“The Altered States of Stuffed Animals” in The Superstition Review

So I have an essay titled “The Altered States of Stuffed Animals” published in the latest issue of The Superstition Review, which can be located here. I have a fondness for TSR, as they have published some of my work in the past, and twice have invited me to do guest blog posts.

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On Ian McGuire’s “The North Water”: a Revisionist “Moby Dick,” With Echoes of “Blood Meridian” and “The Revenant”

So last week I had the gripping-if-ghastly reading experience of zooming through Ian McGuire’s new novel, The North Water. I’ll try to be circumspect in my comments here so as not to spoil the reading “fun” for others, as I do heartily recommend it. Simply put, I’d rank it as one of the best new novels I’ve read in the last few years. It’s a literary adventure tale of sorts, not for the faint of heart. At times I’m sure the gore would be over the top, or too much, for some readers, but eventually I think the power and eccentricity of the language is more important than the blood, pus, and other bodily fluids that leak or gush about on one page or another. You could certainly label it “Tarantinoesque,” but it’s smarter than Tarantino’s films, and the gore has more seriousness to it—more shocking than, say, humorous, as some of the scenes in Django Unchained (2012) are downright funny, not particularly thoughtful.

The obvious comparison is Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). The story unfolds in 1857-59, and the point is made repeatedly that it’s the end of the whaling era, which figures into the plot dynamics. There’s a good vs. evil dynamic with the characters of Patrick Sumner vs. Henry Drax, although Drax is not the maniacal captain a la Moby Dick’s Ahab, and Sumner is ultimately both more fallen and resourceful than Ishmael. The North Water is less philosophical, shorter, and tighter than Moby Dick, and obviously is a child of the 21st century, as Melville’s masterpiece is a child of the 19th century. Even though Queequeg and Ishmael sleep together at their first meeting, and become bosom buddies, Melville is hesitant to write about homosexuality, which plays a bit part in the plot of The North Water. Both novels have a “mythic” feel to them, and as far as what’s realistic or not, I’d give Melville more credit there, for having actually been a sailor on a whaling ship in that era. To me that doesn’t matter. The North Water isn’t necessarily trying to be realistic, and the one work of literature that figures prominently in the background of the story is The Iliad, and that touchstone of myth is telling.

Other comparisons are to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985) and the recent Leo DiCaprio film, The Revenant (2015).  The Sumner/Drax dynamic corresponds to the Hugh Glass/Fitzgerald of The Revenant, with Drax being the implacable force of blunt trauma, and Sumner being the more reflective and wronged party in this death dance. What sets The North Water apart is its archaic, elaborate language, which includes some knife-edge descriptions of the frozen Arctic seas. In that respect it more closely resembles McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which is famous for its Satanic character Judge Holden, but which also owes much of its power to its baroque language and the fantastic descriptions of the desert wild lands of Mexico and the Southwest.

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On T.J. Stiles’s “Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America”: a Pulitzer That Deserves It

So I’ve been a fan of both (the celebrated myth of) George Armstrong Custer and the excellent historian/biographer T.J. Stiles for many years, and when these two worlds collided, it’s not surprising that I read Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of New America (2015) when it first came out last fall. The word arrived yesterday that it won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for History, and deservedly so.

It’s a great bookend for Stiles’s Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War (2002). Both mainly use their subject matter as a springboard to offer a juicy, insightful vision of the American West and the Civil War era. I’ve read a number of books about Custer, with my previous favorite being Evan S. Connell’s great Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn (1984). His life has been examined and retold many times, perhaps most recently with Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn (2010). That Stiles could fashion a great book from familiar material is certainly an achievement, but what’s more important: He offers a vision of the American West that overturns some of the stereotypes, and offers greater understanding. One of the truisms about Custer is that he was simply a fool, and Stiles gives him much more credit than that. Reading about Custer’s victories in the Civil War, you have to be impressed with his military skill. But he was complex. At times racist, he also showed kindness to freed slaves and fought for the Union. At times foolhardy, he was generally successful and brilliant in battle. You come away from Custer’s Trials with the feeling that the Little Bighorn was as much of an accident as a foolish mistake. But that’s just one battle—iconic though it is—and there’s much more to the story. One of the most eye-opening sections concerns the possibility of a military coup to overthrow Lincoln during the Civil War.

Now and then there are books/films that seem not to deserve their accolades, and it’s best not to dwell on those sour grapes—though, for an easy example, Jack Nicholson was robbed by not winning Best Actor for his knockout performance in Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt (2002). Stiles winning a Pulitzer for Custer’s Trials is a great example of when a book deserves its prize.

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Review of Dominic Smith’s “The Last Painting of Sara de Vos” in the Dallas Morning News

So interested readers can find my review of Dominic Smith’s novel The Last Painting of Sara de Vos in today’s Dallas Morning News here. I liked the book: quiet and understated.

I don’t really know anything about Smith, though I did cross paths with him over a decade ago, when both of us had fellowships at the Dobie Paisano Ranch outside of Austin, Texas, a six-month writing fellowship gig where you get to live on a 250+ acre ranch near Austin, with no requirements other than to write. I loved my time there, where I finished Goodnight, Texas in an idyllic Texas springtime. The birding was amazing, with Painted Buntings, Golden-cheeked Warblers (endangered), Yellow-billed Cuckoos, and even a migrant juvenile Whooping Crane passing through the landscape. Barton Creek winds through the ranch, and as it was a rainy, wet spring, we were able to swim in the creek our whole time there. On my birthday I remember how we were awakened by the gobbling of Wild Turkeys in our yard. Plus we had a trio of enormous longhorn cattle that liked to come feed on the grass in our yard. We were supposed to keep them out, but had a soft spot for the great bovines. My wife actually fed them cornbread, which they liked so much they later came up onto the porch to basically knock at the door, begging for more.

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On Sonia Shah’s “Pandemic” and Antarctica’s Looming Meltdown: Drowning in a Sea Full of Germs

So a few years back I often wrote about Climate Change and its slo-mo catastrophe, especially when it seemed that we had the chance to alter our Titanic-like course toward that (melting) iceberg, but of late I’ve been more reticent, only wanting to add something to the discussion if it seemed less obvious than the mainstream blather. Today there’s a new piece in the NY Times about a scarier-than-usual scenario of Climate Change, here, and that, coupled with my having just finished Sonia Shah’s terrific new book, Pandemic, deserves a mention.

First off, Shah’s book is now one of my favs in a long list of pandemic-related books, such as John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (2004), John Kelly’s The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (2005), and David Quammen’s Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (2012). Note: Quammen gets credit for not using the word “great” in his title.

Compared to those three (there are many others), Pandemic’s approach is somewhat of a hybrid. She delves into the science of “spillover” or “crossover” zoonotic diseases that move from animal to human populations, as does Quammen, but also present something of A Brief History of Cholera, which is both fascinating and a bit disgusting. She describes SARS as well, touching on the wild animal food markets in China, and the role of bats as links between human and animal populations (pigs as well), and creates the same kind of queasiness in the reader as in watching Steven Soderbergh’s film Contagion (2011), which features Gwyneth Paltrow as a kind of modern-day Typhoid Mary—not surprising, perhaps, as we should wonder about that Goop she hawks.

Shah is not one to shy away from descriptions of unpleasant bodily fluids spraying forth here and there, and makes you aware of just how germs can be transmitted in both the past and the present. In fact, that’s what makes her story so powerful: She describes the cholera and Ebola outbreaks of the last few years, and explains how they’re both symbolic of our changing times, and particular.

Shah is skilled at describing the “particular” conditions that lead to various pandemics. One of those that’s affecting us now and will no doubt continue in the future is Climate Change. We’re heating up the planet and causing animal populations to move into new areas (one of the central theses of Kelly’s book about the great plague outbreak of the 14th century). It’s a fast, brutal read, and will make you think twice about taking that antibiotic for a sinus infection: if you do, your body could become inured to its effects, and you may need it for something much greater in the future.

It’s enough to scare you from ever venturing out into that germ-crowded area known as “public space.” I should also add that the Climate Change scientists responsible for this new study are at Penn State, my home turf as well. And lastly, my novel The Bird Saviors touches on both Climate Change and pandemics, as shadows behind the people.

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Monsters Within & Without the Bunker: On “10 Cloverfield Lane,” Which High-Fives “The Revenant,” With a Nod to the Original “Cloverfield”

So I was amused by the original Cloverfield (2008), with its cool poster of the Statue of Liberty and tagline: Some Thing Has Found Us. It’s no great film or anything—kind of a Heineken ad spliced with (the film version of) Stephen King’s The Mist (2007)—but it gets major bonus points for misdirection and sleight-of-hand focus: For the first half hour or so, you think it’s just another somewhat-dopey “relationship” flick, the kind of breakup story where the male’s best friend says, “She’s too good for you, man!” then it isn’t. It takes place on party night in New York . . . cool and easy, until something starts to happen. They look out the windows, see skyscrapers on fire, mayhem erupting. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, I’ll stop there, and just add that when the monsters arrive, they’re pretty wicked. And it follows the breakup story throughout, keeping that cinema verite/handheld video cam silliness going the whole time, and pulls off an odd mixture of relationship/disaster/alien invasion trifecta, reminiscent of one of my favorite horror fiction writers, Stephen Graham Jones, who has a new novel coming out in May, published by William Morrow, btw, Mongrels.

Flash forward to March 2016, and along comes this new movie, 10 Cloverfield Lane, which outdoes the original, but should most definitely be identified as not being a sequel. As they say in the land of Oz, “It’s a horse of a different color.” Again I’d hedge my praise with “It’s no great movie,” but greatness should be a pretty high bar to clear, and I’ll add it’s way wicked fun. I expect I’ll be watching this one again and again on DirecTV. It also has a twisted tagline: Monsters come in many forms. The film’s main focus (and star) is Michelle, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who does a great job, and at times resembles a somewhat stressed-out Natalie Wood, followed by John Goodman as Howard, a great big bear of a man keeping her locked-up in his doomsday prepper bunker. Goodman makes the movie (and the role) come to life, lumbering around in his sloppy enormity, audibly breathing like a dragon with emphysema, and being just creepy and just kind enough to keep you guessing. John Gallagher as Emmett is probably the most likable character, and I was bummed when he departed the storyline.

Without giving too much away, I’ll say this is one that pulls off some clever slam-bang plot twists and turns, and gets visceral from the outset—a horrendous car crash scene that jolts you from the get-go. But then it lulls you to rest for a while, with its Fifties Oldies jukebox backing up a montage of them playing Monopoly and doing jigsaw puzzles, and then ramps up the tension once again. Late in the film there’s a moment that parallels The Revenant‘s over-the-topness, specifically when Leo DiCaprio spends the night in the dead horse, gets up in the morning, crawls out of the carcass, and walks away: When I saw that in the theater I quipped to my friend, “Another day at the office.” 10 Cloverfield Lane is actually more fun/less misery than The Revenant, though I suppose I’ll still give The Rev status as better film, if only because that grizzly bear attack scene rocks.

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They Eat Horses, Don’t They? “The Revenant” v. “Backcountry”: A Tale of Two Bears, With Nods to Peter Stark’s “Astoria” and David Roberts’s “A Newer World”

So I’ve been getting caught up on some of the Oscar-bait for this year, as in watching Matt Damon’s improbable space rescue in The Martian, and seeing The Revenant in a local theater, where I laughed and made too many jokes for some of my fellow film-goers, but nobody complained. I feel slightly sorry for the (overhyped) Backcountry now, as The Revenant puts it to shame, featuring what I’d rank as the No. 1 Best All-Time Bear Attack in film. It’s so gruesome I was squirming and wincing in my seat. And the comparison of the two films: the direction of Backcountry comes across as clumsy, foretelling the bear’s attack too much, as typical of the standard horror-film cliche treatment. (Perhaps they’re all trying to follow Hitchcock’s famous advice about suspense, but few ever pull it off the way Hitchcock did.) In The Revenant, even though you know it includes a bear attack, you don’t see it coming until whammy, it’s there, in your face.

But the bear attack is just one episode of the grim, 2 1/2 hour film. An arduous experience, best lightened by humor. (At times it flirts with comparisons to Cormac McCarthy’s epic/gruesome Western, Blood Meridian.) Coincidentally, I just read a book about the early fur trade established by John Jacob Astor—Peter Stark’s Astoria (2014), which covers the period ten years before this event (The Revenant is based on the Hugh Glass historical legend), and is a terrific read. I’m a fan of the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery journey, and Stark’s book about Astor’s plan to found a fur-trading empire on the coast of Oregon takes place only some five-six years later.

Plus this fall I read another book about Kit Carson—David Roberts’s A Newer World: Kit Carson, John C. Fremont, and the Claiming of the American West (2000), which also deals with the “Mountain Man” era of the 1820s-40s. With this nonfiction background, I would say that the filmmakers were generally realistic. Tom Hardy’s garbled way of speaking is actually somewhat accurate, in that observers noted that Mountain Men tended to have odd speech mannerisms, from being isolated for months at a time. There’s some unrealistic “camping” details (they always seem to have fires burning without having to constantly feed them wood), and Leo DiCaprio would probably just freeze to death when he climbs out on that snowy bank after fleeing the Indians by swimming a river in winter, but that’s beside the point.

Of the three films—the two others being The Martian and Backcountry—yes, The Revenant is the best, though I suppose I’d rate all three as being worth watching. I don’t know if I’d say The Revenant is Best Picture good, but it is so grim it’s almost funny. I was cracking jokes with a friend in the theater and laughing at inappropriate times. At one point DiCaprio crawls out of a dead horse’s corpse, gets dressed, and walks away, and I quipped, “Just another day at the office.”

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The Year Without a Winter: Two Centuries Later, a Climate Switcheroo

So some years back I read a good book titled The Year Without a Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History (2013), by William and Nicholas Klingaman (that name makes you wonder: or are they really Klingons?), which is basically about the climate chaos wrought (wrought? I never get to use that word anymore) by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815. It’s a good climate-change read, making a convincing argument for how this weather event/anomaly—which led to famine and cloudy/cold weather in the northern hemisphere (1816 also being known as “18-Hundred-And-Froze-to-Death”)—affected politics and culture as well, particularly (or most obviously) with the development of the Gothic literary genre via Percy Bysshe Shelly, Mary Wollstonecraft, Dr. Polidari, and Lord Byron giving monster-birth (“It’s alive!”) to Frankenstein and a popular vampire tale.

So how tidy it is that two centuries later we’re witnessing The Year Without a Winter. I’m currently living in Pennsylvania (and have been here, off and on, when I’m not in Colorado, for twenty-one years) and have never experienced such a warm winter. (I know it’s an El Nino year, right. But still.) People were jogging in their T-shirts and shorts last weekend. (A rather unlikely scream here: “It’s so horrible I can’t take it!”) Actually, it is rather nice. But pretty poison. I’ve read and have written about climate change for many years now (drought figures prominently in my last novel, The Bird Saviors, set in the American Southwest), and all our national efforts have amounted to squat, though I give President Obama credit for at least trying. God forbid one of the Republican know-nothings get elected. I cringe when I hear that Marco Rubio is somehow “better” than all the others: He’s made a point recently to thump the bible as hard as he can, and to warn that climate change mitigation will ruin the economy (which is nonsense, really), but even if it does hard the economy, what’s worse? Some economic adjustment or climate chaos?

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On Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and J.J. Abrams’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Or a Journey from the Sublime to the Ridiculous

So over the holidays I was holed up on a mountainside in Colorado reading Leo Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace (1869), which, at 1224 pages, is an undertaking. I felt compelled to read it as quickly as possible, lest the undertaking be superseded by the undertaker. My hardcover Knopf edition weighed in at five pounds, and although it is not the same as the James Michener novel Chesapeake—about which one wag (Jack Beatty) said, “My best advice is don’t read it; my second best is don’t drop it on your foot”—I still wouldn’t want it to plummet upon my toes. It took me about a month, and was the second time I read it. Imagine a human holed up in a room in this house below, hearing all those versions of Jingle Bells and “I Wanna Hippopotamus for Christmas” while reading Tolstoy. In a hurry, lest the reindeer be disappointed at my literary failure.

I coincidentally finished it just in time for the TV debut of the miniseries on A&E Network, a BBC production it seems, that started last Monday. That I actually even bothered to reread it was a bit of happenstance: I was telling a friend of mine he should read it, which prompted me to reflect, If he should read it, why not me? So I did. And am happy to report I loved it, was enthralled, and feel that somehow, someway, my life was a greater thing for having spent the time doing it. (As opposed to giving in to the Star Wars hoopla and wasting over two hours of my life in that cinema, crunching popcorn and giggling at all the bad lines, annoying the woman sitting beside me in the crowded theater.)

In the spirit of that old saw, “The book’s much better than the movie,” I can’t say much positive about the miniseries, though I am going to try to follow it. (The first two-hour installment was Monday, and I’m assuming the other episodes will follow on succeeding Mondays.) For Tolstoyphiles, there’s much to carp about: Paul Dano is too meek and mousy as Pierre, the sex-it-up scenes with Anatole and Helene have the effect of casting them as pervy villains (whereas Tolstoy does a great job of portraying their sometimes-awful behavior as really rather ordinary), but most damningly, those awful commercials every two minutes. I try to avoid network TV because of commercials, and this was one of the few times recently where I was subjected to such blather. It’s one thing to be contemplating the horror of warfare and the foolishness of Czar Alexander I at Austerlitz, but to have the battle scenes interrupted by ads for Duck Dynasty is a bit too absurd.

The novel itself, on the other hand, is another thing altogether: the dynasties it describes don’t belong to hillbilly duck hunters. The main characters are members of a few aristocratic families, and one thing that struck me is that no one really seems to work—at least not the main characters. Like, who washes the dishes or sweeps the floors? Not Nikolai or Prince Andrei, that’s for sure: The servants accomplish all the work for them. They do go off to work and fight battles, and suffer greatly in those wars, but they don’t really work, not in the sense that pervades American life and culture. At times I think we (and I) work too much, actually, and to read about people who don’t really seem to work at all is fascinating, a glimpse at a different world. But the great difference between reading War and Peace and watching the miniseries is that in reading you are really encountering and entangling yourself with Tolstoy’s mind (and perhaps the mind of every writer you read, but for some, it’s a keener experience than with others), while the movie just seems some pretty costumes, pretty people, and pretty landscapes—even the battle scenes are in some ways pretty. And while I suppose pretty is fine, it’s also superficial and fairly meaningless, compared to the novel. Tolstoy has a great touch for the sublime and the banal at once, the great idea and the human touch. Much of the book wrestles with the tragedy of Napoleon’s march into Russia in 1812 (Tolstoy uses the term “the year twelve” often), the Battle of Borodino and the burning of Moscow, and the haunting deaths of many hundreds of thousands of soldiers—virtually all of Napoleon’s Grande Armee of 800,000 soldiers was destroyed. Much of it resonates for our moment in history as well: Why did so many soldiers follow Napoleon to their death? Why are so many people enthralled with Donald Trump? He goes on to the questions of free will and power and the will of one person over another, and it’s a fascinating world view. I won’t go on at length about the merits of the book, but I do repeat my advice of recommending it to all who enjoy great literature, with an addendum not usually noted: It’s a fun read. And here’s a photo of the great man himself:

But speaking of meaningless and “pretty,” the same weekend I finished War and Peace I took my daughter to see the new Star Wars. Dumb lines, dumb scenes, coated with a thick layer of ridiculousness and special effects. Welcome to the 21st century!

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Metro v. Retro Jon Krakauer: On the “Everest” Film and Jon Krakauer’s “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town”

So last weekend I happened to see the new film Everest, which recapitulates many of the events in Jon Krakauer’s bestseller Into Thin Air (1997), about the disastrous year when 11 climbers died on Mount Everest, circa 1996—which has since been eclipsed by even greater death tolls, such as this year’s avalanche that killed 22 people—and earlier in the summer I read Krakauer’s new book of nonfiction, Missoula: Rape the Justice System in a College Town, and the two provide a nice contrast of cultural moments/trends.

To begin with, Everest seems dated and clunky. It’s sad and touching at times—detailing the final agonizing moments of Rob Hall, for instance—but it all seems to be rehashing the past, and not in the way that sheds new light on that particular moment in time with great import for ours, but almost as if this were a new story, which it isn’t. The best images are the sweeping visuals of Everest itself and the snaking line of climbers ascending the steep white slopes, while the worst visual moments are the close-up action sequences which you can tell are being filmed on a set, with the actors all too fresh-faced for the grueling conditions they are supposed to be enduring. Actually the actors do a terrific job, with Jason Clarke as the commercial guide Rob Hall, and House of Cards henchman Michael Kelly as Krakauer himself, who comes across as a minor player in the saga. But by the end of the film I somewhat regretted even bothering to go see it. It’s certainly a well-done reenactment of sorts, but it seemed to be lacking a fresh perspective. Krakauer conveyed the tragedy in much greater detail and understanding, and while he tends to moralize a bit too much for my tastes, he does make a convincing argument of what went wrong on Everst that year: Too many climbers made the conditions too treacherous, many of them weren’t qualified, and the rise of commercial guide services contributed to the dangerous conditions and the disaster.

It’s to Krakauer’s credit that he’s moved on from that particular soapbox, which is essentially now two decades old, and in the meantime has written about such disparate topics as Pat Tillman’s death by “friendly fire” in Where Men Win Glory (2009), Greg Mortensen’s dubious humanitarian ventures in Three Cups of Deceit (2011), and, for my money, Krakauer’s best book, Under the Banner of Heaven (2003), about a murderous family of unhinged polygamists.

This year’s book is Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, which I read both out of affection for Krakauer’s work and natural curiosity, as I (partly) live in a college town—State College, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State University, a school that has been rocked by its own sex scandals and tangled tales of justice involving the football team and its coaches.

Before I read it, I wondered why I hadn’t heard much about Missoula. After I finished it, I knew why. It’s not a bad book, but it’s certainly not an enjoyable read. It essentially details several date-rape cases that occurred in Missoula, Montana in the last decade, cases that often involve football players, including the star quarterback, and the events overlap so much that Krakauer makes a compelling case for the importance of this in our moment in time. His dry, thorough description of the events and ramifications is a contrast to last year’s now-discredited Rolling Stone article about alleged fraternity rapes at the University of Virginia. Although Krakauer comes across as too eager to blame some of the actors in these real-life dramas, ultimately he seems to do a good job: I have to add the “seems to” because obviously I don’t really know all the details, and am simply reading one person’s version of the events, which are greatly disputed by the various parties involved. And that’s where I have to say the book is both good, and somewhat sordid. Krakauer presents all the gritty details, and it made me feel sorry for all of the students involved, both female victims and male perpetrators. If you wanted to point to one culprit, alcohol seems to be the deciding factor in most of the stories.  If they weren’t drunk, they probably wouldn’t do these awful things. When I finished the book, I was glad to be done with it. And as I have a daughter who will most likely be on a college campus in a similar world, it all resonates with me. I imagine most parents hope their children can avoid these horrible situations, and do our best to teach them that socializing doesn’t have to include getting wasted and hurting yourself or anyone else. Part of me hopes that we don’t hear this same sordid story in the next decade, when my daughter will be in college. But of course by then all the university students will be taking classes on-line, secure in their own rooms, wearing pajamas and safe and isolated as they can be.

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