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Archive for the ‘philosophical’ Category

medanaThere’s a debate among collectors whether or not a personalised inscription on an old watch or a piece of jewellery alters its value. The majority view is that it devalues it considerably, indeed on a cheaper piece it renders it all but worthless.

Other collectors, perhaps less concerned with an object’s material value, will say it adds human interest. It can also be useful if the inscription includes a date so we can accurately place the piece in time.

Personally though, I avoid old watches with a dedication. I’m not sure why. I have plenty of old books on my shelf that bear a dedication to strangers, yet I feel I possess them no less for all of that. I mean a book is a book, after all. But a watch is a wearable piece of kit and it will always feel like someone else’s watch if it’s got their name on it and a hint of their history. It wouldn’t feel right to wear it myself. It would be as if I had stolen it. With a book it’s more like borrowing it.

This little Medana is my latest acquisition from EBay. It cost me all of £12.00. It was described as a runner, but the case looked poor, and the lens crazed – and square lenses are impossible to replace off the shelf. But all of that was fine by me because I only bought it for the experience of tinkering with it. I’m certainly not complaining, but a more honest seller would have shown a photograph of the back, which bears the inscription:

To Jack on your 21st Birthday. Love Mum and Dad

I don’t know who jack was, or his mum and dad, but I do know the watch has a fine seven jewel  pin-lever movement. This and the general style of the watch dates it to around the 1950’s. It’s a well worn piece, indeed a lifetime of wear by the looks of it, most of the gold plating rubbed off, the case pitted with a million dings, and the plexiglass all finely crazed, but somehow not unattractive for all of that. There is still something elegant about it.

It bears the deep lines of Jack’s life, and as an object in itself, though virtually worthless, it oozes character and old world charm. So perhaps the inscription makes it more than just an old watch. It makes it a story, or rather it has us making up a story to fit it because, without having known Jack, that’s the best we can do. But there are some things it’s reasonable to surmise:

I’m guessing Jack’s dead now, that the watch came from a house clearance or something. Jack would have been in his late eighties, his passing quite recent, his life cleared out, his furniture given to charity, his papers burned, a few items picked up by the clearance merchant and put on Ebay. What else can we surmise? Well, I suspect there were no children nor grandchildren, or they might have held on to the watch, given the inscription, and the family significance, or maybe they just weren’t sentimental about stuff like that.

I find it rather sad to think of this parental gift, marking time for the whole of Jack’s adult lifetime, only to be discarded and wash up anonymously on the second hand market, though I suppose that’s better than it going in the bin. How easily these days we are deleted, our life’s worth scattered to the four winds, how easily we can be forgotten, brushed off, even by kith and kin.

I wonder about him, about his Mum and Dad, and I try to imagine that birthday long ago, when this little Medana was sparkling new, the gold plate unworn and deep with lustre, and Jack was making his first steps into the adult world. Medana was a respectable brand, a sister brand to Roamer, good quality manufacture, though neither of them in the luxury bracket, so Jack’s parents were not that well off, not your Patek Phillipe, dynasty founding types, but they appreciated a bit of quality for a special occasion.

This was an ordinary life, Jack the lad and his mum and dad. Had he any surviving sisters? Brothers? Surely they too would have kept the watch had they known about it. For a reasonable sum it could even have been professionally restored and passed on, kept in the family, but I guess it’s just no that kind of watch. I hope Jack did not die lonely.

The lustre of the case has not lasted a lifetime, but it tells me Jack was loyal to the watch even as it began to show its age, loyal to the gift and the memory of his Mum and Dad. It also carries jewellers marks inside the case, further indicating it was looked after, serviced, loved, valued. I see Jack wearing it from the time he was 21, strapping it on each morning and setting out into the world, his world, and now he’s gone. And I’ve got his watch, a watch that’s worth nothing, and even a little less than nothing for having his name on it, but then such is life. As a story though it speaks volumes, filling the imagination, even though the actual truth of Jack’s life we’ll never know.

But here’s my dilemma: I can’t tinker with it. This isn’t just any old watch after all. It’s Jack’s. So I’ll put it in my little tin of keepers – maybe to confuse my own progeny when I’ve popped my clogs and they’re clearing out my own tat.

“Jack?” they’ll say. “Who the Hell was Jack?”

I don’t know, but I raise a glass.

Here’s to Jack!

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the sea southportI began my last piece with the intention of waxing lyrical on the notion of loneliness, of isolation, and the apparent meaninglessness of life. But I ended up putting the world to rights on several tangential fronts sparked by the current political situation, and the picture of a gold plated motor car that somehow tipped me over the edge, puncturing what was left of my magnanimity. This is still relevant, but what I’d hoped to touch upon also was a way of seeing the world in which our current preoccupations with the state of it become in fact unimportant.

What I wanted to talk about was Between the Tides.

This was a book I wrote some years ago now, a novel, a story about two strangers, stranded on an imaginary island off the coast of Lancashire. Both protagonists have been damaged by life, both feel isolated, lost and alone. Phil likes to draw, likes to put his pictures up on Flikr. Adrienne writes poetry, keeps a literary blog but both have come to understand how futile such things are at least in so far as they reflect the Facebook generation’s fallacy, that the undocumented life is a life not worth living, that we are only as successful a human being as the number of followers we can boast.

between the tidesWe pass a stranger in the street. They are of infinite worth to themselves, occupy the central role in the drama of their own life, a life that is in each case a miracle of creation. Yet when we pass them by, only rarely do we remember them for long afterwards. As an individual then we are worth little to others, our lives irrelevant them. So what’s the point of being alive if no one really knows we’re there? This is the nihilistic end-game of the material world view. And we know it’s not true. Phil’s drawings and Adrienne’s poetry are important, but not in the way they originally believed.

What makes each of us important, and how can we return to that realisation, and rest easy in it, even if no one else knows we’re alive?

Both Phil and Adrienne are visionaries in that their lives are haunted, literally, by visions. Phil sees things out of the corner of his eye, overlays imaginary entities on reality like Pokemon Go, and receives intimations from them, suggestive of another, hidden dimension to the world. Adrienne has suffered a life changing accident, one that triggered a near death experience so profound she is confident of the reality of the continuation of her life after death, though what that means is no less confusing. She is also developing as a neopagan witch.

Both, in their separate ways are colouring the world through the lens of their imaginations. They see patterns where others see nothing. They can view a landscape, both seeing it, visually, and feeling it, emotionally. In the brief time they are stranded together, each learns not to fear their visionary experience, more to trust in it, and to take it forward. Phil and Adrienne are extreem examples, but we can each follow their lead, since we all possess the faculty of imagination.

In the material world we try to describe the meaning of the universe, but in a language that is entirely inadequate, a language lacking the vital dimension of insight. Contrary to belief, however, through the visionary experience, the world makes even less sense, descends into a kind of incoherent anarchy. But we lose also the childish need to make sense of it. Instead, embracing the ambiguity, we realise at once each our own meaning and our importance. This is our true and real celebrity.

So forget Facebook. It’s doing your head in and those mysteriously apposite little adverts will one day have you dropping your trousers in public. Instead, like Phil and Adrienne, try seeing the world through the lens of your imagination a little more, and don’t be afraid of where it takes you.

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Image1I found this little Raketa alarm clock at the weekend. It was on a junk stall,and the seller wanted £1.50 for it. It’s an old clockwork model, and wasn’t running. You can buy a new alarm clock, pretty much like this one for a couple of quid these days, a modern battery version – so £1.50 for a broken clock might not seem much of a bargain, but I like stripping and cleaning old clocks and seeing if I can get them going. Human beings aren’t always logical creatures and our emotional drivers are usually too complex to explain to others. Indeed, if we have to explain them at all, we’re probably wasting our breath and better finding someone else to talk to.

Like broken human beings, what old clocks and watches like this are mostly suffering from is neglect. This one was simply gummed up with decades old 3 in 1 oil, and it responded well to a bit of TLC. I dismantled it, cleaned it up in white spirit, then reassembled and sparingly oiled the jewels with proper watch oil. It was very satisfying to see it come to life.

The unassuming exterior of the Raketa hides a very fine 19 jewel movement, originally designed for a pocket-watch, but adapted to take a nicely engineered timer and striker mechanism. By contrast the modern alarm clock is not designed to come apart much, other than to change a battery. They are not intended for repair. If it broke, you’d throw it away. This is the natural evolution of Capital, to make something deliberately beyond economic repair from the outset.

With an occasional service by a watchmaker, the Raketa will last a hundred years, but at forty quid a service who’s going to pay that? There’ll be no watchmakers in a hundred years, only tinkerers like me. Clocks and watches like this are to be our natural inheritance, also the reasons why we bother in the first place.

The Raketa was built in Soviet era Russia, a period when east-west tensions had us all talking about Nuclear Armageddon, a period that taught me there was no surviving such a thing, that the lucky ones would be those sitting under the first bombs as they fell – at least in Europe where the population density is high and the targeted cities are insufficiently far apart to provide safe havens in between. In a nuclear war, there are no safe havens, you see? You either die fast or you die slow – and the former is obviously preferable. What you cannot do is survive. And those weapons haven’t gone away, we managed to pretend for a while they had, but now we’re talking about them again, talking up the likelihoood of a nuclear war.

Imagine the other side have launched their nukes (Russia, North Korea). You’re going to die one way or the other. What would you do? Launch yours as well, simply to ensure the other side is wiped out along with you? Imagine you have a potential leader who says they wouldn’t hesitate to do it, that their readiness to do it is in fact our best defence. Or you have another potential leader who says they’d not launch under any circumstances, that it was immoral. Who would you vote for? And what kind of civilisation would be asking such questions in the first place?

But we were talking about clocks.

Time-pieces interest me on many levels. On the scientific and engineering level it’s a question of how you design a device to accurately shadow the movement of the earth with respect to the sun and provide a globally synchronised reference for conducting human affairs, so for example sixteen hundred hours on the twelfth of January 2027 means the same to everyone. But we can also think in more philosophical and existential terms, a time-piece being then a construct that maps our place in time, the hands sweeping up the history of our lives as they circle.

I prefer mechanical timepieces, even though they are less accurate. There’s something about analogue mechanisms being themselves a metaphor of life – each piece visible, open to scrutiny and doing its bit, responding to the rhythm of life, its function being to assist in recording the history of its greater self.

My little Raketa has known a great deal of modern history – it’s perhaps thirty or forty years old. It’s known the ending of the cold war, and the reunification of Germany. But I’m not sure how long its been asleep, and what it’s missed – a couple of gulf wars perhaps, the Syrian civil war, Libya,the European refugee crisis? What it will witness in the future one can only guess – the breakup of the European Union seems likely, also Scottish independence, the forced reunification of Ireland, and perhaps a new American war with North Korea?

Perhaps I’d’ve been better leaving it on the shelf. Some things I’m sure, like me, it would rather not know about. I’m reminded that I retire in 2020, that alarm clocks will then no longer be necessary, though I could make a decent hobby out of tinkering with old clocks and watches – and writing of course. A question for myself then: do I build a writing cabin in the back garden, or a nuclear bunker?

It has to be a writing cabin. The nuclear bunker is a waste of time, though I notice they are very much back in vogue.

Duck and cover?

Yea right!

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s-port cafeSouthport, Easter Saturday afternoon. I’m crossing the square in front of the Town Hall, thinking of lunch, when a woman steps out of the crowd and offers to pray for me. I thank her kindly, but tell her I couldn’t possibly put her to so much trouble.  She hands me a leaflet which I fold and pocket with a parting smile.

The town looks poor still, nearly a decade after the crash. There is an eerie Parisian beauty about Lord Street, but it is long past that time when people dressed up for Saturdays in town. Some make the effort but they stand out now, look ridiculous even in their finery, like peacocks strutting among pigeons. Or perhaps it’s me. Perhaps I only notice the haggard expressions and poor pigeon-clothing we wrap ourselves in. Or is it a myth, this hankering after a nostalgic vision of an England that never existed – and really we have always looked and dressed this way?

In Chapel Street, the air is lively, cut by the jangle of buskers. And there’s this wizened beardy guy shouting passages from the Old Testament – the end is nigh, that sort of thing. I note he has a bigger crowd than the buskers. But he sounds angry. It’s our stupidity perhaps he takes issue with, our refusal to be saved? Whatever that means.

It’s unkind to make rash judgements of course but I have an instinctive aversion towards angry, shouty people. And I’m only here for the cash machine, so I can pay for lunch.

Lunch is a ham and cheese and mushroom toastie. They put it in fancy bread and call it a Fungi Pannini. It grants it a certain altitude, but it’s as well not to get too carried away with these things. Obviously, I am not a gastronome. Still, it’s flavoursome, and nicely filling, and the coffee is deliciously aromatic. This is my reward after a week of six-thirty get ups, and long days that are leaving me increasingly knackered. It’s worth the wait, and the sheer quiet pleasure of it revives my spirits.

I take out the ‘droid for company. Out with it comes the leaflet from the lady who offered to pray for me. She’s wanting me to join her Evangelical Church, but it’s not really my scene. They’re heavy on the healing stuff – a long list of things they can cure by faith, but the small print cautions me to seek medical advice as a first recourse. The legal escape hatch is somewhat deflating. Even the religious fear litigation it seems. Does this mean that for all of  their assertiveness this afternoon, they lack the courage of their convictions?

I flick through the headlines on the ‘droid. The Times and The Mirror seem excited by the possibility of nuclear war. Meanwhile the Guardian has its knife in the guts of the leader of the opposition. The collective subliminal message here is that we can forget any realistic prospect of a return to calmer, more reasoned discourse. Instead we shall be distracted from ongoing economic and political turmoil by increasing talk of war. There are historical precedents for this phenomenon and we should not be surprised. These are ancient daemons, hard to outwit, filled with an infectious loathing.

I have no particular business in town other than lunch, but I visit the bookshop while I’m here. I’m looking for something by Sebastian Barry. They have nothing in the second hand section. They might have had him among the new stuff, but I do not buy new books any more – my little contribution to Austerity and my own knife in the guts of the economy. I’ll find the book I want for a couple of quid in a charity shop, when the time is right.

sport pierMeanwhile, it’s a beautiful, sunny afternoon. The trees on Lord street are budding and there is blossom aplenty. But there are more angry voices here, more shouting about God. The words are incoherent but the tone is clear: Fess up, submit, or else!

I escape up Scarisbrick Avenue, heading towards the light and the sea, but there are drunk men here with pints of beer. They are staggering, arguing volubly, incoherently. Fuck this, fuck that. Fuckety fuck it. Fuck, fuck, fuck. It’s not yet two pm, the sun a long way from the yard arm. There is no wisdom in such heroic quantities of beer, no real escape in it from the misery of latter day working lives. Only hope and the dignity of decent wages will cure it, and both are in short supply.

Along the front, by the King’s Gardens, the greens are littered with chip cartons and cellophane wrappings. It’s my eye again, black dog stalking, showing me only the decay, the despair, the sheer hopeless void of it. The pier affords an arrow to the sea. The sandy tide is in, a scent of briny freshness at last. I walk the bouncy boards at a brisk pace, breathe in the sea, take it down deep as the only bit of the day worth holding on to.

Well, that and the coffee, and the toastie.

Small pleasures amid this talk of God and War.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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thumbnailOnline social media highlights and exploits our universal human vulnerability, that we all want to be someone. We all want to be recognised, liked, admired, and generally believed to be an awesome human being because we think that, in the acceptance of our awesomeness, we’ll find escape from the horror of anonymity and obscurity in the face of inevitable death. Of course it won’t work.

We are none of us really anybody in this narrow sense. Even those admired and cow-towed to are no different to anyone else. They have their own problems, their own duel with death, one they’ll eventually lose like the rest of us. Then they’ll be forgotten, and even so little as a hundred years from now, no one will care. Many a good and talented man has gone to his grave unknown. It’s a sobering realisation, one we must face and understand why an obscure life is not necessarily a wasted one.

One of the pictures I recently put up on Instagram got forty likes. Experience tells me it’ll not get many more. It’s a about my limit, and seems to be a function of the number of people you follow and the amount of time you’re willing to spend liking other stuff, or somehow gaming the system. But it’s no big deal. It is, after all, just a picture of a hat. Sure, pictures of other people’s hats can garner tens of thousands of likes, and how they do that remains a mystery to me, but it’s still just a picture of a hat and as such will never confer immortality.

My Instagram account leaks a few clicks over to the blog, which in turn leaks a few clicks over to my fiction, which is why I’m on Instagram in the first place. It’s also why I blog. They are both subtle lures to my fiction writings, coaxing readers now and them into my fictional worlds. But my stories are not important either, at least not as influential tools to shape the zeitgeist, nor even just to trumpet my awesomeness. I leave that to others, more savvy, sassy, whatever, and dare I say, more celebrated for their craft.

My thoughts are perhaps too convoluted for a sound-bite culture to make much sense of, and I’m conscious too my outlook, though sincere, may be no more than a mushy blend of pop-philosophy sweetened by archaic Romanticism. The importance of the work then lies only in what it teaches me, and I’m coming to the conclusion what it’s teaching me is how to recognise those useless egotistical compulsions and to rise above words, that the forms of thought we pursue so doggedly throughout our lives, are just shadows of something we will never grasp. It’s not a question of lacking intellect, more that the brain is altogether the wrong shape to accommodate what it is we crave.

You don’t need to write to reach the same conclusion. You just need to live your life as it was given to you, and develop a mindful approach to it. I’m not talking about that self-help-how-to-be-a-winner-in-life kind of mindfulness either. It’s more simply an awareness of our selves in life, and the way we react to situations, and how we can tell if those reactions are the right ones or not, if they contribute to a general transcendence of this fear we have of living, or dig us more firmly into the mire of it.

It might sound as if I’m some way along the path towards nihilism, but nihilism isn’t helpful, other than as a place to bounce back from. Yes, so much of what we are capable of seeing is indeed unimportant, but the world is also rich with a transcendent beauty we are equally capable of recognising, at least in its more lavish manifestations, say in the natural world. And perhaps progress in the right direction is simply our ability to find such transcendence in smaller and smaller places. Indeed perhaps the ultimate success in life, the ultimate awesomeness, is the attainment of absolute obscurity, and the ability to sit alone, quietly, to stare closely at your thumb nail and go:

WOW!

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It was not the best day to be visiting Malham. There was a hill-run or something and every parking place was taken. Runners, brightly attired jogged off up the fells and officials with their hi-vis jackets and windmill arms directed traffic. Thus my humble plans for a walk around the fabled cove were scuppered for having nowhere to ditch the car.

Malham’s the sort of place you don’t arrive at in passing. It’s a long drive in, and a long drive out to anywhere else, so walking from another venue looked like it was off the menu as well. But the sun was shining, I was in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales on the first warm day of the year, and I had the top down on the little blue car, so there was no way this could be described as unfortunate. I simply needed a fresh plan for the day and I decided on a drive.

I know, I’d already driven about sixty miles to get to Malham, most of that along the arterial A59. But driving like that’s hardly a pleasure – more of an A to B kind of thing, and not altogether healthy in an open-topped car. I’ve seen the A59 from altitude during a winter-time inversion, the length of it overhung with a sickly brown haze, which is why nowadays I keep the top on as far as Gisburn.

No, what I meant was a different kind of drive.

I took the little road from Malham across the tops to Arncliffe. Initially tortuous as you climb from the village, the road settles to a smooth narrow ribbon snaking through a fine, scenic wilderness, one where roadside parking is prohibited. The narrow upland routes, and the little passes of the Yorkshire Dales provide some of the finest driving you can imagine – single track roads threading across spectacular dun coloured tops, bristling with limestone outcrops bright white in the sun. It’s almost a lost concept, the pleasure of a drive, I mean as our roads clog up and everything becomes urbanised as the built world squeezes out the green, and that brown haze spreads to overhang and poison more and more of everything.

Imagine if you can, simply enjoying the feel of a vehicle in motion, the white noise of tyres over rough tarmac, snicking up and down the gears to catch her on the hairpins, the sweet vibrato note of the exhaust echoing from drystone walls, then the sudden cut to silence as you rattle over the cattle grid and emerge into an open wilderness. And there’s the scent of it – clean air, hills, grasslands, rocks, running water.

It is a poetic experience, and you can still find it here.

The little blue car is an old MX5, with 85k on the clock, a cheap roadster, picked up second or third hand. We’re embarking on our fourth season together now, seasons of ease and smiles. The little road made me smile, the purr of the car as it took the hills made me smile, her tenacious grip on the bends made me smile, the sunlight glinting off Malham tarn made me smile, the deep, sublime cut of Yew Cogar Scar near Arncliffe made me smile. There was a lightness to my being as I drove, having quite forgotten I’d set out that morning with the intention of walking, and had failed.

I paused at Linton, sitting in warm sunshine on the banks of the Wharfe, by the falls. There I ate lunch, lingered by the ancient stepping stones, lulled into a meditative calm by the wash of the river. A guy was fly-fishing in the midst of a mirror-black pool where the river swings wide and into shade. Then I drove home,… and it struck me again, coming back once more to the roar of the arterial A59, the unwholesome, diesel stench of it, and the contrast with the peace and the unhindered clarity of the Dales. It emphasised at what dreadful cost the built world turns.

Along the urban byways and highways, everywhere we look we see the imposition of our thoughts in our shaping of the environment. There are attempts at beauty in architecture, but too often also a waste of graffitied despair, overhung by this brown haze as hope dissolves to premature corruption. Only where the A roads do not yet penetrate, where the way remains narrow, can we still squeeze through, slip back into an earlier time, and to an England where the land lies less marked, less troubled by our troubled thinking.

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man strolling in a wooded landscape - detail - A A MillsThere is a danger in holding on too tightly to the rational senses that we close ourselves off to more subtle life experiences, experiences that cannot be measured or explained by reference to the material sciences. But equally there is a danger in letting go, of assigning mystical, magical properties to things that have more mundane explanations, we risk simply making fools of ourselves.

So, which is it to be? Holding on or letting go? There is a middle way of course, but it’s difficult to discern unaided. Training in the esoteric disciplines can help, as can self-styled teachers and writers of books, but it’s difficult to know who to trust, who among the gurus is truly wise, or simply on an ego-trip. Fortunately for the layman there are also spontaneous experiences of the mind – mystical experiences – which reveal the subtle, psychological, spiritual dimensions of reality, experiences that blur the boundary between what we think of as our selves and the reality we inhabit.

It’s also apparent from the observation of human behaviour, most of us are born preprogrammed to overlook this subtle aspect of our nature even though, paradoxically, the journey of our lives is richly seeded with opportunities for recognising it. What also hampers us is we cannot think our way to the mystical experience, even if we want to. The mind is so fogged up with thinking it misses the point. Mystical experiences are most commonly triggered in meditative states when thinking is subdued, or they can happen unexpectedly, for no apparent reason at all, but we cannot “think” our way into them. However we manage it, the Mystical experience is a sudden and inexplicable falling through into a state of mind that is impossible to imagine beforehand, or adequately describe afterwards, but one that is nevertheless impossible to ignore.

But having been presented with the subtle nature of reality, it raises more questions, chief among them being the nature of our place in that reality. The mystical experience is a visionary and expansive state and, once experienced, the rational mind must allow it, though it may at first try to explain it away as a mental aberration. Only when dissatisfied with the more mundane explanations will it finally come round to an acceptance of something missing in our understanding of nature. But here again the problem is we fall back on rational thinking for explanations of what that missing understanding might be.

The mystical state suggests the underlying nature of things is one of infinite possibility, that thinking along certain lines collapses our potential experience of reality to within the limits of what our thoughts allow. We grant a pattern of our own imagining to the universe, and our reality takes that form, but this is not to explain the totality of our potential experience,  it is only to limit it to within bounds that are psychologically acceptable or permissible, given our inherent limitations.

At the ground level the mystical experience is therefore best reflected upon, and lived in spirit rather than too deeply probed, or pursued, or we risk simply losing ourselves in an infinite and ultimately unknowable void, or we restrict its potential to either a collective or a personal myth by weaving a descriptive story around it. The experience however, does grant us the sense of an intimate connection with all there is, even if we can no longer explain it or feel it with the clarity of the initial experience. And to live in the spirit of that experience raises our perspective of life, sets us on a journey that deflects the ego from its more destructive habits – chiefly the imposition of our own will over that of others.

When we see the universe as infinitely interconnected, we see the intimate relations between things, people, events, dreams. By contrast, living the purely rational life, the connections are severed and we see nothing. To live life blind to the connections is to risk being insensitive to those situations where our actions cut across the fate of others, whether we mean to or not – insensitive also to the idea that to act in certain ways, deliberately, at the expense of others, is to diminish both them and ourselves. Therefore the only wise course open to us in any situation is that which enriches the universe as a whole, or at the very least gains nothing for ourselves that comes at the expense of any thing or any one else.

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