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The Dastard’s Dictionary: From Spines to Spinelessness

Note: Yes, I realize that I have been terribly neglecting this blog. However, I am working on a master’s degree in history while working full time, and therefore do not blame myself. Blame may be accepted from other parties, however.

Appendix, n. 1. An organ which scientists once considered useless. 2. A section of a book which is still considered useless.

Appendices, n. A condition that appears after more than one appendix has been cursed with Latin. See appendixes.

Appendicitis, n. An acute condition that occurs in books with more than one appendix. Demands swift surgery.

Appendixes, n. More than one appendix, which form a word so awkward that people curse it with Latin out of pity.

Ballad, n. Notoriously difficult to write: ballad authors frequently struggle over which character should die first, and how gruesomely.

Bibliography, n. 1. Literally, “book writing,” but usually has nothing to do with writing a book. 2. Bible geography, for those with poor diction.

Dewey Decimal System, n. The elegant way of categorizing books, created by Melvil Dewey. He is not to be confused with John Dewey, who preferred categorizing people and then telling them that categories are evil.

Dictionary, n. While this book has never improved anyone’s diction, it is superlative for bemusing the plebian masses.

Encyclopedia, n. An Enlightenment conspiracy.

Free Verse, n. Enslaved to the whims of the poet.

Juvenile, n. Someone young enough to think that growing up is a good idea. This group is particularly fond of books that do not win Newbery Medals.

Library of Congress System, n. The inelegant way of categorizing books. As disorganized as Thomas Jefferson, its inventor.

Limerick, n. If the limerick had not been invented, / English classes would be less demented./ Blame lies on Edward Lear,/ Who was evil, I fear,/ And probably never repented.

Picture book, n. The result when adults draw in books on purpose.

Sonnet, n. Rather like a dream catcher, but for small boys only.

Spine, n. Vertebrates have a spine; invertebrates do not. By these criteria, books are generally considered vertebrates, and politicians, invertebrates.

Spine label, n. Used to mark vertebrates. Invertebrates may be marked with a “Kick me” sign if you can sneak it past security.

Spineless, n. Books falling in this category are generally written by politicians seeking reelection.

 
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Posted by on November 13, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

The One About Memorization

Once upon a time, schools were awful because teachers did not understand how children think. They did many horrible things to the children, but one of the worst was forcing them to memorize constantly. The teachers thought that all the children needed to do was memorize important facts, and they would be ready for life in the real world. But one day a nice teacher realized that all the other teachers were wrong. His name was John Dewey, and he thought it was important for children to understand facts, not only memorize them. He wanted children to learn in real-world settings and to become more creative. Soon other nice teachers decided John was right. They realized that forcing children to memorize information did not help them learn to think or create. Eventually they showed all the younger teachers how much better it was to teach children in interesting ways that appeal to them. The evil memorization teachers died out, and everyone was safe. The end.

If you have ever taken an education course, that story might sound very familiar. Even if you didn’t study education, you might have heard a version of this story in the news. Whatever the problems with American schools, at least memorization isn’t one of them.

We all know the case against memorization. If you have taken any education classes, you might be familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy, which classes thinking skills in six levels of ascending difficulty. Memorization is at the bottom. Non-education majors might have heard horror stories about memorization. And then there is the frequent complaint, “Why should kids memorize when they can Google everything on their phones?”

Despite all the naysayers, there are good reasons to memorize, but I would first like to make it clear that memorization can be implemented badly. My mother attended a pathetic Christian school where most of the teachers couldn’t teach very well. Classes there emphasized memorization because the teachers did not really understand what they were teaching. That’s not what I’m defending. Nor will I defend the high school Bible teacher who required his class to memorize an outline of Romans and regurgitate it throughout the school year. That was pointless and ridiculous. Kids need to understand what they are learning, and they should not be memorizing anyone’s personal outline. When memorization has been used in this way, it is not wonder that many people want to avoid it!

But there are some very good reasons to memorize. Memorization is, indeed, the lowest-level of the thinking skills. In other words, it is the foundation for all the others. You cannot think if you have nothing to think about. You cannot Google if you don’t know what to type in the search box. Creativity is the result of an ability to develop new things from a synthesis of old ones. If you don’t have much in your head at the beginning, there is a limit to what you can do with it. Creativity depends a great deal on subconscious processes. If you have to Google something, it hasn’t made it into your subconscious yet. Instead, you will subconsciously depend on the things that you have memorized without intending to. Some might be very good (ever memorized a Bible passage by accident?) or very bad (shopping mall music—or worse, jingles from TV commercials).

Speaking of Bible memory, I once knew a pastor (a pastor!) who said that he didn’t care whether his kids memorized many Bible verses; he only cared that they knew how to tell someone else about Jesus. That sounds very spiritual on the surface. Down beneath, however, it is incredibly stupid. As I said, when you memorize something, truly memorize it, it begins to function within your subconscious. You no longer have to decide to think about it. It’s there. You can be half-asleep, and it will somehow come into your mind. And that is incredibly important.

Remember Jesus, defeating Satan with memorized Scripture? Everyone agrees that the Bible is important in spiritual warfare. And most people also agree that we are very likely to be tempted when we are most vulnerable—when we are very tired, or sick, or sleepy. (Jesus was starving—literally.) Are you going to remember to Google Bible verses on your phone when you are being tempted, and also have a horrific migraine? Probably not. If it wasn’t memorized beforehand, you probably won’t think about it. (And, if you really do have a migraine, you probably won’t feel physically able to search for verses anyway.)

So, if memorization is actually important, how can we make sure we don’t end up like that Bible teacher, forcing kids to scrawl our outlines word-for-word? First, remember that whatever gets memorized should be important. You should only try to memorize things that are intrinsically valuable. There is no intrinsic value to an outline. But Scripture is valuable. Math facts are vitally important. And you really should know that New York is not the capital of New York. Memorizing important pieces of literature or rhetoric is also good—not only are they valuable in themselves, they help the rhythms of language worm into a child’s subconscious. By “important” I mean the Preamble to the Constitution or Shakespeare’s sonnets. (And more playful writings that can be enjoyed by multiple age groups and education levels—“Jabberwocky,” or Edward Lear’s comic poetry, for instance—can add some fun while still helping children process language at a deeper level.)

Will the kids know what’s happening in their subconscious? Probably not—that’s why it’s called the subconscious. But when they are older, they should reap the benefits, making them conscious of what memorization has done for them.

So, memorize. Even if you are an adult and can’t seem to get that psalm right, you are still internalizing its word patterns, as well as the attitude toward life that it teaches. Memorization is not a low-level thinking skill that we can throw out with the help of Google. It is the foundation of all other thinking.

Don’t limit yourself. Don’t limit your children.

 
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Posted by on May 11, 2015 in General

 

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The Chronicles of Prydain: A Disappointment

The_Chronicles_of_Prydain_(book_cover_collage)

I picked up the Chronicles of Prydain on a whim. I knew they had won several Newberry awards, so I thought they ought to be good. I started the first book and read it to the end. It seemed mediocre to me. I thought that the rest of the series was probably better. So I picked up the second book, which had won a Newberry Honor. Blah, I decided. I tried the third book. I liked it a bit more–it had stronger plotting–so I tried the fourth. Blah again. Well, I decided, the fifth was the Newberry Medal winner, so it had to be extremely good. I read it, finished it, and have spend the last few days irritated at Lloyd Alexander.

On one hand, I feel a bit guilty. The Prydain Chronicles have won medals. They have a lot of diehard fans, including one of my younger brothers. And I don’t like them. At the moment, I feel like a book heretic. But I haven’t changed my mind.

On the other, I can write a long list of the things to dislike. Eilonwy’s chatter is annoying, which makes it hard for me to consider her a strong heroine, even if she does love adventure. The dialogue often seems stilted, especially Taran’s. The plots are often loose at best, and frequently problems are solved by deus ex machina. The characters are underdeveloped. Some things don’t make sense–why would Dallben, Taran’s guardian, let Taran go off on a wild goose chase to find his parents when Dallben already knows what happened to them? If he wants Taran to develop more as a person, he could tell Taran the truth and then ship him off to wander.

I don’t want to be too hard on Lloyd Alexander, largely because of the fact that he wrote the series nearly fifty years ago. There weren’t nearly so many Dark Lords populating the fantasy scene back in those days, or orphan boys with secret destinies being raised on farms by old enchanters. Things that now appear as cliches were fairly new. So far as I’m aware, almost no one–Tolkien’s Hobbit being the exception that comes to mind–had written epic fantasy for children until Alexander came along. If I had lived fifty years ago, perhaps I would have been as impressed by Alexander as the Newberry Committee.

But I think a major part of the problem is that Alexander wrote his fantasy strictly for children. Many people who read the series as children seem to have retained their fondness for it after growing up. But adults who come to the series for the first time often have a different experience. Some people would argue that that is not a weakness–children’s books and adults’ books are separate categories. I disagree. And I have C.S. Lewis on my side. Lewis believed that high quality children’s books should be able to appeal to both children and adults. Good books should grow with their readers. If only children can enjoy a book, then it is not really worth being read by anyone.

Two authors come into my mind when I think of fantasies with which to compare the Chronicles of Prydain. One is The Lord of the Rings–a book to which the Prydain series seems to owe many of its themes. Even its ending seems like a poor (not to mention abrupt, disappointing, and rather strange) copy of Tolkien’s conclusion. The other is the Harry Potter series, which was written decades later and also owes a debt to The Lord of the Rings. All three series include a hero of humble origins who has an important calling, as well as a Dark Lord of sorts. I love The Lord of the Rings. I like Harry Potter (although I wish that he would stop lying to his friends and teachers, and also that J. K. Rowling’s writing style were better). Both series, however, seem more inventive than the Chronicles of Prydain–despite the fact that Tolkien’s work is decades old and that Rowling borrowed some major ideas from him. However “low-brow” Rowling is, many adults are able to appreciate her books, despite not having read them as children. And Tolkien has certainly grown with me since I first read him as a teenager. Prydain–not so much.

My final word? The Chronicles of Prydain are okay. Just okay. Many kids will like them. But I can think of many other children’s fantasy authors that I would sooner recommend.

 
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Posted by on March 25, 2015 in Children's Literature, Fantasy

 

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The Dastard’s Dictionary (Again)

Audiobook, n. A way to infuse wonderful literature with shots of long car trips, dishwashing duty, and ketchup stain removal.

Author, n. One whose name is printed on books that were drafted by some else. See writer.

Autobiography, n. A partially true book in which someone tells about his own adventures. See biography.

Biography, n. A partially true book in which someone tells about someone else’s misadventures.

Bookstore, n. A place where one goes to drink coffee.

Classic, n. A book one reads in class. People who read these books outside of class are attempting a form of self-mortification that will, in many cases, leave them with the temperament of Cormac McCarthy.

E-book, n. More real than a graphic novel, even when said graphic novel is in print format.

Historical fiction, n. 1. Novels that people used to read. 2. Social studies textbooks.

Horror, n. 1. A genre that exists because some humans associate fear with adrenaline and enjoy both. 2. The feeling that afflicts a normal person upon observing someone reading a classic outside school grounds.

Iambic pentameter, n. Often used as an incantation to frighten particularly annoying children.

Index, n. Highly valued by college students. Ignored by everyone else.

Poetry, n. The genre whose primary audience consists of its writers.

Prose, n. In college football, players are paid with free passing grades. In the prose, however, players are paid in money.

Rhyme, n. Poems with this quality will not be read by the editors of literary journals. Poems without it will not be read by anyone else.

Science fiction, n. 1. The geocentric theory. 2. A literary genre that is broader than the universe.

Table of contents, n. The library mending desk after all the damaged book covers have been removed.

Thickness, n. The presence of this quality makes a book useful to drop on burglars.

Writer, n. One who composes books for the sake of (other people’s) great fame and (his own) financial survival.

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2015 in Humor

 

Why the Silmarillion?

When I planned a paper around J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythology and told my professor that I wanted to use The Silmarillion as a source, his reaction was one of confusion. Why would I need to use The Silmarillion? Wasn’t The Lord of the Rings enough?

Note to any Tolkien lovers who are about to rise up in arms. This professor is no idiot (some professors are). He likes good literature. He also did not have a prejudice against fantasy as such; in fact, he was quite familiar with The Silmarillion. He just didn’t see the point.

He’s not alone. While Tolkien’s more devoted admirers consider anyone who does not appreciate The Silmarillion a “fake fan,” many of the accused would insist they aren’t fake fans. They are fair-weather fans. And fair weather is a good thing. The sun is nice. Also puffy white clouds, and birds that chirp happily.

So. Paper aside, is The Silmarillion really that important? A short Q&A for the uninitiated might help:

What is The Silmarillion about?

The Silmarillion is the history of Middle Earth up until the beginning of the Fourth Age. It starts out with a creation myth and ends up in heroic legend and, in places, history. It is from an Elvish perspective and mostly concerns events related to the Elves, with the exception of a few humans who became involved in Elvish affairs. Most of those humans are ancestors of Aragorn and Elrond. (Yes, Elrond is in here. So is his twin brother. So are Galadriel and her brother, Finrod.)

Did J.R.R. Tolkien think I should read it?

In a word: yes. Although The Silmarillion as we know it was not published until after his death, Tolkien hoped to publish an earlier version along with The Lord of the Rings. His publishers refused, but Tolkien’s letters reveal that he often had to dip into Silmarillion material in order to answer the questions of people who wrote him. To really understand some things in The Lord of the Rings, you have to know more about the Elves. And you can only find that in The Silmarillion.

Isn’t The Silmarillion boring?

No. But you have to understand how to approach it. A lot of people come to The Silmarillion expecting a second Lord of the Rings. So they end up disappointed. The Silmarillion simply cannot be read as an adventure story. It isn’t one. But if you start out realizing that you are reading a book of mythology, then your perspective changes. Understand what you are getting into and don’t try to rush your reading. Good mythology is meant to linger around in your head.

I feel like I understand The Lord of the Rings. Are there any other reasons to read The Silmarillion?

Yes. If you are into mythology, Tolkien’s mythology is a delight for its own sake. But it also shows the complexity of human (and Elven) nature even more than The Lord of the Rings. Not all Elves are good, and some of the Elves are only good sometimes. Young Elrond and his twin brother are raised by the man who attacked their settlement and kidnapped them. They even have a good relationship. And that’s only the beginning.

I still don’t like The Silmarillion….

Okay. Just so long as you understand why you don’t like it. Mythology isn’t for everyone, and not everyone likes every mythology. That’s fine. But understand—The Silmarillion is mythology. It’s not a second Lord of the Rings. And some of us prefer it that way.

Is there a more interesting book that includes some of the stories from The Silmarillion?

Well, for a general overview, there’s this video. But your best bet, for a real taste, is to try The Children of Húrin. While it’s more depressing than The Silmarillion considered as a whole, it reads more like The Lord of the Rings. It covers the story of Túrin Turambar, which appears more briefly (and with a few conflicting details) in The Silmarillion. If you like flawed heroes and evil dragons, it’s the place to go.

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2014 in Fantasy

 

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The Wingfeather Saga: A Wonderful Surprise

Warning: Don’t go into the forest. Don’t go, even if the thwaps in your garden are driving you insane. It won’t be a very enjoyable walk. And you had better hope you don’t run into a horned hound. Or worse, a toothy cow.

On the other hand, if you think toothy cows sound interesting, you might want to give The Wingfeather Saga a try. A series of four books by Andrew Peterson, it chronicles the adventures of three siblings: Janner, Kalmar (“Tink”), and Leeli. In a world filled with dangerous animals, the three face a greater danger. The Fangs of Dang, nasty lizards who rule their hometown of Glipwood, think that their family is hiding a secret—the location of the Jewels of Anniera. The three children do not know what the Jewels are, or where they are located—but when the Fangs come, sent to their continent, Skree, by Gnag the Nameless himself, they know how to do the most important thing. Run.

On-the-Edge-of-the-Dark-Sea-of-Darkness-195x300The Wingfeather Saga is Andrew Peterson’s first series of books. It is not, however, his first experience with writing—I became familiar with him as a songwriter before I learned that he was writing a fantasy series. A lot of his older music doesn’t really interest me—generally speaking, it sounds like CCM as usual. His most recent album, Light for the Lost Boy, is a different story. It’s more evocative, more imaginative. A couple songs sound more like his past songwriting, but the majority of the songs are a full level above any of his previous work.

Maybe Peterson found his second wind. In any case, his songwriting experience means that when he includes songs in his series, they actually sound like songs. I cringe to think of some of the sad attempts at balladry that I’ve come across in the fantasy novels I’ve read. Understanding the rhythm in poetry never seemed difficult to me growing up—maybe it was the product of my musical education. But a creative writing class in my undergraduate days taught me that even if rhythm isn’t that difficult, it’s at least more difficult for some than others. Anyway, ballads aren’t easy to write. But Peterson could easily put the songs in his Wingfeather Saga to music; all are all well-written, and some are frankly beautiful.

Aside from songs? The Wingfeather Saga melds gentle humor (I loved the “footnotes,” especially in book 1) with some very serious themes—themes so serious that my local library classified the final book as young adult. The series is really not aimed at the young adult market, although teenagers (and some adults) may enjoy reading it. It’s been compared to The Lord of the Rings, but I think that’s pretty inaccurate. Similarities to LotR mainly consist of an evil enemy who uses evil monsters and the fact that the book is fantasy. In other words—not much. Being aimed at children, it’s more comparable with the Narnian Chronicles, but without an Aslan-substitute. Thank God! It’s one of the first Christian-themed fantasies that I’ve read that haven’t either tried to force an incarnation of Christ into the story or included explicit theological discussions. Aslan is wonderful, but I recall reading that one of Lewis’s friends had been considering a similar story, with Christ incarnated as a tiger. When he saw Lewis’s story, he scrapped his plan. Overkill kills.

Tolkien wrote that there was only one incarnation of Christ, and therefore he did not even intend for any of his “good” characters to be Christ-figures, let alone actual incarnations of Christ. In this regard, Peterson follows Tolkien. He includes a “Maker” who is active, but mainly behind the scenes. Peterson’s “Maker” is more obviously involved than was Tolkien’s “Eru,” but most of the time it isn’t in-your-face. A non-Christian wouldn’t be able to read this series without realizing that the Maker is, in fact, God—as some have been able to read Lewis without realizing that Aslan is a “supposal” about Christ. But Christian readers who dislike preachy fiction can relax. Peterson does not preach. He sings. And that is what makes him so unusual.

Tolkien was Catholic. Lewis was an Anglo-Catholic. Both are favorite authors of Peterson’s, which, for an evangelical, is not extremely unusual. Finding an evangelical who also likes George MacDonald and G.K. Chesterton—as Peterson does—is rarer. And one who admires Thomas Merton? Practically unheard of. But Merton, too, numbers among Peterson’s favorite authors. Yet Peterson is a pastor’s son, raised, as he puts it, in the “nondenominational denomination.” As far as I know, Peterson hasn’t changed “denominations.” He clearly remains an evangelical Protestant. And that makes him extremely unusual. Evangelicals with vivid imaginations who like both G.K. Chesterton and Thomas Merton have a tendency to end up in the high church somewhere. Yet Peterson apparently hasn’t—and his fantasy world seems as Protestant to me as Tolkien’s is Catholic. His world is vivid with an appreciation of ancient truth—the sort of viewpoint I associate with the high church. But Peterson’s concept of ancient truth seems lifted more from Genesis than from a continuous church tradition.

Beginnings, in the Wingfeather Saga, are a big deal. There are multiple characters with close ties to past ages of Peterson’s fantasy world—even an ancient rebel (an amalgam of Cain and Nimrod?) called Ouster Will, whose death was shockingly close to the time the story takes place. (For the record, I love Ouster Will’s name. It’s perfect on so many different levels.) Where Tolkien drew largely on pagan mythologies for his own fantasies, shaping them according to his liking and the influence of Catholic tradition, Peterson seems to have internalized Tolkien’s characterization of Christianity as “true myth.” Lewis did that, of course—Narnia resulted—but his focus was more on the New Testament. But Peterson has discovered the “true myth” of the Old Testament. The Annierans are a chosen people, exiled from their homeland. And the genesis of the world was not so long ago.

What about problems? Well, the Wingfeather Saga isn’t Narnia—although a child might not notice the difference. The writing style is good, but there are places where we are told a bit too much about Janner’s feelings through his thoughts, rather than seeing him act. Those were the places where I got squirmy. Also, the serious themes of the later books don’t always meld easily with the lingering thwaps and diggles.

In general, however? Wingfeather’s series is better than average for fantasy, and worlds beyond most Christian fantasy attempts. Start with book 1, and don’t skip around in any of the books. I found out about a couple characters’ deaths too early because I assumed that this was a nice kids’ fantasy series where nobody important dies.

The Wingfeather Saga is definitely a nice kids’ fantasy series. But it’s also a tale that Peterson tells in deadly earnest, toothy cows notwithstanding. Naming a single theme for the story is difficult—as it should be. But if I were to pick only one, I think it would be salvation.

A costly salvation, without an awkward Aslan-substitute in sight.

 
 

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The Dastard’s Dictionary: Biographical Section

Every good dictionary needs a biographical section (even if Ambrose Bierce left it out of his).

Alighieri, Dante. Author of The Divine Comedy. Discovered gravity before Isaac Newton, though neither of them was aware of the fact.

Austen, Jane. Author of Pride and Prejudice. Her intellect terrified people of her own day; her fans terrify people of this one.

Brontë, Charlotte or Emily or Anne or Patrick. Some of them were authors of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. To determine precisely which ones, consult an encyclopedia or an English professor.

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. Author of the Sherlock Holmes detective stories. Usually very good at writing bad fiction: the Sherlock stories were the exception. They have endured as a sign of the English public’s permanent shock.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Author of (rather odd) poetry; also a leading Transcendentalist. Believed to have inspired the “Where’s Waldo” books by remaining in a permanent state of confusion.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Author of The Scarlet Letter. A remarkably happy and positive person when rendered unconscious.

Homer. Author of The Iliad and The Odyssey. There is doubt as to whether Homer really existed. But even if he did not, he managed to annoy Plato and therefore deserves our admiration.

Kafka, Franz. Author of “The Metamorphosis.” A strong opponent of smashing large bugs.

Lewis, C. S. Author of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Middle-named “Staples” by his parents, leading psychologists to conclude that naming your child after office supplies may cause him to go by his initials.

MacDonald, George. Author of Phantastes, Lilith, and a number of children’s fairy stories. According to C.S. Lewis, guilty of baptizing the imagination of innocent atheists.

Morris, William. Author of The Well at the World’s End. Otherwise known for his obsession with socialism and/or household furniture.

O’Connor, Flannery. Author of Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away, and assorted short stories which have been confusing innocent churchgoers for the past fifty years.

Poe, Edgar Allan. Best known for his horror stories. He wrote no novels—fortunately.

Shakespeare, William. Author of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and so on. Incurred the eternal wrath of J.R.R. Tolkien by suggesting that elves were small and funny.

Stoker, Bram. Author of Dracula. Indirectly responsible for the Twilight series, and as such deserves the eternal opprobrium of every civilized person.

Thoreau, Henry David. Author of Walden, a book-length explanation of how the author was able to live in the woods for two years because his mother did his laundry.

Tolkien, J.R.R. Author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Believed to be the reason for a rise in pacifism among literary critics, many of whom concluded that if Elvish resulted from long hours in the trenches, trenches must be banned.

 
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Posted by on November 25, 2014 in Humor

 

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