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Monday, January 31, 2011

I Am an 89 Year-Old Russian Jew

Well, not really, but I will shortly be on the stage portraying one. It all came about like this. A few weeks ago I was sent an email by Richard Albert, Artistic Director of the newly-created Columbus Civic Theater, asking me if I would be interested in auditioning for the part of the furniture dealer in a production of Arthur Miller's play "The Price." Since I had never communicated with Mr. Albert before, nor heard of the Columbus Civic Theater (this is just its tenth show), and, truth be told, had never even read the play, I was nonplussed by this unexpected email. Since I collect plays (I own thousands), I investigated my shelves and discovered I owned three copies (I've always been a great fan of Arthur Miller), so I sat down and read it.

"The Price" is a four-person play about two brothers and the wife of one of them who are faced with having to make a fast sale of their deceased father's old furniture, so they summon an 89 year-old Russian Jew named Gregory Solomon, a licensed furniture dealer in NYC, and ask him what price he'll offer them for the furniture. I'd assumed that the furniture dealer would be a small part, but no. All four parts are quite large, and Gregory Solomon's part is a plum one (he's the comic relief, though he has his own dark secrets). Moreover the "price" of the title refers not only to this sale, but also to the price we all pay for the decisions we make in life. I was blown away by the play and the chance to play such a terrific part, and responded to a subsequent email from the director, Bo Rabby, that I'd happily kill anyone he liked if he'd cast me as Gregory Solomon.

An audition was promptly held and I was given the part on the spot. Rehearsals began immediately. And they damn well better have started that fast since the play will open in Columbus, Ohio, on Thursday, February 24, and play twelve performances: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of the last weekend in February and the first three weekends in March. There are no Sunday performances, nor any matinees, with the curtain always going up at 8 p.m.

The website of the Columbus Civic Theater states:

"The Civics' mission is to present the great works of the world theater. The basic canon of western theater, the most notable, mentioned or referred to work being the most important. The main goal is to broaden the education and experience of our community to make them as theater literate, as possible."

Its current production is Oscar Wilde's comedy "The Importance of Being Earnest."

I'm neither Russian, Jewish, nor 89 years of age. The irony is that usually I'm too old for the parts I want to snag, but in this case I'm decades too young. Nor do I have a Russian-Yiddish accent in my repertoire, but Danielle Mari, who plays the wife in "The Price" and who was Goneril to my King Lear in 2008 (she recommended me for the part of Solomon), is an expert at dialects. She's coaching me on getting it right, and I sure hope she succeeds with her Yiddish-challenged student. The photo is of some other actor playing Gregory Solomon in a different production of "The Price." Things will be fine if I look even half that good.

The Columbus Civic Theater is located at 3837 Indianola Avenue (corner of Blenheim and Indianola). The outside of the building looks like the filling station it used to be (but the inside is splendid and comfortable, intimate and cozy). Directions can be found at

I'm very impressed by the professionalism of Bo Rabby, the director, and the other three very talented actors I'll share the stage with.

Come see our play if you can. If interested call (614) 447-7529 to reserve tickets (they are around $20.00 each, with certain variations), or go to:
Related Posts:
"Douglas Whaley, Actor," August 14, 2010
"Another Opening, Another Show: Doug is in 'Hamlet'," April 29, 2011
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Duckball Team Goes to London

On Sunday, February 13, 1977, when I was still quite new to the gay experience (having finally come out the year before), I went to a Valentine Day Party here in Columbus, Ohio. Not long into the evening I glanced around and saw a man standing some distance away to whom I was immediately strongly attracted. By that I don't mean that he was beautiful or the epitome of my sexual fantasies, but simply that I knew getting to know him was very, very important. We were meant to be together. I know this sounds like "Some Enchanted Evening," and I can't help that. It just happened. I walked over to him and asked if I could borrow a cigarette (he was smoking, and this sort of opening gambit was very common in 1977, when everybody smoked). His name was David, and, luckily, he had the same overwhelming reaction to me. The Italians call this phenomenon "The Thunderbolt," and I assure you it's quite real. By the end of that week we were living together.

But there was a complication a month later when I had to leave David for ten days for a scheduled vacation in London with eight gay male friends. It was too late to change things so that he could come along, and, indeed, in the end David house-and-dog-sat for one of the couples on the trip, Pat and Fred. This meant that at a moment when I was very much in love, I had to leave for a trip I no longer really wanted to take. I spent much of this vacation longing for Columbus and David. During the trip I kept a diary to show to David when I returned, and any unexplained quotations in what follows below are from that diary.

On March 17, I flew with Pat and Fred to New York, where we met up with the others: Howard and David (NYC natives), Richard and Gary (from DC), and Bob ( a former student of mine) and his long-suffering partner Paul (both ex-Columbus-ites now living in Chicago,). I say "long-suffering" because Bob was forever hopping into bed with every good-looking man who passed by, a trait that was all too much on display during our UK visit.

On the plane flight to Gatwick Airport outside London on Monday, March 21, 1977, we discussed how we were going to explain nine men travelling together. In 2011, of course, we'd just say we were gay, but in 1977 that would cause much trouble in a world that was still very homophobic. Our solution was inspired: we would pretend to be the American Duckball team, come to England to represent our country in the International Duckball Finals. Of course there's no such game as duckball, but who knew that for certain? Starting on the flight, and as a running gag throughout the entire trip, we invented rules for this mythical game. For example, it had tri-sector time periods of twenty minutes each, had been invented in Scotland but was not popular in the USA, involved protecting a real duck from being snatched by the other team, etc. We kept embroidering our invention with details about what happened during our various matches (supposedly the only people attending the games to cheer us on were the men Bob had picked up since arriving). Alas, we lost all of our games. Our first match was supposedly scheduled for Wednesday, March 23 against Afghanistan ("We are not expected to win since we haven't had a workout, though we do drink a good deal.") We lost that game (37 to nothing), and my diary note says that "I protested the last goal, but in vain." When he was out of the room, we all voted to make Fred the goalie, an amusing choice since Fred was not sports-oriented, nor much interested in the duckball madness. On Friday of that week we played Tunisia (28 to nothing), and on Saturday we were eliminated from the competition when Nepal stomped us (42 to 1—but, boy, were we proud of that goal!). All in all, this was good fun to pull off, and gave us a ready cover whenever some curious person asked what we were doing in England. No one disbelieved this incredible tale, which was much more likely than that nine faggots would dare to travel together. The heterosexual presumption, and particularly in those days, was both enormous and blind.

Duckball Game (click to enlarge)
We stayed at the Russell Hotel (not in the best repair in those days, having odd features such as nothing but hot water in the taps and toilet, but rooms cold enough to see your breath). Our days were taken up with tourist things, much theater, and exploration of the gay life in London. On Tuesday we found a private gay club named "Napoleon" that was very nice, and we returned throughout the trip. As is required by law for gay men, we indulged in quite a bit of shopping, visiting places like Harrads, the famous department store, or Chelsea where I bought a leather jacket and a British military-looking t-shirt that read "Join the Army, Travel to Distant Exotic Lands, Meet Exotic Unusual People, And Kill Them."

On Wednesday evening our American duckball team crowded into a gay British pub. I was standing at the bar with Paul, when a drunken man next to us, unhappy with the service, pounded the counter hard with a glass beer mug. The mug promptly shattered, widely slicing open his wrist. Both Paul and I moved as if to help and then froze like statues. An appalling amount of blood gushed onto the counter, pooling out in an impossible volume, and I suddenly remembered why I had gone into law not medicine. Fortunately, Howard, one of our duckballers, was a doctor, and he pushed through to the drunken man and did appropriate medical things as the rest of us backed off.

My diary entry for Friday, March 25:

"I stopped in Leichester Square and hunted up the old Savoy Theatre. This is the theatre that Richard D'Oyly Carte built for Gilbert and Sullivan in 1882, and was home to all their subsequent operettas. I entered the theatre shortly after noon (there was no matinee that day—the current play is some dreadful farce starring Robert Morley). The box office was staffed by a very English couple, both in their late forties. 'Pardon me," I began, 'I don't want a ticket, but I'm a Gilbert and Sullivan fan of long standing, and I wonder if I might just wander through the theatre?' 'The theatre is closed,' the man replied in a cold, clipped British accent, 'and is completely dark.' 'Oh,' I said, obviously disappointed. 'Now, Mr. Smith,' the woman said suddenly, 'can't you see how much he really cares? Let me get a torch,' she advised me, 'and then follow me into the theatre.' Wow! A dream come true. It was magical wandering through the Savoy (no doubt much changed through the years) where G & S and their company had created works that enchanted me since age eleven. Seeing it by "torch" light was particularly entrancing, casting a beautiful glow over the empty stalls and stage. When we climbed up on the latter (which was surprisingly small), I nearly I teared up. 'That twit in the box office doesn't understand how people can have these small passions,' the kindly woman commented, noticing my pleasure. She apologized for not knowing much about the theatre or G & S, but I assured her as we parted that she had given me an experience I'd always treasure. To my surprise, she hugged me, and then added, "I'll remember you!' When I reached the street I did tear up. Proud of it too."

Sunday, at the airport after checking our baggage:

"The most delightful incident happened at the Gatwick airport coffee shop. We were all sitting around a very long serpentine counter (with me at the end of the nine-member duckball team), when suddenly the British man sitting with his wife next to me asked loudly, 'Might I be so bold as to query you about this game of yours?' Apparently he's overheard our banter about the previous night's loss to Nepal and become curious. CAUGHT! was the expression on all our faces, but Bob, unfazed, plunged into a discussion of the game of duckball, and, thus emboldened, we all joined in. We described our three humiliating games, but assured him that the English team was still in the running for the International Duckball trophy, so they should look for updates in the newspaper. It must have all sounded very real since we had much detail, and corroborated each other constantly with reminders about incidents we'd invented over ten days of banter. At one point Fred got up to check on something, missing much of the fun. But when the British couple asked who was our goalie, we all looked around, and then, as one, answered, 'He just walked out.' That sort of thing added verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative."

We flew home that same day, I returned to a great life with David, and the American Duckball Team disbanded forever.
Related Posts:
"The Aging Gay Rights Activist," March 24, 2010
"A Fanatic's Tale: This Isn't Pretty," April 11, 2010
"Milking Cows," June 8, 2010
“The Thunderbolt,” September 3, 2010
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Choose To Be Gay, Choose To Be Straight

I've been reading a book that explores Uganda's current attempt to pass the "Anti-Homosexuality Bill." The new law is quite sweeping: three years in prison for failing to report someone discovered to be homosexual, seven years for any sort of "promotion" (homosexual rights advocacy, including acknowledgment that homosexuality even exists), life imprisonment for one homosexual act, and death for "aggravated homosexuality" (defined to include sex while HIV-positive, sex with a disabled person, or sex more than one time). When the proponents of this measure (which is very popular) are asked why such a draconian penalty is appropriate, their reply always points to the demonic choice a "homo" (a current slang word in Uganda) makes to be gay. Besides, they point out, most Ugandans who learn someone is homosexual simply kill him/her, so the statute is actually a boon to the gay miscreant. Certainly if the statute is finally passed everyone in Uganda will know of the folly of choosing to be gay, and homosexuality, a product of Western influence by the way, will no longer exist there.

The choice to be homosexual? Even in a liberal country where homosexuality is not criminally punished, it's still often a major difficulty. Gays risk being beaten by teenagers enforcing the heterosexual point of view with baseball bats or fists (this has happened to me), or being fired from jobs, denied housing, forbidden to marry, shunned or evicted by their families, denied a visit to partners in hospitals, and much, much, much more. Lesbians are sometimes raped so they can experience a "real man," a very common practice in Africa, but not unknown anywhere on the globe. That said—and it's a lot to say—what kind of lunatic would make the incredible choice to be gay when the straight path leads to a simpler, easier life?

Of course the truth, recognized as unarguable by anyone who has explored the issue with an open mind, is that no choice of any kind is actually involved. One can choose to admit he/she is gay, but that same person has no ability to slough off his/her homosexuality and miraculously become straight. As I've discussed elsewhere in this blog (see "How to Change Gay People Into Straight People," September 20, 2010), it is impossible for anyone to change sexual orientation no matter how much desire or effort is put into the attempt. Religion can't do it; therapy can't do it; electric shock can't do it. Nothing.

Just as no one chooses to be gay, no one chooses to be straight. As far as science can tell children are programmed from birth to a sexual orientation over which they have no control (though bisexuals have more possibilities—Woody Allen once remarked that being bisexual doubles your chance for a date on Saturday night).

When the feminist movement was at its height it came down very strongly in favor of nurture (trained to be the way we are) versus nature (born that way) in the classic nature/nurture debate. There were even serious arguments that the whole idea of gender itself was a social construct, designed by men to keep women in their place. When I wed Charleyne (see, "I Married a Hippy," April 14, 2010) she was a dedicated feminist, determined that we should have a complete and equal partnership in marriage and when we became parents. Fine by me. When our son Clayton was born, Charleyne at one point gave him a doll as a Christmas gift. She wanted him to experience the fulfillment of knowing all the possibilities for play, in this case meaning the nurturing of someone littler than himself. But Clayton was having none of that. He didn't want to even hold the doll. He did, however, want to play with trucks. When Charleyne pointed out that he played with action figures (Superman, etc.), he was indignant. "Superman isn't a doll, Mom!" Why he was disdainful of the doll, but deemed Superman cool, confounded her. My explanation that it was genetic, preordained by evolution, was met with an icy stare. Decades later, long after the movement's high point, I read an interview with a feminist who laughed as she related how she'd vowed to teach her daughter proper self-worth, only to have the little girl betray her at every step. "When she was only three years old, I'd die with embarrassment seeing her flirt outrageously with men visiting our home!"

When Clayton was four or five he was watching some TV science fiction show, and one of the women in the episode was a very well-endowed, super-sexy vixen. The next day he went on and on, commenting about what a beautiful "dress" she wore. The truth was she'd only been pretending to wear clothes. I laughed about this when I told Barbara, my best friend, about Clayton's infatuation with this beauty. Later during Barb's visit, Clayton appeared and promptly told Barbara, whom he dearly loved, about this same attractive "dress." Teasing him, Barbara asked if she herself would look good in the dress. Since Barbara is a full-figured woman, not at all the skinny vamp of the show, Clayton was both embarrassed and stunned by her question. "Uh . . . er . . .YES!" he finally managed. I was both amused and dismayed to watch my only child discover the concept of a social lie.

Did the feminist's flirty daughter or Clayton ever have a moment where they considered a sexual attraction to the same sex and then rejected it in favor of heterosexuality? To ask the question is to answer it.

In my novel-in-progress, "Corbin Milk" (which I'm going to finish one of these days and finally publish), I relate an episode that the adult Corbin, a gay man, remembers from his youth. But the memory is nothing more than a re-creation of a true story I was told by a man with whom I once had a date. At some point during our evening together I asked him when he'd first had a clue he was gay. What follows, in my fictional version, is more or less exactly what he told me:

Corbin discovered he was gay at age five. It happened like this: one very hot July day, his parents were having a stone patio built in their backyard, and at one point his mother asked him to carry a tray of canned soft drinks to the two men who were working on this project. Corbin, who loved disguises even as a child, was dressed as Superman, blue shirt and tights (well, pajamas), red cape (well, a towel), and red socks (the best he could do for Superman’s boots). He’d pinned a hand-drawn “S” to the front of the shirt. The little boy struggled with the tray across the gravel patch between him and the men, balancing carefully and trying to ignore the pain to his feet from the stones—after all, Superman wouldn’t have any trouble doing this task! But the workmen looked up as he approached and noticed his discomfort problem. The bigger of the two rose to help him.

“Hey there, Superman,” he said, taking the tray. “Have to be careful not to hurt your feet on that gravel.”

“Gravel doesn’t hurt Superman!” Corbin informed him, nonetheless very glad to step onto the grass as the tray was taken from him.

“Thanks for the drinks,” the other man said, popping a can.

“Here,” the big man said, scooping Corbin up in his arms, “I’ll carry you back to the porch.”

Corbin started to object, but then was amazed to realize how wonderful it felt to be held closely by those big muscular arms, and on some basic level knew that he had to experience this thrill over and over again throughout the rest of his life.

Related Posts:
"The Aging Gay Rights Activist," March 24, 2010
"Frightening the Horses," April 4, 2010
“Homosexuality: The Iceberg Theory,” April 25, 2010
“How I Lost a Gay Marriage Debate,” April 29, 2010
“Straight Talk,” May 10, 2010
“Marijuana and Me,” July 11, 2010
“How To Tell if You’re Gay,” August 31, 2010
“The Thunderbolt,”September 3, 2010
“How To Change Gay People Into Straight People,” September 20, 2010
"How Many Homosexuals Are There in the World?" November 8, 2010
"The Homosexual Agenda To Conquer the World," February 8, 2011
"Seducing Straight Men," March 3, 2011
"Coming Out: How To Tell People You're Gay," March 27, 2011
"Jumping the Broom: How 'Married' are Married Gay Couples?" July 17, 2011

"The Legacy of Homophobia," August 2, 2011
"Going Undercover at an Ex-Gay Meeting," September 19, 2011
"The Presumption of Heterosexuality and the Invisible Homosexual," October 2, 2011
"Gay Bashers, Homophobes, and Me," January 27, 2012
"On Being a Gay Sports Fan," March 9, 2012
"Sexual Labels: Straight, Gay, Bi," April 15, 2012
"The History of Gay Rights in Columbus, Ohio," June 4, 2012
“I Support the Right of the Boy Scouts To Ban Gays,” July 24, 2012
Straight People: Thanks From the LGBT Community,” November 20, 2012
"Disowning Your Gay Children," October 9, 2013
"Republican Politicians: Reluctant Homophobes?" November 26, 2013
"Gays Will Be Able To Marry in All States By July of 2016 (and Maybe 2015): A Prediction,”       February 14, 2014
“Is It Legal To Discriminate Against Gay People?” March 19, 2014
“Does the Bible Condemn Homosexuality and Gay Marriage?” June 29, 2014
“Are Gays Really Just 1.6% of the U.S. Population?” July 22, 2014
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

Friday, January 21, 2011

Bob Whaley Trapped in Panama

As I've related before (see "Bob and Kink Get Married," June 2, 2010), my father, Robert Whaley, left college in his senior year (the spring of 1941) to become a pilot in the Army Air Corps (which became the U. S. Air Force by war's end). He married my mother, LeNore, six days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and then spent six months in training before volunteering for a "special mission," which turned out to be flying drones from another plane over the Panama Canal to simultaneously test radio-controlled aircraft in tropical salt air and run live target high altitude training missions for anti-aircraft troops. This was not the sort of thing Dad had envisioned as his major contribution to fighting the Nazis, so he spent the war vainly writing transfer requests for combat duty.

Río Hato was near Antòn

In another prior post, Robert Whaley himself described some of his adventures in Panama, where he crashed a plane when the controls locked up while he was trying to fly one of the drones ("No Pennies In My Pockets," July 30, 2010). But this post is about his myriad other adventures while stationed in Panama. His squadron spent its time at the Río Hato Army Air Base, which was used by the Army Sixth Air Force as part of the defense of the Panama Canal. Dad's squadron lived at the edge of the base, with jungle all around. One night, walking back to their barracks from the Officer's Club, Dad and two of his friends, all well lubricated, encountered a black panther in their path. "Son of a bitch!" one of them shouted as he kicked the surprised panther in the rump and sent it scurrying into the brush. They told him about this the next day, but he had no memory of the incident and assumed they were putting him on.

When a travelling Panamanian carnival went broke, the men of Dad's squadron brought six or seven of its animals under their care, including a dog, a goat, and a monkey. But the animal that became the squadron's mascot was a coati mundi, a South American member of the raccoon family, which they named "Charlie." He was great fun for the men to play with, and he had full run of their quarters, frequently hanging from the rafters from his prehensile tail and dropping on unsuspecting passersby. Charlie was into everything, a very inquisitive animal, and he loved to gather items (like toothpaste, cigarettes, and chewing gum) and then mash them into a pile. He'd then slather the mess on his tail. Why? They had no idea. But his curiosity was such a problem that everything had to be carefully locked away lest they be added to Charlie's next tail-decorating spree. [For years as a little girl, my sister Mary Beth was given the nickname "Charlie," because of her propensity for getting into things—I ran across a photo of her recently that had that name written across the bottom in my mother's handwriting.]

When they were not flying drones around the Panamanian skies, the members of the squadron of course did a lot of drinking, particularly at the Officer's Club on base. They would run quite a tab in the course of an evening, and Dad later told me that the only way to avoid having to pay it yourself was to grab the bill when it was presented and sign someone else's name. When one of the men, routinely slower or drunker than the others, was hit with a monthly OC bill of $275 (a large sum of money in the 1940s), the squadron commander called all the officers into his office, bawled them out, collected money pro rata to pay the $275 bill, and made them promise to keep separate tabs in the future.

Dad came down with malaria during his stay in panama. It's a dangerous disease resulting from a mosquito bite which infects red blood cells via the liver, and in extreme cases it can lead to death. Dad's skin turned alarmingly yellow before a doctor filled him with "so much quinine I could have swam in it," as he later commented. He was worried malaria would return throughout his life, but the quinine worked and he remained free of the disease.

When I was a teenager I discovered (I don't remember how) that Dad hated the game of bingo. "Why?" I asked him. His reply went like this:

"I always thought it was a dull game—a slow form of gambling with no skill involved. Put me at a poker table instead and I'd happily play all night. When I was in Panama during the war, the base Officer's Club sponsored a monthly bingo game where big expensive prizes, worth hundreds of dollars, were given to the winners. It was very popular and my squadron buddies were always saying, 'Bob, you have to play bingo with us—we've each won great prizes!" I resisted until a fellow lieutenant named Arthur made me a $100 bet that I'd win something if I attended one of these bingo sessions and played all evening. That was a bet worth taking since the prizes—things like major pieces of furniture, which would be sent to your home back in the States—were always worth considerably more than $100.

"So I went to the game with my friends, and dutifully marked my bingo card game after game. Sure enough, I yelled bingo during the last game. However, so did someone else. We were called to the stage where the Captain running the game told us the winner would be decided by a coin toss, with the loser getting a carton of cigarettes as a consolation. I called 'heads,' the coin came up tails, and so I was handed the cigarettes and wished better luck next time. When we returned to the barracks, I told Arthur to pay up, but he pointed to the carton of cigarettes. 'You won something,' he calmly replied. 'But a carton only costs one dollar!' I protested. 'Is it something or not?' he asked. The lawyer in me knew he was right, so, grumbling, I paid him $100 for the most expensive carton of cigarettes sold in 1943."

He never played bingo again.
Related Posts:
“My Competitive Parents,” January 20, 2010
"Goodbye to St. Paddy's Day," March 2, 2010
“Bob Whaley, Boy Lawyer,” March 28, 2010
"My Mother's Sense of Humor," April 4, 2010
“The Sayings of Robert Whaley,” May 13, 2010
“Bob Whaley and the Best Evidence Rule,” June 26, 2010
“Bob and Kink Get Married,” June 2, 2010
“Dad and the Cop Killer,” July 19, 2010
“No Pennies In My Pocket,” July 30, 2010
“Doug, Please Get My Clubs From the Trunk,” August 20, 2010
“The Death of Robert Whaley,” September 7, 2010
"My Missing Grandmother," December 26, 2010
"The Death of My Mother," March 31, 2011
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Left-Brain/Right-Brain Life

Here's a challenge: look at the display above and, as quickly as you can, say out loud the color of each of the words (not the word itself).  Try it.

Hard to do, right?  Why is it so difficult?  The reason has to do with how the two sides of your brain work, and in this exercise they are in conflict as they battle over the correct verbal expression.  

Or, consider this common difficulty:  you hop in your car, meaning to drive to the grocery store, but you're distracted by other problems and suddenly realize that instead of driving to the store you’ve instead been traveling the usual route to work.  Swearing under your breath, you turn the car around and head in the right direction.  What happened here?

In the 1970s I became very interested in the workings of the brain, and once I began reading how the two sides of the brain operate, what I learned has informed my life ever since.  Forty or more times each day (no exaggeration) I reference this dichotomy when addressing problems both major and minor.  This habit has been such a boon to me, oiling the task of living well, that I thought I'd pass it on to you.

What I'm about to say concerning the brain is necessarily a simplification, and would doubtless earn me a flunking grade in a course on anatomy, but will suffice for the purpose of this blog post:  an exploration of how useful even this basic explanation can be in making routine decisions. 

(Click To Enlarge)
In this generalized description, the left side of the brain is primarily concerned with analytical thinking of an abstract nature (words, numbers, language structure), while the right side is the expert on physical matters and creativity (sports, dancing, singing, making love, dreaming things up, emotions, getting from here to there). Thus in the experiment above, the right side of the brain recognizes the color, but the left side concentrates on the word, producing a brain freeze.  This complicates verbalizing the color since a contrary message is being given by the spelling of the word.
Phrased another way, the right brain "feels" and the left brain "tells."

I should mention that, contrary to what you might expect, the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body, and the right side the left (except in left-handed people where this is all more complicated).  Thus most people find it easiest to write with the right hand, since the left side of the brain, dealing as it does in words, can best communicate with that hand.

Roger Sperry
Medicine had long suspected that the left side of the brain was wired into words because those with injuries to that side of the head often could not speak.  The major breakthrough in understanding brain functions came in the 1960s with the work of Dr. Roger Sperry and his associates.  To help patients suffering from grand mal epileptic seizures, the doctors severed the corpus callosum, the tissue that connects the two sides of the brain.  This worked, stopping the seizures, but it resulted in the two sides of the brain losing their usual means of communication.   

Subsequent experiments on these individuals produced startling revelations about brain function locations in the cerebellum.  If a subject touched a comb with the left hand (right side of the brain---the side that deals in physicality) and was asked to name the object, puzzled silence followed.  But if asked to use the comb, the subject immediately ran it through his/her hair.  However, as soon as the right hand (left side of the brain, dealing with abstract ideas) touched the comb, the subject instantly said that word aloud, but then, of course, proved unable to demonstrate the object's use.  Interestingly, it was determined that the right side of the brain could not count more than four objects correctly, so that, for example, if the subject was told to gather six marbles from a jar with the left hand, this could not be done with accuracy.  The right and left sides of the brain turned out to have different opinions about tasks.  The wife of one subject told Dr. Sperry and his team that if her husband was involved in some chore, say moving a dresser, and she asked if he wanted help, even if he said yes his right-brain would push her away when she came to his aid.

How is this information useful?  The "wrong route to the grocery store" mentioned in the beginning of this post is an example.  The right side of the brain drives the car, and, unless notified of the desired route, will automatically take the usual one.  Consequently, every time I start my car's engine I say or think "grocery store, right brain," and avoid a mistaken trip to the law school.  The right brain is very good at planning routes and rarely makes mistakes as to this, but it does need an instruction to think about the issue.  The left side of the brain knows the names of the streets, but has no idea of their relationships to each other.  This same dichotomy explains why texting while driving is so dangerous.  Texting (dealing with words and their spelling) is a left-brain activity, but driving is right-brained; it’s similar to the color/word experiment where the two sides of the brain are doing very different tasks at the same time.

Have you ever noticed that in dreams you can't read?  If I find I can look at a page but the words don't make sense, I know I'm asleep.  The right brain is the creative side and most dreams are very right-brain oriented, so the numbers and words in them are a muddle. 

Knowing which side of the brain does what makes many tasks easier.  If you’re dancing, playing a sport, making love, or trying to draw a straight line, you have to let the right-brain do the work and keep the left-brain out of it.  Letting the analytical left-brain get involved in sex is a sure path to disaster, and accounts for many cases of impotence.

But unless the right-brain is instructed to think ahead of time about the task, it will keep doing it the same old way.  A basketball player who’s bad at making free throws won’t improve by practicing unless he/she first concentrates on what is going wrong.  Similarly, if the right-brain is engaged in making love, it will just perform the same maneuvers over and over (much like driving the same route to work) unless ahead of time the right-brain---very creative if given free rein---is told to be inventive.  Let the right brain organize itself for the task to come.  Trust me: doing this will improve your sex life (or ability to dance, hit a ball, build a sand castle, or any other physical activity).

Law school, on the other hand, is purely a left-brain experience.  When my students are sitting in class, their left-brains are engaged (or damn well better be), but their right-brains are bored.  Too much left-brain activity is bad for anyone, and I tell my students they’ll go nuts in law school unless they have some right-brain outlets (exercise regularly, join a law school sports team, go out dancing, etc.).

Much, much more can be accomplished by anyone leading a life that keeps the left-brain/right-brain “in mind” (pun intended).  It’s a valuable organizing tool that should be in the repertoire of anyone wanting to do things well.

Roger Sperry, accepting the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1981, used his own discovery when, quite wonderfully, he concluded his speech by saying, “The great pleasure and feeling in my right brain is more than my left brain can find the words to tell you."
Related Post:
"Life's Little (But Important) Rules," April 23, 2010
"How To Make Ethical Decisions," December 1, 2010
"Good Sex/Bad Sex: Advice on Making Love," November 9, 2011
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Marina City Party Crowd

In June of 1968 I graduated from law school and drove my little white VW bug to Chicago to begin practicing law with a major law firm there. I wanted to live downtown and walk to work (I sold the car on arrival), so I rented an apartment in the brand new Marina City Towers. The two Towers, amusingly shaped like corncobs, are sixty stories tall (an extension in the middle of each goes up another five stories for a penthouse), with the bottom twenty stories being devoted to parking. The towers, made of cement, border the Chicago River just where it empties into Lake Michigan, all of this a block away from Michigan Avenue and the famous "Magnificent Mile." Wikipedia has this to say about the buildings:

"Marina City apartments are unique in containing almost no interior right angles. On each residential floor, a circular hallway surrounds the elevator core, which is 32 feet (10 m) in diameter, with 16 pie-shaped wedges arrayed around the hallway. Apartments are composed of these triangular wedges. Bathrooms and kitchens are located nearer to the point of each wedge, towards the inside of the building. Living areas occupy the outermost areas of each wedge. Each wedge terminates in a 175-square-foot (16.3 square meter) semi-circular balcony, separated from living areas by a floor-to-ceiling window wall. Because of this arrangement, every single living room and bedroom in Marina City has a balcony."

Actually each unit had at least one and a half balconies, with the bedroom balcony being shared with the unit next door. When my cousin Jerry Birge came to visit with his rather large family, I was terrified when one of his more adventurous boys began climbing the balcony railing, trying to go from one balcony to the other, and had to be snatched back to safety (Jerry thought it was funny, which was not my take on the situation). In addition to the apartments, Marina City has other buildings at ground level and below ground, so it makes up a complex that in my day included a theatre, gym, swimming pool, ice rink, bowling alley, several stores and restaurants, and of course, a marina. There were people who not only lived in the Towers but worked there, and who, consequently, never had to venture outside into the brutal Chicago winter. The theater, I'm told, is gone, but the jazz club "House of Blues" has moved into its space. The units are now sold as condominiums, not rental properties (condos were unknown in 1968).

The apartment I rented was not immediately available when I arrived in Chicago (a clear breach of contract), so I spent a very interesting week living at the YMCA downtown. This was the summer of the Democratic convention riots of 1968, and in another blog I'll talk about being caught up in the terror of that. When my apartment still wasn't ready at the end of the week, I made lawyer-will-sue noises, so the Marina City management moved me into the model apartment on the 59th floor for a month before my rental one was ready down on the 52nd floor, facing north. The two photos below (click to enlarge) show my views from the living room and the bedroom balcony of the latter. I loved living at Marina City, pie-shaped apartment and all, and walking to work, being a bachelor living by himself for the first time (I was about to turn 25 in September), and—thanks to a cookbook sent to me by my mother—learning to make my own meals. [Alas, I was wretched at cooking in the beginning, probably being the only person in the history of the culinary arts to make an egg explode.] The concrete walls between the apartments were soundproof, but not the ceilings and floors, and I could sometimes hear the couple who lived above me quite clearly. They fought loudly late at night, and this would have been bothered me more except their arguments were short and frequently quite fascinating. In addition, during the day and in the evenings there were often incredibly loud thumping noises (like multiple bricks being dropped) that went on rhythmically for an hour or more. Puzzling about it, I finally concluded they were trying to become the first people in the world to teach a moose to jump rope.

The Living Room View

From the Bedroom
The towers in Marina City are noted for the high speed of their elevators. It takes only 35 seconds to travel from the lower-level lobby to the 61st-floor open-air deck. One day I stepped on the 52nd floor elevator to go to work, and the two little girls who were the only other passengers had already pushed every button for every floor. They giggled when we stopped at the first couple of floors, but my icy glare as the door kept opening and closing, floor after floor, soon had them examining their shoes, blushing bright red. 

Walking to Work

Lots of things happened to me while living at Marina City: I acquired Fred, the best pet I ever owned (see "Parakeets and Me," February 5, 2010), my parents and sister came for a disastrous Xmas visit in which we all came down with flu and Mom nearly died, I had a wild relationship with the head custodian's daughter (who wanted to marry me) and my first true homosexual experience with the boyfriend of one of the women I bowled with, and, yes, even more, but those adventures will be related in future posts. This one is about the wonderful Marina City party crowd.

Not long after I'd moved in that summer, I went down to the laundry room (which filled 20th floor and had a panoramic view of the Loop) with a bag of dirty clothes. While I was engaged in this chore, an elegant woman in her 50s, dressed for a cocktail party in a stylish dress, earrings and jewelry, hair expensively coiffured high on her head, in heels, came in with her own laundry bag and began loading a machine. Puzzled and amused by the contrast between her task and appearance, I introduced myself and commented that she was the best-dressed laundress I'd ever seen. She laughed merrily, and identified herself as Chris Van Tuyl. She and her husband Ron had recently moved to Marina City after his retirement (they'd lived on the south side of Chicago all of their marriage), and had just returned from a party. She wanted to get her laundry started right away since she had a lot of it to do. Chris and I hit it off immediately, and she invited me back to their apartment, where her jovial husband Ron introduced me to the evil concept of a martini and proceeded to get me plastered.

Chris and Ron Van Tuyl
The Van Tuyls were a fascinating couple, much in love, great company, and we became lifelong friends. I adored them both, and from them I learned much about this world and how to live in it in style. Ron was an amateur photographer, and many of the pictures in this post were taken by him. Chris had a job as the Information Desk Lady at Marshall Field, the famous Chicago department store, which was nearby. Their one fault was that they seemed to get me drunk every time I dropped by their apartment (or they came to mine—causing Fred the parakeet to fly happily to their shoulders, squawking with pleasure). One evening when they called me up and said the usual " Doug, come on down!" I pinned a note to my chest stating "Please don't get this child drunk" and signed it "His Mother." That didn't work, but fetched a laugh prior to the martini shaker being loaded.

The Van Tuyls introduced me to others living in Marina City, all about their same age, and these crazy people were the "party crowd" of this post's title: Ruth and Kaye, Mary and Joe, Vic and his wife (girlfriend?), and some others whose names now are lost in my fogged-over memory. I'd thought I knew about parties and drinking from my high school/college/law school days, but that was minor league stuff compared to the level this older crowd played at. It seems like there was a party at someone's apartment three or more times a month, and in addition to too much alcohol, there were games and bawdy stories, singing, dancing, and some things I will not describe (non-sexual, I hasten to add). At one of these revels, and for a reason I don't remember, I whimsically hid everyone's shoes (which had been kicked off at the door preparatory to dancing). Unfortunately I hid them far too well, and, unable to remember where they were myself (large amounts of alcohol being involved), the result was that a number of people had to pad back to their own apartments (some to the other tower) barefooted and grumbling about that imbecile Doug. Some of the shoes weren't found for a week or more. At another party, this one at my apartment, Ruth came running to me yelling, "Doug! Fred's jumped into the punch bowl!" Normally caged during these bacchanals, Fred had been freed by some wicked person (they all loved that bird), and he'd joined in the merriment by promptly leaping into the spiked punch. Cursing, I fished him out (wings spread, he'd not gone under), and rinsed him off under the kitchen faucet before drying him with a towel and locking him firmly back in his cage.

These zany people taught me a lot about many things: marriage, for example, or how to solve life's problems, or little bits of arcane wisdom, or how to love another human being completely (they all had happy marriages). Some of their sayings have stayed with me. Kaye, for example, hearing me remark that I loved a good steak, laughed and repeated her father's maxim that "chicken is fowl, pig is pork, but beef, by God, is MEAT!" When my parents came to visit at Christmas time, the Marina City party crowd welcomed them with open arms, and a good time was had by all (Ruth mooned over my father, who she thought the handsomest man she'd ever met—"Does he have a brother, Doug?" she asked me seriously). Chris and Ron talked me into joining first one, and then another of the two bowling leagues that residents had created at Marina City, and over the course of the year and a half I lived there, I became a decent enough bowler.

Doug the Choreographer

The Same Event
The photos above are from some joint birthday party held in my apartment, and should give some clue as to the nuttiness of these affairs. I have no idea what was going on in either picture, but we're obviously in the flow of the moment.

It was with a heavy heart that I left these good people at the end of 1969 to join the faculty at the Indiana Indianapolis Law School. Sadly, I lost touch with everyone except the Van Tuyls, who I visited sporadically and exchanged Christmas cards with until both were gone (Ron outlived Chris, dying just a few years ago in his 90s). I miss them all, and think back on my Marina City days with great fondness. Those madcap parties will never be equaled in my lifetime, and, given my advancing age, that's just as well. But these days I'm known far and wide for what my friends and law students call "The Whaley Martini." It's really the "Ronald Van Tuyl Martini," but let's not tell anyone that.

Related Posts:
“How I Became a Law Professor,” January 27, 2010
"Parakeets and Me," February 5, 2010
"Popourri #1," November 15, 2011 (Chicago Cubs Fan)
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Women in My Law School Classroom

Law Student Doug
When I was in law school, women were rarities. They were clearly second-class citizens, treated very differently from the men (who were the "real" students). Professor Charles Alan Wright, who later represented President Nixon before the Supreme Court during the Watergate scandal, had an announced policy of not calling on female students ("I never ask a woman a question when I don't know what she'll answer," he explained to the chuckles of everyone, women included). Female students in law school, if interviewed about what it was like to be there, said things like "I know I'm taking a man's place, and so I have to be sure I'm deserving." There was the annual "Portia" award given to the female law student thought to be most beautiful; in 1967 now Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison was the winner, a fact I rather doubt is mentioned on her resume. There was nothing strange about this and no one questioned it. It was simply a different era—witness that married women in Texas could not legally enter into contracts until 1960. 

Sen. Hutchison Then and Now

I started teaching law at the Indiana Indianapolis Law School in January 1970, just as the woman's movement was gaining steam. The photo (click to enlarge) is of the faculty that year, taken during construction of the new law school building (I am the young man, age 26, in the back row, third from the right). In those early days there were few women in law school. In a class of, say, 100 students, five would be women. When the grades came out, all five would be amongst the top ten, which meant that women were self-selecting so that only superwomen went to law school. (Marilyn Quayle, wife of the future Vice President, was one of these, and in fact she met and married Dan in 1972 when they were both still in school.) But things changed dramatically within five years. As I looked around my classroom, it was clear that every year women were a larger and more vocal presence. Plus they were not necessarily superwomen any more. I remember being both shocked and, on some level, pleased when I first gave a bad grade to a female student. I was shocked because that had never happened before, and, while I'm never happy to see a student do badly, "pleased" came from seeing that the women were truly equal to the men even at the lower end of the class.

The same thing was happening to law school faculties. When I graduated from the University of Texas in 1968 there were 55 faculty members, only two of whom were women (and one of those was primarily a librarian). In the faculty picture above, note how few women there were on the Indiana Indianapolis faculty in 1970. But by the summer of 2010, the law school faculty at The Ohio State University had 58 members, 23 of them women.

There were rude awakenings for males in law school as the women's movement progressed. Certain words were suddenly forbidden: "girl" (used in connection with a female over 12 years of age), "reasonable man test," or anything indicating that women were different or lesser than men ("the weaker sex," for example). Once I was giving a bar review lecture in Boston when one of the students came up at the break. She said to me, "Look, Professor, I think you're a pretty good teacher, but my stomach turns over every time I hear you say 'businessman,' and I stop listening." Lesson learned. Forever after her comment (and right up until this very moment), I have never said "businessman" again, substituting "those in business" in its stead. Why kowtow like this and abandon a descriptive word for the three-word substitute? The answer is obvious: it avoids offending a portion of those I'm talking to, and it makes sure no one listening is distracted by irrelevancies.

In the 1970s a male law professor quickly learned these lessons. If he were, say, to accidentally refer to the "reasonable man test" instead of the now-acceptable "reasonable person test," the women in the classroom would rise as one, promptly exiting the class and dividing into two groups: one cadre heading for the Dean's Office, and the other busily forming the "Effigy Committee."

The male law students obeyed these rules too, and while there were some major battles about this at every level of society during that decade, the woman's movement prevailed to the betterment of us all. Women are now treated just like the men in law schools, and no one any longer finds that odd or objectionable.

Teaching in California in 1983
Sexist language was verboten by 1980, but then something strange happened. It was called the Reagan era. In 1983 when I was a Visiting Professor at the University of California Hastings Law School, one of my Contracts students fainted in class from some minor illness. She phoned me the next day to report she was fine, but I was startled when she began our conversation by saying, "I'm the girl who fainted in class yesterday." GIRL!!! Suddenly the forbidden word had resurfaced! I couldn't (and still can't) bring myself to say it when referring to a grown woman, but it was newly current again (and still is). Other things changed too: women in the classrooms rarely admitted to the label "feminist," which had been a badge of pride a decade before. It now had a certain antique shame attached to it.

According to recent statistics, women make up more than 50% of entering law school classes across the country (and I think I read that this is also true at the undergraduate level). I question whether they give a thought to how much they owe to those who came before them. Just as the courageous women who fought for suffrage in the late 19th and early 20th century are largely unrecognized today, the feminists who changed our world so dramatically in the 1960s and 70s no longer get their due. But if these movement hadn't succeeded, Hilary Clinton not only couldn't have run for President, she couldn't have voted at all—and law schools would still have an annual "Portia Contest" where "girls" would be valued by how beautiful they are and not by whether they understand legal principles.
Related Posts:
“How I Became a Law Professor,” January 27, 2010
“The Socratic Dialogue in Law School,” January 31, 2010
“Clickers,” March 17, 2010
“The Summer Bar Review Tours,” June 15, 2010
“The Sexy Promissory Note,” August 17, 2010
"Mortgage Foreclosures: The Disaster of Unintended Consequences," October 27, 2010
" Update: Mortgage Foreclosure and Missing Notes," November 16, 2010
"I Threaten To Sure Apple Over an iPad Cover," April 8, 2011
"The Payment-In-Full Check: A Powerful Legal Maneuver," April 11, 2011
"Adventures in the Law School Classroom," September 10, 2011
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Fear of Public Speaking and How To Overcome It

Public speaking comes naturally to some people, but for many others it's a terrifying prospect to stand before a group of people and give a talk. I've made my living doing that, and I've learned a lot about what helps and what does not. This post is designed to give you basic tips on how to calm yourself down and make the best presentation you have in you.

In prior posts I have reprinted snippets of my novel-in-progress "Corbin Milk," which is about a gay CIA agent who uses the fact that he is gay to do undercover work for the agency. [See "The Thunderbolt," September 3, 2010, for more of his background and the short segment of the novel when he meets George Yancey, with whom he falls in love.] The portion of the novel that follows occurs when Corbin, having just completed a very successful assignment dealing with a Russian leader who was secretly gay, takes George home with him for Christmas to meet his family in Sacramento:

When George returned to the house, it was his plan to brief Corbin on the conversation he’d just had with Corbin's father, but when he entered the bedroom he was stopped by the expression on Corbin’s face as he sat at his laptop computer, staring at it in horror. His eyes were unfocused, and could those be sweat beads forming on his forehead?

“Corbin, what’s wrong?”

“Oh, George! I have to give a speech!”

“Beg pardon?”

Corbin gestured vaguely in the direction of the computer screen. “My recent successes have made a large number of people at the agency want to meet me, so the Director of Human Services wants me to make a speech to the organization at large. The topic would be homosexuality!” He said the last word as if it were a hideous curse.

George shook his head. “I still don’t understand what the problem is,” he said.

Corbin looked up at him, wide-eyed. “I HAVE TO MAKE A SPEECH!”

George put a hand on his shoulder. “You make it sound like a sentence of death!”

“Oh, George, I just can’t! I’m terrified of public speaking! I’ll make a fool of myself and nobody will respect me. I’ll never be given another assignment, or, if they do take pity on me, I’ll be stationed in some place like Albania taking man-on-the-street surveys about the reputation of the United States Government.”

“Now, Corbin. Grab hold of yourself. I thought Corbin Milk wasn’t afraid of anything. And public speaking? How is that different than all the plays you were in during college?”

“Then I was reciting lines someone else wrote.”

“Then how is it different from inventing what to say to Russian agents who were about to shoot you?”

“They weren’t an audience. They were antagonists I had to persuade or die.”

“Can’t you persuade your CIA audience to do what you tell them?”

“But, it’s a speech about homosexuality! What do I know about homosexuality?”

George furrowed his brow. “Oh, come on, Corbin. You’re a homosexual. Surely you have something to say to the CIA about how it should deal with its gay personnel.”

“No, I don’t. Well . . . pay them more, I guess.”

“Corbin, this isn’t you. I’ve never seen you flailing about like this. If you’re so bothered by giving a speech, just tell them no thanks.”

Corbin scowled. “I can’t do that either. I’m a team player. I do what I’m told.” He paused and thought about it, starting to calm down. “And if I could somehow pull this off and do it well, it would be great for my career.”

“Well, I’m not afraid of public speaking. Disguise me as Corbin Milk and I’ll do it for you.”

“Hmm. That does give me an idea. Uncle Lawrence.”

“Uncle Lawrence?”

“Now there’s a man who has something to say about homosexuality.”

[Corbin's Uncle Lawrence, a professor at a San Francisco college, reputed to be "the gayest man in San Francisco," arrives shortly thereafter and promises to help Corbin with his speech. On New Year's Eve the following segment occurs:]

Uncle Lawrence snagged Corbin as he passed by, and, patting the sofa next to him, demanded his nephew sit down. They clinked eggnog glasses and sipped.

“I have the solution for your speech-making difficulty,” he told him.

“I’m all ears.”

“First of all, you need to radically change your attitude about the task.”

“That sounds right. Anything other than absolute terror would be terrific.”

“Think back. We’ve all seen very nervous speakers get up in front of an audience and hem and haw and generally embarrass themselves.”


“Consider what the audience itself is experiencing. Watching such a performance is also torture for them. Most people feel empathetic, and suffer right along with the unfortunate speaker. What’s wrong with this picture?”

“That the unfortunate speaker is named ‘Corbin Milk’?”

“No. What you should focus on is that no message is being conveyed. Instead, everyone in the room is thinking about the speaker, not the speech.”

Corbin considered that. “Okay,” he said. “So how is this fixed?”

“By forgetting about the speaker and concentrating on the speech, of course! The inexperienced presenter is focusing inward on what he’s feeling, not outward on what the audience will be hearing. It mucks everything up. All good teachers—and I’ve learned this painfully in my own classroom—should see everything not from their own point of view, but from that of the students. What are the students hearing? Anything else is just interference.”

“So how do I do this?”

“You practice ahead of time, just as if you were in a play, but you focus not on what you’re doing, not even on what you’re saying, but instead on what your listeners are hearing. You must have something important to say, or you’d only be wasting their time. Say it and sit down.”

“But there’s the problem, Uncle Lawrence. I don’t have any function at this event other than to show up and be admired. And I’m not going to be admired if I come across as a bumbling idiot.”

Lawrence frowned. “Corbin, correct me if I’m wrong, but your assigned topic is homosexuality. Is that right?”


“Does the CIA understand homosexuality?”

“No. Almost no one does.”

“Well then, this is a golden opportunity for you to enlighten them! I will write your speech for you: short and sweet and filled with important content. You, talented nephew, will memorize it, practice it, and then—concentrating on the message and not yourself—deliver it perfectly.”

Corbin eventually does just that. To read the content of the speech Corbin finally gives, which I adapted for this blog, see my post "Straight Talk," May 10, 2010. But if you, reader, have to deliver a talk in public, remember this advice: don't concentrate on yourself, concentrate instead on what you have to say. Just before you begin to speak ask yourself "what is my message?" With that in mind, give that message as clearly and concisely as you can, and then sit down. Ahead of time, plan both your first sentence (something that will get their attention instantly) and your last sentence (something nicely phrased that sums it all up) carefully. Knowing where you start and how you finish, you're grounded and set to go.
Related Post:

"The Summer Bar Review Tours," June 15, 2010
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013