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Archive for the ‘O Mores’ Category

I was originally going to respond to the NaBloPoMo prompt, “Are you good at hiding your feelings, or is your face an open book?” but something else related to the topic of Masks has been on my mind lately, namely, do you hide from your roots?

There used to be an expression when I was young, “forgetting where you came from.”  It was used in talking about people with humble beginnings who had risen to great heights, like Donald Trump being from Rego Park in Queens, NY.  Rego Park is a nice enough neighborhood, but it will never have the same status as being from Jamaica Estates.  Or Gramercy Park in Manhattan.  One of the highest compliments anyone could pay such a person was that “he hasn’t forgotten where he came from”; to “forget where you came from” was despicable.

And it’s on my mind lately because I know two people who seem to have forgotten Where They Came From.  One of them is my own daughter, who has apparently decided that her parents are too ordinary for her to bother staying in touch with.  Or maybe it’s that our house, all 950 square feet of it, is too modest.  It may even be that she has unhappy memories of growing up among us, though that was never an excuse for blowing off Family.  Be that as it may, she recently acquired a hot-shot job with an international company that involves jetting back and forth across the Atlantic – I won’t say where – and other than apprising us of that fact (after telling her immediate world on Facebook), she hasn’t said a word to us about her life.  Or her husband, or their children.  The situation has gone on for so long that I’m not sure it can ever be repaired, and that’s not something anyone should be able to say about her children.

The other is an old friend of my husband’s from grade school.  These two boys were over at each other’s houses every day, and were as close as brothers.  They stayed in touch through high school and college, and even after military service, for a time.  But military service seemed to change things between them, as (despite having a college degree before enlistment) my husband was assigned to the enlisted ranks, and this other fellow became an officer.  After the service, he and his wife had us out to their home a few times, and we had them to ours; they lived on Long Island, in increasingly tony neighborhoods, and we lived in Queens, not too far from where we had grown up.  He went on to a career in nuclear physics, my husband went into occupational safety and health.  And one day, this guy simply stopped writing, and didn’t return telephone calls.  We never figured out why.

Recently, my husband went to some trouble to look him up on the internet.  He’s now living in the Southwest – I’m being deliberately vague – but he has an important position in his community, and is very obviously among the ranks of the Successful.  My husband got an address for him and sent him a note, together with his e-mail address and an invitation to renew the friendship.  That was three weeks ago, and he hasn’t heard a thing.

Meanwhile, over on Facebook, I’ve reconnected with a number of people who are cousins, or friends of cousins, from the old neighborhood.  It’s so much fun to talk about the old haunts, to catch up on one another’s lives, to see what we all look like now – you can see the resemblance to who they were 40 years ago – just to reconnect.  When we are “together,” even via the internet, the masks come off, and we are still pretty much the same group who enjoyed laughs together, and shared the torments of Catholic school (about which we laugh, now).  Every once in so often, one or another of us will reconnect with yet another branch of the family, and the fun starts all over again.

I feel sorry for my daughter, and for my husband’s friend.  Sure, it’s nice to have the toys and props to impress your new friends – maybe – I mean, aren’t you always on display?  Don’t you always have to wear that mask?  When do you get to be yourself, to slip and say “cawfey” when referring to your morning beverage, instead of whatever pronunciation of “coffee” is locally acceptable?  Or talk about what it was like to move from a four-room railroad flat in Ridgewood to a single-family house in Maspeth?  (A railroad flat is an apartment with rooms just like a railroad car – you have to walk through all the rooms, even the bedrooms, to get from front to back.  A lot of Brooklyn and Queens apartments were railroad flats.)

Home has a lot of definitions:  Home is where you hang your hat, home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in, home is where the heart is – my favorite came from the German author, Max Frisch:  “Home is where we understand the people, and they understand us.”  Home is where you can take the mask off.  Home is where you came from.

Don’t forget where you came from.  The loss is permanent.

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“When you saw the word mask, was your first interpretation protection, covering up, persona, or performance?”

The NaBloPoMo theme for this month is Masks, presumably owing to Halloween at the end of the month.  I don’t know about the rest of the world, but in the USA, Halloween – All Hallows’ Eve – has taken on a life of its own.  When I was young, it was an excuse to shake down your neighbors for all the candy your mother wouldn’t let you eat the rest of the year; when my mother was young, it was an excuse to commit minor mayhem in the neighborhood (if I recall correctly, letting the air out of car tires was a popular prank).

Nowadays, though, there are costume parties for adults, and people seem to go all out for the scariest persona they can dredge up.  Zombies are so ubiquitous that my son has actually declared that he’s sick of them – and there’s a road in South Carolina marked, “Zombie Crossing.”  (I suspect my daughter is responsible for that – zombies figure large in her fiction.)

I myself am one of those cranks who think the whole thing has gotten out of hand, and we don’t participate.  We don’t ever have our porch light on – the signal that a house is open for trick-or-treating – and should someone wander up to our doorstep by mistake, we hand out nickels.  I think the word’s gotten out about the nickels, since no one has come to our door for the past two years.

None of this is where I wanted to go with this post, but I couldn’t resist the detour through the Land of the Cranky Old Broad.  In reality, when I hear the word “mask,” my first thought is of the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby, “wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door – who is it for?”  What an image:  When you are home alone, you wear your real face, but when someone comes to your door, you reach into a figurative jar and pull out whatever face you think is appropriate to the situation, Welcoming or Polite Inquiry or Take-a-Hike-NOW-If-You-Know-What’s-Good-for-You.  But none of them is really you.

Do we all do this, I wonder?  I do.  Although it’s true that I do truly care about the people I know and love, it doesn’t always register that there are Expectations as to how one shows that one cares.  So, for example, I have to remind myself to send birthday cards, and I have to force myself to send Christmas cards – even though I’m genuinely glad that these people are celebrating another year of life, and I love getting Christmas cards – just not sending them out.  When I meet people in the street, I know how to greet them with the appropriate level of enthusiasm for whatever they have to share about their lives – but it’s all a reaction I’ve learned over many, many years of watching other people and how they handle encounters; it’s nothing I do naturally.  Once my acquaintances go their way, they’re off the radar screen.

So…what face do I wear when I’m by myself?  Darned if I know – it’s usually buried in a book, or a cross-stitch project.  But I can say – and this is all I will say about my true face – when I wear my true face, it’s when I’m at prayer.  No point wearing any other, since God is no respecter of masks!

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“Frank Lloyd Wright said, ‘TV is chewing gum for the eyes.’  What are your favourite shows to chew?”

First:  This should be my last post on the subject of vision, at least under the prompts of NaBloPoMo (National Blog-Posting Month).  Tomorrow, the Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia is visiting my parish, and I plan to be on hand for that.  Readers who are Orthodox will know what a Hierarchical visit entails, and I fully expect to be gone all day.  (And for anyone reading this blog who thinks, “Oh, goody, a chance to break in and steal stuff” – nice try. My husband isn’t Orthodox, hates driving in Massachusetts, and won’t be coming with me.)

Frank Lloyd Wright was, as all good architects should be, something of an artist.  He appreciated that all media should have, as its goal, the ability to move a person onto another plane, to make one think beyond one’s usual pathways and parameters, to expand one’s experiences, even if only vicariously.  For him to comment on television as “chewing gum for the eyes” strikes me as a profound statement, for after all, what is chewing gum?  It’s nutritionally devoid.  It’s worse for you than ice cream, which at least has some dairy content in it, in addition to all that sugar and fat.  Chewing gum has nothing.  I guess it stimulates salivary glands, since I see people chewing it everywhere nowadays – I think the last time I had a piece of chewing gum, I was thirteen years old – but I know that when I see people chewing mindlessly, I don’t think much of whatever is going on in their heads.

And the same with television.  It doesn’t have a lot going for it, especially nowadays, especially in the USA.  That said, there’s really only one show I will only give up during Lent:  NCIS.  I got into it because I once worked for someone who had been an investigator with the old Naval Investigation Service (now Naval Criminal Investigation Service).  I’m well aware that the television show bears very little resemblance to the job my old boss did, and not just because of all the high-tech gadgetry; it’s television, it’s supposed to be escapist and unrealistic.

But there are a number of cultural gags that I just can’t resist.  Primary among them is the “family” aspect.  The show is billed as being like “one big dysfunctional family,” and that about describes my family, too.  Abby is my little sister to the life (except for being a goth).  McGee is just like the oldest of my younger brothers, and Tony is definitely my nosy middle brother (the now-retired Treasury agent, so at least his bratty nosiness did serve a useful purpose n his life).  (In case you’re reading this, Donald, that was a compliment.)  Jimmy Palmer, the assistant medical examiner, is a lot like my youngest brother, who also has a very weird sense of humor, and to whom I owe my use of the word “distructions” as a cross between “directions” and “instructions.”  Ziva is me.  Definitely.

One of the other, really funny, aspects of this show is the generation gap.  Every once in so often, they’ll run a show where the electricity goes out in the building, and all the high-tech gadgetry fails.  The young people will start talking about “where will we find a dinosaur to figure out how to do this” – and up pops their boss, who not only knows how to get the job done, but also how to operate the ancient equipment that people of my generation always used.  And in his ability to pop up seemingly out of nowhere, especially just as a young staff member makes a rude observation about him, Gibbs is just like everyone’s dad or mom, with the eyes in the back of his head.  Ducky, the medical examiner, is like a kindly old grandfather with an endless well of stories, all delivered in an inimitable bumbling-old-Scot style – but his job expertise is unparalleled, and his knowledge of and comments on the dark recesses of the human mind, which result in the necessity for his job, are trenchant.

I miss that kind of family, all arguing with each other endlessly, tormenting one another with truly stupid gags, but all pulling together to get the work done.  And caring about one another – that comes through very clearly, episode after episode.  When one has a crisis, all the rest rally around him.  When one is in danger, all the rest go all out to rescue her.  Last season ended darkly, with the destruction of  NCIS headquarters, and this season, the office “mascot,” Abby, is having trouble getting back to her usual upbeat self – I was reminded of the trauma so many of us felt around 9/11, and I wonder if this season will be a way of exploring that and helping people to find ways to slot it into perspective, so that we never forget – but can still go on with living.

So for me, this show has depth and perspective, definitely not chewing-gum material.  It feeds a part of me that would otherwise go neglected, the point in time where my brothers and sister and all our cousins lived within a few blocks of one another, the part where we were Together.

There are other shows I watch – All Creatures Great and Small, primarily, Mystery! occasionally, and I do wish that the British television series around the Miss Read books would be imported, as that would be nourishing in a different way.  But to get back to my Roots – NCIS, every time.

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This one’s from Plinky:  “Which holiday would you rather skip?  Why?”

Frankly – all of them.  Holidays are like a disruption in the Force, a rift in the Time/Space Continuum – they rip you out of your ordinary life, force you to “celebrate” something that may or may not have deep meaning for you, then thrust you back into the workaday world, where you have to spend at least half a day trying to get back into the groove of whatever you were doing when you were so rudely interrupted.

Most of us humans are creatures of habit.  We get up at the same time every day, perform various personal-hygiene and beautification tasks, feed ourselves in whatever manner we have established that works, and then get into the swing of whatever it is we do.  This is one reason why retirement is so stressful:  Both the retiree and whoever s/he lives with have to restructure their whole lives around the reality that both of them now share a space that didn’t used to be shared.  Holidays are just one more stress in an already stressful world, and I would like to see them all go away.

That said, I’m not a Scrooge who thinks that people should keep their noses relentlessly to the grindstone, churning out profit for the Good of the Company (and by the way, yes, corporations are people.  The purpose of a corporation is to establish a business as a legal entity, a legal “person,” so that it can continue once its principals have passed on.  In addition, corporations are inevitably made up of flesh-and-blood human beings, so they are “people” in that sense, too.  But I digress).

“Holidays” were established by belief systems as a means of setting aside an important aspect of faith, something that should hit you where you live, and therefore something that you should be able to take time to reflect upon.  The very word is a blend of two words, “holy” and “day,” a holy day, a day set aside.  The Jewish High Holy Days, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, predate anything Christian by centuries, if not millennia, and while I am no anthropologist, I’m sure that other religions around the world, all of them older than Christianity, also have their holy days.

Time set aside to reflect on an important matter, therefore, is a good thing, and far be it from me to deprive anyone of that time.  That said, though:  Take a look at how we actually use holidays.  There are “traditional” Presidents’ Day auto sales, Memorial Day is the “traditional” start of the vacation season (and Labor Day its “traditional” end), some kind of football game has become “traditional” for Thanksgiving, and we won’t even get into the Christmas catastrophe (one of the funniest takes I’ve ever heard on this is available on YouTube.  It’s called “The Christmas CanCan.”  I’d post a link, but apparently you have to sit through ads on YouTube, now, and the one preceding this is particularly offensive to me).

Of all of these, only Labor Day was originally structured around a three-day weekend; Presidents’ Day used to be two days off, Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s Birthday.  Memorial Day was always May 30, and involved special ceremonies, which had nothing to do with the start of summer vacation, to remember those fallen in wars.  At one time, they all had an actual purpose; now, they are just an excuse to buy a car, or go skiing, or open or close the summer house.  Where’s the reflection?

And that’s just in my own country.  In Europe, Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost are all two-day holidays; but they are the three most important Christian holidays.  What if you don’t think of yourself as a Christian any longer?  Where’s the need to reflect?

What I would like to see is for every country to add up the total number of official holidays on its calendar, both civic and religious, and create a Holiday Pool.  “Here’s a total of fifteen holidays,” for example.  “They are all paid, and you can choose from among them to celebrate your own traditions in your own way, or to squander if you want to.  The office will still be open, but you will not be penalized for the days you take off that are drawn from the Holiday Pool.”  Then, to ensure that the work-work-work culture doesn’t get their hands on the Holiday Pool the way they have on people’s vacations, don’t pay overtime to people who work on holidays.  Done.  That way, people who couldn’t care less about National Occupy Day would have an extra day, or three, to put towards the holidays they really care about.  And people who celebrate holy days at a different time of year – I’m thinking particularly of Russian Christmas, celebrated on January 7, or Orthodox Easter, usually celebrated anywhere from one to six weeks after everybody else’s – could take those days off without dipping into their vacation time.

And that way, maybe holidays will be celebrated as they were meant to be celebrated – as Time outside of Time, as days set apart for reflection, or at the very least, as days to be spent in the bosom of family and friends.

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Like ICare

I’m finally beginning to understand why old people get so fixated on the past:  They have no idea what people are talking about in the present.

Recently I got an e-mail (Mother:  “What’s an e-mail?”) from Consumer Reports, wanting to know about my cell-phone service.  I felt like an idiot answering it; they had all kinds of questions about my SmartPhone and my IPhone and my IPad and my Tablet (I know what Tablets are – Moses came down from Mount Sinai with them.  And the newspaper for the Brooklyn Diocese was named The Tablet).  Really, what is an IPhone or an IPad?!  What’s wrong with just using a cell phone and a laptop!?

My husband and I hear ads on television all the time for these things, along with MP3 players and BlueTooth Capability, and look at each other in bewilderment – and what the heck is a Blue Ray?  Is it any relation to a stingray?  I’m sure that if we still had a Younger-Generation Person living in the house, they’d be only too happy to explain these things to us (eye-rolls included gratis), but the offspring are long gone, and when we do see them – mostly him, she living a thousand miles away – we have more important things to talk about than IShouldn’tUseThatLanguage.

Listen, I don’t even like cell phones.  I have one in case of emergencies, so that if I get stuck on my way to one of my two churches – one is forty miles away, one is fifty miles away – I can call for help.  (Is there an app called OHelp?  What’s an app?)  But I see far too many people glued to their cell phones like it was an umbilical cord or something – and the most pathetic ones of all are the young mothers who are out walking with their little children, gabbing away on their phones, oblivious to the little person right next to them.  And the most painful one was the father and son in a restaurant, the son looking totally miserable while his father gassed on the cell phone, like anybody on a telephone could be more important than the person in front of you.

Actually, if it comes to that – I’m not all that crazy about telephones, either.  Again, they’re good for emergencies, which is why I have one.  And speaking of telephones, when is Congress going to break up Wal-Mart the way they broke up Bell Telephone?!  Wal-Mart on a bad day is a far worse monopoly than Ma Bell ever was.

The world makes less and less sense to me, so I guess that means I’m officially Old.  And to prove it, there are days when I wake up with three men in my bed:  Will Power gets me out of bed despite Arthur Itis and Charley Horse.  But the first man I see in the morning is John, and the man I go to bed with is Ben Gay.  Sorry, I had to find a way to work that oldie in; it has become embarrassingly relevant in recent years.

But, as I’m always telling people – getting old is better than the alternative.  Meanwhile, I don’t suppose there’s an app for IAche??

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Question:  ”How much of the world have you seen?”

Answer:  Not as much as most people.  I mean, one of my brothers has been to both Germany and Ireland – his wife has relatives in Germany, and his son was doing an internship in Ireland, so both visits weren’t as expensive for him as they would be for us, since he had family to stay with.  Another brother was in the Navy, so he did get to see a lot of port cities.  My daughter travels regularly to Israel, now that she works for a company based there, and trust me, the Middle East will never be on my bucket list, so I don’t envy her.  My father was also in the Navy, but that was during the Second World War, so I don’t imagine he got to see much of anything, and my stepfather was in England and France during that same event.

But my third brother, my sister, and my son have never been outside this country, and although my mother lived in San Francisco for a time, she never left these shores, either.  Whereas I, as most people know by now, lived in Germany for three years, along with my husband, and I must say that although we never travelled outside that country, we did cover it top to bottom, and in retrospect, I’m glad we didn’t do the Tourist Thing.  There’s nothing like actually living in a foreign country to broaden your horizons; not only do you have to learn to get around foreign streets, which is true any time you set foot outside your hometown, but if you’re going to live there for any length of time, it’s a good idea to learn the language and the social customs; and once you do that, you’re never the same person you were.

It’s true that I would have liked to see Amsterdam.  And, since I spoke French at the time, it could have been fun to travel at least to Alsace-Lorraine, where some of my ancestors came from.  Someday I would dearly love to see Russia, and that part of Germany that was behind the Iron Curtain when I lived there, especially Eisenach, the birthplace of my bud, J. S. Bach.  And I’ve always wanted to see Japan; I love Japanese culture.  Here’s the thing about Someday, though:  Your world does necessarily shrink as you grow older.  You just don’t have the stamina you did at 30 or 40.  So the likelihood of my going anywhere outside the country dwindles with every passing year, and frankly, at this point, I’m just as glad to skip the horrors of the TSA.  Domestic travel is tough enough.

Domestically, my life has been pretty much limited to the East Coast, although I did spend three unforgettable years (hard though I’ve tried to forget them) in West Virginia.  New York is on most people’s bucket lists; I was fortunate to have been born and brought up there, so I spent nearly thirty years “wak[ing] up in the city that never sleeps.”  There actually are portions that do sleep, by the way.  Some people claim that Queens County, where I grew up, never woke up.

But we’ve lived in New England for over thirty years, now – first Boston and now New Hampshire – and although it will never be Home in the sense that New York is, I’ve been happy here (especially in Autumn).  However, the most interesting aspect of living here has been the cultural differences; despite its still being on the East Coast, and only 300 miles from New York City, some of the cultural norms are frankly bizarre, by New York standards.  One idea that floored me when I came across it was the notion that it’s somehow “racist” to ask people where their ancestors came from; in New York, everybody wants to know where you’re From, and I know people who can recite every iota of their ancestry (me being one of them).  Another one I’ll never get used to is this Tailgating thing; apparently, according to my aunt who was a native Mainer, people actually get on your bumper for a reason:  They’re  hinting that you should speed up.  In New York, tailgating is rude, and I’m considering a bumper sticker that would read:  ”WARNING:  I brake for tailgaters.”  (Not to mention the other, and apparently more common, meaning of tailgating, partying out of your car at a sporting event.  I’ll never get used to that one.)

And the ubiquitous bumper stickers/car decals, “Yankees Suck.”  Um, I think the problem with the Yankees is that they don’t “suck” – there’s a reason they keep defeating the Red Sox.  Nevertheless, I do understand the sentiment, and even sympathize with it, being a Mets fan.  New Englanders have been without a National League team ever since the Boston Braves pulled up stakes and moved to…where was it, anyway?  I know they were the Atlanta Braves for a time, but they moved from someplace in the upper Midwest, then moved back there after Atlanta.  Anyway, somehow, it’s inconceivable for New Englanders that you can be from New York and not be a Yankee fan, and I have a lot of fun with that.

Bottom line:  No, I haven’t seen that much of the world.  But I’velived every place I’ve been.

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This has not been an easy week for me.  In another post, I mentioned that we are having some major renovations done to our house, both badly needed:  a new roof (think of the sound of nails being pounded overhead, all day long), and a new bathroom, which will be lovely when finished, but is most disconcerting just at present:  Where do we keep our toothbrushes? where did we put the toothpaste? where’s the shaving tackle? where’s that box of Unmentionable Personal-Care Products?  You get the idea.  Not to mention that during the day, the toilet is disconnected so that the contractor can work on the walls.  My hairdresser wanted to know if we were getting a whirlpool tub, and I had to say no, we aren’t; we’re pretty minimalist people.  But the concern with this project was that the caulking kept pulling away from the old tub, and we were concerned that there was water damage to the walls; so we really needed to have the whole  room redone.  Thankfully, no water damage, and the new bathtub has a raised lip that precludes the necessity of caulking.  A clever solution to a common problem; wish we’d known about it years ago.

And on top of all this chaos – our favorite radio station has signed off the air.  As of 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, WBACH has disconnected its Southern Maine transmitter; its frequency was sold at a bankruptcy auction to a group that has replaced classical programming with yet more rock ‘n’ roll, as if, you know, the cultural scene of southern Maine is going to fall apart if we don’t have one more venue for angry screaming.  All is not quite lost, as we can still access programming on our computer (and thank goodness for that – I can still remember the emptiness when New York’s WNCN went off the air the first time, in 1974), but our computer is in the office, and the office is nowhere near the living room.  We’re looking into getting a wireless router (or something along those lines) that will allow us to pick up the signal off the computer.

In light of the events of this past week – I refer, of course, to Libya – these concerns seem almost insultingly trivial.  And there are people out there, people whom I love and care about deeply, who are suffering real tragedies and crises, so if your reaction is, “You’re in mourning over a classical-music station?!  Get real!” that’s understandable.  But I’m not sure the two are entirely unconnected.

Just this past week, I wrote about classical music under the topic of beauty being in the eye of the beholder, and I noted that classical music’s reputation began to take a hit when “searching-for-the-lost-chord” compositions came into vogue.  Thinking about it further, I’m not entirely sure that that’s the actual cause; on another level, I think it might (also) have something to do with an American trait that suspects anything Intellectual.  When I was growing up – and certainly when my parents were growing up – classical music was firmly associated with the College Crowd.  In those years, college was only for the wealthy, or for people who were going into High Finance; they came out of college smoking pipes, if male, or wearing twinsets and pearls, if female, voting Republican and listening to classical music.  Then came the 1960s, and since then, the College Crowd seems to wear denim and eschew bathing and vote Democrat.  Listening to classical music is still associated with Rich People, and as any student with loans up the wazoo can tell you, college students are by and large not Rich.  (Nor are they educated to the standards formerly set by colleges, but that’s another story.)

A college education used to include mandatory music-appreciation courses, and the music on offer was exclusively classical.  That’s no longer the case – even where music appreciation is offered (as an elective), the music studied is only marginally classical – so lovers of classical music continue to dwindle.  And so does intellectual life, the life of the mind – dare I say, the life of the soul?  My point, if there is one, is that people who like classical music not only are suspected of being slightly weird, but have always been suspected of being – well, not like the rest of mankind, anyway.  Do they even know what hard work is?  (Only someone who has never tried to master a musical instrument can ask this question with a straight face.)  What kind of a brain actually likes that stuff?!  What does any of it have to do with Real Life, you know, that place where people get their fingernails filthy with embedded grime and their hands are cracked and bleeding from hard work?

I first encountered the term “philistine” when WNCN went off the air and was replaced by a rock station.  It seems to be a term describing anti-intellectualism, a dumbing-down of the prevalent culture to some level of lowest-common-denominator, a lack of appreciation for making the effort to become more than one step above Animal.  Think about that, an animal’s purely visceral reaction to what goes on around it.  Eat or be eaten.

Then think of the images out of Libya.

Then ask yourself what was refined about anything you saw in the news.

Then tell me that the loss of a classical-music radio station – of one more level of refinement – of being human – of being more than Animal – is trivial.

This week, the Philistines triumphed.

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