It’s Good to Be Curious: Mr. Rogers Remixed

Mr Rogers' Neighborhood (title card)

Delightful remix of clips from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, in which (thanks to auto-tune) Fred Rogers extols the virtues of being curious.  John Boswell (a.k.a. MelodySheep) has done a fine job here.  If you’re interested in purchasing a copy of the song (“Garden of Your Mind”), it’s included on his album Remixes for the Soul.

And here are a few media stories on the project:

Hat tip to Josh Pearson (via Facebook).

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What time is it?

Biegert & Funk’s QlockTwo is a beautifully designed clock.  I’ve an image below, but before reading further you might experience it for yourself (on B&F’s webpage).

QlockTwoThe clock contains the right number of letters to announce the time in a complete sentence.  Its sans serif typeface is easily legible, telling us that “IT IS TWENTY TO TWO,” and then “IT IS A QUARTER TO TWO” in crisp, white letters (it measures in five-minute increments). But what I especially like is the way it slows down the experience of time, converting something precise into something precise enough.  I also enjoy the gentle irony of having an iPhone app that translates the digital precision of 2:16 p.m. into the comfortable analog, “IT IS A QUARTER PAST TWO.”

As the iTunes reviews indicate, it would be great if one could make this app the phone’s background.  As reviewer JLSchend notes, “I see the time on the wallpaper long before I open the app.”  However, the point of the QlockTwo app is not instant access to the time.  The point is to provide an aesthetically and emotionally different experience of time.

Digitally rendered time, with numbers and colons, is exact, keeping track of each second as it slips away.  The second hand on a clock face also tracks time’s relentless dissipation, but, without numbers marking each second’s passing, clock time seems to move with less insistence than digital time.  The Qlock’s rendering of time as text, however, abstracts the temporal from both the spatial (clock face) and digital (numbers and colons).  Time’s past and future are not mapped as they are on a clock face.  And the absence of a digital timepiece’s swiftly accruing seconds gives a feeling of slowness, of being in the present.

Unlike other timepieces, the Qlock does not emphasize time passing.  Instead, it narrates the gradually changing present.

» Continue reading “What time is it?”

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Pop Is Born This Way

XeroxSince Lady Gaga’s new single “Born This Way” made its debut last month, critics have alleged that the song is “derivative” or even a “rip off” of Madonna songs like “Express Yourself.”  And, of course it is.  But that also doesn’t matter in the least.  All pop music is derivative.  “Express Yourself” (1989) borrows from the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself” (1971).  This fact eludes those who allege thievery on behalf of Lady Gaga — presumably because people like to believe that pop music is original.  Great pop is not original.  It just sounds original.

Respect Yourself, The Staple Singers (1971)

Express Yourself, Madonna (1989)

Born This Way, Lady Gaga (2011)

Chuck Berry’s classic riff in “Johnny B. Goode” (1957) — one of the founding tunes of rock-and-roll — comes from Carl Hogan’s riff for Louis Jordan’s “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman” (1946).

Ain’t That Just Like a Woman, Louis Jordan (1946)

Johnny B. Goode, Chuck Berry (1957)

Nirvana’s groundbreaking “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991) takes its chorus’ chord progression directly from Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” (1976).

More Than a Feeling, Boston (1976)

Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nirvana (1991)

The Raconteurs’ “Steady As She Goes” (2006) borrows its baseline from Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” (1979), a song which takes its title from the opening line of the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” (1964).  It’s possible, too, that Jackson’s song also bears some influence from the Damned’s “New Rose” (1977), which begins by quoting that same opening line from the Shangri-Las.  Did listening to the Damned inspire him to use that Shangri-Las line?  I’m not sure, but it strikes me as a possibility.

Leader of the Pack, The Shangri-Las (1964)

New Rose, The Damned (1977)

Is She Really Going Out With Him?, Joe Jackson (1979)

Steady, As She Goes, The Raconteurs (2006)

When one artist sues another, these sorts of borrowings make the news, and thus we learn how the Chiffons’ “She’s So Fine” (1963) may have unconsciously influenced George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” (1970) — a song from which Wilco’s “You Never Know” (2009) quotes (and quotes directly, at the 3-minute mark).   Or how the Knack’s “My Sharona” (1979) turns up in RUN-DMC’s “It’s Tricky” (1986), or Joe Satriani’s “If I Could Fly” (2004) seems to emerge in Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida” (2008).  I say “seems to” because I suspect that a lot of these borrowings happen unconsciously.

He’s So Fine, The Chiffons (1963)

My Sweet Lord, George Harrison (1970)

You Never Know, Wilco (2009)

My Sharona, The Knack (1979)

It’s Tricky, RUN-DMC (1986)

If I Could Fly, Joe Satriani (2004)

Viva la Vida, Coldplay (2008)

Whatever the reason, a lot of pop music sounds like a lot of other pop music.  Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” (1974) becomes Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” (1978), the Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night” (1964) turns into the Doors’ “Hello, I Love You” (1968), and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” (1982) re-emerges as Cee-Lo’s “Bright Lights, Big City” (2010).

Sweet Home Alabama, Lynyrd Skynyrd (1974)

Werewolves of London, Warren Zevon (1978)

All Day and All of the Night, The Kinks (1964)

Hello, I Love You, The Doors (1968)

Billie Jean, Michael Jackson (1982)

Bright Lights Bigger City, Cee-Lo (2010)

So, yes, Lady Gaga bears Madonna’s influence.  But pop music is born this way.

 

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10 “Bests” from 2010

1. Best novel that I missed when it came out: Guus Kuijer’s The Book of Everything (Scholastic, 2006).  Narrated by a nine-year-old, this is an all-ages book about love, faith, and growing up.  It has a sense of humor, too.  I devoted a post to this book earlier in the month.

Dessa, A Badly Broken Code2. Album of the Year: Dessa’s A Badly Broken CodeDessa is a poet who raps and sings.  Consider this excerpt from the chorus to “Children’s Work:” “But some nights I still can’t sleep. / The past rolls back / And I can see us still. / You’ve learned how to hold your own / How to stack your stones / But the history’s thick. / Children aren’t as simple / As we might think.”  And now listen to her perform it:

Children’s Work Dessa

Mesmerizing.  There are also quieter pieces, like “Poor Atlas” or the concluding song “Into the Spin.”  And compelling, moving narratives about relationships, like “Mineshaft II” and “Go Home.”  I had never heard of Dessa before listening to this album (she has one earlier EP), but I’ll definitely keep an eye out for anything else she does.

Suzy Lee, Shadow: cover3. Picture Book of the Year: Suzy Lee’s Shadow.  There were many great picture books this year, but this is one I’d like to see get more attention.  I loved Lee’s debut, Wave (2008), a wordless story of a girl, some gulls, and a wave.  Shadow shows that Lee is here to stay.  You hold the book so that the binding is horizontal, and then lift the pages up.  Above the gutter, a little girl plays in her basement; below it, the shadows convey what she imagines… or do they?  As in Where the Wild Things Are, this beautifully designed book knows that the imagination can have a life of its own.

Thompson, Shapes and Colors4. Best Comic Strip of 2010: Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac.  To read Cul de Sac is to watch a classic being written. I’m reminded of reading Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes as it was being published. I look forward to each day’s strip, and am impressed by the fact Thompson’s invention never seems to flag.  Even more impressive is that the humor isn’t scattershot like Pearls Before Swine: Stephan Patsis’ strip is funny, but I always get the impression that there’s no gag he wouldn’t try.  There are gags Thompson wouldn’t try.  His humor almost always develops from the characters themselves.  If you’ve not read this strip yet, you can read it on Go Comics, or buy any of the four collections — Shapes and Colors is the latest.

Chris Ware, Acme Novelty Library No. 205. Best Graphic Novel of 2010: Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library No. 20 (Drawn & Quarterly, 2010).  With a modernist’s eye for detail, Ware tells the life story of Jordan Lint, a bully who used to pick on Rusty Brown (featured in Acme Novelty Library Nos. 16 & 17).  The scenes of Jordan’s childhood are worth the price of admission alone: shown from Jordan’s perspective, Ware beaks down the universe into the shapes and objects that a baby sees.  Flattening perspective and labeling each item (tree, car, ant, momma, dad) as if it were a children’s book, one two-page spread shows Jordan witnessing his father hitting his mother.  The layout is bright and beautiful, like a Mondrian painting, but the content is dark — and foreshadows later, troubling developments in Jordan’s personality. Ware’s dense pages that require re-reading, his panels that can be read in more than one sequence, and his extraordinary sensitivity to space, sound, light, time … tend to slip by all but the sharpest students when I teach his work.  But connoisseurs of comics, and my best students, know they’re reading the work of a master.  He’s the James Joyce or Virginia Woolf of the graphic novel.  And Acme Novelty Library No. 20 is one of his best.

6. Best person to follow on Twitter: Steve Martin (SteveMartinToGo).  Wry and consistently funny.  Earlier today (New Year’s Eve), he posted:

4…3…2…1…HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

7. Most interesting person to follow on Facebook: Mark NewgardenMark uses Facebook like others use Twitter — he post links to curiosities, most of them on YouTube.  Recurring subjects include rare animation, and silent films.  I have no idea where he finds all of this stuff.

8. Best Literary Criticism: Robin Bernstein, “Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race,” Social Text 101 27.4 (Winter 2009): 67-94. This article is actually from 2009, but I didn’t encounter it until this year.  It’s thoughtful, theoretical, historicized — and all rendered in lucid prose.  To answer the question “how do people dance with things to construct race?” Bernstein brings together photography, toys, children’s literature, cultural history, and — with apparent effortlessness — writes with insight and clarity.  For example, to think about script behavior, Bernstein brings in (a) Frances Hodgson Burnett’s childhood re-enactment of scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and (b) E. W. Kemble’s racist A Coon Alphabet (1898).  She writes:

We have contextualizing information in the history of alphabet books, but we have no corroborating archival evidence — no journal entry, no letter, no photograph or film clip, no eyewitness account — to tell us how living children interacted with Kemble’s book. These disparities do not necessarily mean, however, that we can make more reliable inferences regarding performances involving Burnett’s doll than regarding Kemble’s book. To the contrary, we can make more reliable inferences about the latter, because it is possible that Burnett misremembered, distorted, or flat-out lied in her memoir, but it is not possible that no child ever turned the pages of Kemble’s alphabet book. By reading things’ scripts within historically located traditions of performance, we can make well-supported claims about normative aggregate behavior: in the 1890s, competent performers turned pages of picture books. (76)

I like, here, the inversion of expectations: you think that actually having a reaction (Burnett’s) might be the more reliable gauge of how contemporary children reacted, but Bernstein deftly challenges that assumption.  Her book, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights is due out from NYU Press in 2011.  You can bet I’ll be buying a copy.

9. Best TV Show: Mad Men.  Confession: I watch very little (in fact, almost no) TV.  I just started watching Mad Men this year (on DVD), and have just finished season 2.  So, I’m unequipped to comment on the latest season.  But what I enjoy about the show is the uneasy juxtaposition of nostalgia for the style of the early 1960s with the lack of nostalgia for the prejudice, sexism, disregard for the environment, etc.  It’s the close proximity of a longing for the look of the time coupled with a distaste for the attendant social mores — that makes the show work.  I also enjoy the fact that it does not editorialize: it simply presents homophobia, sexism, racism, with the knowledge that its viewers will find the behavior repellent.  It helps, of course, that sympathetic characters (Don, Peggy) are more tolerant of difference and more sympathetic to people on the margins of society.  But I find the blunt presentation of ugliness in such a lovingly recreated setting to be very compelling viewing.

Mad Men, Season 2: cast photo on stairs at Sterling Cooper

10. Best App: Angry Birds.  As is true of the above comment, I’m rather unequipped to be claiming what’s “best” here: I don’t spend much time playing games on the iPhone.  Furthermore, I have not played video games of any kind in over 25 years. In fact, this is the only game I play at all. Anyway, Angry Birds has a delightful mix of cuteness and aggression, whimsy and competitiveness.  I also like that it’s not addictive.  It’s enormously fun to play, but then I can put it down for days (weeks!) and do other work.

Angry Birds

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Stephen Fry vs. Language Pedants

If you’ve not already seen Matt Rogers‘ brilliant kinetic typography video of Stephen Fry‘s critique of linguistic pedantry, then you’ll want to watch it.  And if you have already seen it, then you’ll want to watch it again.

Before my fellow teachers raise an objection to Stephen Fry’s injunction that writers be less constrained by rules, I think it important to note that Fry does acknowledge that there are times when greater formality is appropriate, even necessary.  As he puts it, “You slip into a suit for an interview, and you dress your language up, too.  You can wear what you like linguistically or sartorially when you’re at home or with friends, but most people accept the need to smarten up under some circumstances.”  The reason for doing so, as he says, is that “wildly original and excessively heterodox language” might, to an employer or an examiner, convey “the implication of not caring.”

Left implicit here is the related point that a writer needs to know the rules in order to break them.  Fry’s mastery of the rules is part of what makes his own bursts of heterodoxy and originality so effective.  The need to know the rules underwrites my own tendency — as a teacher — to enforce them, and sometimes to do so with perhaps greater strictness than Mr. Fry would recommend.  When I encounter a student who does know the rules well enough to break them, I do let the artful informality stand.  Indeed, one of the exams I graded last night had some rhetorical flourishes that conveyed the writer’s superior command of the rules.  Alas, many others conveyed confusion over such basics as the uses of an apostrophe.  But, in an exam situation, I’m less stringent than I am when grading a formal paper.  Time constraints prevent adequate proofreading.  So, while I may mark such an error, I’m highly unlikely to deduct points on an exam.  On a formal paper, however, these errors would certainly affect the student’s grade.

But I do love Fry’s argument for “verbal freshness,” in no small part because it embodies the principles that it advocates.  In his critique of the usage police, he asks of them, “Do they ever yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it?  Do they use language to seduce, charm, excite, please, affirm and tickle those they talk to?  Do they?  I doubt it.”  But Fry does, and more power to him.  Here’s to vibrant heterodoxy!

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Inventing Language: Speech Acts and Their Creators

How many people have lent their names to a speech act? I’m not thinking of proper nouns that denote a literary style (Dickensian, Kafkaesque, Proustian), but of a specific syntactical, grammatical, or other linguistic act named for a person.  This is what I’ve come up with.

Lofting, Doctor Dolittle bowdlerizedBowdlerize: named for Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825), who in who in 1818 published an edition of Shakespeare, “in which those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.”  The word, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) tells us, is a transitive verb, meaning “To expurgate (a book or writing), by omitting or modifying words or passages considered indelicate or offensive; to castrate.”  It’s also a common phenomenon in literature for children. The 1988 edition of Hugh Lofting’s The Story of Doctor Dolittle (1920) removes all references to skin color, and changes the scene in which Polynesia tricks Prince Bumpo: instead of preying on his desire to have white skin (as she does in the 1920 edition), she hypnotizes him.

Tove Jansson, Finn Family MoomintrollSpoonerism: named for William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930), who had a habit of swapping the initial sounds of words.  And that’s what it means: “An accidental transposition of the initial sounds, or other parts, of two or more words” (OED).  In children’s literature, Tove Jansson’s Thingumy and Bob (from her Moomin books) speak in Spoonerisms.  In Finn Family Moomintroll (English translation, 1958), Thingumy “can fell smood” (smell food) and wonders whether they can go into the Moominhouse.  Bob says, “Don’t be frightened if they’re gross and crumpy” (cross and grumpy).  For a more recent example, Shel Silvertein’s Runny Babbit (2005) contains 40 poems full of Spoonerisms.

Malapropism might be excluded from my short list on the grounds that it comes from a fictional character and not an actual person.  Named for Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop (from his 1775 play, The Rivals), who utters phrases such as “the very pineapple of politeness” (instead of “the very pinnacle of politeness”).  The word means, “The ludicrous misuse of words, esp. in mistaking a word for another resembling it; an instance of this” (OED).  Some Bushisms are also malapropisms — such as “potential mental losses” or “vuclanize society.”

So.  Are there other speech acts named for specific people?  What have I missed here?

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Scott Pilgrim vs. Scott Pilgrim: Believe the Hype

Scott Pilgrim: Movie PosterJust back from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, which (as you may have read by now) is a fantastic adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s si­x-volume series of graphic novels.  This is why.  Director Edgar Wright understands what O’Malley is trying to do.  As in the books, the film treats narrative as a playful, allusive, genre-bending game.  Put another way: it’s not about the story.  It’s about the way O’Malley and Wright tell the story — virtuosic understanding of form, kinetic sense of visual movement, and hyper-consciousness of … everything. Really — of everything. Narrative structure, video games, comic books, action films, rock clichés, sit-coms, and emotion.

I say emotion because at the heart of the story, there is, well, heart.  Three hearts.  Scott Pilgrim’s, Ramona Flowers’, and Knives Chau’s.  And all three characters do learn something about love during the film — that it comes with baggage, that you need to respect yourself, and that it’s worth fighting for.  That emotional resonance — wonderfully delivered by Michael Cera (Scott), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Ramona), and Ellen Wong (Knives) — gives this fast, funny, clever film enough weight to keep things grounded.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (the graphic novel)What’s fun, though, is the way Wright packs the scenes with references and jokes.  O’Malley does this sort of thing, too.  The little boxes that give you “fun facts” about the characters also appear in the comics, as do the references to videogames.  Wright does, of course, make some changes — moving pieces of plot around, adding some new gags and scenes.  But he understands the essence of what O’Malley is doing.  If we (taking Linda Hutcheon’s advice) think of adaptation as a kind of translation, then these two quotations from Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” are key to evaluating any film version of another work (in this case, Wright’s version of O’Malley’s novels).  First, “no translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original. For in its afterlife . . . the original undergoes a change.”1 Second, “[t]he task of the translator consists in finding that intended effect [Intention] upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original.”2 I have no idea whether Wright has read Benjamin, but he grasps both of these ideas.  In the case of the first, he understands that attempting to undertake a “faithful” adaptation is impossible.  As Hutcheon3 notes, different media have different strengths and weakness: attempting a literally faithful adaptation simply doesn’t work.  What works in a comic-book format will not necessarily work on screen, and vice-versa.  In the case of the second point, Wright sees O’Malley’s intended effect, which is not merely a mash-up of a relationship story with ninja narratives and Final Fantasy II.  It is this, but it’s also using the storytelling techniques of these media to tell its own story.  And it’s the confidence in deploying these techniques with the precision, verve, and nerve that only a master can do.

I know that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World has received a lot of hype … along with reviews by some people who didn’t get it (deftly dismantled by Linda Holmes at NPR).  This a case though when one can safely dismiss the detractors and (with apologies to Chuck D) believe the hype.  Beyond the film’s many innovations, it’s also a really fun evening at the movies.

—————–

1. Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn (1968; New York: Schocken Books, 1985), p. 73.

2. Benjamin, Illuminations, p. 76.

3. Any interesting insights about adaptation here derive from Linda Hutcheon’s excellent book, A Theory of Adaptation (New York and London: Routledge, 2006).  Any other insights likely derive from my own essay on the Harry Potter movies: “Lost in Translation?: Harry Potter, from Page to Screen,” which appears in Harry Potter’s World: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, revised edition, ed. Elizabeth Heilman (Routledge, 2009), pp. 275-290.

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Mash-up vs. Purple Crayon

This is not a post on bastard pop or remixed movie trailers.  Such a post would be fun to read, but this isn’t it.  At 13 years (if measured by my degree date) or 11 years (if measured by my first publications) into the business that is academia, I’m reflecting on what kind of work I do.  So, if you aren’t an academic, it’s highly likely that this will bore the pants off of you.  True, given that we’re having an exceptionally warm summer, you might want to be pants-less.  Surely, though, you could find a less wearisome way of becoming de-pants’d?  (Insert ribald joke here.  Thank you.)

Anyway.  Some scholars manage to shift the paradigm, changing the discussion.  Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (2000) is a popular example; Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993) is another.  In the field of literary studies, one could point to Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Eric Lott’s Love and Theft (1993), or Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s Was Huck Black? (1993) — among many others.

And then you have people like me.  Some (much?) of my scholarship is the academic equivalent of the musical mash-up.  Instead of combining a song by Jay-Z with one by the Beatles, I make a similar move with ideas — placing a set of ideas in a different context, and coming up with something unusual.  Read Dr. Seuss through theories of the avant-garde and postmodern, and you — well, I — get “Dada Knows Best: Growing Up ‘Surreal’ with Dr. Seuss” (article, 1999; book chapter, 2002).  Write on Don DeLillo while teaching Introduction to Women’s Studies, and — voila! — “Amazons in the Underworld: Gender, the Body, and Power in the Novels of Don DeLillo” (article, 2001).  Where odd ideas collide, you’ll find me.

I admire people who have the paradigm-shifting ideas.  But I’m not one of those people.  Perhaps my tendency to pursue many projects simultaneously prevents the sort of reflection that leads to the Big Ideas.  Or maybe that my mind simply doesn’t work that way.  Likely, both are factors.

After getting my doctorate, I concluded that a rigorous publishing regimen was the only path out of adjuncthood and into a tenure-track job.  Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who earned her Ph.D. at the same time I earned mine (exactly one year later, in fact), did something different.  Instead of arriving at a conclusion, she asked a question: Why?  Why do we publish in academic journals and with academic presses that take years to print our work and that few non-academics read anyway?  Why not post our work on-line, via a blog?  While I toiled away within the publish-or-perish paradigm, she challenged the paradigm … and has begun to change it.  Thanks to her Planned Obsolescence blog, her many invited talks, and her forthcoming book (named for her blog), Kathleen is shifting the way that academics think about publishing.  My motto for the past decade has been: Enhance production!  Hers is something more like: Change the mode of production!

I intend the echo of Marx in that last sentence to evoke less his ideas, and more the boldness of his thinking.  As an untenured academic, Kathleen took a risk in questioning the system she aspired to join.  Wisely tempering that risk, she did (and does) also publish scholarship through traditional venues, of course — via academic presses, academic journals. Though I co-edited a collection of radical children’s literature, my own career path has been much more conservative. True, I have had a website since 1997, but — for the bulk of my scholarship — I have stuck almost exclusively to traditional modes of publishing.

If the mash-up is the controlling metaphor for my scholarship, then the purple crayon is the metaphor for hers. Instead of doing the usual thing and creating a story about a character, Crockett Johnson had the idea to make his character the author of his own story.  In doing so, he created a classic of children’s literature — Harold and the Purple Crayon — in which the title character draws a universe out of a single crayon.  His adventures get him into a few tight spots, but, keeping “his wits and his purple crayon,” Harold draws his way out … and into another six books.  So, hoping that you keep your wits and your purple crayon (or blog, or vlog, or insert other medium here), remember there’s more than one path to success.  Why not draw your own?

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