Deciding to Eat Out

We all have values we say we hold and, as a subcategory, values we actually hold. [1] And these values, my values and your values, are very often the same, differing only in rank order.

“Only,” he says. Nearly all the disagreements I deal with on a daily basis are based not on different values, but on different priorities of values. The basic form of this argument goes like this.

A. I think we should do X.
B. Really? Why”

A. Because it expresses value Y.
B. Yes, it does. But it denies (overlooks, doesn’t give proper appreciation to) value Z

A. What! You think value Z is more important that value Y? How could you think that?
B. Ummm. Is that really a question?

So that’s how it goes. Familiar?

Have you ever seen people buy something they didn’t need because it was on sale? [2] Or go to a sporting event they didn’t want to go to because it was the last game of the season? Or go to a play in a tourist town you were passing through because you don’t get there very often?

hedonist 1If none of those is familiar, I urge you to stop reading right now and go to the New York Times opinion column by Sarah Vowell, which has one of the best opening lines I have seen in a long time:  “Greg Gianforte doesn’t represent this state. O.K., he does now, but you get what I mean.”  This is not a picture taken at Holladay Park Plaza.  We use tablecloths.

So I live at Holladay Park Plaza in Portland, Oregon, a retirement center that uses a meal credit system. I know that sounds drearily institutional, but it isn’t, so let’s go on. I get 30 “meal credits” a month as part of my monthly service fee and have never—yesterday began my tenth month of living here—used them all. This is a problem of major proportions IF a very high value is “using up all the meal credits.”

So let’s consider what that would look like. I’m going to make fun of it a little. You won’t be able to tell from this account that I do recognize it as “a value,” but just take my word for it that I do. It is the 25th of the month and I have 10 meal credits left. [3]

A. I’ve got a great idea. Let’s go down to Portland Center Stage tonight and see the play about Astoria. (Can we have dinner here before we go or after we get back? I’ll go with you to the play if and only if we can also use a meal credit._

B. Great news! My son Dan is in town and wants to buy us dinner at Acadia. (Can’t do it. We have to eat here until the meal credits are used up.)

C. Hey, the Obamas have invited us to join them at a fancy hotel on the Oregon coast. They have been reading my political blog posts and want to give me an award for sedition and disruption. (Are you crazy? We’d miss at least three meals here if we did that and it’s already the 25th of the month!)

You get the idea.

The idea that organizes the other end of this artificially constructed scale can be mocked as well, of course, but I am not going to do it. The other end is that you should do with your mealtimes what you want most to do with them. That would look like this.

A. The “special” is braised yickerd greens [4] and hog jowls tonight. I’ve got a great idea. Let’s go out for pizza. [5]

B. We’ve been looking for a chance to get together with the new residents from just down the hall. They are free tonight and I have made reservations for the four of us. Does that sound good?

C. I really want to see the movie downtown. I know we could go to the 2:30 showing and that would enable us to get back in time for dinner here, but wouldn’t you really rather go to the 4:30 showing and have the whole afternoon free?

If you start at that end, which seems only reasonable to me, you choose to eat at home [6] whenever you want and to do something else whenever you want. Doing it that way does have a penalty. It means that you are not maximizing your use of the monthly allotment of meals at the retirement center. On the other hand, it means that you get to choose what you want to do every night at dinner. Eating in or out depends on what you want to do—which seems to me the right standard for choice—rather than on an artificial standard like 30 opportunities a month.

I have heard it argued that doing it my way wastes a valuable resource: money. That is hedonist 3true in the narrow sense. We have paid for those meals and that money is gone. You don’t get any back by not eating all thirty meals here. Getting a refund really would be “saving money” but that’s now how it works. On the other hand, when you set aside what you would really rather do, you are also wasting a valuable resource and you don’t get those opportunities back at the end of the month either.

I really think that there is room for discussion if you consider every occasion when you might make the decision on the basis of one rule or the other. There is another development that sometimes occurs, however. One “rule” or the other become a recognized part of a person’s character. When that happens, the actual decision I am making is only an artifact of my character—the traits I identify with myself and that I expect friends to identify as part of me as well.

Now it turns out that there are not good names for the character traits that go with the decision rules. People who try really hard to use all the meal credits sometimes refer to themselves—pejoratively, but with good humor—as “cheapskates.” I have never heard anyone—even me and I am the person most likely to try it—give a name to the trait at the other end of the scale, but if I were to try one, I think it should be “hedonist.” [7] A hedonist would be a person who manages the choices based on what would be most pleasurable. In the second series (A, B, C) each of the choices was made on that basis. You could also justify some more demanding choices on hedonic grounds if it was the right thing to do (which is pleasurable, in a sense) and especially if you would condemn yourself for failing to do it (which is distinctly unpleasant.) [8]

hedonism 5If the choices I made are to be embedded in my personality, so that I am expected by those who know me, to make choices based on a well-known standard—“Isn’t it just like him to…”—I would rather not use a standard that I market as being a cheapskate; I would rather be known as a hedonist. For one thing, the outcome of the cheapskate rationale is always the same. Use 30 meal credits a month. But the outcome of the hedonism rationale could vary a good deal from one circumstance to another.

To me, it’s just a matter of starting at the more important end of the spectrum and working back toward “cost-effectiveness” as needed.  But not more.

[1] Timothy Wilson (Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious) has done some really interesting studies that correlate what we think we value and what our friends think we value.
[2] One of the great triumphs of consumer-driven capitalism is the formulation of the idea that paying less for an item is the same thing as “saving money.” There are times when it really is. If you have to have it, paying half as much leaves you some extra money. But if you don’t have to have it, you could save a lot more money by not buying it.
[3] I guess I should say that you lose any unused credits at the end of the month and that at the moment—they are working on a new system—you can’t share them with anyone else.
[4] Digging deep into family lore. My kids called any kind of vegetable they didn’t want to eat, “yickerd greens.” Just the green vegetables, I suppose.
[5] Not to sell my home, Holladay Park Plaza, short. In addition to that day’s special, there are five weekly specials, and a full buffet line (both hot and cold), any of which could be chosen instead of the daily special. Just in case you don’t like yickerd greens.
[6] “At home” includes cooking your own meal in your own apartment. We have not done that in our first nine months here, but there is no reason we couldn’t.
[7] Mostly bad connotations, I’m afraid. The the Greek is hēdonē, meaning “pleasure,” it derives from the earlier hēdys, meaning “sweet.”
[8] You could choose agency, which focuses on your making the choice yourself rather than having it foisted upon you by the implications of a rule you didn’t support. “I am an agent, so I like to make the choices” would be the rationale for choosing agent rather than hedonist.

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Winning the heart and minds

On March 12, 2014, I argued that President Obama needed to apologize to the American people for something. It didn’t matter what, I said, so long as it was something “the people” were offended about. The state of the economy would do, or our “lost greatness” or the presence of so many people who were not born here. None of these outcomes can be traced to Obama’s presidency, but an apology is nevertheless necessary because of the effect it would have.

In that March post [1], I developed a situation John Gray talks about in several of his Marhearts and minds 2s/Venus books. She thinks you have committed an offense of some kind. You would like to explain that you have not, but she is miffed and won’t hear anything you say until you apologize. So apologize. Then you get to say the thing that needs to be said.

When I referred, above, to “the effect it would have,” this is what I was talking about. Donald Trump was elected by a coalition of fat cats, racists, abused and ignored low income voters and Hillary-haters. Of that list, the one the Democrats can do something about is the abused and ignored low income voters. We (Democrats, progressives, socialists, feminists) desperately need to talk to them—more, soon, about just why that is so—and they desperately need to talk to us because all their hopes are going to be dashed.

Why? Not because Trump might be re-elected or some other Trump-like person. Trump is just a weed. He is not the most serious problem to be addressed. The most serious problem is that we have a weed-producing soil. The polity we now have is very friendly to charlatans running for office. They have a lot to gain by doing that, so there is no reason to imagine that they will stop. Amending the soil so that it is not so hospitable to weeds is by far the better strategy and it has the advantage of being something we can—in principle—do.

This urgent need, “amending the soil,” is what I am calling a “hearts and minds” problem. [2]  Democrats have focused narrowly on winning elections—which is fine as far as it goes—but we win elections by having broadly appealing candidates, sophisticated fund-raising routines, and elaborate get-out-the-vote strategies. None of those address the hearts and minds problem. We just wind up winning the presidency and occasionally the Congress and about a third of the states and hardening the lines of the debate. The process of winning an election is sometimes called “counting noses” but below, see a more substantial view of the problem.

All this reminds me of a saying I first heard from my mother: “A man convinced against his will/Is of the same opinion still.”

'The battle for hearts and minds was proving too difficult, so I thought we'd just make do with heads.'So if the Democrats’ problem is a hearts and minds problem, how do we reach the hearts and minds of the abused and ignored low income voters? They are, as I see it, the only part of the Trump constituency to which the Democrats have access. Besides that, they were part of the the original Democratic coalition.

I think we could make a start by not disdaining the issues that hold them where they are. The arguments they make are dreadful beyond repair, but they don’t care about the arguments anyway. They care about the issues—just a few issues. And these are moral issues. We keep arguing economic self-interest because that is what worked for us in the past. And it will work in the future, too, if all we want to do is win elections. If we want to amend the soil—to make constitutional (note the small c-) changes in the polity, we are going to have to attempt something deeper.

That is the end of my attempt to propose a new solution in principle and to justify the logic. Ordinarily, that doesn’t persuade anyone. Let’s look at some examples; maybe that will work. I’m thinking of “welfare cheats” and “a woman’s—a pregnant woman’s—right to choose” (to abort her fetus).

Welfare Cheats

Let’s start with “welfare cheats.” They drive conservative voters crazy. In support of their umbrage, they cite “facts” that they have heard somewhere. They talk about how many such cheaters there are and about how great a burden those parasites impose on state and national budgets, and how the great majority of people on welfare are black.hearts and minds 5
All the “facts” are wrong and I am a fact-oriented kind of person, so what I move naturally to do is to show that they are mistaken. There are very few cheaters in the welfare system according to all the actual studies I have read over several decades. The cost is remarkably low as a percentage of all government social programs, even as a percentage of social programs. By far the largest percentage of users and abusers of the welfare system are white. We could debate about the margins around some of those claims, but for today, let’s just say that they are all correct.

That is where I want to go. That is where I am most comfortable. But let’s stop and remember the wife to whom an apology has not been given. She isn’t listening. The facts don’t matter if you don’t hear them. Even the logic is not compelling if you refuse to acknowledge the terms. Nothing is going to work in this scenario until she puts the hearing aids back in, so let do that first. And facts are not going to do that.
What will do that? I think complaining about welfare cheats would do it. We (liberals, Democrats) treat the issue as if it were not a moral affront; as if we think cheating the system is perfectly acceptable. [3] Why don’t we begin by saying, “You are right. This is a problem that needs to be addressed. Let’s work on it together.”

They will still be angry—with us as well as with the welfare cheats—and they will propose punitive and ineffective responses. Those responses won’t work, but two good things could happen. The first is that we—the former Trump supporters and the current Democrats—are working together on something. That’s a good thing. The second is that any particular “welfare cheat” is going to be a stereotype buster and it is harder to call for the punishment of someone whose circumstances you know.

Will that fix the problem? Yes. It will. You said No because you forgot what the problem was. We are working on developing a hearts and minds strategy that will change the constitution of the American polity. We are not “fixing the welfare system.” I wanted to remind you of that now, before we start into abortion, the next topic.


What drives conservative voters crazy, it seems to me, is not the need some women have to have their fetuses aborted. Consider this from a 2016 Pew survey.

Though abortion is a divisive issue, more than half of U.S. adults take a non-absolutist position, saying that in most – but not all – cases abortion should be legal (34%) or illegal (24%). Fewer take the position that in all cases abortion should be either legal (23%) or illegal (15%).

You get a majority for what Pew calls “the non-absolutist position” by adding the views of people who think that abortion should be legal in most cases to those who think it should not be legal in most cases. So 34% + 24% = 57%, a majority. That’s a majority of people who say that abortion is perfectly acceptable if there is a good reason.

But Democrats don’t want to argue that. They (we) want to argue that it is the woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion for any reasons at all. We don’t say it that way, but conservative voters hear it that way. Once I have said that the choice belongs to the pregnant woman, I am bound to consider valid any reasons at all.

hearts and minds 6That’s not a hearts and minds view. The actual politics of providing or refusing abortions is complicated by the federal system, which requires the Supreme Court to tell the states what they may do and what they may not do. The Court cannot say that abortion is acceptable if there is a good reason and otherwise it is not. But Democrats could say that.  That’s the position President Clinton was widely understood to support when he said that abortions should be “safe, legal, and rare.” That is not a criterion the law can live up to, but it could be the rhetorical home of the Democratic party.

We would have to be serious about “rare.” We would have to find some way to say that casual and thoughtless abortions are wrong. It is at that point that the hearing aids go back in and the object of our sincerest affections—the formerly Democratic Trump voters—begins to listen again.

The hearts and minds strategy isn’t for sissies. And if may not work, either. But the kind of voting constituency we have right now—divided, self-referential, vindictive—is a soil that will grow only weeds. If it isn’t Trump, it will be the next weed.

I want to propose the amendment of our soil as the 28th Amendment. What do you think?

[1] Citing your old columns is what my brother John calls “calling up the reserves.” Perfect.
[2]  According to a site called the Phrase Finder, Chuck Colson was not the origin of the adapted saying, “Once you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” One possible origin “is a Vietnam-era congressional debate in which a liberal Democrat pleaded for programs designed to ‘win the hearts and minds of the downtrodden.’ Hawkish Rep. Mendel Rivers (D-S.C.) responded, ‘I say get ’em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow.’ It’s doubtful that this rejoinder began with Rivers, however. It certainly didn’t begin with Charles Colson.”
[3] We call it “blaming the victim” but these con artists who work the system and waste the money are not just victims—although they are that too. They are the indicators of a social problem that everyone would like to see fixed.

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“Serving others”

In one of my favorite episodes (Season 5, Episode 6) of The West Wing, President Bartlet loses his sense of how vitally important the presidency is. He has flown to Oklahoma to lend whatever support he can to a tornado-stricken area. Of course, he understands when he goes on that trip that it is because of his status as President of the United States that he is of any help at all. But when he gets to the disaster scene in Oklahoma, he has the chance to meet with “real people,” not Washington D. C. people, and to help to comfort and reorient them.

service 4President Bartlet has been on edge since his daughter Zooey was kidnapped and held for ransom. She was found and rescued, but the event left Bartlet shaken and his marriage in tatters. Going to Oklahoma to “serve people” was what he wanted to do more than anything and he found it so rewarding that he wanted to keep on doing it.

But that wasn’t his job.

His real job required him to meet with foreign diplomats and to keep our alliances together and to continue the dialogue with the Congress. All those things are the actual substance of his “serving people.” None of those things felt like “serving” to someone in Bartlet’s condition.

That brings me to today’s question, which is, “What does it mean to serve others?”

The Reverend Spencer Parks was called on this year to deliver the Maundy Thursday sermon at our church. [1] He got up and walked to the pulpit, picked up a towel, a basin and a pitcher of water. He took all these down to a table, poured the water into the basin and draped the towel over the edge. Not a word did he say. Then he went back up to the pulpit and reassured us that he was not going to conduct a foot washing service, as Jesus had commanded ,[2] but he wanted us to think about it while he was preaching.

Then he delivered one of the best Maundy Thursday sermons I have ever heard, but even so, my eye kept drifting back to that towel and the bowl of water. It helped me reconsider what “serving” means. I think that is why my mind was drawn back to President Bartlet whose clear duty was to serve in a way that was not personally fulfilling to him and to forsake, for that purpose, a kind of “service” that met the needs of his heart at the time.

The Maundy Thursday tradition is that Jesus’s disciples should be willing to take on the service 2duties of a servant rather than to compete with each other to be the top dog. As always, you get real clarity when you specify the opposite of what you are trying to say. When you say, “Not this, but rather that,” you have made the meaning of “this” much clearer.  So it is with “serve others” and “rule over others.”  Look at the alternatives in this passage from Matthew 20:

“25 But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that among the gentiles the rulers lord it over them, and great men make their authority felt. 26 Among you this is not to happen. No; anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave…”

Not this, but that.

I see the value of the dichotomy—not this, but that—in the context of Matthew’s treatment of it, but applying it to a broad range of situations as if it were a principle that ought to be applied everywhere seems like a misuse of the occasion to me. Certainly Jesus’s followers should not be struggling and abusing each other to win the top spot, but what, really is the alternative?

I would like to propose that the alternative–truly serving others– is doing what needs to be done. President Bartlet didn’t show humility by wandering into the kitchen of the emergency center in Oklahoma and offering to scrub the pots. He showed humility by getting back on the plane and going back to D. C. where his work awaited him.

As the Bartlet illustration makes clear, there is nothing servile about “service.”MCHpyramid.png When he agreed to go back to being President of the United States, he agreed to take on the authority that being of service required of him. Flying back to Washington in Air Force 1 doesn’t look humble, but on this occasion, that is exactly what it was.

Here is a figure I heard about for the first time yesterday. It is called the “public service triangle—at least you can find this illustration by googling that phrase. Imagine that “serving others” was a notion represented only at the apex of the pyramid. The formal designation you see is “direct health care services,” but a more telling way of characterizing it is in parentheses below. It is “gap filling.”

Gap filling is crucially important when there is a gap to be filled, but do we really want to say that people who provide the other services—enabling services like purchase of health insurance; population-based services like immunization; infrastructure building services like policy development—are not serving others. How do you think the apex of the pyramid got that high?

So here is a modest exercise. Imagine that there is a job you are called to do. You have the ability to keep a fleet of antiquated cars and ambulances on the road. No one has the ingenuity and experience you have and everyone benefits from your skills; the drivers benefit, the victims benefit. But you come to feel that the work you are doing is not adequately “humble” and “serving others” requires humility. So you give up your work as a mechanic and take on the cleaning up the facility where they bring in the drunks every night and the people who have overdosed on drugs.

Is that crazy? I think it is.

I see “serving others” as the kind of thing you can’t identify by looking at it. It doesn’t require that you set aside your own desires unless your desires interfere with the effectiveness of your service. There is nothing necessarily exalted or humble about what it looks like. “Serving others” means either meeting their needs as persons or meeting their needs as agents—people who are identified, for our present purposes by what they are trying to do.

And because the “meeting their needs” standard is so varied, there is no way to identify “serving behavior” just by looking at it. One of the best known results of many years of study of small groups [3] is that someone needs to lead and someone needs to repair the relationships that are damaged by the work. I call those leaders and healers.

service 3Of these roles, which is best characterized as “serving others?” Neither, if you follow my argument this far. The person who is a natural leader, but who lays those preferences aside to take up the role of healer, is serving others. And so is the person who is a natural healer and takes on the role of healing the casualties that are the natural part of the small group process. It costs the leader more to serve as a healer. If you count his willingness to pay that cost as meritorious, then he has more merit. But he has not served more or better than the person to whom it comes naturally.  The confusion I am trying to oppose is graphically represented in this cartoon.

And vice versa, of course. The natural healer who moves into the leadership position because it is needed is serving others at some cost to himself. But he is not “serving others” better or more honorably than the natural leader who takes over leadership.

You can’t tell, in other words, by looking. The confusion of “service” with “menial tasks” is a perfectly natural confusion if you make the cost to the person serving a part of the definition. But I’d urge you not to do that.

And I think that is why I like that West Wing episode so much. President Bartlet takes on all the rigamarole of office—the marine guards, the secret service protection, the public honor shown to him as the current incumbent of the Presidency—because those are the things that go with his position of service.  They help him serve the people he is called on to serve. He can like them or hate them—all modern presidents have done both—but he accepts them because they help him do his job.

[1] First Presbyterian Church, Portland, Oregon.
[2] The Latin mandare, “to command” is the source of the Maundy in Maundy Thursday.
[3] Robert Bales, of Harvard, is the name long associated with these findings. I found out today that before he was Harvard Crimson, he was an Oregon Duck, like me.

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The Risk-averse servant

This story, recorded by both Matthew and Luke, has been given a lot of different interpretations. I’ve been working/playing with it recently and I have three observations I would like to make.

Before I get into the observation-making business, let me pause for a confession. I have written this essay completely and it wasn’t until I was done that I discovered that the observations I had made could be organized as three main points. I began with a simple grammatical discrepancy—as I will explain below—and followed my several curiosities as the argument flowed from one topic to another. It wasn’t until I was finished writing the essay that I noticed that I had “three observations I would like to make.” I am amazed at how organized it seems to me now, knowing, as I do, that when I first approached the topic, I charged around like a bloodhound with a meaningful scent in his nostrils.

That is the end of my confession, Now on with the observation-making business.

Here’s the story, often called “The Parable of the Talents” but which might be better called “The Risk-averse Servant,” or possibly, “The Servant Who Feared the Wrong Thing.”

Parable of the Talents

To shorten the essay up a little, I am going to presume that you know the general plot. If not, a quick look at Matthew 25 or Luke 19 will fix that. Briefly, a noblemen went away and trusted three servants with some of his funds to make money for him while he was gone. Two of them did. This is about the third one. Here is the clip that dealt with him.

Matthew 25: 24 Last came forward the man who had the single talent. “Sir,” said he, “I had heard you were a hard man, reaping where you had not sown and gathering where you had not scattered; 25 so I was afraid, and I went off and hid your talent in the ground. Here it is; it was yours, you have it back.” 26 But his master answered him, “You wicked and lazy servant! So you knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered? 27 Well then, you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have got my money back with interest. 28 So now, take the talent from him and give it to the man who has the ten talents.

What did the servant know and when did he know it? [1]

risk averse 3I first began to be interested in this passage when I noticed that the New Jerusalem Bible (my favorite) has a translation of “knew” that was new to me. Like everyone other Protestant my age, I grew up with the King James Version, which has: “Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man…” [2] The Revised Standard Version has a modern version of the same sentiment: “Master, I knew you to be a hard man.” This is something the servant knows to be true and it attaches to the character of the master and is evidenced by the master’s repeated actions that support it.

But I noticed that the New Jerusalem Bible has “I had heard that you were are hard man.” “Had heard” is not at all the same thing as knowing, so I checked to see what verb is used in the Greek text. It is egnōn, “to know,” a verb widely used in the New Testament to refer to knowledge. But knowing is different than “having heard” so I was puzzled. The New Jerusalem Bible is not given to flights of fancy; it is the work of careful scholars.

But it turns out that egnōn is in a tense we don’t have in English and this is the first of my three observations. It is the aorist tense. (Please don’t give up here; this is the only really technical point in the entire essay.) An aorist verb describes an action that is taken only once although the effects of that action may go on for a long time. [3] So what would it mean to say, “There was a time when I knew a particular thing, but I have not continued to know it?” That formulation represents “past knowledge,” or, in other words, information that came the servants way in the past and which he is still using. If that is what Matthew has in mind, then the translation “I had heard” instead of “I know” is perfectly appropriate. And not only appropriate, but provocative. What does it imply about the servant I am calling “risk-averse?”

Now the servant characterizes himself as risk-averse. “I had heard that you were a difficult master so I decided to minimize the risk of doing anything to make you angry.” But does it seem odd to you to say that a man who makes a crucial decision on the basis of hearsay is really averse to risk? I don’t think so. And this brings us to the second of the three points: what would a risk-averse servant have done?

Risk-aversion and Good Information

So the servant knows the mater to be demanding and he, himself, is fearful of doing something wrong and being punished. It is not his view of “doing something wrong” that matters, of course. It is the master’s view. In order to get current and accurate information about how to stay out of trouble, the servant needs to “seek (information) and keep on seeking it” to use the language Matthew attributes to Jesus eighteen chapters earlier (Matthew 7:7)

Risk Averse 2It would be asking a lot to ask that the servant put his master’s interests ahead of his own and I am not asking that. I am saying only that if “avoiding punishment” is the servant’s own top priority, then information about what kinds of activity the master will punish is very important. Instead of that, the servant relies on “I had heard.” That doesn’t sound like risk aversion to me.

There is one other possibility, though. It may be that asking the question about the master is the risk that most terrifies the servant. The text doesn’t tell us that, but it does tell us that the servant didn’t take the trouble to find out. If wondering what the master will want of him simply terrifies the servant, then gathering information about what the master is like is the scariest possible course of action. So the servant commits himself to denial [4]in the same way and for the same reasons that someone who has a suspicious lump in his neck refuses to go to a doctor and find out what it is.

I think I would be willing to call that behavior risk-averse, even though it is not the behavior the story is intended to refer to.  Which brings us to the third of the three observations. Just what was the story supposed to be about?

Some have said it is a story about the nature of God. I don’t think that’s very helpful as an interpretation and it is really hard to see why Matthew would have chosen to represent God that way. Some have said it is a story about “lending at interest” (forbidden to Jews except to non-Jews) and therefore about capitalism. I don’t think that’s where Matthew’s interest is at all; not the Matthew who recalls that Jesus said it was impossibly hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 19:24).

Being in the Game

So what is the story about. It seems to me that it is about recognizing that you are in the game and that it is useless to pretend that you are not. I’ve slipped into a modern metaphor here—“in the game”—but it’s only to highlight how contemporary the notion is. If you are a Jew living by the Torah you are “in the game.” You have a lot of obligations that pay no attention at all to what you would prefer. You are obligated to help an enemy unload his pack animal, for instance, and to redeem a kinsman from slavery and to produce offspring from your brother’s widow who will be counted as his offspring, not yours.

A Jew could say about any of those, “I wish I weren’t even in this game,” but he or she is anyway. I learned during my time in Ireland last week that the word “lynch” comes to us from Judge Lynch who was obligated to hang his own son because the son had violated a law that required death. I am sure he said, as he saw he has obligated to give the sentence the law required, that he wished he was not even in this game. But he was anyway and pretending he was not would not help him.  I’d be willing to bet that this Utah player had to stop and consider just what “being in the game meant for him.”

risk averse 6The servant is the recipient of his master’s money and the name of the game is investment and profit. I can see that Matthew would have a good deal of interest in that. Matthew would have been troubled by people who “wanted a little piece of Rabbi Jesus’s kingdom” but who wanted to pretend that no obligations went with that “little piece.”

And that, finally, is what I think this story is about. Being a part of the Jesus ministry is a kind of “being in the game.” It may require that you do things that make you uncomfortable or require that you condemn, in yourself, behavior that otherwise you might call justifiable.  Like hating your enemies, for instance. But if you have been given a gift, you are responsible to use it as the master intended it be used.

risk averse 7You could, of course, wish that you had not been given the gift and all the obligations it carries with it. I think about Frodo, who, when he discovered what “Bilbo’s ring” really was and the burden it was going to be to him, said, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.”

I get that. I have felt that way myself. But Frodo said that to Gandalf [5] and this is the reply he got. “So do I,” replied Galdalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

And I think that’s why Matthew want to tell us this story.

[1] I wrote that line well before the recent firing of FBI Director Comey put the minds of everyone old enough to remember back to the Watergate years. All the coverup questions were set as answers to the question, “What did the President (Nixon) know and when did he know it.” These questions were asked in vain during the Iran/Contra allegations of the Reagan years, but they seem to be making a comeback.
[2] We can leave out the archaisms “I knew thee that…” and “an hard man” and still get the sense of the servant’s confession
[3]It is used this way in other text, as well. When Paul says, “Christ died for us according to the scriptures…” (1 Corinthians 15:4) he uses the aorist tense. He means that Christ died once and the effects continue. On the other hand, when Jesus says “seek and you will find,” he uses the present tense. That verse fragment means “seek and keep on seeking” and you will find (Matthew 7:7). So the implications of the aorist and the present tenses are crucial in some contexts. I think this is one of them.
[4] If you have a “denial” joke, like “it’s not just a river in Egypt,” for instance, feel free to insert it here.
[5] In Tolkein’s world, a “wizard” is a kind of being and there is no question that Gandalf is one of that kind. But in English, the -ard suffix is uniformly pejorative and in the word “wizard,” the -ard ending is attached to “wise.” Looked at in that way, Gandalf really was wise; he was not just a wizard.

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Reflections on Ireland, 2017

As I write this, it is just after noon in Dublin, where I had breakfast yesterday.  It is just after 4:00 a.m. in Portland, Oregon where, when Starbucks opens, I will have breakfast today.  My mind is still full of Ireland, where I have spent the last two weeks.  It is still way too early for me to understand what I saw, but some small anecdotes and a few images come back to me and I would like to think about them this morning.

Let’s start with the symbol(s) of Ireland.  Although the popular color of IrelandArms_of_Ireland_(Historical).svg.png is green, as all Notre Dame fans know, the official color of Ireland is blue.  I didn’t know that.  The official symbol of Ireland is the harp and I was just playing around when I added the (s) to “symbol of Ireland” because Guinness has great popularity in Ireland and all they had to do is to reverse the direction of the harp. Note the direction of the harp in these two images.

While I saw people drinking Guinness stout all over Ireland, most of the Guinness stories I heard, I heard in Dublin.  If there is a better picture than this one, with the Irish shamrock displayed (see below) in the head of a draft Guinness, I have not seen it.  I didn’t even know they could do that.

images.jpgThe harp has been a traditional Irish instrument for a very long time, but I think it has a special status because the English domination of Ireland included a determination to obliterate Irish culture and playing the Irish harp was declared to be a capital crime.  When I saw the intensity of Ireland’s love of its harp and of traditional Irish music generally, I realized I was seeing more than just a tradition-loving people.  I was seeing an indomitable people.

Ireland is in a very good place right now.  They have levels of wealth they wereIMG_0180.jpg not prepared to have–not, everybody assured me, “like the Celtic Tiger years of the 90’s–and a stable socialist democracy that is not dependent on England.  It is dependent, however, on the European Union (EU), which funded the Celtic Tiger 90s, and Irish news pays a great deal of attention to the EU.  I heard speculation of what the EU flag would look like –the ring of stars on a field of blue–when the U. K. withdraws.  There may have been just a little glee mixed in with the speculation.

IMG_0137.jpgWhen I travel, I am often taken by signs that catch my interest.  I had never heard, for instance of the earliest written Irish script, called Ogham (and pronounced ōm).  It is just a series of lines representing letters of an alphabet.  But that makes this sign in Dingle–Chinese take-out, no less–a four-language sign.  Even in Ireland, where two languages per sign are common, this was  worth a good laugh. [1]

IMG_0227.jpgThere is nothing at all subtle about this statue of Molly Malone in Dublin.  It was hard to get a picture of just her–people wanted to have their pictures taken with her as background and who could blame them.  On the other hand, if you know the traditional Irish song “The Rose of Tralee,” this picture might catch your fancy.  This (see footnote 2) is a rose IN Tralee.  We stopped there for dinner on our way back to Adare and I couldn’t resist it.

IMG_0048.jpgI saw more redheads in Ireland than I have ever seen at one place.  There was an attempt in Portland to break the Guinness (!) Book of Records for the most redheads in one place and one time and I contributed my redhead to that cause, but I didn’t actually see the gathering itself.  It will not surprise you that there are a lot of redheads in Ireland, but this one, in Ennis, is named Éowyn and I sincerely hope there is a Faramir somewhere in her future.

Nearly everyone notes how incredibly green Ireland is.  That didn’t impressIMG_0133.jpg me all that much because I am, after all, from Oregon and we do green as well as they do. [3]  But nothing in Oregon suggests the division of all that green into very small plots of land marked by rock walls or, as here, by hedges, and you see that all over the parts of Ireland (south and west) we saw.

I don’t know yet how to think carefully about the role of foreign (English) domination in Ireland.  Maybe that will come to me in time.  Many of the stories we heard had the “and this is what they did to us” theme.  The other theme was “but that didn’t stop us from demanding the right to be Irish.”  And a lot of the excesses that are part of the caricature of Irish life–the hot tempers and the drunkenness and the violence–can be placed within this cultural narrative and maybe that is the way the Irish see it. [4]

This very brief two-week glimpse of Ireland is all I have to go on.  I might have to go back or maybe, you know, read something.

[1]  The Ogham marks are at the far left.  The red part of the sign contains Chinese characters, and information in both Gaelic and English.

[2]  In the U. S., we absorb “our culture” from quite a number of differentIMG_0149.jpg sources.  “Culture” is just things everyone knows and the elements of it don’t come with labels attached.  I got a quick lesson in Ireland about how very much of “my culture” is Irish.

[3]  I am also a University of Oregon alumnus, so green has a special meaning for me as well.

[4]  When I was in grad school, there was a faux Latin motto, Illegitimi non carborundum, which was translated, “Don’t let the bastards wear you down.”  That would serve the Irish very well if “them” meant the English.

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A Victory for Biblical Scholarship

When I think of “going out at the top of our game, I’m not thinking of Kevin Costner’s performance as Billy Chapel, the aging Detroit Tigers pitcher who pitches a perfect game on his last trip to the mound in For the Love of the Game. That’s good, but my friend Fran Page and I recently finished an eight month Bible study that ended with a session that felt pretty much like a “perfect game” to me and may have been a more significant victory. [1]

We began last September a course that laid out Genesis/Exodus in the Old Testament and Luke/Acts in the New Testament as the course of study. That’s a lot of opportunity to teach how to approach scripture with the goal of understanding it. We hit all the emphases everyone hits about knowing the context and the writer and the situation and so on. We invited our students to try to see the situation as the writer might have, to use the stories available as a way of responding to that situation.

tamar 1Here’s an example from Genesis 38, the story of Tamar, who is one of my favorite biblical characters. The story of Tamar and Judah, her father in law, is not the easiest story to grasp because it requires an understanding of levirate marriage. [2] Our students were perfectly ready to approve of God’s commands that we should not steal, lie, or kill. God’s commands that the younger brother should mate with the widow of an elder brother was not as easy to approve. It is, however, the basis of the story of Tamar and Judah.

Tamar’s husband Er dies, leaving Tamar childless, and the younger brothers do not do their duty as God commanded. [3] And Judah, their father, even sent Tamar back to live with her own family. He is obviously not going to intervene. So Tamar took things into her own hands, producing problem number two for our students. Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and enticed Judah, the patriarch of the family, to impregnate her—the task he should have assigned his sons to do.

From the biblical standpoint, it all ends well. Tamar’s sons (twins) will carry on Er’s name and heritage as God commanded. Judah is publicly humiliated for his part in this charade and Tamar is completely vindicated. For the writer, this is a story of a heroic and proactive woman who takes God’s commandments much more seriously than the men of the family

That’s from the biblical standpoint. That is not where our students started. They were clearly repelled by the dutiful coupling of bother with sister-in-law (the levirate marriage commandment) and inclined to disapprove of Tamar’s seduction of Judah. The writer skips over those as incidental to fulfilling God’s commandment—which didn’t matter much to the students—or treating it as comic. Our goal as teachers was to get the students to begin where the writer began, to understand and appreciate his values as they are played out in the text, and to avoid modern sensibilities that would distort the story.

tamar 2Let’s pause for a moment to appreciate how difficult and unappetizing this is. We are asking them to grasp a truly foreign concept—levirate marriage—and understand it as part of God’s covenant with Israel. It is, in other words, binding. And having grasped this concept, to care about it; to see why it would have mattered so much to the writer. On the other hand, there is nothing at all foreign about a woman seducing someone else’s husband, as Tamar did—and her father in law, no less. But to stay with the writer and his values, you have to set aside your own condemnation of Tamar’s behavior and see her as going to great lengths to achieve the goal God had in mind. [4]

So Tamar was tough, but it was just practice. We wound up at 1 Timothy 2: 9—15, a notoriously anti-feminist text. [5] All the way through Genesis and Exodus, we worked with the stories, practicing seeing them from the author’s viewpoint, practicing seeing the story as response to a situation contemporary with the author. [6] We continued to work those same skills in Luke and Acts and the class continued to work with us, practicing these new and difficult skills together.

We reached 1 Timothy as an example of the split Luke describes in Acts between the kindtamar 6 of church organization that followed from the Hellenized Jews who first followed Jesus, rather than the kind of church organization that followed from the Hebrews who first followed Jesus. From the split that Luke describes, two entirely different approaches developed and if you are inclined to doubt that, I recommend that you read the book of James, then the book of Galatians.  I am reminded here that in our little church in Englewood, Ohio, we used to sing a hymn called “The Church in the Wildwood.”  Possibly this woman in on her way to that church.

But all the work the class put in meant that when they got to 1 Timothy, they were ready to ask the necessary (though difficult) questions: who is the author? what are his principal concerns? What was going on in this church (these churches) that evoked the language he uses? Into what cultural and historical setting shall we set these demands so that we can see clearly what outcome he hopes for? And then finally, after all that work is done, how shall we understand these texts as applicable to our situation today?

Here is the text I am talking about, using the New Jerusalem Bible translation. 1 Timothy 2: 9—15.  I am putting the “suitable clothes” illustration above and the “ought to be quiet” illustration below.

Similarly, women are to wear suitable clothes and to be dressed quietly and modestly, without braided hair or gold and jewellery or expensive clothes;10 their adornment is to do the good works that are proper for women who claim to be religious. 11 During instruction, a woman should be quiet and respectful. 12 I give no permission for a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. A woman ought to be quiet, 13 because Adam was formed first and Eve afterwards, 14 and it was not Adam who was led astray but the woman who was led astray and fell into sin. 15 Nevertheless, she will be saved by child—bearing, provided she lives a sensible life and is constant in faith and love and holiness.

The fact that our class did not simply refuse to study such a passage is a triumph itself, but they did much better than that. They began by understanding that the author of this letter faced a difficulty in the life of this young church that concerned him. It was the health of the congregation that was upmost is his mind, just as the continuation of the deceased brother’s inheritance was upmost in the mind of the teller of the Tamar story. It’s hard to be against the continued health of the congregation. On the other hand, it is hard to start there, when the subtext of our era is “You go, girl.”

tamar 4If you start with how it must feel to have someone tell you that you should not dress the way you want and have your hair the way you want, much less that you should defer to the authority of “a man” just because he is a man—you arrive at a completely modern and understandable and unscholarly anger. But you can choose not to start there. (You probably cannot choose to ignore your feelings altogether, particularly when you begin to apply it to our own times.) But you can choose not to start there. You can choose to start with the situation the writer faced.

And, to conclude this already too long story, they did that. They put their modern feelings aside for the purpose of working together to understand this awful passage in its context. And to all appearances, they felt good about themselves for being able to do that. And when they got to the “what does this mean for us today?” question—a crucially important question despite the need to hold it off until last—they simply dismissed it as applicable today in those same terms.

But even so, I will give them this. They dismissed it as advice that was not needed in our church and that would not even be applicable in our church. They didn’t dismiss it because it was offensive—which, obviously, it is—but because the situation being addressed there and then was substantially different than our situation here and now. [7]

We had carefully set the stage for that kind of deliberation with the notion that some scripture passages are like good, nourishing everyone; others are more like medicine, helpful to some, but possibly harmful to others. And harmful to everyone when the doses are too high. We worked that distinction through Genesis, Exodus, Luke, and Acts. And when we really needed it in 1 Timothy, it was there are ready to use.

This is medicine, they said, and possibly just the thing for that church at that time. It is not food for us. But there is food for us in 1 Timothy and we will not be distracted by the medicine from nourishing ourselves with the food.

I don’t remember ever being prouder of a class of beginning Bible scholars. They were wonderful. They did the hard work without complaining and they will take with them tools they can use for the rest of their lives.

[1] Full credit to Fran and to her husband, Gordon Lindbloom, who helped us plan the course. Still, I am going to be talking about how this felt to me, so I am going to shift over to first person pronouns when I am talking about how it felt.
[2] There is nothing romantic about levirate marriage, which requires the males in the family to mate with the wife of a deceased brother. The offspring of that coupling will be reckoned as the children of the deceased brother, so that his name will not disappear and his property not be dispersed. “Producing an heir” is the name of the game and “his children,” the ones you created by mating with your brother’s wife, will be competitors with your children within the clan. It is not “romantic” in the slightest, but it is commanded by God (Deuteronomy 25: 4—10)
[3] A very similar situation is treated as an aspect of friendship between women in The Big Chill, in which a woman loans her husband to a good friend to impregnate her. It is treated more tragically in The Postman.
[4] We may have lost a student over this story. She knew what was right and wrong and this story was praising bad behavior.
[5] New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, who wrote the Yale Anchor Bible Commentary on 1 Timothy, calls it a “text of terror” and that is certainly the way our class (12 of the 15 students were women) would have treated it at the beginning of the class.
[6] And that isn’t easy either. The gospels read like biographies, as if the evangelists were recording events as they happened. To see the evangelists as choosing one story or another or one emphasis or another because of the situation their addressees faced requires an orientation in thinking. It isn’t easy, but scholarly study requires that you understand what the event meant to the writer before—not instead of—you understand what it means to you in modern times.
[7] There was even the beginnings of a consideration of “inappropriate dress” in our church as a concept that was worth addressing. Some version, in other words, of what the author saw as a crucial problem, is worth considering today even when it is only a minor annoyance. We ran out of time, I regret to say. I would have love to see where those deliberations would have gone.


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Trashing the West Wing

Luke Savage doesn’t much like the West Wing (TWW). Or so I gather from his article in Current Affairs. I’m fine with that.

But to criticize a body of work, particularly a very complex work that stretches out over seven years, a critic really needs to find a place to stand. Savage doesn’t do that in this piece, but since he needs it so urgently, I think I can help him there.

Once we find a place for him to stand, we will be able to understand his criticismwingnut 3 more more clearly and to evaluate it more thoughtfully. In a way, I am not the ideal person to do this. I am, I need to say, a fan of TWW—the kind of person who was referred to in the chatrooms as a “wing nut.”  I participated in the chatrooms. I taught a university course about the West Wing. I own the DVDs of all seven seasons and I do, in fact, refer back to the issues that are raised more urgently and ominously in the Trump administration. [1]

On the other hand, I am a good choice for this task in other ways. I do understand the relationship between a critic’s home ground and the plausibility of the criticisms. Whenever you say that something should have been done, for example, you are implying that it could have been done. Whenever you say that one thing was a bad thing to do, you are suggesting that something else would have been better. Critics like Savage don’t ordinarily take the time to justify the tacitly proposed course of action. Just condemning the action taken is usually enough and that is what we find in this piece.

So…who is Luke Savage and what is he using as a baseline in his evaluation of TWW? Savage writes for a new magazine called Jacobin. Here is what they say about themselves on their website.

Jacobin is a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture.

Here is what Chris Hayes, the MSNBC political host says about the publication.

I really like Jacobin — it’s very explicitly on the radical left, and sort of hostile to liberal accommodationism. [2] There’s a lot in there that I don’t necessarily agree with, but it’s bracingly rigorous and polemical in a really thought-provoking way. It’s a really well-done publication, almost preternaturally good.
— Chris Hayes, host of All In w/ Chris Hayes

From Hayes’s brief comment, I found a few clues that were helpful. Specifically, I found “rigorous and polemical” and “sort of hostile to liberal accommodationism”

Polemical: So I picture Luke Savage and his Jacobin colleagues watching TWW and looking for signs of hope. TWW is also “rigorous and polemical” but the thing about polemics is that if they don’t match your own polemics, they don’t sound reasonable. So that doesn’t necessarily help. In fact, as we will see below, it is the basis for explicit criticism sometimes.

Accommodationism. This is going to be a loser from the very beginning. The Bartlet administration had a government to run, after all, and a Republican Congress to entice into some minimum forms of cooperation.  If you don’t like cooperation, changing it to “accommodationism” is an easy step to take.

So let’s take some of Savage’s criticism’s from his Current Affairs article and see whether my placement of him on the ideological and programmatic left helps us make sense of his criticisms.

The West Wing is an elaborate fantasia founded upon the shibboleths that sustain Beltway liberalism and the milieu that produced them.

Wingnut 2I’d say there is no blood in that one at all. But it does launch some criticisms. “Fantasia” is not entirely clear, but the relationship with “fantasy” not at all obscured. And the fantasy is founded on “shibboleths” [3]—inside code words that establish membership. These same shibboleths sustain “Beltway liberalism.” By the way, “Beltway” is the adjective of death. Nothing good is modified by the adjective “Beltway.”

So there is a tight grouping of smears here, but no actual charges. Let’s go on.

In fact, after two terms in the White House, Bartlet’s gang of hyper-educated, hyper-competent politicos do not seem to have any transformational policy achievements whatsoever. Even in their most unconstrained and idealized political fantasies, liberals manage to accomplish nothing.

Now this one does have some blood in it. After two terms, Savage says, Bartlet’s gang of politicos does not seem to have any policy achievements at all.” He may be right about that one. During their time in office they passed budgets that protected some programs liberals like to protect. They left behind a Supreme Court with an appetite for constitutional issues. They prevented a lot of bad things from happening. But in the last episode, as the Bartlets are looking over the inauguration site, Abbey Bartlet says to her husband, “You did a lot of good, Jed. A lot of good.” From Savage’s perspective, that’s not much to say.

It’s a smugness born of the view that politics is less a terrain of clashing values and interests than a perpetual pitting of the clever against the ignorant and obtuse. The clever wield facts and reason, while the foolish cling to effortlessly-exposed fictions and the braying prejudices of provincial rubes.

“Smug” is one of the cheapest of slurs. In a whole article of slurs, it is probably the lowest. Note that the alternative presented is “clashing values and interests.” Savage has collected a great many of the opponents of the Bartlet administration into a category defined by ignorance and prejudice, rather than by any political position. This makes them victims of the attitudes of the Bartlets and their minions rather than people who fought for their own principles and lost. Savage can get away with that by oversampling the episodes that dealt with campaigning and paying much less attention to the episodes about governing the country.

Maybe just one more.

But if your values are procedural, based more on the manner in which people conduct themselves rather than the consequences they actually bring about, it’s easy to chuckle along with a hard-right conservative, so long as they are personally charming (Ziegler: “I hate him, but he’s brilliant. And the two of them together are fighting like cats and dogs … but it works.”)

The good position here—Savage’s position—is that political judgments should be based on “the consequences [that politics] actually brings about” rather than being merely procedural. The example he chose comes from “The Supremes,” (Season 5, Episode 17). The tension in that episode was the value of having a Supreme Court made of moderates, who simply kick the juridical can down the road a little, or one made up of constitutional architects who build the structures that lesser and later courts redecorate.

wingnut 4

This is an odd choice for Savage. It was the giants of the Court who extended the guarantees of the Bill of Rights to apply to actions taken by state legislatures; prominent jurists who stopped rewarding local police for evidence gathered illegally; daring justices who wrote the epitaph for “separate but equal.” It is decisions like these that the new Bartlet court, with its programmatic conservative anchor and its programmatic liberal anchor, will consider. You’d think even Savage would like that. And to dislike it, he is forced to call Judge Mulready (William Fichtner) “personally charming,” where the writers of the episode go out of their way to make him an irascible nerd. [4]

OK, enough carping. Savage ends his piece with this line:

But, in 2017, [the West Wing] is foremost a series of glittering illusions to be abandoned.

I can see why he feels that way, but I start from a different place, critically, and I think that only by electing White House ensembles like the Bartlet administration and backing them up with Congresses willing to take the hard votes, are we going to get anywhere at all. As I see it, it is Savage’s hankering for a hard programmatic turn to the left that is the illusion.

[1] I also, by way of a chatroom meeting, became a member of the doctoral committee for Melissa Crawley’s dissertation, which was subsequently published as Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on TV’s The West Wing. Dr. Crawley’s degree was authorized by a Department of Communications, but it is the best overall assessment of popular response to “politics as presented by the media” I have ever read.
[2] Accommodationism is not a familiar word in this context. The Wikipedia article, for instance, describes two settings where it has been used in American politics, neither of them anywhere near this usage. Still, it is not hard to see what Hayes means. The parties of the center are always condemned for accommodating themselves to injustice and economic misdeeds. As a rule, that is what you do when you are running a government split between liberal and conservative strongholds.
[3] One of the West Wing episodes was called “Shibboleth. “In it President Bartlet quotes the biblical passage that grounds it historically and declares that the Chinese Christian refugee in his office has just used “the shibboleth.” Season 2, Episode 8.
[4] With the sole exception of his hallway argument with Charlie Young (Dulé Hill) in which he gives Charlie a much better argument in favor of affirmative action than Charlie has ever heard before.

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