Time flies

December 8, 2016

Horace Who?

The one who said, before Mr. Keating, to seize the day. Carpe…. carpe… carpe diem. 


I haven’t seen Dead Poets Society in awhile, but I don’t recall that he said the rest of it. Dum loquimur, fugerit invida Aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero. “As we speak cruel time is fleeing. Seize the day, believing as little as possible in the morrow.” Alternatively, “In the moment of our talking, envious time has ebbed away, Seize the present, trust tomorrow e’en as little as you may.”

My minimal groggy thought this morning, after the dog got me up at 3 am, is that old Horace had a point. Tempus fugit. And that’s really the first and last thing we should need to know, to motivate our quest to conquer happiness.

Happy birthday Bill Bryson, who said we have three reasons never to be unhappy.

And happy birthday to Walter Mitty’s creator James Thurber, who said “If I have any beliefs about immortality, it is that certain dogs I have known will go to heaven, and very, very few persons. ” And: “You can fool too many people, too much of the time.”

A bit of misanthropy, though not so much as Schopenhauer’s, conduces to happiness in hard times too.

6:30/647, 34/35/20, 4:30

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Flickering attention

December 7, 2016

“A Free Man’s Worship” was originally “The Free Man’s Worship” (1903), a more than merely stylistic change.

Russell’s trajectory generally was away from precise Platonic exclusion and towards a pluralistic loosening of attitude and judgment. He would later declare his “outlook on the cosmos and human life… substantially unchanged” when he wrote Conquest of Happiness in 1930, but if FMW was written “only for people in great unhappiness” the change of article reflects a change of heart as well. Where the younger man wrote to steel himself and his readers against the “unyielding despair” of ultimate cosmic finitude and indifference to human destiny, the more seasoned philosopher “turned his atttention to other things” and focused on practical strategies for flourishing on a more human scale. So, from 1927, another text for my impending secular sermon:

…if you accept the ordinary laws of science, you have to suppose that human life and life in general on this planet will die out in due course: it is a stage in the decay of the solar system; at a certain stage of decay you get the sort of conditions of temperature and so forth which are suitable to protoplasm, and there is life for a short time in the life of the whole solar system. You see in the moon the sort of thing to which the earth is tending—something dead, cold, and lifeless.

I am told that that sort of view is depressing, and people will sometimes tell you that if they believed that they would not be able to go on living. Do not believe it; it is all nonsense. Nobody really worries much about what is going to happen millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be a bad digestion; but nobody is really seriously rendered unhappy by the thought of something that is going to happen to this world millions of years hence. Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out—at least I suppose we may say so, although sometimes when I contemplate the things that people do with their lives I think it is almost a consolation—it is not such as to render life miserable. It merely makes you turn your attention to other things. “Why I Am Not A Christian

That’s what Dr. Flicker said: the universe “won’t be expanding for billions of years yet, Alvy. And we’ve gotta try and enjoy ourselves while we’re here.” I’ll bet it’s what they say at Sunday Assembly too.

The “spirit” in spirituality, for those of like mind, means the living breath of finite natural existence. Super-nature is not required, though the tolerant Sunday Assemblers “don’t do supernatural but won’t tell you you’re wrong if you do.” The philosophers will take care of that.

6:30/6:46, 36/47/29, 4:30

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Take me to church

December 6, 2016
At last April’s Lyceum after-party I met a board member from Nashville’s Sunday Assembly. Learning that I teach courses on Atheism and Happiness at MTSU, she invited me to come and speak to them in December. This coming Sunday at 10 am, at Scarritt-Bennett
Image result for scarritt bennett

Where to begin? With William James, naturally. “If we were to ask the question: ‘What is human life’s chief concern?’ one of the answers we should receive would be: ‘It is happiness.’ How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness, is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure.”

Then to Bertrand Russell, author in 1903 of “A Free Man’s Worship” and in 1930 of Conquest of Happiness. The former reflects an early Platonic phase, happily transcended in time, but both are concerned with how to accept godlessness in a finite and indifferent cosmos. The former was later described by Russell as written for unhappy people, a young author’s sermonizing attempt to buoy the spirit against tides of unhappy despair. The latter is a mature author’s lighter report on what he’s learned about living well, a call to all to “conquer” happiness based on his own life experience.

Godless people are often assumed, by believers, to be unhappy. It isn’t so. The literary critic James Wood recalls the godless “life-loving heroes” of his adolescence as providing “reasons to be cheerful.”

There was plenty of happiness in our household, but it was rarely religious happiness. The self was viewed with suspicion, as if it were a mob of appetites and hedonism. As an adolescent, I was often told that “self, self, self is all you think about,” and that “selfishness is your whole philosophy.” Life was understood to be constant moral work, a job that could never really be “done,” because the ideal was Jesus’ unsurpassable perfection. My mother and I quarrelled over the corpse of my religious faith. She told me that at night she prayed I would “come back into the fold.” As a young man, I lined up my pagan, life-loving heroes—Nietzsche, Camus, D. H. Lawrence, Keith Moon, Ian Dury—in glorious defensive formation: reasons to be cheerful. “Lessons From My Mother

So that’s going to be my message on Sunday: secular folk have plenty of reasons to be cheerful, plenty of historical allies, and plenty of proven strategies for living good, honorable, meaningful, constructive, happy lives. Believe me.

7 am/6:46, 57/33, 4:30

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Elasticity

December 5, 2016

That’s the theme of Ron Padgett’s poem “Think and Do”: the capacity of thinkers to get up from their pedestals and move, for which all pragmatic peripatetics – not “frozen in postures of thought, like Rodin’s statue, the one outside Philosophy Hall at Columbia” – are duly grateful.

…His accomplish-
ments are muscular. How could a guy with such big muscles be/thinking so much? It gives you the idea that he’s worked all his/life to get those muscles, and now he has no use for them. It/makes him pensive, sober, even depressed sometimes, and/because his range of motion is nil, he cannot leap down from/the pedestal and attend classes in Philosophy Hall. I am so/lucky to be elastic! I am so happy to be able to think of the/word elastic…

Happy and lucky because words provoke thoughts which lead to actions and something to think about. It’s the cycle of life.

5:30/6:45, 44/47, 4:30

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Anthropophilia

November 29, 2016

It’s our last Environmental Ethics class today. Our anchoring theme has been hope. How’s that working out for us?

The elephant in the room is, of course, the impending presidential defenestration. Responsible environmental administration is about to be tossed from the tower. A climate science denier will head EPA – or decapitate it. Drumpf’s understanding of earth science, by analogy to golf links, would be laughable if it weren’t so appalling

On the other hand, he’s said he’ll “look at” climate change. Our best hope for the new administration is that he’ll see something threatening to his unblinded and unsequestered business interests and be moved by narrow self-regard to do some of the right things. Climate facts, and facts in general, may not motivate him, but dollar signs and his personal popularity always have.

He’s said the bottom line is what addressing climate change will “cost our companies.” It’ll cost them their market, aka the planet. Surely even he can be made to see that, and to see the ignominy in being remembered to history as the inept politician whose short-sightedness cost us our last chance to preserve and protect the earth for acceptable human habitation.

Our better hope resides not in the Oval Office but with the rest of the world, and finally within each of us. Look to Berlin and Copenhagen, not Washington, for direction and hope. California won’t be leaving the union any time soon, but will have every opportunity to lead it away from the precipice. “When the wind of change blows, some people build walls, others build windmills.”

Naomi Klein told us that the climate crisis, bound up with crises of economics and of the human spirit, would “change everything” and usher in a hopeful new era. We just have to hope that happens soon. We’ve wondered what unexpected developments would trigger a widespread recognition that we’d reached a tipping point on climate. This election, maybe?

Tim Flannery gave us lots of cold hard climate facts, but then concluded with a warm hug of hope for the next generation’s resourcefulness and resolve. Hope he’s right too.

Chick Callenbach left us a hopeful vision of a better world, filling in a few details as to how we might reach it. But more importantly, he left us a letter. His epistle to the ecotopians, to us really, admits “decay” and urges us to embrace it as the paradoxical but prudent composted condition of hope. It’s possible that a more enlightened leadership, by the winner of the popular vote, might have lulled us into compromised complacency. Now, that’s no option.  We’re going to have to fight. Bring on the eco-war games.

We’re well into this Anthropocene era of potentially catastrophic human impacts on the interdependent web of ecosystemic balance it’s taken epochs to strike. Could it possibly be a good era, a good Anthropocene?

Andrew Revkin notes “the uniquely consequential nature of this moment,” as we’re blessed or cursed with an opportunity to change the game or lose it. Perhaps we are smack in the middle of a huge “transition from the lesser Anthropocene to the greater Anthropocene” and will be seen, in a century or so, as the Greatest Generation. That’s hoping against hope.

Reflecting on all that has passed and is to come, I see the prospect of slow but substantial and productive shifts in the human enterprise. They will come along with a rich array of perceptions and responses among and within communities—from the scale of global society to that of the stratigraphic community.

Will this happen fast enough? Who knows. But this is the human way. A big part of engaging with the anthropocene, to my eye, is engaging with and even embracing ourselves as individuals and as a flawed and variegated yet amazing species. In 2003, biologists identified “response diversity” as a source of resilience in ecosystems. I’d assert that the same characteristic is an asset in societies as long as they work to level playing fields, foster education and transparency—and communicate.

Perhaps the last thing the world needs is another word. But in 2011, I offered a name for that kind of engagement. It might make you chuckle, given my earlier effort at naming something, but here goes. Anthropophilia.

Edward O. Wilson’s Biophilia was a powerful look outward at the characteristics of the natural world that we inherently cherish. Now we need a dose of what I’ve taken to calling anthropophilia as well. We have to accept ourselves, flaws and all, in order to move beyond what has been something of an unconscious, species-scale pubescent growth spurt enabled by fossil fuels in place of testosterone. In The World without Us, Alan Weisman created a haunting, best-selling, thought experiment—imagining a planet awakening after the vanishing of its human tormentor. The challenge: There is a real experiment well under way, and we’re all in the test tube.

We’re stuck with the story of The World with Us. It’s time to grasp that uncomfortable, but ultimately hopeful, idea.

Is that a hopeful enough ending?

But as I always like to ask, rhetorically, when semesters end: what has concluded, that we may conclude? Be calm. Carry on. Get up each day and ask that morning question.

It’s gonna be okay.

5 am/6:39, 50/72, 4:31

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Magnetic Plato

November 28, 2016

It’s the end today and tomorrow in CoPhi, our last class meetings of the Fall semester. We’ll pull Plato out of the MRI machine and send him back through time, after pondering his thoughts on free will and contemporary brain science. (He’s been auditing MOOCs and is up to speed.)

Can we adequately explain a person’s actions or the episodes of a life by assigning them to his or her neuronal processes? What is a person, anyway? “Agatha” the grad student and lab assistant is on a far more promising track to answer this than is her reductionist mentor “Dr. Shoket,” who says “When you get right down to it, there isn’t even a person. There’s a brain…”

Reminds me of something I wrote once on brains, persons, and philosophy conferences. (One more James reference for you, Bryce.)

So long as [William James] and we persist in representing mental life and subjectivity generally as more intimately identified with the self that acts, or the whole person, than with the brain either in isolation or in mysterious contact with ‘nether-regions, then any account of how a person may sometimes act freely even though his acts are produced by brain events and “bodily happenings” must take seriously the subjective experience of free will. This is not finally negotiable. As a practical matter for James, free will is not a “problem” but a datum. But it is a challenging datum. James could respond to the challenge, in part, by distinguishing the mechanism responsible for mental events (the brain, its neuro-physiological stimuli, and whatever other causes may be at work) from the experienced nature and content of those events. The latter is all interiority, personality and subjectivity. But does this provide adequate insulation? And should we want to insulate our minds in this way? Do not we court the bogey of dualism if we follow this line? Would it make more sense to rethink the prejudicial self-concept that treats the brain as somehow “external” to our persons and incapable of hosting or executing our spontaneity? But how do we do that? I do not think James wants to insulate the mind, nor does he want to backslide into dualism. The brain is not external, though anyone who has ever spent more than a moment trying to hold the thought “I am a brain” will report that the identity issue here is not easy. If we could say all that we want to say about our inner lives and experiences by referring to it, instead of to minds and consciousness, James should not object. In fact, he thinks there are processes of consciousness and dimensions of experience that brain-talk may miss. Contemporary debates continue on this issue, as we will see. For some of us, though, it is just laughably obvious that extreme “eliminative” materialists are out of touch with the very realities betrayed by their own activity in the world. I once had occasion to point this out at a professional gathering of philosophers when the claim was presented, in all apparent seriousness, that there are no persons but only organisms and their brains meeting a physical description matching our own. But brains do not attend philosophy conferences, persons do. And not uncommonly, many of them seem to have left their brains at home. One of the unfortunate “inveterate habits dear to professional philosophers” that James is eager to turn his back on is an almost indiscriminate, juvenile posturing, so much in evidence at such gatherings, that is in defiance of common sense. “Common sense is better for one sphere of life, science for another, philosophic criticism for a third. . . .” Why should not all philosophers know this?

Shoket doesn’t know it. Agatha does, and so does Plato when he says “one must bring in the mind to explain his action.”

The famous Libet experiments seem to suggest otherwise, in suggesting that the mind consists (only) in neuronal activity. We come to decisions before we’re aware of having come to them. But can a philosopher admit that awareness may be highly overrated?

Maybe free will is too. Agatha and Plato agree, we can drop free will if we retain accountability. What’s that? Just (says the sensible grad student) “offering each other our reasons, evaluating them, accepting and rejecting and reconsidering them and maybe even changing our minds. To be accountable means to be prepared to give reasons for the things we say and the things we do.” It’s to philosophize.

The reductive neuroscientist doesn’t get that either, of course, but Plato does. “I gladly accept accountability.” Freely or not. The really vital question for us all is, what shall we be accountable for? What will we make of this life, of this day? What are our goals?

Mine are pretty basic: keep moving, keep asking questions. It’s gonna be okay.
6 am/6:39, 56/63/48, 4:31

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A reckoning

November 22, 2016
It’s a study/research/writing day in Environmental Ethics. Perhaps we’ll want to spend a bit of it reflecting on our “new media ecosystem” and the degraded political environment it’s reinforced.
David Remnick, New Yorker editor and Obama biographer, has written the beginning of his subject’s next chapter. “Obama Reckons With A Trump Presidency” is the smartest post-election punditry we’ve heard.

…The new media ecosystem “means everything is true and nothing is true,” Obama told me later. “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll. And the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal—that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.”

That marked a decisive change from previous political eras, he maintained. “Ideally, in a democracy, everybody would agree that climate change is the consequence of man-made behavior, because that’s what ninety-nine per cent of scientists tell us,” he said. “And then we would have a debate about how to fix it. That’s how, in the seventies, eighties, and nineties, you had Republicans supporting the Clean Air Act and you had a market-based fix for acid rain rather than a command-and-control approach. So you’d argue about means, but there was a baseline of facts that we could all work off of. And now we just don’t have that.” (continues)

The 44th President’s calm, intelligence, lucidity, and generosity of spirit could not stand in sharper contrast to his preposterous successor’s embarrassing shortcomings. Too bad he didn’t get more passionately and publicly engaged with the climate crisis earlier. The reflexive hostility of his benighted opponents would still have stymied his best efforts, but the collective resolve of the rest of us would have stiffened for the fight ahead.

The good news is that he’ll continue as a presence in Washington and a voice of conscience in the land. Maybe he’ll even still be, as promised, a bridge to climate change we can believe in. First we’ll have to suffer and survive the backsliding change of administration we didn’t allow ourselves to see coming. His voice will help.

6 am/6:33, 31/61, 4:33

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How the light gets in

November 21, 2016

It was Leonard Cohen, not Plato, who said everything’s cracked and there’s light in every word. But the poet’s search for “a revelation in the heart rather than a confrontation” speaks directly to and for our broad-shouldered philosopher’s preferred form of discourse, the inquisitive dialogue that shuns dogmatic bluster and blame in favor of mutually supportive curiosity and wonder.

Curiosity and wonder: that’s the feeling of a philosopher, not cocksure certainty, enmity, self-importance and self-congratulation topped with hostility and belligerence. And that’s the main takeaway from Goldstein’s next chapter, sending Plato into the lion’s den of cable news with an even more obnoxious talking head than O’Reilly. The “No Bull Bin” in his No-Spin Zone, but it never stops spinning. Why do rude, opinionated, uninformed, ideological, vainglorious, and intemperate media pundits get better ratings than polite, circumspect, courteous, humble, pragmatic, and thoughtful ones?
The Real McCoy is a real pip, calling everyone who challenges his set-in-stone opinions a pinhead. I’d have a hard time speaking with him for more than five minutes, give Plato credit for enduring the onslaught of venom. The bilious pundit doesn’t understand the first thing about philosophy, quickly telling Plato he must not be much of a thinker if he’s willing to entertain a new point of view. “You seem a little too ready to change your mind.” Sapere aude does not win the ratings war.


The pundit knows nothing of the tides, or of science and mathematics, or intellectual sophistication of any sort. No Bull means “speaking so that people can understand you,” whether you’re speaking sense or nonsense. He’d rather see natural phenomena as mysterious and inexplicable, when rational and naturalistic explanations like Plato’s “lunar gravity differential field” are available to anyone willing to put in the effort to grasp the basic principles of astrophysics.

The anxiety of influence, as Plato treats it, is really the anxiety of unearned authority. The only meritorious authority is reason.

The paradox of pleasure, that it only comes to those who effect an outer indifference to it – the familiar cliche that the “butterfly of happiness” eludes the nets of all who chase it – is usually overstated. I’m convinced that thinking about the conditions of happiness is in fact one of the conditions of happiness. And yet I think I wouldn’t disagree with Plato and Susan Sontag, who said being happy is not “what it’s all about. It’s about becoming the largest, most inclusive, most responsive person you can be.”

The Socratic elenchus sounds technical, but of course it’s just the collaborative, conversational process of inquiry we’ve been practicing all semester. Every good question leads to another, and usually to the elimination of at least one bad answer. It’s not a shortcut to truth, but over the long haul it’s a path that takes you places. It’s the Philosopher’s Walk, rooted in confidence that reason – giving reasons, considering them, affirming or replacing them – works. 


That confidence was not Blaise Pascal’s, a surprising spiritual gambler (for a mathematician) who thought the heart has reasons rivaling the head’s. Plato of course was sure that the head has to rule, in the well-ordered soul no less than the polis.

Goldstein makes interesting use of the “knowing how/knowing that” distinction. I wrote about that once for American Philosophy: An Encyclopedia, as a reflection of the “knowledge by acquaintance/knowledge by description” distinction. Google’s preview chops my entry off right at the place where I was about to endorse practical “how to” wisdom, which seems to be the form of Socrates’ knowledge of the good life. We don’t have to invoke his daimon, to acknowledge it. 

Nor must we assert brute facts beneath all our reasons. “It’s not turtles all the way down, but rather reasons, logoi.” Behold, the faith of the rationalist philosopher. Share it or not, if you’re not a tv talking head or a partisan political hack you surely can accept Plato’s ultimate teaching: “we should never rest assured that our view, no matter how well argued and reasoned, amounts to the final word on any matter.” 

6 am/6:32, 26/53, 4:34

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Dream castles

November 17, 2016

Ernest Callenbach’s Afterword says Ecotopia taught him “it’s okay to dream… to imagine being happy…”

I’m sure he meant it’s okay to be happy, even as we dream. For many of us the present moment partakes too much of nightmare, but we remain as committed to our present happiness and our grandchildren’s as ever.

Surely Callenbach intended that we invoke the proactive, propulsive imagination, and not merely console ourselves with the distracted dreaminess that shuts its eyes and shuts down its hopes as voters and their designated Deciders stomp on our dreams of ecologically sustainable social structures and styles of living that draw their energy from renewable sources. Build your castles in the air, wrote Thoreau, that’s where they belong. “Now put the foundations under them.” But how, now?

Go to the demonstration, for one thing. You may get more than your share of abuse there, or not – probably not – but you will find solidarity and strength in growing numbers, and in the recognition that as more and more of us chase the dream of sustainable happiness we will create the change we need. “America as a society might be rapidly distancing itself from sustainability, but individual people could still try to live like Ecotopians. We could actually practice sustainability…”

Some of the dream’s cinematic details. (Why hasn’t someone made Ecotopia, the film yet?)


A pair of millennial-aged Ecotopians win a Nobel Prize for their work on botanical energy extraction. (Hope they’re more gracious in acceptance than the guy who said you don’t need a weatherman to tell you which way the wind blows).

Ecotopians aren’t big on the social sciences but they love anthropology, biology, history, and philosophy. They prefer small teaching-intensive schools, they’re not hung up on formal credentials or impressed by advanced degrees, they shun specialized expertise in favor of rich experience and rounded knowledge. Does the average person really want or need to know all about gamelan orchestras and feline endocrinology? But they do love their music, and apparently their cats. Dogs have always contributed more to my sustainable happiness.


Ecotopians are unimpressed by the refined arts, considering creative artistry a universal birthright. “We have no ‘art,’ we just do everything as well as we can.” They do death humanely and practically, “comforting themselves with their ecological religion: they too will now be recycled.”
Embrace decay.
6 am/6:28, 45/82, 4:36

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Socrates must die

November 16, 2016

Socrates was a peculiar person, possessed of uncanny powers of attentive focus that enabled him to ignore all kinds of weather – whether meteorological, emotional, or socio-political. He was indifferent to outer circumstance, a man out of time, regarding the nationalist politics of exceptionalism as irrelevant to the personal pursuit of excellence. In times like ours this may be the best possible news.

How can we best imagine his predicament, going against the tide of popular sentiment in 4th century BCE Athens, insisting on asking his own questions and charting his own path to virtue? Goldstein suggests a parallel with “those in our own day who are at a loss to say how there can be virtue independent of the word of God.” They can’t fathom being good without god, just as Socrates’ accusers couldn’t grasp the point of his “examined life.” 


He disingenuity didn’t help, pretending to bask enthusiastically in the light of his contemporaries’ conventional pieties while setting verbal traps to catch them out in their un-wisdom. His encounter with Euthyprho was especially consequential for subsequent generations of freethinkers, “persuasively arguing that a belief in god(s) cannot provide the philosophical grounding for morality.”

Why does Plato “relegate Socrates to the sidelines” in The Sophist? Goldstein speculates that he’s trying to make a point about the non-indispensability of any one philosopher, and to warn against the infatuated bias of those who specialize in just one historical figure – Kant, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, whoever – and cannot then consider alternative possible worldviews. “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” That’s over-compensating, if you ask me.

Did Plato really believe in immortality, as in eternal life to come in a temporal boundless heaven? He probably envisioned a “less Christian and more Greek” form of infinitude, involving an infusion into one’s natural life of “the vastness of beauty outside ourselves” and a corresponding shrinking of ego to fit a wider impersonal identity. 

That may not satisfy most of us, whether we aspire to a heavenly afterlife or not. As Woody Allen quipped: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.” But Woody should read Samuel Scheffler‘s Death and the Afterlife.

“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” Indeed. Plato’s about to encounter a boatload of it in the next chapter, when he meets an O’Reilly-like talking head. We should pay close attention to how he wades through it, dignity intact. Our era is anything but a no-spin zone, and we need to prepare for heavy weather.

6:13/6:27, 40/76, 4:36

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