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Another Little Post of Notes

with 18 comments

It’s Saturday, and barely seven o’clock, and my day has already gone to hell in a handbasket. Seriously.

I’m in one of those not in any position to make sense moods where I don’t even want the  Beethoven, never mind the Bach.  And I just realized that I may have made yet another mistake in figuring out what happened.

But I’ll go back and look at that in a minute.

First, a couple of notes.

I always thought of the Carl Upchurch story not as being about being saved by the Humanities, but about being saved by rigor.  The point about Shakespeare was not that it was good or affirming or whatever, but that it was difficult to read.   In order to make any sense out of it at all, he had to work at it, hard, and over an extended period.

I always thought it was that–and then the fact that he did succeed in understanding it–that was the point.  Twenty odd years of secretly thinking he was probably stupid (because he couldn’t do that kind of thing in school) were replaced by the realization that he could.

Some people are thugs because they think that it’s the best they’re able to be–it’s thug or victim, because they’re not good enough to do anything else.

I’m with Mique that whether “education” makes us better depends to a large extent on what that education consists of.  It’s not just the lack of rigor in the Humanities these days that gives me pause, but a formal educational system that over-rewards conformity on every level.

Walter Russell Mead made the point yesterday in an article on the present state of crises in the world–that the people we call our experts these days have large come  up in a system that requires conformity for success. 

The guy who thinks his English teacher is wrong about Shakespeare or his history teacher is wrong about the Civil War gets a lower grade than the guy who goes along to get along, and the guy who goes along to get along gets a better college placement than the rebel.

And that’s especially true the better and more elite the college, because in an applicant pool where pretty much everybody has straight As and ranks in the first three in her class, even a single hiccough can make you look not ready for prime time.

But my point yesterday was not to revisit the are the Humanities good for anything wars, but to ask about change.   I think it’s true–can’t remember who said it–that some people don’t change because they don’t want to bother, or even like where they are–but I also think it’s true that some people don’t change because they think the attempt is hopeless.

I’m also not sure that we should make such a big deal about the “difference” between somebody who has anger but learns to control it and somebody who learns simply not to have anger.

Learning to control the anger IS a change, a big one, and it has an enormous impact on the people around you.  I also think that it would be counterproductive to define “change” only as the radical result of getting rid of the trait completely.  My guess is that it’s probably not possible to get rid of the core trait.  The only possibilities we’re looking at are controlling it, or not.

And that makes the whole issue of sex and change even more interesting.  I’m pretty sure that it’s not possible to change who you are attracted to or what turns you on sexually.  I’m not sure you can’t change who or under what circumstances you have sex. 

We do know it’s possible for some people, including some people with really strong sex drives, to remain at least interpersonally celibate for long periods of time.  We even have records of some of their struggles from diaries and autobiographies.  None of them seems to have freed himself of sexual desire, only of sexual congress. 

But I think when the issue is put like that, it becomes fundamentally different from the argument we’re now having in public about Michelle Bachmann and her husband.

Maybe I’m the only one who’s been watching this here, but for about a week now there’s been a minor media bouhaha about the fact that Michelle Bachmann–who’s trying her hand at getting the Republican nomination for President–signed a “family values” pledge that, among other things, claims that the American black family was more cohesive under slavery than it is now.

It was also opposed to gay marriage. 

When the slavery thing didn’t have much traction, the media started looking into Bachmann’s life, and what they found was Bachmann’s husband, a man who advocates training homosexuals not to be homosexual any more.

He is also a man with distinctly “gay” attributes–as lisp, very effeminate body language, etc–and that has caused a huge fuss as well, although only Jon Stewart has been pointing out the man’s mannerisms on television.

But it occurs to me that “I think homosexuals should change so that they’re no longer attracted to same-sex partners” is one thing, and “I think homosexuals should change so that they no longer ACT ON their attraction to same sex partners” is something else.

And yet both sides seem to behave as if it’s only the first proposition that is being suggested, or that’s even possible to be suggested.

I don’t know if I’m making sense here.

Maybe all I’m saying is that we haven’t really managed to define what we mean by “change,” and we’ve got to do that if we’re going to be able to ask, or answer, the question of whether or not people can do it.

Written by janeh

July 16th, 2011 at 7:43 am

Posted in Uncategorized

18 Responses to 'Another Little Post of Notes'

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  1. Many people do talk about change as though it means the person doing the changing becomes a different person. Often, it doesn’t. It means that the person has learned to behave differently; suppressed or repressed or redirected or whatever the behaviour that the person wants to change.

    But this idea runs counter to our culture, in which we are supposed to be honest and the same through and through – and having (but suppressing) a tendency to lose one’s temper or make sexual propositions to any and all potential candidates, regardless of marital status or even public health measures – doesn’t seem like real change to a lot of people. I don’t agree – I think control is about all you’re going to get in some cases, although it often gets easier with practice. And that’s fine, because then you aren’t losing it periodically and beating or harassing or raping people.

    There isn’t much understanding about the long-term effort required for change, or the fact that the underlying fault may still be there, just quiescent but potentially threatening. So many people seem to think that a short course of something – therapy, prayer, whatever – and it’s like an antibiotic. The problem is gone, like the bacteria. And yet, I don’t think either religion (although it does allow for miracles) or many therapists actually claim that kind of instant deep change occurs very often. Mostly, they say you’ll be working at it the rest of your life.

    Hope is absolutely essential for change. People who don’t think it’s possible to change aren’t going to find the strength they need to go through with it, not just once, but always. Maybe giving himself a challenge and meeting it did give Upchurch the hope he needed to change the rest of his life, the criminal behaviour.

    This is the first I’ve heard of Michelle Bachmann, so I wasn’t going to comment, but really, first you need to decide who is and isn’t homosexual. There are clearly a number of people who manage to have long-term sexual relationships with people of both sexes, so it seems misleading at best to say that they’re born one way and can’t change. It’s like the old, old idea that all men were born incapable of sexual faithfulness, and all women were born faithful (except for a few really odd men and women) and therefore a cheating husband can’t change.

    It wouldn’t be an easy change, I’m not saying that. I wouldn’t bet a marriage on it, although some do. But there are philanderers who learn to change, just as there are and always have been some celibates with strong sex drives.

    We don’t like admitting complexity. We want to think we’re all the same, all through. If we’re kind and gentle on the surface, we never have hot tempers we have learned to control. If we’re sexually mature, we have to have a sex partner (of a certain sex!), and if we get bored, we can’t be expected not to look for another one, because it’s unnatural to control or curb a natural instinct.

    But we aren’t really like that. We’re much more complex and have many more options.


    16 Jul 11 at 8:17 am

  2. Oh, good! I wasn’t looking forward to the Humanities business, and now it looks as though we can skirt “education vs training” with only moderate damage.
    Yeah, people change. And rigor is, while not the only way, certainly a common one. Right next to adult religious conversion as a life-changing event, I’d put really brutal military training–Marine boot camp being the most common. (I’ve done both Army and Air Force basic–not the same thing.) And for just the reason specified. The young people come out of it having done things they didn’t know they could do, or even didn’t believe they could do. It’s the rigor that’s important. I learned a lot in school–but then I always knew I could. The physical rigor of eight weeks of Officer Candidate School may have changed me more than four years of graduate education–but it wouldn’t have had that impact on Upchurch. Anything that changes your notion of what you’re capable of is something that has a serious impact. Of course, not all self-knowledge is good. Finding out you’re capable of something is not necessarily aquiring more skills.

    On the Bachman business, keep in mind that as a culture, we’ve decided that race is a myth, nationality a lie agreed upon, work merely a source of income and family status a myth of the Patriarchy–but that sexual impulses are the irreducible core of identity. And–also as a culture–we’ve abandoned the whole concept of self-discipline or self-denial. Our leadership class can’t imagine having a desire and not trying to act on it.

    Which explains not just their personal conduct, but the attitude toward any sexual desire. You either “celebrate” or lock people up, because changing the desire or not acting on it is inconceivable.

    I fully agree about the hazards of conformity, and we haven’t discussed the worst. What happens when an extremely conformist leadership gets into a spot where the “book” solution doesn’t work?
    A classical scholar could tell you that the end of Sparta as a Power was losing three consecutive battles–all to the same tactical device. The innovation had been bred out of the system, and all they could think to do was to try harder what had already failed. I look at the very broad areas of agreement in our public life and the whole thing seems to me to have a very late Spartan feel to it.

    Time, I think, for the election of Andrew Jackson or Abraham Lincoln, neither of whom could possibly have gotten into Harvard Law.


    16 Jul 11 at 1:15 pm

  3. Re Bachman: ARRGGH!

    I renew my vow to ignore US politics. I treat it like earthquakes and hurricanes.

    There are some advantages to living in Australia.


    16 Jul 11 at 4:41 pm

  4. Yes, ARRGGH! is a good response to Ms. Crazy Lady Bachman. I am unfortunate enough to have to admit that I reside in the state that she pretends to represent in the U.S. Congress.
    BUT, TBTG, she was not elected from my personal district. In fact, my district is the one that elected the first Muslim representative to the House of Representatives!
    But, getting back to Bachman for a bit, I do find it interesting that Jane mentioned Marcus Bachman’s ‘gay’ attributes. The first time I heard him speak, I thought “that sounds like a woman!” Not being a person who tends to watch much television, I had not known about the Jon Stewart incident(s). (The sound bite that I heard was the one where Marcus is seemingly referring to homosexuals as “barbarians” who need to be “disciplined”. So very Christian of him, n’est pas?)
    Right now, I would like to be able to go to sleep and not wake up until November 7, 2012.

    Kathie Goblirsch

    16 Jul 11 at 5:43 pm

  5. The American way of politics is a caution to us all, I’m sure. Are there any depths as yet unplumbed? Any mountains of ordure as yet unmined?


    16 Jul 11 at 9:25 pm

  6. Shameful the way we let just anyone run for office, I know. And we don’t even have a proper committee to review everyone’s statements and make sure they aren’t offensive to any designated group.

    Certainly in a properly-ordered society you wouldn’t see people talking back to their betters, nor going over politicians’ expenses as though they were some sort of employee.

    If you want dignified politics, manhood sufferage was probably a bad idea, and having more than one party is a distinct handicap.


    16 Jul 11 at 11:31 pm

  7. Well, my day has just been getting better and better, because after being computer-less for several days, I now have new computer. It has an awesome monitor, so wide I can probably fit three pages of type side by side. I spend probably 70% of my time using split-screen, usually trying to squeeze two pages of text into a space about wide enough for one-and-a-half pages. Now–what luxury!

    In a way I’m glad I wasn’t able to write any comments, because silly me, I didn’t realize that yesterday’s posting about change only referred to (a) change when someone goes from being a criminel to a non-criminel, and (b) change when one goes from one sexual orientation to a different sexual orientation. I could be wrong, of course, but the above two types of change seem to be what everyone is commenting on.

    First of all, I will go back and make the comments I would have made yesterday back when I thought we were talking about change in general.

    Of course we all change. We will not stop changing until we are dead. That is obviously not something we need to comment about, however.

    Changing in some (undefined) more fundamental way. Yes, people can change. Alcoholics can stop drinking. Adulterers can become faithful, etc. In such cases, I’d be very surprised if they ever changed because someone else thought they should change.

    On the other hand, I read an article years ago about types of intelligence. After explaining the usual types (verbal ability, mathematical ability, artistic ability, and musical ability), the article went on to add two more, namely the ability to know yourself and the ability to understand other people.

    These last two explain a lot. My mother, for example, had exceptional verbal, mathematical, artistic, and verbal ability, and was pretty much a dummy when it came to understanding herself or understanding other people. And just as I can look around at my extended family and see who else was gifted mathematically or musically or artistically or verbally, so too can I see which ones are able to understand themselves, and which ones aren’t–which ones are able to read other people’s body language and which are not.

    Can someone change themselves in that respect? Can the person with low mathematical aptitude ever understand higher math? Can the person who doesn’t understand that he is offending virtually everyone he comes into contact with ever learn to pick up any feedback from other people? So far in my life, I’ve never seen that happen.

    Then we have the whole Meyer-Briggs test, where you have the pairs of personality types:
    –introversion or extroversion
    –sensing or intuition
    –thinking or feeling
    –judging or perceiving

    Can an introvert, for example, become an extrovert through force of will? Sound possible? The problem is that someone who is a “true” introvert doesn’t even want to be an extrovert. For example, I am an introvert. I have always been an introvert. When I was in grade school and junior high and even high school, I was a shy introvert. Now I am not the least tiniest bit shy… but I am still an introvert because most of the time I simply do NOT want to be around people. I need a lot of alone time every single day. I can manage one day around several people, but if that is followed by a second day with a lot of people around, I start cracking around the edges. A third day, and I run away.

    Can someone who is judgemental stop being judgemental? I haven’t seen it happen.

    Another way to divide people into groups is by what energizes them. From what I have heard, there have been studies that show about 70% of the population (I believe the studies were done in the U.S., but possibly not) get “energized” by physical activity. These are the people who in the winter like to zoom around in the back woods on their snow mobiles, or who like to strap boards on their feet and slide down mountains, and who in the summer like to watch demolition derbies or who like to zoom around lakes on their jet skies.
    Others of us are “energized” by ideas. We like to read. We turn down the chance to go white-water rafting because our books might get wet. We turn down the chance to go scuba diving because we’d rather go to a library.
    Will the person who is energized by physical activity ever become someone who is energized by ideas? Will the person who is energized by ideas ever become someone who is energized by physical activity?
    Yes, back when my kids were little, and back before I developed all kinds of physical handicaps, I did do things like go canoing and spelunking (that’s caving, of those of you who have never lived where there are “wild” caves), and I took my kids roller skating and swimming and bike riding. But (and this is a huge but) none of that physical activity ever was as exciting to me as reading a book. Yes, my family members who are energized by physical activity do occasionally read books, but they could very easily give up books completely.

    Can someone who is selfish learn to be unselfish? I think they can… if the decision to change comes from within.

    Can someone who is generous and giving turn into someone who is cynical and stingy? Yes, of course, if (probably) external events and nasty people do things to them.

    Which brings me to Upchurch. Was it the difficulty of Shakespeare that changed him? Was it the effort and striving that he put into understanding Shakespear? Or was it just that for the first time in his life something caused him to really use his brain, and maybe he found out that he liked using his brain? That using his brain was a pleasurable experience for him?

    I can’t really see any way to find out the answer about Upchurch. It is even difficult to understand why we ourselves have changed… or not changed.

    A long time ago (I am 68 now, and my earliest memory was when I was 15 months old) I read that people don’t really change. That the crabby old lady was probably a crabby young woman once upon a time, and that the boy who is cheerful will probably turn into the old man who is cheerful. I don’t think this is necessarily true. I think it unlikely that a person who is crabby when young will be pleasant when old, but I do think time and events can wear us down, so that the optimistic young person can be pessimistic when old.


    16 Jul 11 at 11:52 pm

  8. OK, I confess I haven’t had enough interest to go to a faster computer and get a look at Mr. Backman’s mannerisms, but the fact that they appear to be an issue must be very closely related to a lot of the complications and conflicts in our society. Many of us tend to believe:

    1. Sexual orientation is entirely innate and cannot be changed.

    2, Sexual orientation can be identified by outward clues – mannerisms, use/lack of makeup, etc.

    3. We are (or can become) who we want to be, with enough effort.

    Now, these don’t all coincide with my own observations, which include men with ‘gay mannerisms’ who appear to be happily – and faithfully – married to women, as far as an outsider can tell and men without them who left woman for men, but surely 3 trumps 1 and 2, and means that, should you have a legitimate interest in someone’s sexual orientation, you assume that it’s what he says and demonstrates it to be, and any mannerisms and dress style are irrelevant.

    I suppose I’m less pessimistic than Charlou – I think even a crabby person can become pleasant as they get older – it’s merely a matter of learning and carrying out the appropriate social cues, and if you have something that makes that difficult, a temperamental tendency to speak first and think later, or a learned tendency to whine a lot, you have to work on that too.

    I heard, as a child, almost the exact opposite. You become more of what you really are as you age – or possibly, it becomes more obvious what kind of person you are. But this wasn’t a pessimistic deterministic view – the corollary was that if you were annoying everyone around you with some character trait – perhaps you selfishly insist on having your own way, or love spreading vicious gossip – the longer you did this, the more extreme and deep-rooted the behaviour would become, and by the time you were elderly, if you lived that long, you’d be a really nasty person. On the other hand, if you were aware of your faults and started young to force yourself to let other people take charge once in a while or to refrain from scandal-mongering, you had a good chance of having people around you as you age, instead of having them avoid you because of your nastiness.


    17 Jul 11 at 8:18 am

  9. I don’t think I’m being pessimistic. I think I’m being realistic. Change has to come from within. Not a lot of people want to change themselves. A whole huge enormous number of people want to change other people.

    As an example, most crabby people don’t think there is anything wrong with themselves–they think it’s the fault of all the people around them who are being aggravating–if the people around them would just stop doing aggravating things, the crabby person wouldn’t have to crab at them. The crabby person certainly has a right to be crabby, just like I have a right not to have anything to do with that person.

    Taking this a bit further, though, it could be that the crabby person really does have a legitimate reason (not excuse) to be crabby. I had a crabby niece, who wasn’t much fun to be around. I just saw her this spring for the first time in over ten years. She was cheerful, friendly, helpful–the exact opposite of crabby. The change was so immense, so total, that I finally asked her about it. The answer was simple–the last time I had seen her she had been in an emotionally abusive marriage; in the interim, she had gotten a divorce; she was now married to a wonderful man.

    That puts the burden back onto us. Do we simply dump people who annoy us? Or do we try to “help” them… hmmm… Right back into the danger zone.

    Extending a helping hand to someone = good.
    Insisting that someone has to take our helping hand = bad.

    Trying to understand the underlying reasons causing someone to act in ways that annoy us = good.
    Continuing to let them annoy us when it is clear they have no desire to change = bad.

    Helping people in need = good.
    Helping people who are using our desire to do good in order to con us out of time or money = bad.

    I have decided there is something about myself that I don’t like and that I’m going to try my best to change = good.
    I have decided there is something wrong with you that I think you should change and that I’m going to do my best to coerce you into changing = bad.

    I love you warts and all = good.
    I love the person I think I can change you into after we get married = bad.

    As a Christian, I am going to try to be like Jesus in everything I do and say so that by my example I can lead other people to Christ = good.
    As a born-again Christian I am going to tell everyone they are going to Hell if they don’t believe exactly what I believe = bad.

    Yes, the above is all very simplistic. Well, maybe it is simple. Setting aside the question of what do do about sociopaths and other predators, none of us have the right to try to change anyone except ourselves.

    Yes, we can certainly, especially as parents or grandparents or teachers or just concerned adults, do our best to help children grew up to become the best person they have the potential to be… but we cannot, even when it is our own child, force or coerce them into becoming the person we have decided they should be. If you think this kind of coercion is rare, you are wrong. It is quite common, and always done with the best of intentions.


    17 Jul 11 at 10:44 am

  10. Actually, being pessimistic is sometimes the same thing as being realistic. Reality sometimes sucks.

    A great many people have noted that self-knowledge is difficult – how DO we know our righteous rage isn’t really crabbiness? If I knew that, I’d write a self-help book and make a fortune! But that’s where judgement and manners and persuasion come in. And love, but you can do a lot of harm with love if you don’t have good judgement etc.

    I might honestly believe, with good reason, that someone’s behaviour is wrong, or needs improvement. If that person is under my care – a child, for example – it’s probably my duty to try to create that improvement, although if I’m smart, I’ll gradually reduce my efforts as the child grows up. If that person is an adult living under my roof or a close friend or relative…better and better judgement is called for. You probably can’t get them to stop thieving or lying or using illegal drugs or cheating on a spouse. You can try to help them change. You can walk away. You can do both, at different times. And what about ‘innocent’ causes of suffering – a family member or friend’s disease or disability that requires immense support and caregiving – and there’s a difference of judgements as to how to provide it?

    So there are all kinds of changes – changes you want in other people, changes other people’s needs demand of you. It’s not simple; it’s not a matter or ‘rights’ – a term I consider pretty meaningless anyway, although a useful concept in the old negative rights sense.

    I don’t get why so many people think it’s so terrible for a born-again Christian to tell them that they’re going to hell. I mean, it’s a rotten method of evangelizing, but that doesn’t seem to be cause of the annoyance.

    I seem to spend a lot of my life being told by everyone from friends to advertisers to politicians that if I don’t do or get X, Y will happen. The country’s going to collapse if I don’t vote for each of four or five parties. People are going to be disgusted by my smell if I don’t buy the right perfume or my appearance if I don’t buy the right clothing, and I’m going to be a social outcast if I don’t drop dead first because I don’t eat the right things.

    I don’t get worked up about any of those, mostly because they hardly impinge on my notice, but also because these advocates can’t actually impose the penalty.

    Most of the people who are annoyed by ‘You’re going to Hell’ don’t even believe in Hell, and most of those who do know perfectly well that human beings don’t decide who’s going to end up there. Why is it any worse for someone to tell me I’m going to Hell than that I’m responsible for the collapse of the country, rises in health care costs, and climate change?


    17 Jul 11 at 3:31 pm

  11. Why I am annoyed by “born again Christians”:
    1) They get in my face and argue, usually quoting the Bible, no matter if I want to discuss or not.
    2) They use the bits and pieces of the Bible to condemn other people, while ignoring the bits and pieces of the Bible that indicate they themselves are doing something “against the will of God.”
    3) They smirk.
    4) They disrespect other people’s right to freedom of religion.
    5) They meddle in politics, usually turning off their brains. (Yes, I’ve read Jane’s essay on why Democrats lose elections, and I’m afraid she’s probably right.)
    6) They act in un-Christian ways, thereby turning people off to what’s good in Christianity.

    I could go on.

    Yes, I am being judgmental above. For 15 years I lived in a town in Missouri with a population of about 12,000 people, which had 15 different Baptist churches, along with I don’t know how many other main stream and non-main-stream, non-Baptist churches (there were a lot). I am not anti-Christian. There are probably a lot of born-again Christians out there who do not display any of the characteristics I listed above. They are just not the “vocal minority” or “vocal majority” who give “born-again Christians” a bad name.

    Why I do not get hot under the collar about advertisers, talk-show hosts, etc.: I don’t have TV. I don’t have cable TV, I don’t have satelite TV, I don’t have an antenna on the roof, I don’t even have rabbit ears. (Which I guess makes me superior to 99% of the rest of the population, smirk, smirk!)

    Unfortunately, I can’t seem to escape the born-again Christians who get in my face, all of whom want to “save” me. Sorry, I’d rather go to Hell if they are who are going to make it into Heaven.

    I do try my best to treat them gently even when they get in my face and won’t take no for an answer. I don’t tramp on their beliefs with army boots, I just escape as quickly as I can.


    17 Jul 11 at 7:57 pm

  12. Two books worth reading:

    Roger Scruton’s “The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope”

    Theodore Dalrymple’s “In Praise of Prejudice”

    Judgementalism and Pessimism are “good”, yeah!


    18 Jul 11 at 3:36 am

  13. I ask you all to please forgive me. Reading my own posting above, it sounds more like a rant than like part of an intellectual discussion.
    I am aware that I have a strong tendency to fall into rants, so to prevent myself from subjecting you all to them, I will in the future try to remember not to type directly into this little box. I will instead type my comments into Word, wait 24 hours, re-read them, and then post only those that pass the no-ranting test.


    18 Jul 11 at 5:51 am

  14. Hey, we all rant sometimes. No problem. I must admit that the few times a stranger has engaged me in conversation about religion – not including debates within a religious setting – a polite “no, thanks” or “I have my own beliefs, thank you” seems to cut off the conversation quite adequately.

    And it’s mostly friends and aquaintances who try to convince me of various political, social, economic and environmental positions, not TV personalities. Or, at least they used to. A lot of them have come to the conclusion that I’m too stubborn to be reasoned with.

    And Mique – both of those are now in my local library!


    18 Jul 11 at 7:16 am

  15. Welcome to Rant Central, Charlou. Jane has generously provided us seasoned ranters with a venue where at least a modicum of reason prevails, as opposed to mere emotionalism and political group think. It’s like an oasis in a desert.


    18 Jul 11 at 8:39 am

  16. Speaking of people changing, here’s a little video from SciAm:



    19 Jul 11 at 8:08 am

  17. Question: Are we allowed to mention books we have read that others might like to know about, even if those books have nothing to do with the topic at hand?


    19 Jul 11 at 11:42 am

  18. I don’t see why you couldn’t mention an interesting book. There aren’t really any rules and posters do sometimes mention books, as Mique did above. We also tend to wander off topic a bit, but with a blog (as compared to Usenet) that tends to stop when Jane posts her next comments, often on a completely different topic.


    19 Jul 11 at 12:55 pm

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