Hello again, woolly mammoths!

woolly mammoth

Woolly mammoths roaming the countryside, heath hens back in the fields, passenger pigeons swooping around in great clouds? Believe. Believe, specifically, in de-extinction.

De-extinction is not to be confused with Jurassic Park. It’s also not just dreaming, when the dream starts with noted visionaries Ryan Phelan and Stewart Brand. The two spoke recently at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, on the intriguing – and now very real – possibility of rescuing extinct species through genetic sequencing. Among the ethical questions they get most often, the two said is, “Aren’t you playing God?” And the answer is, no. “We are finding out the problem we caused, and un-causing it.”

God knew what He or She was doing all those millennia ago; but not all creatures were created equal. Some species have fallen victim to other species, ice ages and natural calamities, but the worst of the problems have come from – guess where – humankind. Thick formations of migrating passenger pigeons, once the most abundant bird in North America, were common up until the late nineteenth century. But their habitat and food were lost to deforestation, and finally they made too-easy targets for the shotguns that dropped them by the billions. Martha, the last known passenger pigeon (named in honor of First Lady Martha Washington) died on September 1, 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo. Heath hens met a similar fate largely through their attraction for the dinner tables of humankind.

Phelan and Brand set out to un-cause these tragic losses to the planet through the Revive and Restore project, a part of their ambitious Long Now Foundation. Among Brand’s successful ventures are the Whole Earth Catalog, launched in 1968, organizations including The WELL, and books most recently including Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. Phelan occasionally refers to herself, accurately, as “a serial entrepreneur.” The two married in 1983, and live on a tugboat in Sausalito CA.

Phelan and Brand devoted much of their Commonwealth Club presentation to an explanation – partly through sophisticated scientific/technological data and partly in down-to-earth lay language – of how the woolly mammoth might indeed be roaming the earth again in a matter of a few years. DNA, which reveals details about hair, fat cells and much else, has been recovered from frozen specimens of the long-extinct species and can now be sequenced with relative ease and speed. “The cost of sequencing is rapidly going down,” Phelan said. And scientific/technological expertise continues to go up. The final phase of woolly mammoth restoration will involve implanting a properly sequenced egg into the ancient animal’s closest living relative, the Asian elephant. And “we could get the woolly mammoth back in three years.”

For this writer, a hopelessly right-brained (myth or not) Art major, much of the scientific explanation defied easy understanding. But the possibility of taking a trip to the Arctic Circle to see these wondrous creatures actually walking the earth again?

Magical.

NYTimes Letter to the Editor

Printed in The New York Times, September 22, 2014:

(This letter was in response to an opinion piece by Merritt Tierce, which appeared in The Times on September 13)

To the Editor:

The abortion stories of Merritt Tierce and Wendy Davis have one thing in common: Both women had access to safe, legal procedures. I did not.

A victim of workplace rape in the days before Roe v. Wade, I was among the millions of women who sought out back-alley abortionists. Happily, I survived; unhappily, countless others did not.

Each of our stories, just like every woman’s story today, was complex, personal and private. We had only desperation in common.

The lesson is that you can ban or restrict abortion all you want — as is happening all over the United States — but short of chaining a woman to the bedpost for nine months, you cannot force her to continue an unwanted pregnancy. If she has the money and resources, she will find a safe procedure somewhere. If she is poor and powerless, she will do desperate and dangerous things.

In the headlong rush to restrict access and eventually ban abortion once again, guess who suffers?

FRAN MORELAND JOHNS
San Francisco, Sept. 13, 2014

The writer is the author of “Perilous Times: An Inside Look at Abortion Before — and After — Roe v. Wade.”

(It’s interesting to note that the only anti-choice letter published in this group is from a white male Catholic who sees only the fetus and not the woman. I respect his religion, but not his inability to see the woman’s part, or her need to make decisions about her body.)

Abortion, Four centuries later…

Suffragette-that-knew-jiujitsu

Was the abortion debate really going on four hundred+ years ago? Indeed. And who knew?

As it turns out, Donald Foster knew. Foster, Jean Webster Chair Professor of English at Vassar College, knows a lot about an astonishing range of things – Jon Benet Ramsey’s possible murderer, the “Anonymous” author of Primary Colors (Joe Klein), Unabomber Ted Kacynzki, Shakespeare – and women’s medicine in the sixteenth century. The first three of those instances of Foster’s endeavors – he provided expert help on all three cases – explain his sometime ID as a “forensic linguist;” the fourth relates to his day job. His day job also covers almost all things literary.

This writer’s esteem for the distinguished professor is of course unrelated to the email he sent which began, and I quote, “Let’s hear three cheers and see three billion readers for Perilous Times.” Well, maybe just a teeny bit. But an opportunity to reinforce the argument for women’s reproductive rights with the scholarly writings of a Vassar professor is not to be ignored.

This essay, henceforth, is shamelessly lifted from an attachment to the above email, excerpted from Volume 2 (pp.355-360) of Foster’s four-volume Women’s Works, a study of the issue covering the years from 900 to 1650.

Abortion, which was decidedly a part of women’s works, was also part of the debate all those centuries ago, beginning (if not earlier) with the “herb-wives – women who supplied the herbs and spices used for health care.” Women not only nursed those who were ill, we learn from Foster’s extensively documented studies, “they supplied much of the medicine, or physic.” They passed along their knowledge and skills from generation to generation, and were appreciated more by some than by others. Foster quotes Robert Green’s Quip for an Upstart Courtier in which a poor man mocks a wealthy lord: “I make my wife my doctor, and my garden, my apot’ecary shop – whereas Master Velvet-Breeches cannot have a fart awry, but he must have his purgations, pills and clysters, or evacuate by electuaries…” (It gets worse, but you’ll have to read the book.)

Getting to the specifics, Foster tells us “It will come as a surprise to some modern readers that there was enormous demand, throughout the medieval, Tudor and Stuart periods, for abortifacient herbs, with many effective recipes and a plentiful supply.” As reported in John Gerard’s Herbal (1597), a handful of herbs seemed to have taken care of the conception needs of barren women, whereas there were “more than sixty herbs used to induce menstruation after one or two missed periods. Not all of the treatments that he names were reliably effective, and some were dangerous, bringing a risk of hemorrhage and death if taken in too strong a dosage.”

Does this sound familiar? If not, we respectfully refer you to the stories in Perilous Times: an inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade, of women in 20th — and 21st – century America who, denied access to safe procedures, wind up dying in back alleys or emergency rooms. The abortifacients have, sometimes, fancier names in the case of contemporary drugs, but taken without proper advice or supervision can leave women with unwanted pregnancies today just as dead as their sisters in Tudor England.

In the same Volume 2 of Women’s Works, Foster offers an historical perspective of the root of the abortion debate, which seems unchanged over the centuries: do rights of the fetus prevail over those of the woman, and whose theology says what? “For the first seventeen centuries of Christianity,” he writes, “no authority of record, either Catholic or Protestant, taught or suggested that the fetus during the first two or three months after insemination was a human being. Ensoulment or quickening was an act of God: in His own good time – typically, in the third or fourth month – God infused the dormant seed with a human soul, created ex nihilo.” About the ensoulment business, Foster adds, “it was deemed an essential point of Christian ontology that the individual life was created by an act of the Almighty in Heaven and not by a horizontal act of the parents.”

God, in other words, probably wouldn’t back the 20-week ban. This writer is disinclined to get into theological argument (despite wishing today’s politics could be dictated by medical science rather than conservative religion.) But you are again referred to the “What’s God Got To Do With It?” chapter of Perilous Times. Or to pages 357 – 360 Vol. 2 of Women’s Works, for a fascinating overview of how assorted popes and Anglicans (“About the sixth month the immortal soul is infused,” wrote Rev. Christopher Carlile in the 16th century) changed the rules and differed in opinions. Which also sounds familiar.

In 1856, Foster tells us, “Dr. Horatio Storer organized a national drive by the American Medical Association to end legal abortion altogether.” His efforts resulted in actions by the various states and territories to strengthen laws against abortion, and by 1880 there were restrictive laws and practices virtually everywhere mandating that a woman, once impregnated, had no safe or legal means to alter the course of what was going on with her body.

Leaping ahead to 2014, has any progress been made in the name of women’s reproductive justice?

The Complete Speechmaker’s Guide

american flag

“Our strategic plan,” the speaker began, “is to make the city safer… improve the quality of life.” He went on to address issues of crime, senior citizen needs, funding and the difficulty of accomplishing goals: “Through Vision Zero we are…”

More gracious audience members were paying careful attention; this writer had veered off into the fantasy of creating a template for The Fail-Safe Public Speech. Why not?

President Obama, after all, had just delivered a couple of important speeches on critical issues, and how many people were really listening? Most of us were mentally hitting the tab bar and catching the pertinent lines (or waiting for the pundits, who were doing the same thing) to say what was really said.

In the interest of saving a lot of people a lot of time (and with apologies to the truly articulate and interesting speaker at a recent San Francisco Interfaith breakfast) a free, fill-in-the-blank outline is submitted here:

My fellow ______________.

I want to call your attention to the urgent status of our__________________, and in doing so, explain the need for immediate _____________.

The action we are undertaking will insure your future ________, __________, and ________, and your children’s ____________.

I hope you will keep all of these in mind as I outline our strategy, which includes strengthening our __________ in order to keep us all _________ and improve the quality of __________.

But it is not without cost. Our estimates for the ___ months/years ahead are $______________.

We know this requires sacrifice on your part. Knowing also of your _______, ______, and dedication to the cause of ________________, however, we do not hesitate.

You have my personal guarantee that _________ will prevail.

Thank you for your support.

(Applause.)

The Art of Listening

AS I WAS SAYING……..

listening

“Can we talk?” – that phrase so famously and often asked by the late great Joan Rivers – actually had an implied second clause: “Will you listen?”

And thereby hangs the problem. Talk is cheap; listening is rare.

Want confirmation? Spend a few minutes at a bar, restaurant, night club or any other social gathering venue. The noise level is almost guaranteed to be too high for meaningful conversation. One partygoer (okay, a 34-year-old, several generations younger than this writer/partygoer) said, “it just doesn’t feel like fun until the music and vibes are loud.” Restaurants say the noise level is needed for “buzz,” even while admitting to repeated complaints about diners’ inability to carry on conversations. It’s more just talk and talking back.

Politicians, who tend to like to talk, go on a lot of “listening tours,” the word first becoming commonplace with Hillary Clinton’s notorious preparation for her New York senatorial bid. The theory seems to be that if potential voters feel heard they’ll vote for you. But the reality is that the politician is generally listening more carefully for what potential there is for his or her upcoming campaign/proposed legislation/planned left or right direction than for the pleas of the constituency. Not that some pleas aren’t heard – More jobs! Healthcare! Housing! – but is any serious listening going on, on the part of either politician or voter? Not often. Generalized messages get through – shouts on camera do count – but these tours are for selective listening.

Serious listening is not selective, and involves a degree of compassion. Even the Buddha knew that. In a recent article published in The Buddhadharma, Zenkei Blanche Hartman responds to a question from someone whose friend is considering an abortion. Among other comments, she says, “Have you listened carefully to your friend…” and “What is the most compassionate response in this situation?”

Imagine, if carefulness and compassion could happen in the listening process.

One of the most treasured conversations I had when just beginning work on Perilous Times: An inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade was with a beloved adult niece who is a lifelong conservative Christian. I suggested that she might have to pretend she didn’t know me when my book came out, but asked if she would listen to my own story that had motivated it. She did listen, quietly and thoughtfully, not once interrupting or showing negative reaction through her body language. When I finished, she had this to say:

“Well, you know, Frannie, I believe that life begins at conception and that abortion is murder. But I do feel that someone in your situation should have had better options.” We left it at that. I did not in any way change her mind about abortion – she still believes life begins at conception and abortion is murder – but she acknowledged that my story is unique, just as all of us in the reproductive rights movement believe that every woman’s story is unique. And most importantly, I felt heard.

Of the many deeply divided and overly politicized issues roiling the U.S. today, probably none is more desperately in need of civil dialog – reasoned talk and compassionate listening – than that of reproductive justice. Abortion foes term the issue “rights of the unborn.” Clearly you can’t give rights to an unborn fetus without creating injustice for the woman involved; the first, obvious obstacle to listening is in the fact that we can’t even hear each other’s subject line.

This writer recently talked about the listening business with Heather Buchheim, a Senior Manager with Exhale Pro-Voice. Buchheim is a very good listener. This may have something to do with the fact that Exhale is all about listening. Not lecturing or advising, not judging or admonishing – listening. They are also about talking, with their Storysharing and their National Pro-Voice Tour, but it is talking with attention to the listener. They hope for a culture change through much the same nonviolent ways the Buddha suggested, a change many progressive activists today still dream of: “sharing our stories and listening respectfully (because) feeling heard is crucial to our emotional wellbeing.”

Perhaps, if the decibel level were turned down a little, wellbeing might increase.

 

 

Smarter Scams, New Victims Every Day

frowny face

My “grandson” and I talked for a full several minutes before I determined he was no one I knew. Despite a few clues – my grandchildren don’t call me “Grandma,” his voice could have been the 21-year-old I hadn’t seen in nearly a year, but it wasn’t perfect – I found the caller convincing enough to trade three or four questions and answers before I hung up the phone.

“Grandson” never got around to the pitch. I want to believe I would never have fallen for a story that would separate me from several thousand dollars, but I surely could have. Today’s scammers – especially those preying on seniors or the socially isolated – are incredibly skilled.

One very smart senior in the San Francisco Bay Area was recently taken in by a call from a fake grandson – and had the courage to tell the story to the local newspaper. Retired physician/author Walter Bortz, who has a real and well-loved grandson, listened with shock and sorrow to an entirely plausible tale that wound up costing him $5,000. The “grandson” told of having had too much drink the night before, of drugs found in the cab he unfortunately took, going to jail, getting beaten up and having his nose broken. Then he gave the phone to a “police officer” who explained how bail could be arranged……..

Elements of the scam – eloquently told to local reporters by the victim – are widely used. The “relative” is often caught up in an arrest involving drugs and/or guns (through no fault of his or her own) and often in another state or country. The need is always urgent, to avoid some terrible consequence like jail time or to cover medical expenses. Transactions are made through prepaid cards available almost everywhere today. Once cashed, the money is impossible to trace.

It’s the meanness of these scams that is almost as bad as the financial loss. Rose, a young businesswoman, tells of her own grandmother getting a call from someone pretending to be Rose and spilling out a tale of disaster that had her grandmother frightened and sobbing. Long after the ruse was uncovered and explained – “I was calling my grandmother, saying, ‘Look! I’m here at my desk. I’m sending you a photo! ’” – the targeted victim was still in distress over the fears she had had for her beloved granddaughter.

JoAnn (a pseudonym,) a friend of this writer in Louisiana, fell victim – almost – to one of the oldest scams around. It began with an official-looking notice of her having won a Canadian lottery. JoAnn lives alone and has withdrawn from friends – but she plays the lottery; she thought one of her tickets had paid off. The notification included a “Certified check” for her seven-figure winnings. All she had to do was deposit the check, wire $1,279 to cover out-of-state taxes, and live in luxury. JoAnn was saved by an alert teller who had not seen her come into the local bank for a long time. The teller began asking questions about the sender, and JoAnn finally told her about winning the lottery. “If you don’t mind,” the teller said, “let me see if this check clears before you do anything further.”

My friend suffered not from financial loss but from the embarrassment factor. JoAnn was in tears by the time she got through telling the story over the phone. “How foolish did I look?” she said. “Suppose word gets around that I fell for such a thing. I have a PhD, for heaven’s sake.” The teller turned everything over to federal agents and it’s highly unlikely that word got around.

But word should get around. Bortz deserves high praise for going public, proving that no one is exempt from the possibility of being scammed. “I like to think that I am worldly wise,” he told The Almanac, “(and yet) I got snookered into this one. But I guess it shows that I’m a nice grandfather.”

Nice grandfathers, and grandmothers, and gentle people everywhere, are being targeted today. The Federal Trade Commission has a fairly complete list of current scams, and how to deal with them, on its Consumer Information page.

The schemes are old, the twists are new, the advice is age-old and two-fold: (a) Keep asking questions; and (b) If it seems too good (or even bad) to be true, it probably is.

Celebrating Women’s Equality

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaking to a Women's Equality Day crowd in San Francisco

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaking to a Women’s Equality Day crowd in San Francisco

This is for all those who missed the party:

Women’s Equality Day quietly came and went recently, not quite 100 years after passage of the Nineteenth Amendment – the law that said women were equally entitled, along with men, to the right to vote. Since ratification of that groundbreaking law – women should make choices just as men do?! – an assortment of other rights have been won. But equality? Not quite.

It was the indomitable U.S. Representative “Battling Bella” Abzug who figured that all those rights – won and yet to be won – should have their own day. The New York Democrat introduced legislation establishing Women’s Equality Day, to be observed annually on August 26th in commemoration of the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment. A lot of other indomitable women, notably Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her suffragette friends Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony, laid the groundwork for the women’s movement.

Fast forward to Women’s Equality Day, 2014. In his official proclamation, President Obama mentioned “all those decades spent organizing, protesting, and agitating,” and took the occasion to list (in the proclamation) a few of the things that his administration has indeed accomplished to advance women’s equality.

But in commemorative events such as the one this writer attended in San Francisco with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, there was a lot of talk about areas in which women are still not quite equal. Pelosi’s focus, she explains, is a three-pronged “Middle Class Jumpstart,” aimed at achieving equal pay for equal work, paid sick leave, and quality affordable healthcare – actions that would unquestionably boost equality for (and the lives of) women in the U.S.

What those ferocious ancestors of ours like Abzug and Anthony were fighting for was not just equality but justice. There’s not much justice if you’re a single mom having to send a sick child to school because you can’t afford to lose a day’s pay or manage a trip to the doctor. Nor is there much justice if that day’s pay is 10% less than men on the same job are getting.

There’s also not much justice for women in non-metropolitan areas who seek abortion services. Ninety-seven per cent of them have to travel long distances, navigate a maze of medically unnecessary restrictions and often also struggle through hostile protesters – assuming they can find the time and money to do this.

Are such issues – reproductive rights – equality issues? It’s hard to feel equal – to the men who don’t face these issues, or to people with more money and power than you — if you are a woman in any of the situations cited above. And given the strength of the conservatives who want to tip the scales ever farther downward, it’s hard to feel optimistic.

But Pelosi and her “Middle Class Jumpstart” plans, reproductive justice groups like NARAL, Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Federation (to name just a few) and women’s rights organizations of every sort are hard at work trying to keep the scales from tipping farther against U.S. women. Bella Abzug would be proud.

It’s not too early to start planning for Women’s Equality Day 2015.

Abortion Rights: the X(treme) Games

The “pro-life” publication that ran an article suggesting Robin Williams’ depression – and subsequent tragic suicide – was related to a girlfriend’s abortion many years ago hit a new all-time low. One can only hope that nobody with a brain reads such drivel, but then, this writer… oh, never mind.

On the heels of that one comes Rand Paul saying he doesn’t “think a civilization can long endure” unless fetuses get “personhood rights.” There may be no way to get through to Mr. Paul’s brain – which is reported to be a highly functional brain indeed – that for every fetus to whom “personhood rights” are granted one woman is denied womanhood rights.

The black tar-pit of extremism into which this abortion issue has descended can make a body weep. Especially if you are somebody who remembers the day when there were no womanhood rights. Those days, before Roe v Wade changed them in 1973, were desperate times in the extreme.

Women died. Doing things such as drinking or douching with poisonous substances, which desperate women without access to abortion are doing today. The extreme distress of women denied access to reproductive rights is what results from the extremism of the anti-abortion forces.

To be honest, there is extremism on both sides. This writer is uncomfortable with the “Abortion on demand and without apology” slogan, not because of any disagreement with the message, but because the in-your-face tossing of the gauntlet seems to push the sides into ever more ferocious conflict.

It was Senator Barry Goldwater, campaigning for the presidency a decade before Roe v Wade, who famously said that “extremism, in defense of liberty, is no vice.” The remark got him a bunch of votes – though not quite enough to win—and is widely quoted and misquoted (or quasi-quoted.) It could be applied here.

But whose liberty?

It is not possible to preach liberty for a pre-viable fetus – which would not enjoy life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness outside of the womb – without preaching bondage for the woman. The extremist interpretation of anti-abortion aims (“Abortion is never the right choice”) is just that: A fertilized egg = nine months of bondage.

There may be no middle ground on reproductive rights. But if the fetus wins, if a girlfriend’s abortion decades ago gets blamed for someone’s suicide, if “personhood rights” take precedence over women’s rights, we will be back in the dark ages,

We’ve been there before. Some of us remember.

Geezers, Learning Curves & Technology

learning curve.3 learning curve.2 technology

Technology, for anyone born after 1980, is part of your language. But the rest of us? It’s like learning to speak in tongues. And learning curves do not always move smoothly upward.

Suppose you grew up thinking a drop down window simply had a broken sash cord – if you’re born after 1980 you probably don’t know what sash cords are anyway – and right click was something you did with castanets? And your brain is wired to hit the return lever at the end of every line, but you’re suddenly supposed to know where the tool bar with the back button is, and you thought a back button was something that fastened to a loop at the top of your blouse? You get the picture.

Well, no, you don’t get the picture, that’s the problem.

Getting the picture onto the blog post takes us right back to the language issue: we know those free-use illustrations are out there, but where and how to find them and — more to the point — how to get them from Point A (wherever they are) to Point B (above) is hidden in the mystery language of WordPress and the internet. Friends, some born after 1980, try to help. They install PhotoBucket, they study Windows Live Photo Gallery, they try to explain Flickr or Paint or Pinterest. The learning curve flatlines.

Enter my techie friend Ryan. He may have been born before 1980 but not much before if so. Ryan speaks WordPress.

All you have to know, he explains, is to Google the topic, click on Images, make the magic Usage Rights appear by clicking on the Search Tools, save to your Desktop (which used to be a flat pine surface.) Then on your WordPress dashboard (which used to be in the car) click Edit on the screen below Title, click once on the photo, which brings up the magic pencil, which will lead you to the boxes, and more pencils and a few more choices. Simple. Of course.

Here’s the bottom line: I hope you like those THREE illustrations.

 

Boot Camps for Talking about Abortion

Decision making 101

“Rape,” the instructors say, “is a four-letter word. Purge it from your lexicon.” And as to anything else abortion-related, “Keep it brief.”

Such is the strategy reportedly being taught Republican candidates in “Boot Camps” on how to talk about abortion. This news came in a recent New York Times article by Jeremy Peters.

But in case the reports are not clear, or should anti-abortion strategists need help, this space herewith offers an outline for surefire future political Boot Camps:

Avoidance is #1. Just don’t talk.

If you actually start talking, and talk about women, it becomes problematic to take away their rights. Say as little as possible. Candidates who do try to say more than two sentences tend to trip up on “legitimate rape” blunders or “abortion causes cancer” misstatements. Therefore, it’s best to talk only about fetuses, call them “babies,” speak only in tiny sound bites, and then shut up.

These are the recommended sound bites:

We mustn’t kill babies. Abortion hurts women.

These are the messages that get votes. Unfortunately, they are untrue, and thus difficult to defend. But if you say no more than seven or eight words, say them over and over and avoid actual dialog, enough people will believe the words to get you or your candidate elected.

But please, definitely, avoid:

Discussion of the difference between ‘fetus’ and ‘baby.’ Some voters do not believe a fetus becomes a baby until it is born. There are also too many very smart scientists who do not believe that tiny fetuses feel pleasure or pain.

You must also avoid the stories.

Stories told by 12- and 13-year-olds who were raped by a favorite uncle or family friend and might then have to endure the further brutality of continuing the pregnancy he caused – these stories make people think that abortion decisions might not be so simple. Or that banning abortion might not make it go away.

Stick to the script. Those stories cannot be told in eight words.

Stories in general just cause trouble. Avoid stories of pregnant women without jobs and with more children than they can care for already, or stories of pregnant women too poor to travel 300 miles to a clinic, or women with physical or emotional problems whose lives are being wrecked by unintended pregnancies…or stories of mothers and fathers facing the wrenching prospect of bringing a baby into the world who will suffer terribly and quickly die. Voters with a compassion gene might question your intention to force all these women to give birth.

And above all, avoid talking about women.

Women, when told what they may or may not do with their bodies, can become unruly. Enough unruly women can derail your election plans.

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