence percolates all sorts of areas of interest here. Yet I feel I know so little about him as yet, save the glories of 'Jerusalem' which, with wonderful synchronicity, concluded our Choral Evensong this evening.

    It's a London life, Blake's - 'at 7.45pm on a November evening in 1757, he came crying into the rushlight and candlelight of a London winter'; born above a hosier's shop in Soho. He saw God from the upper windows of that house. But his bright visions were universal, and there's great fascination in exploring them while remaining conscious of the physical and social ground he trod. More Blake no doubt, soon.
    Saturday, October 25, 2003
    Dark morning. Rain-battered windows. An eerie absence of phonecalls. Dark afternoon. A dull nil-nil at Villa. Clocks back. Winter looms ominous.
    Snug morning. Double-glazing. Undisturbed. First point at Villa for years. Extra hour in bed tonight. Restful turn in the year.
    Friday, October 24, 2003

    The producers of the Exeter Mis-Guide found me on the web and let me know about their project. Which is to produce a guide "like no other guide you have ever used before. To Exeter. To Anywhere. Rather than telling you where to go and what to see, the Mis-Guide gives you the ways to see the Exeters no one else has found yet. An Exeter Mis-Guide is both a forged passport to your 'other' city and a new way of travelling a very familiar one. An essential part of the toolkit of any 21st Century Exeter survivor." Sounds fascinating. And transferable to any city, I'd guess. My cheque's in the post.
    Thursday, October 23, 2003
    The Big Issue In the North responds.
    Following up Tuesday's blog, a letter arrived today from the Big Issue In the North re. the police action against Big Issue sellers. I thought it worth reproducing here. Google news search on the issue here.
    Heart of the Country
    Though city-bound for the forseeable future I shall spend each day of the coming weeks on a tour of Wales... Because Jeremy Moore's Heart of the Country arrived today, a kind gift from Tess Thompson's family (thanks). Inspired photographer Moore has captured places and essences of Wales which the naturalist-diarist William Condry wrote about. Each double-page spread features a Condry extract and a Moore photo. Beautiful. I've spent too little time in God's country this year. The book will help heal the gap.
    Wednesday, October 22, 2003
    Watched a church burn tonight
    Watched a church burn tonight. Bonfire night come early at the back of Holy Trinity. Courtesy of local youths creative with cardboard and hardboard. Fascinating watching what happens when a gas main pipe explodes (it's like the eternal flames shooting from North Sea oil platforms). Fascinating observing myself working on a calm exterior in dealings with fire, gas, church people and passers-by. While inside, violent flames licked.

    Thanks to rapid response from the fire brigade and gasmen, the only consequence for the building is a smoke-stained exterior and a few days cold interior (till the supply is restored in safety). Meanwhile, I'm left pondering over the suppression of truthful emotions and the damage that can cause. Especially as, straight after the fire crisis, I was into a challenging meeting on the realities of domestic violence on our patch.
    Tuesday, October 21, 2003
    Sledgehammer ... nut
    Liverpool City Council have banned Big Issue sellers from the streets after arrests at the weekend revealed some vendors were also supplying drugs. Can't help feeling this is a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Can't help thinking there may be credibility in the view that this is stage one of 'clean up the streets for the Capital of Culture', though city councillors reject this view as cynical. It takes me back to a blog last month asking if cultural regeneration means spatial sterilisation. It happened in Hackney.

    If twelve policemen were found supplying drugs would they suspend the whole force? If twelve schoolchildren, would they shut the whole school down? Or if twelve prisoners, would they ban the whole incarcerated population from activities designed to rehabilitate them? Twelve vendors have offended - but wiping the entire Big Issue community from the face of the city, people till last weekend slowly on the path up-and-away from addiction and homelessness, where's the balance there?

    Singalong to Liverpool's Capital of Culture theme: "Got the go, got the get, got the will, got the want, got the skill, got the scope, got the range, got the reach, got the life, got the love, got the urge, got the edge."

    Now, has the city got the grace to reverse this brutal decision?

    [Liverpool City Council Feedback form here]
    Monday, October 20, 2003
    Doing it civilly
    "The Civil War ... is meant to suture the English Civil War of 1640 with the American Civil War of 1865 with the domestic civil war between us as boyfriends and band mates with the current civil war in America between those who support Bush and those who despise him as the spineless usurper that he is."

    In their Sept 03 interview with The Wire's David Toop, it's clear which side Matmos are coming down on in that particular war. But they're aiming to do it civilly. Which is the sense in which they intend their latest album title to be understood.

    If there's politics in Matmos music it has to be right there - in the music. Because they're not a lyrical group. So, the music, which here combines hurdy-gurdys with sequencers, autoharps with a Buchla Modular Synthesiser, field recordings with emergency alarm systems, suggests a politics attuned to the times. A politics of the mix. As Toop observes, "Matmos may be considered a weather vane at this point, one indicator among many, all registering a change in our haunted climate. Electronics, computers, memory, instruments, folk music, unpredictable influences, political discontents; we can use all these words..."

    Track one sounds like The Incredible String Band run through sequencers, track four like Iggy Pop on recorder and bassoon, and sleevenotes say that 'The Stars and Stripes Forever' "may contain" (among others) the sounds of leather coat, comb, bicycle pump, knuckles, orange, and a copy of Henry Kissinger's Diplomacy being dropped on the floor.

    This may read like it would sound a mess; 'Pelt and Holler', which utilises the sound of a Rabbit's pelt and a huntsman's holler may read like daft pretension. But they're so gifted in the mix that it works: it's lovely music. In The Civil War, English folk eccentricity segues wonderfully with West Coast electronic dabbling. It's radically gentle, and it works for me. If there is a war coming, I'm on Matmos' side.
    Sunday, October 19, 2003
    Hebridean icons

    Lovely discovery on the Mull ferry: CalMac have commissioned the artist John Lowrie Morrison to produce a series of isles paintings which involved onboard exhibitions earlier in the year and now merchandise as calendars and mousemats. June's Pic of the month was a JoLoMo creation; this above my scan of the mousemat, MV Isle of Mull passing Castle Duart. I love the colours in this painting which has all the Hebridean icons: castle, ferry, mountains, sky and great big sea.
    Saturday, October 18, 2003
    The song and how you sing it
    It's about the song and how you sing it, Community Week on Iona. This is a gathering of people who like to sing. Here is Richard singing old Scottish serenades before breakfast, which begins with a short sung grace. There is Emily leading a volunteer chorus in a mesmerisingly beautiful chant before our evening prayer. Chore teams sing while they work. Kathy starts business sessions by invoking vocal harmony. Late night Taize in Reilig Oran; afternoon Wee Sings in the Chapterhouse: it seems that in every room in the Community's centres, people gather to exercise heart, soul and vocal chords in praise and enjoyment.

    This year the Community's new members performed The Sound of Music to everybody's delight; and the encore provoked scenes of such arm-waving emotion that we might have been on the terraces at an Old Firm derby, or at a pentecostal rally. We were singing Climb Every Mountain like our lives depended on it. Maybe they do. Because (as an Abbey sermon reminded us) in life, you have to get your dreams right, and do all you can to follow them. Life's about the song and how you sing it:
      Climb every mountain
      Ford every stream
      Follow every rainbow
      Till you find your dream.
    Rainbows broke out over Oban last Saturday as members of the Iona Community boarded the Mull ferry, saying hello to sunshine for the week. And, in our better moments (and last week there were many better moments) members of the Iona Community are following the same rainbow, trying to harmonise our lives to help shape a just and peaceful world.

    Two songs particularly touched me deeply, defined the dream for me last week. One was that old wonder, Amazing Grace, sung to a blues piano accompaniment during the closing communion service. Engaging those words always brings me back to the the dream's core - deep gratefulness at God's gracefulness. But it was the blues which did it for me, got my tear ducts flowing - how deeply I am touched by the blues, always, for it is a music of struggle at one with the spirituals. As James Cone writes, the hope for a this-worldly liberation is deeply engrained in these musics. It's a hope I share, it's a dream the Community chases.

    The other song was Holly Near's Singing for our Lives, which we sang together before a session on how we may raise £1 million to develop our island centre work. It's a protest song, written after Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay elected officials in California, was assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone by Supervisor Dan White on November 27, 1978. It was the theme song of vigils which followed in San Francisco. It holds the dream.

    Gathered in Iona Village Hall, we were aware that down at Lambeth Palace Anglican world leaders were deep in debate over something which cost Milk his life. That morning, the song and how we sang it meant a great deal:
      We are a gentle angry people
      And we are singing, singing for our lives
      We are a land of many colours
      And we are singing, singing for our lives
      We are an anti-nuclear people
      And we are singing, singing for our lives
      We are gay and straight together
      And we are singing, singing for our lives
      We are a peaceful, loving people
      And we are singing, singing for our lives
    Thursday, October 09, 2003
    On Iona
    Ah! A week's grace at a turning of the year. Soon Gordon and I will be on the road across Mull, passing by these hills and lochs.

    The other night Stella Lau said we all looked tired. It was one of those moments when you stop and realise, yes, she's right, I am. Iona Community Week isn't exactly a retreat, but I hope I may escape, make space, get time enough alone to catch up with myself and engage with Zygmunt Bauman's Globalization: The Human Consequences and John Belchem's Merseypride: Essays in Liverpool Exceptionalism.

    A kind gift from All Hallows will pay for a copy of the new Iona Abbey Music Book, and all of that will keep me going for a week. That, and good company and Scotch whiskey. If there's blog capability on Iona you may hear from me this week. I doubt it, though. I doubt I'll even see the England game up there, but hey. I'll be back on the 18th. Meanwhile, check out excellent pic series of Iona at meish dot org.
    Wednesday, October 08, 2003
    This present dullness
    "We seem to have resigned ourselves to church meetings where men are largely absent, to church ministry that is mainly run by women but overseen by a clerical caste, to an often soft devotionalism that attracts only a specific male clientele. Usually the men who do become involved in church are subservient and not the risk takers, leaders, and missionary personalities that attract other men."

    I was listening to Richard Rohr's Greenbelt cd in the car on the way to Paul's induction as Vicar of Ditton tonight. Good to reflect on male spirituality on an evening where an all-round good bloke begins a new phase of ministry; the evening after hosting a small 'Men's Group' meeting in my house and later, the pub; and in a period of life (like most periods of life) when I'm challenged about who I am and what on earth I think I'm doing dressing up in a skirt every week.

    As I sat at the back of Ditton church (having sidestepped the invitation to dress in a skirt tonight too, wrapped up in a fleece instead) I hear Rohr's words about the way religion has taken powerful 'rites of passage' and 'prettified' them (eg, birth rituals of blood and water reduced to 'holy baptism', an excuse to dress infant males in shiny white frilly outfits).

    Tonight's service is meaningful but dull; an example of that soft devotionalism Rohr speaks of. The mayor and the wardens shake hands with the new man stiffly, and attempt awkward pecks on his wife's cheek. I long for stories to be told here - the parishioners could tell great tales about who they are and what their home means to them; the new incumbent could talk about the journey he's made to reach that place. A journey no doubt involving much risk taking, struggles in developing leadership, and grappling with a sense of mission.

    I look forward to Rohr's book due next year on how we may redeploy some of the old rituals, in all their power, in an attempt to make spirituality pertinent to men again - and women too, for whom this present dullness is also not enough.
    Tuesday, October 07, 2003
    The Desert Sessions
    Anything Polly Harvey collaborates in has to be worth a listen. So, despite feeling like a real oldie and not knowing much about the Queens of the Stone Age and others who got together to record this in five days, I'll be onto Amazon to get hold of The Desert Sessions vols 9&10 for a bit of an education.
    Monday, October 06, 2003
    The great wall of Chinese sound
    Asked the question, "What do you know about the Chinese community in Liverpool?" me and my night school classmates shrugged at first. But it didn't take long before we discovered we knew quite a bit: the oldest Chinese settlement in Europe, the biggest Chinese arch outside of China, historic links with Shanghai, shipping, the laundry trade, the Everton connection (Li Tie, Keijan), and any number of favourite restaurants. Stella Lau of Liverpool University's Institute of Popular Music took us from there through a fascinating cultural history followed by a survey of Chinese music, from traditional, opera, to 'Cantopop' and indie.

    She has written that 'Chinese in Britain have often been subject to an 'inbetween-ness' of identities and hybridity of ethnicities.' The gatekeepers have addressed this tension by by trying to sustain the historic identity, such as those running music courses in Liverpool's Chinese community centre, who teach only traditional music to young people.

    Ex-dj, pop journalist and Hong Kong HMV Megastore employee Stella thinks this is a shame because it blocks the potential for diversity and proliferation. It got us into a fascinating discussion about identity and authenticity. Bowie's line: "My little China Girl / You shouldn't mess with me / I'll ruin everything you are" suggests the danger of Western culture swamping the East through the entertainment industry; while Stella's report of an interview Bowie gave to a Chinese rock journal, where he showed insightful appreciation of Chinese styles of music, particularly its melodics, illustrates the converse - how Western culture can be, and is, enriched by 'other' musics.

    Fascinating history, interesting dialogue. All through one young woman's enthusiastic teaching. Means that I'll be able to walk down Nelson Street in future with some affinity beyond a shared love of crispy duck; and maybe with a Tats Lau song or two in my heart.
    Sunday, October 05, 2003
    A fifteen-hour day today. Four services including a guest sermon at All Hallows on Simplicity. I quoted Bill Bryson saying the British like their pleasures small:
      [The British] are the only people in the world who think of jam and currents as thrilling constituents of a pudding or cake. Offer them something genuinely tempting - a slice of gateau or a choice of chocolates from a box - and they will nearly always hesitate and begin to worry that it's unwarranted and excessive, as if any pleasure beyond a very modest threshold is vaguely unseemly.
      'Oh, I mustn't really,' they say.
      'Oh, go on,' you prod encouragingly.
      'Well, just a small one then,' they say and dartingly take a small one, and then get a look as if they have just done something terribly devilish.
    I've no energy left for more brain work tonight. Just enough for one simple pleasure of my own: clicking 'Post and Publish' and putting my feet up for half-an-hour with When Saturday Comes. Excuse me....
    Saturday, October 04, 2003
    Fear is a Man's Best Friend
    When Must I Paint You a Picture: The Essential Billy Bragg arrived by post this morning it went onto the player immediately and I was touched by the eighties. Welled up hearing Walk Away Renee; I can't explain why: it's a very funny satire on teenage love. Maybe I'm just missing being teenaged and in love.

    I was also thrilled to rediscover something I played over and over in those dark Thatcher years, which BB previously only released on an NME cassette in 1984: John Cale's Fear is a Man's Best Friend.

    At the time, living in the darkness of unemployment I felt the same defiant anger as Bill brought to this. The lyrics gave voice to what so many were going through. In those times it was a righteous, and truly redemptive, rebel song. Today, it's a reminder of how it felt, living through all that. As the Tory party gathers for their Blackpool conference, lest we forget what they did to us back then:
      Home is living like a man on the run
      Trails leading nowhere, where to my son?
      We're already dead, just not yet in the ground
      Come on hold my shaking hand and I'll show you around
      You know it makes sense, don't even think about it
      Life and death are things you only do when you're bored
      Say fear is a man's best friend
      You add it up it brings you down
      You add it up it brings you down
      Say fear is a man's best friend
      Say fear is a man's best friend
      Say fear is a man's best friend...
    Friday, October 03, 2003
    Pic of the month
    Pic of the month is up, a bit belated. No-one complained: have you looked lately?
    Thursday, October 02, 2003
    This is Frank time

    I have done my bit for ecumenism this evening: by going to see Frank Black and the Catholics in concert at the Uni. Frank - bigger than the Pope (ie, more rotund), as generous to folk with bleeding ears as Mother Teresa was to folk with bleeding hearts. Frank - once The Pixies' frontman, with Joey Santiago at his Right Hand and Saint Kim at his Left - returning again with songs of love, joy and space flight.

    After the warm-up act I sit on the floor, a coughing little phlegmatic island in a sea of empty plastic beer glasses, amusing myself with the conceit that here I am, probably the only priest in a room full of Catholic devotees. The dark thought crosses me that had I taken a University chaplain's job this would have been work, another of life's great pleasures sucked into the dusty realm of duty. I let that pass quickly for this is not a solemn time. This is Frank time. And Frank time means, pin back your ears, you're in for a jolly loud, merry old ride.

    Frank's still got great vocal range, as he shows by singing Kim's parts on the old Pixies numbers. But the trademark still remains his thunder: his lament (something like) "Helen - the only girl I ever loved" is so loud that pigeons fall from their perches on the Metropolitan Cathedral spires outside; he hymns "I need peace" at a volume and pitch which make statues of St Ignatius shudder throughout the city. It's not noise, though, with Frank. It's crafted sound. Shakes the knees, stirs the gut and connects the listeners' heart.

    Is Frank just mucking about with religion, or is there something more? The new cd ends with Manitoba, which describes a close-call with death perhaps with the lines, "I have seen the face of God and I was not afraid". Which makes you wonder. But then again, in another track he confesses without shame, "In the evening I want my coffee / and in the morning I want my dope / and in the afternoons I'm drinking / in the New House Of The Pope". Which street of this Irish town is that house down? Soon after arriving at theological college I lost my only Frank Black and the Catholics cassette down the back of the cupboard, retrieving it two years later when I left. Only now do I realise what an education I missed.

    At times this man has been feted as the saviour of rock (by the likes of Bono and Bowie), for his majestic sonic adventures of the eighties, when he went by another name. He doesn't pay too much heed to that; those days are over. But it's good to witness an artist still enjoying crafting music as big in heart as in decibels. So tonight I say: rejoice! - kiss the tarmac holy, paint the sky Sistine; for Black Francis was lost, and now is found - renewed, redeemed, renamed as the wholehearted and bountiful big Frank Black.
    Wednesday, October 01, 2003
    Album Cover Challenge
    I'm frustrated. My high opinion of my own musical knowlege has taken a blow. I've attempted the meish dot org Album Cover Challenge and, of 60, only got about 20 of them right, I think. Ok, 21 actually. Next challenge: I'm torn between (a) going off on an extensive web / record shop search to identify the rest, or (b) somehow accepting my limitations in this field and, gently, letting it lie...