Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests


Alternative Medicine, Alternative Religion, Alternative Nation

posted by David Klinghoffer

So far this week I have heard the following from various friends: One is having shoulder surgery but wants to stay away from pain medications. He is consulting a homeopathic practitioner instead. Another couple we know has a child with the flu. I asked my wife if it was swine flu, but she didn’t know because the couple avoid doctors and use a naturopath instead. 

Another couple has a little kid with bad eczema which they’re treating with NAET (Nambudripad Allergy Elimination Technique), a kind of magical practice, combined with the application of olive and tea tree oils as recommended by a local rabbi’s wife.
What the hell is going on? These are all normal, intelligent, educated people. You probably read about the 13-year-old Minnesota boy whose parents think he is a “medicine man” and who is refusing chemotherapy and radiation for cancer in favor of alternative health cures. Doctors give him a 90 percent chance of survival if he follows the conventional medical therapeutic path, and 95 percent chance of the cancer killing him if he doesn’t.
This kind of stuff — alternative medicine, do-it-yourself medicine — is incredibly popular, thanks in no small part to the Internet which encourages self-diagnosis and self-treatment, with information and pseudo-information all jumbled together unedited. Have you tried anything like this yourself and found relief from medical problems? I’m interested in understanding, not judging.
I was puzzling over it all when I read Ross Douthat’s New York Times column today about the movie version of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons. (I’ve seen it. It’s not bad.) Douthat makes the point that apart from being a skilled storyteller, Brown also has a theological agenda. It isn’t merely about being anti-Catholic. Brown’s mega-popularity reveals 

the growth of do-it-yourself spirituality, with traditional religion’s dogmas and moral requirements shorn away. The same trend is at work within organized faiths as well, where both liberal and conservative believers often encounter a God who’s too busy validating their particular version of the American Dream to raise a peep about, say, how much money they’re making or how many times they’ve been married.

What exactly is wrong with making money? That part threw me off, but Douthat’s observation is otherwise on target. Brown’s readers, his followers, think you can patch together a do-it-yourself version of Christianity based on Web-spun conspiracy theories and ancient tall tales about Jesus the family man. 
We are becoming an Alternative Nation, with everyone serving as his own physician and his own rabbi, priest, or pastor. We make it all up as we go along. God help us, and forgive us, the Internet is our Mt. Sinai.

If you sense some skepticism from me, even some hostility, you’re right. Yet I have to admit I’m guilty of being an alternative dabbler myself. I identify as an Orthodox Jew, and that’s how I try to to live my life, if often stumbling. But ideologically and philosophically, within the broad and capacious sphere of traditional Jewish spirituality, I’m an unrepentant magpie.
The really traditional Jewish path is to choose a school of thought, or better yet inherit it from your ancestors, and select a single rabbi steeped in that particular approach as your spiritual advisor. Orthodox Judaism has many such paths available, from rationalist to mystical. Modern Orthodox, Chasidic, Yeshivish, and countless sub- and sub-sub-variations.
But like many other returnees to Orthodoxy from secularism, I find none of these by itself totally satisfying. I pray from a Chabad siddur, a prayer book edited with kabbalistic intentions in mind. The relatively recent rabbinic figure who I find most compelling is the German modern Orthodox sage S.R. Hirsch, who wrote his Torah commentary about 140 years ago and who emphasized worldview formation, scrupulously avoiding any hint of mystical influence. These two facts about me by themselves are paradoxical if not contradictory.
There is no one rabbi I follow. I learn about Judaism as I’ve always done, mostly on my own, from books. This is not the traditional approach, which encourages communal Torah story under rabbinic guidance. My religion is really a do-it-yourself Orthodox Judaism.
As far as I can tell, the kudzu-like growth of non-denominational Christianity, coupled with the withering of the historical Protestant denominations, arises partly from the same reluctance to choose a defined tradition and stick with it, excluding all the others.
The extent to which Americans like me are picking-and-choosing their sources of enlightenment, with little to guide them but amateur instincts and very subjective gut feelings, is enormous and massively under-recognized. Because I wrote a book called Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, I get email inquiries all the time from Christians, some with Jewish background, who are trying to find a path that validates both their Jewish inclinations and their Christian commitments. I sympathize with them.
When my wife introduced me recently to Leonard Cohen’s music, which I instantly adored, I read up on his idiosyncratic mix of Orthodox Jewish and Zen Buddhist spiritual practices. I was charmed and intrigued.
What’s going on? I believe it all goes back to an observation I made in the first entry I wrote in this blog. Most of us are widows and orphans, as the Bible often puts it. Spiritually, we are cut off from the rich springs of genuinely organic and authentic tradition by which our ancestors were sustained. There was a break in the generational transmission process. This is one cost of the age of secularism we live in. We are trying to figure things out for ourselves. Groping, sometimes blindly.
This is evident from our incoherent religious culture. But it comes out too in the way we treat our medical problems. We don’t trust “Western medicine” in the same way that we don’t completely buy any precisely defined religious tradition. 
We seek meaning in the most unlikely places. In physical fitness — a religion for many of us. In the environmentally friendly cars we drive — the Prius (very big here in Seattle). Or in the foods we eat. Who can doubt that things like organic food (also very big in Seattle), locally grown produce, the Whole Foods phenomenon, and so on offer not merely healthful nutrition but nothing less than meaning in life for many people?
Sometimes the pathos and vulnerability of it all just break my heart.


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Yirmi

posted May 20, 2009 at 5:01 pm


Great post. Funny, I too daven from the Chabad siddur, despite not being Chabad myself, and appreciate Leonard Cohen, though I find his work a bit too somber at times.
I think the religious picking and choosing you describe is not incompatible with being a part of a single coherent tradition (like Orthodox Judaism or one of its many streams). The Lithuanian Mussar giant Rav Eliyahu Dessler, for example, studied and recommended the works of Rebbe Nachman, and one of the foremost leaders of the Breslov movement today studied with various Sephardic kabbalists in addition to his Ashkenazic Hassidic education.
Part of the reason people explore alternative medicine is because it really works. That’s not to say there aren’t real quacks and people inventing random cultish treatments. And it’s true that for some people being involved in a certain kind of alternative medicine becomes part of their identity and belief system. But there’s lots of evidence that many branches of alternative medicine really work.
Take the example of qigong, a branch of Chinese medicine involving exercises that increase one’s vital energy and, in external qigong or medical qigong, allow a practitioner to send vital energy into other people. There is actually quite a bit of evidence suggesting that this is real. Scientific studies have demonstrated that expert qigong practitioners can emit a sizable voltage of electricity (see chapters 4 and 5 of Ken Cohen’s Way of Qigong, available in part through google books, for an interesting review), and that qigong can cause dramatic health improvements. As you might expect given your familiarity with the secular orthodoxy of science, the scientific community (outside of China at least) usually ignores such findings. So do professional skeptics, when they dismiss Chinese medicine out of hand because of its roots in vitalism. Vitalism — the idea that a life force animates all things, and explains health and sickness — is common to nearly all indigenous cultures throughout the world, from the ancient Kung! and San of the Kalahari to the Jews (as discussed in a recent post on A Simple Jew). If the evidence validating the existence of vital energy becomes more well-developed and widely known, this could be an interesting way of science lending credence to religious beliefs. This roughly parallels intelligent design.
Ken Cohen himself is a fascinating example of the alternative, pick-and-choose culture you’re discussing. Born Jewish, he has apprenticed in the indigenous healing practices of numerous cultures throughout the world, becoming a Native American shaman, a qigong master, and an African traditional healer, among other things. His entertaining and well-written account of these experiences is found in his books on qigong and Native American healing.



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Jolesley

posted May 20, 2009 at 5:36 pm


Very concerned to read about the excema case. Here in Sydney Australia there is a case going on at the moment where the parents have been charged with the death of their child due to excema that was not treated properly medically, natural remedies did not work in this case and a little girl died
Jo



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Marak

posted May 20, 2009 at 6:51 pm


With regards to Yirmi’s comments: Sorry, Sir, but when properly designed, prospective, randomized trials are conducted, alternative medicine almost invariably comes out no more effective than placebo. This has been documented repeatedly over the past ten years. (If you want to read a good book on the subject I recomment “Snake Oil Science” by Bausell. He is a biostatistician, not a physician so he has no dog in the fight.) All this stuff about “energies” and Qi is just so much silliness, that routinely fails when subjected to rigorous scientific analysis. The placebo effect is real. However, any of these alternative methods work if the recipient believes in it – but no more than a placebo. I actually don’t like the term alternative medicine. There is either “evidence based medicine” or “non-evidence based medicine” which is what all this aternative stuff is. Anything that can be proven scientifically to work is adopted by the main stream. But little of it is, simply because it is nonsense.
In some sense, it is possible to sympathize with religious “pick and choose” types since religion is not prove-able in the classic sense. So practitioners may feel justified in taking some from column A and some from column B. The medicine is subjected to scientific analysis and can be proved. Thus, the folks who believe in the alternative stuff, have – in my opinion – less rationale for their behavior.



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Mark

posted May 20, 2009 at 6:53 pm


Sorry, the previous comment is from me, MARK; not someone named MARAK



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David Klinghoffer

posted May 20, 2009 at 7:03 pm


Thanks, Marak. I mean, Mark. I appreciate both your and Yirmi’s thoughtful comments and am somewhat torn between them. FYI, here are some links to the eczema story from Australia referenced by Jolesley. Very disturbing:
http://www.smh.com.au/national/couple-did-not-know-eczema-was-fatal-20090506-avef.html
http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5iMSADKUeu3NMJIvudaIP9GqiXGHAD97VTJ400
http://www.news.com.au/dailytelegraph/story/0,27574,25440841-5006009,00.html



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Mark

posted May 20, 2009 at 7:20 pm


The story is tragic. Similar to the ongoing news item today about the child with lymphoma in Minnesota whose parents want to use something other than real medicine to treat him. I am unclear about the source of your ambivalence. This is not a matter of opinion or “feelings.” These treatments can be – and are – subjected to rigorous scientific analyisis. Are you ambivalent about the use of leaches and bleeding that was the method for treating infection a few centuries ago? Of course not – those techniques have not stood up to scientific inquiry. As I noted, the placebo effect is genuine. However, the positive effects of an alternative treatment can almost invariably be demonstrated to be no greater than that of a placebo. Read Bausell’s book – it is science for the non-scientist, such as yourself. Even my art historian wife enjoyed it.



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Urszula

posted May 20, 2009 at 8:06 pm


It’s curious how easily people can throw away thousands of years of collective sensitivity, experience and intelligence for the sake of the profit making drug industry which has only existed in its form for such a short time. Naturally, I bless the science that can help to reset broken bones and stitch up accidents painlessly as never before. Surely, the marvellous lotions and potions on both sides are valid if they truly work well, but I question the lack of respect and dismissive attitude of those who do not wish to lose their vested interests, who even go as far as to deceive and, what is worse, palm off the drugs they cannot sell in one part of the world onto innocent lives in another part of the globe, destroying hopes they raise and knowingly causing deforment and sometimes promoting products they know will cause a slow death and all for the sake of filthy money!
Perhaps when some of the purveyors of so called “science” have a better motive then money and develop the attitude of Do No Harm, it might be possible to take the best of both worlds, the alternative and the scientific, because they may both allow for human easement and not dis-easement.



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Mark

posted May 20, 2009 at 10:07 pm


To Urszula:
I am not going to comment on your unproven accusations and biases against scientific research. Instead, I will pose one simple question/challenge to you: Where is the prospective, randomized trial done by an impartial research team that shows that ANY alternative medicine therapy works better than a placebo? Don’t spend too much time looking, because the answer is: it doesn’t exist.



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Yirmi

posted May 20, 2009 at 10:10 pm


The true believers of the Skeptic movement recite as an article of faith that no good study has shown anything but standard Western medicine to work. But this simply isn’t true. The evidence that is there — and there’s quite a bit, despite the lack of the scale of funds available for pharmaceutical research — is simply ignored or explained away. I don’t think they’re doing this for profit, as Urszula suggests; it’s because they really believe in their dogma, which they’ve been socialized into as with any belief system.
It’s not true that valid findings would necessarily propel alternative practices to the mainstream. The medical establishment does have a growing appreciation for alternative medicine — though one wouldn’t get a hint of this from Skeptical literature. But there is still tons of evidence that is basically ignored. For example, consider the huge body of evidence, much of it with impeccable methodology, showing that vegetarian diets dramatically cut the risk of many diseases (as well as overall mortality). But medicine and science in practice are messy, and influenced by all kinds of things like inertia, cultural beliefs, political expediency, and yes, perhaps also financial interest. So despite all the evidence, you won’t find your average doctor, much less the FDA or AMA, recommending a vegetarian or near-vegetarian diet. The American populace continues eating the standard American diet, with historically unprecedented amounts of meat, and when they suffer from appallingly high rates of heart disease, they’re just given various pharmeuticals.



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Mark

posted May 21, 2009 at 6:56 am


Yirmi: In a mere few hours (and after being challenged)you have gone from discussing something called Qigong as alternative medicine to not eating read meat. Quite a leap. First of all, your facts are simply wrong. The medical and scientific literature is replete with studies showing the benefits of eating less red meat with regards to heart disease, vascular disease, cancer and life expectancy. Well designed studies. There are legitimate questions as to how much red meat is ok, and whether complete abstinence is truly necessary for the benefits – but that is besides the point. I would hardly call vegetarianism a form of complementary or alternative medicine. It is quite mainstream. (Why? Because it was studied properly and found to have merit.)
As to the “energies” silliness. I am still waiting for you to show me studies proving this. As I have said earlier: there are NONE. All Alt. Med “journals” do is occasionally print anectodal reports – things that would be laughed at by anyone with a knowledge of how to do real scientific research. These methods HAVE been subjected to well designed studies, and they routinely fail to show an effect greater than placebo. The notion that there is some conspiracy on the part of doctors or corporations is akin to the “black helicopter” nuts out there, or “the Zionists are running the world.” Show me real evidence – then we can have an intelligent discussion.



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Yirmi

posted May 21, 2009 at 11:35 am


Mark: I’ll get back to you within a day or two with a partial literature review. You could start with the reference I gave in one of my posts above, which contains descriptions of numerous studies (no, not anecdotal reports.) You can read most of it through google books.



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Mark

posted May 21, 2009 at 12:43 pm


Yirmi:
Just because someone does a study, doesn’t make it a good one. I look forward to reading what you recommend, but as a physician/scientist, my criteria are very exacting – as they should be for medical research, on which we base patient care. There’s lots of poorly done science out there. My mind remains open, but very skeptical.
I don’t know your background or your qualifications to evaluate a study for its design, methods, statistics, etc.



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Joe

posted May 21, 2009 at 6:24 pm


Going way off-topic here, but I can’t let Yirmi’s comment re decreased mortality in people who follow vegetarian diets go by. To quote Shel Silverstein–“You’re still gonna, still gonna, still gonna die”. No one gets out alive.
This entire debate would probably be better situated over at Science Blogs, where discussions of the abysmal nature of most “alternative” studies abound, complete with painstaking descriptions of what could have been done to make them more scientifically valid studies.



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Yirmi

posted May 22, 2009 at 12:14 pm


David, I’m sorry for cluttering up your blog with all this, but I wanted to response to Mark’s request for studies validating the medical use of qigong. This is a just small sampling of what’s out there, and I’m sure someone in the field (or with more time than me) could’ve done a better job.
A good study showing some effects from externally emitted qi:
http://www.springerlink.com/content/4519x267p1722323/
Here’s a description of one study showing an effect of emitted qi on the brain:
http://www.acupuncturetoday.com/mpacms/at/article.php?id=31484
A study showing the effect of qigong on inanimate matter:
http://www.springerlink.com/content/28h24p51wtdcwr26/
A recent study showing the effect of qigong on cancer cells:
http://www.springerlink.com/content/hh43122171641116/
Here’s a table summarizing randomized controlled study results on the effect of patients performing tai chi and qigong:
http://www.instituteofintegralqigongandtaichi.org/pdfs/TableOne_100608.pdf
Here’s one study using double controls, finding that qigong can reduce tumors in mice:
http://www.qigonginstitute.org/html/papers/qigonglyphoma.pdf
A literature review on qigong and cancer:
http://www.qigonginstitute.org/html/papers/ReviewQG4Cancer.pdf
A review of Chinese studies on the effects of external qigong:
http://www.qigonginstitute.org/html/Chen/Waiqianalysis_0704.pdf
Not controlled, but in the British Medical Journal!
http://bjsm.bmj.com/cgi/content/abstract/bjsm.2007.045476v1
As an aside, here’s a Harvard Medical School publication endorsing such things as healing touch and reiki.
https://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/healing_touch_therapy
Also, here’s a listing of NIH (federal government) grants for energy healing research:
http://www.qigonginstitute.org/html/papers/List_of_Qigong_Research_narrow2_080708.pdf
Therapeutic touch seems similar to external qi healing, as a nontouch therapy meant to send healing energy into people. Here’s a randomized controlled study finding therapeutic touch helps premature babies:
http://www.advancesinneonatalcare.org/pt/re/anc/abstract.00149525-200812000-00013.htm;jsessionid=KWJbp6F56wGJL78LJ5ynvGnhYKshzdf6Mzvss6lW2GGc61TnJNCh!-1775402713!181195628!8091!-1
A study with a placebo and usual care control finding that therapeutic touch does better than either in improving the behavioral symptoms of dementia patients:
http://grande.nal.usda.gov/ibids/index.php?mode2=detail&origin=ibids_references&therow=777270
Therapeutic touch works better than a sham therapy or control in improving certain blood indicia:
http://jhn.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/24/1/41
Tai chi is a popular form of qigong that has been the subject of much medical research. I’ll just give one example. Tai chi, compared to controls, decreases headaches and increases quality of life:
http://ecam.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/4/1/107
Certainly more and better studies should be done, and there are uncertainties that need to be explored — such as the biophysical mechanism for how qigong works – but there’s still quite a bit of evidence. Certainly, enough to recommend that patients with certain conditions do qigong or tai chi exercises. I wouldn’t say the evidence indicates that one should recommend patients to just find any energy healer and start doing treatments. The problem with this is that not all healers are effective (as the first study above points out); a lot of people probably claim to be great energy healers but don’t have the necessary talent and skills. But for medical qigong healers or therapeutic touch practitioners with a good track record, it should be OK. There are also potential avodah zarah (foreign worship in Jewish law) issues, especially when the healing system has some association with religion. As mentioned in a recent post on A Simple Jew, a couple rabbis (Yitzchak Ginsburgh and Yitzhak Fanger) are working on creating kosher forms of energy healing to avoid such halachic issues.
One doesn’t have to believe in black helicopters and such, as Mark claims, to explain why effective alternative practices aren’t in the mainstream. First, much to Skeptic true believers’ chagrin, alternative practices are actually making it into the mainstream, with tons of medical schools teaching acupuncture and therapeutic touch and so on. Second, as I said in my last post, science in practice — as something that occurs in real time in real societies with imperfect individuals — is a bit messy, and does not always operate in the most rational way. Historians and sociologists of science have demonstrated this ad nauseum. There are many reasons for this, including the vagaries of culture, cultural beliefs, inertia, plain old conformism, and so on. The vegetarianism issue is a wonderful example, since the evidence is so consistent and vast, and the medical and government response so lacking (aside from alternative groups like Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine). Qigong, tai chi, acupuncture, meditation are in the same general category – things for which there is a lot of evidence, but only partial and slow acceptance by the establishment.



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Mark

posted May 25, 2009 at 8:22 am


Let me start in reverse order. To the dismay of many physicians and scientists, many med schools are, in fact teaching some alternative treatments. This is occurring despite the increasing body of scientific literature that attests to the fact that they work no better than placebo. This is a function of public demand, and desire to make money. A classic example is here in Israel where the kupot (health funds) are now offering an array of alternative therapies – and this in a socialized health care system in which there is limited funding for such treatments as the latest chemotherapeutic options for advanced breast cancer or colon cancer. In my opinion it is a crime to offer therapeutic massage, while denying a woman the most advanced therapy for her breast cancer that will prolong her life. Tragically, scientific evidence plays little role – public demand based on ignorance does. As to the references Yirmi provided: Joe is correct that this blog is truly not the place for a detailed scientific discussion that this requires. Nevertheless, I am compelled to answer. I don’t mean to be nasty, Yirmi, but: do you have training in statistics as they apply to the sciences? Do you have training in the design of medical trials? Do you have training in how to evaluate a scientific paper? Few people do, and I highly doubt that you do, either. Reading and evaluating a study means more than looking at the abstract and the conclusions. All of these studies have critical flaws in their methodology – be it in the study design, how subjects are recruited, the statistics, etc. They are uniformly poor studies, and it is more unfortunate that some even made it into legitimate journals. An analysis of each would take a page or two. (The one on bcl-2 is of interest to me as I have published a fair amount of basic science on that topic, so I can claim some expertise, and that paper is absurdly done.) But, it is unlikely that most of this data could be reproduced consistently if done properly. Looks good, but poor science. And a huge waste of money. I referred earlier to the Bausell book. He is a biostatistician involved in many of the NIH funded trials, and he admits that they were able to prove little in terms of effectiveness to anything. To the layman (and I include CAM practitioners as laymen since they have no real scientific training) these studies look great. To a real scientist, they perpetuate a fraud. Sorry.
As a conclusion, I am a real doctor who takes care of real patients with serious life threatening illness. What makes you think I would pass up on any therapy I thought could help my patients? The best interest of the patient is the only interest to be considered, in the words of Charlie Mayo. The difference is that I practice evidence based medicine, not hocus pocus. My patients’ lives depend on it.



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Yirmi

posted May 31, 2009 at 1:55 pm


Government funding agencies like NSF and NIH decide whether to fund projects based on evaluations of the proposals by experienced research scientists. Why would they approve funding for dozens of studies on this kind of thing if they’re “fraudently” or “absurdly designed”? After all, methodology is one of the main things they look at in deciding whether to fund a project. And why would scientific journals (who are peer reviewed, also by experienced, published scientists) accept papers based on research that is so obviously illegitimate? Public demand and desire for money — the two motives you cited — wouldn’t explain this.



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odprix

posted July 19, 2009 at 8:51 am


Eternal life in exchange for 6318 Great British Pound- PayPala simplyiizi@yahoo.com
This is another way of thinking literally infect human immortality! Who has got new state of mind can celebrate the 250-year-old anniversary in 2129



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Energy Work Healing

posted November 22, 2012 at 12:49 am


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Prostate Health Diet

posted June 14, 2013 at 2:46 am


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skin tightening

posted September 30, 2013 at 7:14 am


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laser skin resurfacing

posted September 30, 2013 at 3:38 pm


I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was good. Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be ok.



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