Wake Up and Die Right

At an exercise class today, we talked a bit about the murder mystery I’m going to write about the class (assuming I get myself in gear), and then we did warm up exercises while the teacher sorted through her music to find the recording she wanted to play. When she couldn’t find the right DVD, she muttered, “Wake up and die right,” which stopped me in my tracks.

“What did you say?” I asked, not sure I heard correctly. She repeated the phrase, and I laughed. I’d never heard the saying before, and coming as it did right after a discussion about our fictional murder, it seemed even more amusing. And a bit gruesome.

Wake up and die right. Oh, my.

Odd words, phrases, and sayings often stay with me, rattling around in my brain until I can make sense of them. (In fact, just yesterday I railed against the appalling sentiment, “He deserved to die.”) The more I thought about “wake up and die right,” the more it made sense. We die right if at the end, we have no regrets. We die right if we’ve lived life to the fullest and used ourselves up, if we’ve danced and laughed, if we’ve enjoyed the company of those who enrich us, if we feel the sunsets and smell the rain-washed air. (If you live in the desert, of course, that rain-washed air comes so infrequently you better smell it when you can because it might be many months before you get another chance.)

Wake up and die right. Oh, yes.

Apparently, the saying came from World War II. Soldiers who let their attention wander were told to “Wake up and die right” — to pay attention, to fight, to get a grip, to die like a soldier if necessary. The adage migrated to the general population and seems to have been prevalent during the late forties and early fifties, but its use faded as memory of the war years became supplanted by other invasions with other jargons — the Beatles, the Viet Nam “police action,” the drug wars.

Today, more than sixty years after the maxim had been laid to rest, it came to life once again. I suppose in a way, it’s reminding to me to just sit down and write the book about the class because, of course, I would regret not having written the story. I just need to wake up and do it so my designated victim can die right.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

The One / Three / Five / Seven / Ten / Fifty Exercises You Should Never Do

A couple of weeks ago, I came across an article entitled, “The One Exercise You Should Never Do.” The never-do was one of those machine exercises that strengthens and bulks up your quadriceps without also strengthening the hamstrings. I didn’t pay attention to the exercise since I never do it and never would do it, so I have only a vague idea of what the exercise is (seated knee extensions, I think). The reason for not doing the exercise interested me, however: not only does the machine put an unnatural strain on the knees, if you build-up the quadriceps without also building up the hamstrings, the powerful muscles in front of the thighs pull at the knees in an unnatural manner.

I wanted to read that article again because I referenced the unnatural weight issue in my Planning Sponteneity post, but I couldn’t find the citation. Instead, I found a whole slew of articles telling me what exercises to do and what not to do — The One Exercise You Should Never Do. The Three Exercises You Should Never Do. The Five Exercises You Should Never Do. The Five Exercises You Should Always Do. The Seven Exercises You Should Never Do. The Ten Exercises You Should Never Do. The Fifty Exercises You Should Never Do. Yikes. What a morass!

One article said to never do Smith Machine Squats, whatever those are. It also listed five must do weight-training exercises: lunges, pull-ups, planks, squats, and burpees. For you uninitiated, “burpees” does not refer to a seed company, but is an exercise you probably know as “squat thrusts.” Despite the endorsemennapt in this article for burpees, other articles say that burpees are the one exercise you should never do.

Some say never do squats, or rather deep squats. Some say never do crunches, some say crunches are a great exercise. Some say never jog, others say to jog. Some say never jump on concrete. (No one, of course, disagrees. Jumping on concrete is a great way of destroying your knees.) Some say seated exercise is the best way of protecting your back, knees, etc. Others say we sit enough and don’t need to do any more sitting. Some say don’t use light dumbbells. Some say never use a Smith machine, others suggest various exercises such as Smith Machine Squats. Some say never do overhead triceps extensions with dumbbells, others recommend doing them. Some say never do clean and jerk, others recommend doing them. Some say don’t ever do bridges, others say do them. Some say don’t do the dead lift because it’s too hard on your back, others say to do it. Others say to eschew working out at a moderate pace for long periods of time.

It seems to me that the exercises to never do are those you don’t like doing. If you don’t like doing them, there’s probably a reason, perhaps they hurt or are they are beyond your ability or strength. And the exercises to do are the ones you will do.

So, where do I fit in all these must-dos/never-dos? Of the first five must-do exercises, the only one I do is the plank: a pose similar to the beginning of a push-up, only you balance on your toes and forearms (or knees and forearms, which is all I can do) for a certain number of counts. It’s also simple and safe, though I can’t attest to its effectiveness. I just do it. As for squats — I can barely do a grande plié, which is sort of a squat without weights. And the only thing close to a lunge I do is a yoga warrior pose, again without weights. And I don’t even want to talk about burpees. I hated doing them in gym class when I was a kid, so even if I could do them (which I can’t) I wouldn’t. I could probably do a pull up if I lost three fourths of my body weight, but maybe not since I’d be too emaciated to do anything, not even pull myself up out of bed.

As for the rest, I use light dumbbells — eleven pounds each for a total of 22 pounds (but only because I’m too lazy to set up my barbells, which would be heavier. Jeff always did that and now somehow I just can’t find the will to do it for myself). Using light weights with many repetitions builds strength, where heavy weights with few repetitions build bulk, or at least that’s what I’ve read. I generally walk at a moderate pace because that way I can walk longer with no pain. And yes, moderate walking burns fat without eating muscle. (Ever wonder why there are no bulky long distance runners?)

All this talk of exercise has worn me out. I think I’ll go take a nap.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

All is Well, Safely Rest

The story of “Taps” might seem a bit of a stretch for Mother’s Day, but my mother has been gone for six and a half years now, so death is on my mind today.

Apparently, there are all sorts of myths circulating about this touching bugle call. One such story claims that in the middle of a battle near Harrison’s Landing in Virginia, a Union officer found a dying soldier and dragged him back to camp. When he lit a lamp, he saw that the man was a confederate soldier, and that he was dead. He turnedtaps the man over and drew in an agonized breath. The soldier was his son. The boy was supposed to be studying music, not fighting for any army, let alone the confederate army.

The heartbroken father wanted to give his son a full military funeral. His request was granted, but since the son was an enemy soldier, he was only allowed a single musical instrument. The father chose a bugle, and he asked the bugler to play the few notes he’d found in his son’s pocket.

The truth is a bit more prosaic. Taps is a revision of an older bugle call, “Scott’s Tattoo,” first published in 1835. In 1862, Gen. Daniel Butterfield worked with his bugler, Private Oliver Willcox Norton, to rearrange the tattoo, lengthening some notes, shortening others. When the new call met with Butterfield’s satisfaction, the General ordered “Taps” to be sounded at night in place of the traditional French tune “Light’s Out” they’d been using. When buglers from neighboring brigades heard the call, they visited Norton and asked for copies of the music. Within months, both Northern and Southern forces were sounding “Taps” at the end of the day.

There are no official words to the music, but these are the ones most of us know:

Day is done, gone the sun,
From the hills, from the lake,
From the sky.
All is well, safely rest,
God is nigh.

All is well, Mother. Safely rest.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Secret Stairs (Part III)

[Continuation of Secret Stairs (Part I) and Secret Stairs (Part II)]

The third and final leg of the journey to search for secret stairs in Hollywood took us to the Temple Hill neighborhood. There weren’t a lot of steps to climb (only 108 compared to the more that 300 in Whitley Heights), but there were many steep hills that could have used a few stairs to make the hike easier.

This is an area was once the home of various spiritual centers, including Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophists and the Vedanta Temple:

On Vine Way, we found this graceful and winding set of 47 easy steps:

snd these private steps:

We continued to Holly Mont Drive where we saw Hollymont Castle, once Barbara Stanwyck’s estate and now owned by pianist Derek Grey. We met a man who claimed to be Derek Grey’s twin brother, and he could have been, for all I know. He confirmed that the castle was haunted.

Across from the castle was a set of 61 steps that divided into two narrow stairways.

I was disappointed when the search for secret stairs ended for the day. I’ve never known that stairs could be so romantic. I’ve seen very few staircases in the past twenty years — there was no real need for them in the high flat areas I’ve lived, and whatever steps I encountered were banal, simply a way to get from one place to another. Now I will keep an eye out for stairways, and wonder about all who have set foot on those steps.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Secret Stairs (Part II)

[A continuation of Secret Stairs (Part I)]

Secret. There is something about the very word that rouses our curiosity, making us wonder what dire (or delightful) truths are being kept from us. Secret societies. Secret meetings. Secret codes. Secret stairs.

Secret stairs? I’d never even heard of such a thing until a friend invited me on a trip to search out some of the secret stairs in Los Angeles. Apparently, there are many secret stairways in steep hilly neighborhoods. In the days before cars took over the city, these stairs allowed people to get down the hill to schools, markets, and trolley cars. In fact, many of the houses in these neighborhoods had no other access to the outside world than these public staircases.

We saw once public stairways, such as these steps that now go up to someone’s back yard in Whitley Heights:

Stairs

We saw remnants of stairs:

We climbed stairs that meandered through a park,

old wooden stairs,

faux wood stairs,

painted stairs.

And we took these concrete stairs up to my favorite part of the hike,

this lovely secluded walkway.

There are so many wonders in the world, secret and otherwise, that it’s amazing we go about our ordinary lives without stopping more frequently to gasp at the awe of it all.

To be continued . . . Secret Stairs (Part III)

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Secret Stairs (Part I)

A friend invited me to go on a trip with her for a “secret stairs” hike in Hollywood. Even though I didn’t know what the hike was about, of course I said “yes.” I have developed the habit of saying yes to anything anyone invites me to do, even if my first inclination were to hesitate or even say no, a practice that has led me to many wonderful places and activities that I would never even thought of experiencing. Even if I weren’t already primed to accept, I’d have gone — I’ve never been able to resist anything “secret.” There are a vast number of secrets in the world, including life itself, and being gifted with an insatiable curiosity, I try to ferret out those secrets, but considering that so many secrets are . . . well, secret . . . by definition, I wouldn’t know that they even exist. And there, in a few simple words, I was being offered a chance to discover a hitherto unknown secret.

Secret stairs. Even the phrase evokes feelings of adventure, wonder, mystique.

Apparently, there are many secret stairways in Los Angeles in the steep hilly neighborhoods that were built back before cars took over the city. These stairs allowed people to get down the hill to schools, markets, and trolley cars. In fact, many of the houses in these neighborhoods had no other access to the outside world than these public staircases. The stairs were largely forgotten until Charles Fleming published his book Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles.

A friend has been doing all of the walks — 42 of them — and has finished all but the last few. The walk she invited me on was a combination of #36 and #35 in Fleming’s book. (It was such a lovely day, she decided to do two of them.)

We started out with an unplanned stop by a bit of sidewalk graffiti that seemed oddly appropriate:

Sidewalk Sayings

Our first scheduled stop was the historic Highland Towers apartments, where William Faulkner is supposed to have lived when he worked on such films as The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not:

We passed the Hollywood Heritage Museum, and walked up Milner to the first secret staircase — the Whitley Terrace steps, an L-shaped staircase with 160 steps.

Whitley Terrace steps

At about the ninetieth step, there was a landing with fabulous views of the High Tower residential area — not that I know what the area is, but it was an interesting sight:

High Tower Residential Area

I paused at the top to take a photo of the steps we had just climbed before searching out the next set of secret stairs in Hollywood. (Hint — the key to walking up huge flights of outside stairs is to stop periodically to marvel at flowers or take photos of . . . anything. That way you can catch your breath without having to admit that you have reached your limit.)

Whitley Terrace Stairs

To be continued . . . (But of course, you already knew I’d be continuing this saga since the title says “Part I” and you can’t have a “Part I” without a “Part II”.)

Secret Stairs (Part II)

Secret Stairs (Part III)

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

A Dearth of Matches

Early in the twentieth century, Ivar Kreuger, a match manufacturer and financier, managed to corner the match market. Through various deals, he ended up with the exclusive rights to sell matches in many countries, including most of Europe, but this monopoly was not enough for him. Back then, it was a common practice for two or three people to light their cigarettes from the same match. Ivar realized that if he could somehow keep that third person from using the match, he could greatly increase his sales, so he had his advertising department start the rumor that it was unlucky to light thflameree cigarettes from the same match. Tales were told of dreadful things happening to the third person who used a match, like the bride who had been left at the altar and the soldier who was killed after each had lit a cigarette from a match that two others had already used. Even today, the superstition that it’s unlucky to light three cigarettes from the same match persists.

Oddly, though the superstition still exists, matches don’t. I needed some matches yesterday, a couple of books or even a box of old fashioned kitchen matches, and I didn’t find a single one. One major retailer sold fireplace matches, the long kind, but they were out of stock. A convenience store/mini market didn’t have any. The clerk said they usually had some, but were out. I even went to a smoke shop. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, right? Wrong. No matches.

I used to collect matchbooks, but when I had to leave my home of twenty years and put my stuff in storage, I got rid of the matches. I thought it was too dangerous to pack them away, but now I wish I had them, for curiosity’s sake if nothing else.

Matches were an incredible invention. I remember reading stories about frontier days, and how if the fire went out, they had to get live embers from a neighbor’s fire, protecting it through all the miles of travel. There were flints, of course, and before that, rubbing two sticks together, but eventually people realized that it’s a lot easier to start a fire with two sticks if one was a match. Other means of lighting fires are more prevalent now, which perhaps explains the scarcity of matches, but still, it seems odd that a simple little tool that was once so valuable it sparked a financial empire is so hard to find today.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Keeping Track of Characters

LBI don’t often do character profiles before writing a novel except to decide on basic information — gender, a couple of physical traits and maybe general idea of personality type. I prefer to let the needs of the story dictate who the character is. I mean, if I have created a caring, nurturing character, and the story demands a wisecracking sharpshooter, then the story starts out with problems from the beginning. (Unless, of course, the wisecracking hides a caring, nurturing side of the character, which could make for an interesting character, though I’m sure it’s been done thousands of times before.)

Each book, of course, has its own demands, and Light Bringer had more demands than most. It was the only book I did a storyboard for. Halfway through, I got lost in all the points of view, the various stories that needed to be intertwined, the special needs of the novel, so I wrote a brief description of each scene on a card and played with them, dealing them out in various arrangements until I found the best way to fit all the pieces together.

Light Bringer was also the only book I did a character chart for. The story was based on both modern and ancient conspiracy theories (though ancient conspiracy theories fall under the category of “myth”). Instead of having one erudite character lecture a clueless character on the theories, I created a discussion group where each character believed and vociferously defended his or her pet theory. One unexpected benefit of the group was that I had ready-made pool of characters to draw from for bit parts.

Group dialogue causes problems for readers in that it’s hard sometimes to keep track of who is talking and what their purpose is in the story. It’s also hard for writers to keep track, so I made a chart of all the characters, their beliefs, style, food needs, and various other aspects to make sure that each was different.

For example, Scott Newman, a retired banker, believed that the international bankers were controlling the world to gain total wealth and power. He was lean, sharp-featured, contemptuous, didn’t eat “corporate foods” (things like chips and frozen dinners that were created by corporations) because as a loan officer, he’d already done enough to further the aims of the international bankers.

Faye Pozinski was almost his direct opposite. She believed that the British oligarchy (London bankers, the London School of Economics, the Fabian Society, the Rhodes Round Table) were controlling the world to create a neoBritish empire ruled by a theocratic world king. An ample woman in her fifties still working as a grocery clerk, Faye was hearty with a braying voice, a vegetarian, and delighted in wearing wildly colored clothes.

And then there was Chester, a wizened, jeans-wearing diabetic fruit grower who overdramatized everything. He’d once seen a UFO over his orchard, and he believes we are ripe for an alien takeover because he’s convinced these otherworldly creatures want to keep us from blowing up the earth.

These are only three of my discussion group characters but you can see why I needed a chart. So much to keep track of!

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Three

Three is a powerful number that satisfies our deepest needs for symmetry. Three gods ruled the earth—Zeus, the god of heaven; Poseidon, the god of the sea; and Pluto, the god of the underworld. People worshipped the moon goddess as a triad, representing three phases of the moon. There were three Fates, three Furies, three Graces, three Harpies, three primary colors. Three times three was also a mystical number, hence the nine muses.

3

A few obvious threes from popular culture:

Three wishes. Three bears. Three little pigs. The Three Stooges. Three outs. Best two out of three. Three Faces of Eve. Three Days of the Condor. The Three Musketeers. Third time lucky. Love triangle. (The triangle itself is a divine symbol signifying the power of three.) Three is also a visually pleasing arrangement. And the number three signifies harmony.

balloons

So, to make your stories more powerful, harness the power of three.

1. When describing a character or scene, mention three attributes. Also, if a particular attribute needs to be fixed in the reader’s mind, mention it three times (and only three times) during the course of the book, and it will stick.

books

2. When devising a plot, follow the storyline of The Three Bears. The first time the hero tries to reach her goal, she fails but learns the risks. The second time she tries, she confirms that she’s doing things wrong, but she learns from her mistakes. The third time she tries, she gets it right. three bears

3. Look for patterns in your story. If your character has given his love flowers and perhaps made love to her in a flower garden, mention flowers once more to solidify the pattern.

4-11-11

I could give you more ways to make your stories more powerful, but since I’ve given you three suggestions, that should be enough. And if it isn’t, you can find more uses for this powerful tool here: The Most Powerful Tool at a Writer’s Command

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

The Mythic Stages of Grief

Joseph Campbell was the first person to write about the motifs and archetypes underlying myths, stories, and spiritual traditions. Christopher Vogler, in The Writer’s Journey, further developed this idea of the “hero’s journey,” making it applicable to writers, both in their stories and in their lives.

The hero’s journey is an endlessly fascinating structure because it is endlessly malleable, able to fit any character, any story, any life. We are all on our own mythic journey through life, but our lives are so much more complicated that the life of a character in a novel because we are dealing with quests within quests within quests rather than a single straightforward journey.

Growing up, falling in love, marrying, parenting, writing, making art, growing old are all quests of their own, though each quest is a but a step on our journey though life.

My most recent mythic journey has been the journey through grief. Grief has been, perhaps, the most mythic of all my quests, each of the stages clearly delineated. (In fact, these mythic stages of the hero’s journey are much more applicable to grief than Kübler-Ross’s stages.)

All of us who embark so reluctantly on this journey through grief are true heroes. It takes a hero’s courage and commitment to deal with everything grief bombards us with and come out on the other side stronger, wiser, and accepting of whatever comes our way.

The mythic stages of our heroic journey through grief:

1. Ordinary World. A hero’s journey begins with the normal world, and in the grief quest story, the normal world is the life we shared with our life mate/soul mate.

2. Call to Adventure. His (or her) dying calls us to grief’s adventure, though death is too traumatic an event to be dismissed as a simple call to adventure. There’s no warble of a bugle call; it’s more like the shriek of a smoke alarm that cannot be silenced.

3. Refusal of the Call. We are frozen with grief, reluctant to continue life alone, refusing to see that perhaps continuing alone could be an adventure.

4. Meeting with the Mentors. We go to grief groups for support, and we talk to others who have also lost their mates. Some of us go to bereavement counselors or read about grief to learn how to deal with this horrifying new world.

5. Crossing the threshold. We commit to grief, to whatever changes will come because of it. We allow ourselves to feel without blocking out the pain because we know that is the only way to find our way through the angst to a more peaceful time.

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies. Grief encompasses all these aspects. Grief tests us, our strength, our commitment to life, our beliefs. Grief is an ally, changing us so we can become the person we need to be in order to survive in this new world. And grief is an enemy, bringing more pain than we could have ever imagined.

7. Approach to the Innermost Cave. Grief takes us further away from our ordinary world of a shared life. This is a stage where we regroup. We find a respite from grief for a few days or weeks, leading us to believe that perhaps we can do this after all.

8. Ordeal. Although all of grief is an ordeal, at this particular stage of grief’s journey, the greatest ordeal is accepting that we are alone, that although he is dead, we have to continue living. We thought getting through the initial raw pain of grief was our greatest agony, but now grief throws us even more anguish with the realization that he is never coming back. This new life without him is forever.

9. Rewards. There are many rewards for going through grief. We seize the sword of courage, we find the elixir of patience, we discover the crucible of greater insights. There are consequences, of course, and generally we pay for any rewards with a huge upsurge of grief.

10. The Road Back. The road back is not easy, especially when it comes to grief. Although we can never return to the ordinary world from which we came since that world was shattered forever by his death, we do return to an ordinary world, a world where grief is a companion that merely shadows us, rather than being the trickster that taunts us, the enemy that torments us, the shapeshifter that bewilders us.

11. Resurrection. The hero faces death and is resurrected, and in the case of grief, we face the death of who we once were. We realize we are separate from our life mate/soul mate, that he has his journey and we have ours, and hence we are reborn into a new life. A life that is ours alone.

12. Return with the Elixir. We all bring back from grief certain gifts, whether wisdom or patience or simply the knowledge that we survived the worst ordeal of our lives, and often we share this gift with others. Many of us end up taking care of aged parents, exhibiting a patience we never knew we had. Some of us write or paint to show the world our truth. Some of us go into grief therapy to help others. My magic elixir — my gift, my blessing — has been the unexpected ability to decode grief and write lyrically about the process, such as recognizing the mythic stages of grief and writing this post describing grief as a heroic journey and quest. A strange gift, indeed.

And so life’s journey continues . . .

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

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