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Truth and Reporting

Say it ain’t so. Jon Stewart is leaving the Daily Show. America’s premier court jester who nightly speaks truth to power in a media landscape so shamelessly yet skillfully compromised that many consumers of “news” no longer question it, is outta here. Far from a Motley Fool, Stewart is considered one of America’s most trusted journalists, honest. He came on the scene in 2003 when our nation was pretty much being guilted into supporting the invasion of Iraq. Stewart immediately raised questions about the media frenzy that escorted the troops to Baghdad, and he’s still asking.

If not led, the charge to this ill fated encounter was fueled by America’s most influential popular media–trusted networks like NBC, and CNN, and up-and-comers like Fox News–who gulped down the Cool Aid called WMD and found a new and compelling way to create Breaking News, 24/7. In the post 911 world, it became easy to marginalize those who questioned the wisdom, the sanity of mounting a full scale invasion of Iraq without proof positive that their albeit dastardly leaders were complicit in the attacks on the Twin Towers and concealing weapons of mass destruction. I am told that despite evidence to the contrary, a substantial percentage of Americans still believe that this was true. Why not? They heard it on television.

I was kid when I sat with my Dad and watched Walter Cronkite report on the death of President Kennedy. This reporter was revered like a family elder. And while our Morning News and Evening Journal newspapers were THE sources of news and information in our house, this trusted network anchor was above reproach. Of course he was telling the truth, even if the broadcast sold toothpaste during the breaks.

So where is the truth to be found in reporting today, in this media fractured, instant information environment? It’s out there but it can take real work to find it. Consumers of news today must be media literate. In short, it means that you have to read or otherwise consume a LOT of sources in order to piece together the truth behind a story. The exception might be our local sources for radio and print news where the stakes aren’t so high and there is still incentive for good, factual reporting. Still, celebrity misconduct does manage to creep into the headlines of an awful lot of stories. Call it infotainment. It’s part of what lured a guy like Brian Williams off the rails.

More than ever, we need good, solid reporting, clear voices amidst the din of the Breaking News that is most often skim milk parading as cream. And we need to amp up the thoughtful editorial writing in all media from those truly willing to question authority–even if it’s the big money that owns the media group.

So bravo Jon Stewart for serving up the truth while making us laugh. It is infotainment but it’s thoughtful and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Maybe that’s the new model for informing those consumers of news who are increasingly turned off by gratuitous headlines designed to generate “clicks” and feed ratings. Bottom line? If you can’t be funny, can we just have the facts, please? We’ll likely find the truth there.

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It’s The Poverty, Stupid.

First of all, sorry about the stupid. I don’t like that word and I really don’t like any kind of meanness. It’s just that I believe we could save a lot of time and personal energy if we could cut to the chase and agree that fallout from poverty is at the heart of most of the problems we have in this nation, state, city.

Now of course racism is still a big problem in 2015. But honestly? If the majority of the people of all races living in poverty were empowered to become truly self-sustaining–you know, “part of the solution”–I think we might even make advances on that front.

I am very grateful that I have never experienced real poverty. By accident of birth, I was born into a family of educated parents who always had meaningful employment. They worked hard. They were able to feed us, send us to school, take us places and still have enough energy left over to read to us, play with us, counsel us–the marrow that really shapes a kid. But I have sure seen the fallout from poverty many times through my work over the years. In almost every instance following an interview or taping I realized that under different circumstances I could be that person struggling, struggling, struggling, especially in an economy without much meaningful employment for semi and unskilled workers.

In the lead-up to the holidays, I saw TV spot after TV spot for car title loans luring low-income folks into greater debt so they could buy Christmas presents. Diabolical. I also saw appeal after appeal for every kind of charitable support. Nice, but not the answer. The trickle down thing is ultimately inequitable and unsustainable. It’s a conundrum to me that a lot of people, poor and otherwise, flock to places like Walmart to get the “lowest guaranteed prices” on cheap goods more-than-largely produced in countries where many workers are paid low wages even by their own standards. I know we live in a global economy and we certainly owe it to parts of the world from which we have profited to help sustain their economies. But why can’t we make things, really make things here at home? Who wouldn’t pay a little bit more for goods that were helping to create sustainable employment for people who live here? Yeah.

And why can’t we train the thousands of our citizens currently underemployed with the skills needed to repair and rebuild the precarious infrastructure in this country–bridges, tunnels. Why do we have so many for-profit prisons instead of creating meaningful enterprise in the distressed neighborhoods that seem to produce so many of the prisoners? Yeah again.

What about education? Anyone who has ever passionately taught in a public institution in this country–the wealthiest on earth–has spent their own money to improve the learning environment in their classrooms. But why do so many of our public schools in poorer areas still have to scrape and fundraise just to maintain? Why are they by-and-large so slow to achieve? It’s got to be poverty. The poor children of poor parents, for the most part go to poor schools that are usually located in or near poor neighborhoods.

Long term poverty destroys almost everything: self confidence, ambition, trust, hope, order, spirit–all the stuff that rolls into underachievement, illness, dependency, crime, violence. This is not to let those who behave badly (and worse) off the hook. There is always personal responsibility. But people need purpose, real purpose, especially men. They need the kind of real skills that lead to real jobs and steady paychecks.

I overheard someone at a holiday party talking about “the problem”, about those people sucking up all of our public resources, blah, blah, blah. Perhaps I could create a new television program called, “Undercover Poor” and recruit this guy as the first guest participant. It would be most entertaining. Look, there are many people focused on this thorniest of problems–good people working hard on a micro level to educate, train and employ the people on the bottom in this land of plenty. And, plenty is the word alright, especially for those at the tippy top. The question is, what can we do on a macro level to produce meaningful progress toward reducing institutional poverty in our cities, states, country? Maybe a New Deal to get the ball rolling?

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George Bailey

We Americans are by and large good neighbors. Much of the time we are better than those we elect to represent us, at least in more recent years since the really big money has entered the game. Gazing at the national scene, the posturing and spinning are more often about appearing to be right rather than truly being of service. As a nation, it would seem that we are more often good from the bottom up. Perhaps it is more the system and not the people.

Then there are the holidays. Especially at this time of the year, you can’t pick up a paper or click on a media source without learning of good works and anonymous donations flowing to persons-in-need following the public disclosure of their plight. This is both a good and feel-good thing, but right now I am thinking about all of the George Baileys out there, male and female, who quietly, faithfully and with little or no recognition continue to do their duty serving others, day in and day out.

FYI, George Bailey is the kind and long suffering protagonist in Frank Capra’s 1947 film, A Wonderful Life, who questions the value of his existence when things get tough. It’s a great holiday corn ball of a movie and reflects the late Director’s immigrant belief in the ability of the common man to triumph here in this land of opportunity. That’s still potentially doable, albeit more difficult in an America where the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” is much greater than it was, and communities are polarized over issues that should be no-brainers like gun control and a living minimum wage.

Still, the George Baileys are among us. They take care of our children in schools and community programs, and serve our parents in nursing homes. They clean and police our streets, nurse us in hospitals, grow our food, rescue our animals, advocate for our safety as watchful neighbors and, OK, in Delaware anyway, represent us in government…even when no one is videotaping, tweeting or even looking.

I would like to think that there is a little George Bailey in most of us. Compared to so many places in this world, a good portion of Americans have wonderful lives. We just need to keep working until that portion becomes a majority. In the meantime, we can try to remember to catch people when they are doing something right, then pat them on the shoulder and say, “Well done.” It’s what George would do, what good neighbors do…all year long.

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We ARE the World

I studied French in high school and then again in college in order to meet the minimum academic requirement. I love the sound of French. It’s so, you know,  French. Years later when we were shooting a documentary on Homeopathic Medicine in the south of France that classroom study came in handy. I was actually amazed at how quickly I was picking up vocabulary words. I could ask for the bill and the bathroom and appropriately use “please” and “thank you” and many more routine exchanges–as long as they remained routine. I kept thinking how great it would be to be able to be truly bilingual as so many of the French with whom I was working were. I was determined to try. I can do this! And so I returned home resigned to learn, really learn a  language other than English. Spanish had my name written all over it.

So I began to study Spanish: in a class, then a computer-based program, with DVD’s in the car…you get it. Heck, I seemed to be getting it. I would be ready when we went to Guatemala to shoot a story on immigrant populations that were migrating to Delaware.  As it turned out, I did as well speaking Spanish in Guatemala as I did speaking French in Lyon–mildly, very mildly, respectable for someone who had never had the benefit of being totally immersed in a language other than English. Nope, without total immersion and an opportunity to practice everyday, reaching fluency in a second language might be doable, but for most adults, a Herculean task.  With all due respect to programs like Rosetta Stone, our brains are just not as wired to learn language as they are when we are young, and the younger the better. Several weeks ago we shot a story with little people here in Delaware who are already engaged in learning a second language in special dual language Kindergarten classrooms. This language study will continue as they progress through the grades toward the outcome of being fully bilingual by the time they graduate from High School. Wow, talk about workplace advantage!

Most of the people I know who are my age had grandparents and  great grandparents who got off a boat in New York, or Boston or Philadelphia.  In many cases they had little knowledge of the dominant language and culture in their new homeland. It was go-along, get-along, and the whole melting pot expectation. Not so anymore. Today, we are the world here, and more like the salad bowl metaphor where multiple cultures and languages are tossed together in a big bowl that is our ever-evolving democratic experiment.  If you think xenophobia is still alive and well in factions of our great nation (and it is) Google some examples of political cartoons from 100+ years ago when newspapers leveled the information playing field for all who could read. Yes, there are our ancestors–the Irish, Italians, Germans and Poles–being likened to apes and thugs, etc. etc. creating panic in the hearts of respectable people who feared a hostile takeover by these less-than-human immigrant types. Of course African American citizens were habitually dehumanized. My, my–what a hundred+ years will do.

A  new, multilingual America is coming on like natural childbirth. Hispanic Americans are now the fastest growing sector of our population. This shift will further shape American culture and usher in new opportunities for commerce. And guess who will be ready to dive right in?  Of course the children who are now learning a new language from the time they set foot in school: Spanish, Japanese, Chinese and for some, English.  English will likely remain the language of business and of course the dominant language here in the US. But I plan on hedging my bets by getting out my flashcards and tuning in to Univision when I can. Estás conmigo, amigos?

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Playing the Hand You’re Dealt…or Not

I cry easily these days. This seems to happen when I see or hear about unnecessary human suffering. Necessary human suffering is bad enough. So you can imagine my reaction when I read about the prostitute in our community who apparently killed her own daughter, a young child who had likely been suffering from gross neglect since birth and had somehow slipped through the cracks, along with her brother. Sadly, this precious little girl may be the lucky one. If convicted, the mother, still young herself, will surely spend the rest of her wretched life in prison, despised I am told by other inmates once they learn of her crime. At least she will be free of the pimp who no doubt told her he loved her.

I’m going to take a wild guess and say that it is more than possible that this perpetrator is  herself a desperado from a miserable, abusive childhood. She is likely undereducated, suffering from some form of mental illness, addicted and using. And don’t be fooled by the romanticized stuff of films like Pretty Woman. The prostitutes down on Route 13 are habitually sexually abused for as little as $10 an encounter, others for a pack of cigarettes. I don’t care how skillful you are at compartmentalizing your behavior, the life is ugly and ultimately destructive to anyone who takes it on. Regardless of the consent issue, it is a violation and no woman would routinely engage in street prostitution who felt she had other options. Now to my point.

We recently collaborated with the YWCA of Delaware to create video stories about  people the YW has assisted in tapping into their own reservoirs of strength, people who have managed to rise above the hands they were dealt to see possibilities for realizing their greater human potential. The video stories were shown at the annual Donor Breakfast where other YW clients spoke–young women who might have become tragic headlines were it not for the intervention of  the YW, its dedicated staff and effective programming. I sat at a table with several of the speakers and had no clue about their suffering and overcoming until they spoke. To say the odds were stacked against them would be an understatement, but they are now on track and determined to remain independent, to contribute, and to be positive role models for their young children.

Our nation was founded as a haven for those who sought the freedom to pursue a better life. When those most vulnerable succeed, we all succeed.  Nonprofits like the YWCA who lend a powerful hand-up are getting results and should be communally supported. It’s good business and good citizenship, and the kind of intervention that can truly help at least some of the legions of young people and families now struggling in this Greatest Nation on Earth to become a part of the solution. Lord knows, we need every good person we can get.

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The Toxic Lure of Instant Celebrity

I have had trouble sleeping after reading about the incident where a group of young teenaged boys willfully assaulted a 26 year old man with intellectual disabilities, all-the-while the man pleading, “What have I done?” Over the years, we have produced many stories featuring people with intellectual disabilities. The first one was several years before the Americans with Disabilities Act became law. It was a short film about a Group Home for adult men with intellectual disabilities, then a new concept. It’s easy to remember the spirit, pride and absolute joy these men demonstrated, given the opportunity to live independently in a real home. You know, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? The stuff we all want? The stuff most of us take for granted?

We have captured multiple scenes over the years of people with profound physical and intellectual disabilities doing things like racing down zip lines through really tall trees, galloping on horseback, creating artwork by swinging over canvasses with paint on their feet…singing, acting, writing poetry, playing sports, the kind of stuff that “Bucket Lists” are made of, not to mention being engaged in gainful employment. Most recently, we produced a story about a group of college-age people receiving their diplomas from a special program offered through the Center for Disability Studies at the University of Delaware. It was a weighty accomplishment for these young people, some of whom had never navigated a bus route. It took guts and they did it.

Of course until we get the opportunity to know people up close and personally, especially those who are in any way different from ourselves, it is easier to presume, to stereotype, and in the worst cases, to marginalize them. Add to that ignorance, gross immaturity and the toxic lure of instant celebrity afforded by social media, and you get what apparently happened: a cowardly act of cruelty perpetrated by a group of kids completely out of touch with their own humanity, and validated, at least initially, by hundreds of anonymous page views. Instant celebrity!

I taught a course in screenwriting at Delaware State University in which I asked students to consider the notion of celebrity vs. hero in creating original characters and plotlines for their scripts, the “me” vs. “we”. By far, the young writers opted to create heroic characters and storylines in which protagonists chose to act for the greater good. Imagine, after watching countless hours of mindless television programming and You Tube videos featuring vapid people doing vapid things, they took the high road!

The boys who beat and humiliated the defenseless man had to know that what they did was in every way wrong. Interestingly, the same social media that delivered their short lived celebrity, led to their condemnation and ultimate identification. Apparently, many more of their peers were disturbed rather than entertained by this gutless incident. Bravo for now, but there is no guarantee. Yep, the media is the message, and the more outrageous and, or grievous it is, the more page views are accumulated that translate into instant celebrity and ultimately cash…for somebody.

Maybe it will all implode one day but for now I say we use it. In the case of the boys who so gleefully publicized their cruel acts, give them a huge dose of service learning wherein they WORK with and for any of the established organizations in our state who support and serve people with disabilities. They will quickly become educated and hopefully regain their humanity. Next, have them create and post a new You Tube video–one that celebrates the day-to-day achievements of people from our statewide disability community. They might not achieve celebrity but they’d be heading more toward the heroic. Are you with me, friends?

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Oh It’s Real Alright…

I cannot for the life of me understand why despite significant scientific evidence (… have you seen the documentary film Chasing Ice?) certain people persist in denying the fact that our planet’s climate is changing, and not for the better. The worst part is that some of these voices are elected officials, so called thought leaders, who swore an oath to do the Peoples business in Washington. Could they have had their fingers crossed?

I mean we are sorely lacking in meaningful national policy that would establish both short and long term solutions for dealing with the sea level rise lurking around our shorelines–not to mention the potential for super-damaging storm surge that threatens our towns and cities, from sea to shining sea. The adaptation of meaningful national policy would necessitate that Republicans and Democrats actually acknowledge the science then work together for the good of the country. Wow!

Once upon a time, a scant 30 years ago, the parties actually came together to create and pass a piece of landmark legislation designed to protect our nation’s coastal barrier lands–sandy stretches rimming the mainland along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf Coasts, and later amended to include the Great Lakes and even island territories. Most people aren’t even aware of this straightforward, far reaching law that protects areas that are home to incredible plant and marine life–lands that will continue to buffer infrastructure from the effects of sea level rise.

The Coastal Barrier Resources Act was co-authored by former Representative Tom Evans (R) Delaware and signed by none other than Ronald Reagan, a really BIG Republican. Like the late Russ Peterson, Tom in his post-elected life has become a full time advocate for protecting and sustaining our environment. You see it now seems that there are powerful interests trying to chip away at protected coastal areas in order to release lands now protected by COBRA for development–and LOTS of costly Federal subsidies.

This is high drama, friends, and the kind of story we need to tell and re-tell, because once these lands are developed, they’re gone–until that is a Super Storm washes away the development and We The People get to subsidize the developers. So we’re researching, interviewing, scripting, shooting and editing-away on this story! Check out our work-in-progress. Oh and even if you’re not into hugging trees, you might want to learn how to climb one while the climate change deniers in Washington persist in stalling any meaningful dialogue that could evolve into the adaptation of meaningful policy…just sayin’.

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Our Emperors Have Some Clothes

I’m not going to name names but can we agree that the 24 hour News Cycle and ubiquitous hand-held digital devices have done nothing to dial down the egos of some of our elected officials? Not too long ago we were covering an event in the US Capital when a certain Senator, impeccably tailored and replete with entourage, entered the room. What followed is the truth so help me God.

The Senator’s young female aides wore designer heels that were so pointy Louis IV would have coveted them, and beautiful expensive girl-suits with skirts so short that well, you know. The young men in the group sported sharp, GQ looking work-wear and warrior expressions. As if choreographed for a scene in a movie, they swirled around the Senator like a fish ball, cel-talking, texting and tweeting in frenetic synchronicity. Clearly, this Senator was important and the rest of them certainly would be. They positively wore it!

It was good to get back to Delaware where most of the time we are interviewing and otherwise covering elected officials here for Content Delaware or a Public Service Announcement campaign. Call it the mystical Delaware Way, but most of the time I find our delegation remarkably approachable and well, more mindful of the definition of the term Public Servant. Nearly all of them (I said no names) make eye contact and listen without scanning the surrounding area to see if there is someone more important in the room with whom they should be sharing their valuable attention. They, too, have young handlers most of whom seem like, well, young handlers working hard not to screw up while advancing their careers. They make eye contact and most of them smile–valuable facial cues.

But every now and then, even Delaware’s elected and appointed act a little too anointed. It’s all stored away for an annual event where they are not-too-gently reminded of their human foibles, and all for a very worthy cause (see: degridiron.org). Some of them even lampoon back with their own gag videos, most of which are actually funny. It happens on the first Saturday in May at the annual Gridiron Dinner, Delaware’s version of the National Press Club roast in Washington. The problem is that it only happens annually.

Governing these days can be dark and dangerous. There are still a lot of good people, but more often than not goodwill seems to be AWOL. And how about that other “G” word, greed? So more levity and less self-importance might be just what the doctor ordered for reminding some of the Emperors in Washington that underneath the cloaks of spin and posturing, we’re all naked.

Court Jesters like Jon Stewart of The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert and his Report can’t be expected to do it all. So c’mon friends, you’ve all got palm-sized production capabilities and story possibilities are endless. Get going and get funny, and if you need further inspiration check out the 23rd Annual Gridiron Dinner on Saturday May 3rd at the Chase Center in Wilmington.

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Time Wounds All Heels

Wish I’d said that, I mean originally. The pun is attributed to Groucho Marx but my first encounter with it came when it rolled off the tongue of John Lennon as he exited a NY courthouse having finally received his permanent residency Green Card.

You see prior to receiving the Green Card, the iconic Beatle had been mercilessly harassed for some five years by the likes of John Mitchell, J. Edgar Hoover et al. for essentially mixing politics with music in an effort to get young people to register to vote. In this age of real life terrorists it seems, well, almost silly. But allow me to digress.

By today’s standards the child John Lennon would likely have been classified an LMI (low to moderate income) kid. His dad left when he was 2 and he was pretty much raised by an aunt. John’s mother was killed when he was a teenager. From all accounts Lennon, like so many in his neighborhood, was kind of a scruffy street kid. Hoody was the term they used to use. It’s thug now since they have guns, here anyway.

John somehow managed to stay in school, studying art and music. I suspect that the aunt who raised him was an important adult in his life who provided the encouragement and support he needed keep moving forward. Of course John Lennon became one of the greatest influences in music and pop culture of the 20th century. Still is.

All kids need support and so much the better if it is loving support. Poor kids need an extra dose, and the number of children living in poverty in Delaware and throughout much of the US is rising. In fact, of the seventeen wealthiest nations in the world, the US has the greatest number children living in poverty. Little Delaware has more than 36,000 kids living at or below the poverty level, with more than 15,000 living in extreme poverty. Hard to concentrate on learning your multiplication tables when you are hungry, maybe dirty, lonely, scared.

We spend A LOT of time filming in Delaware’s public schools. Recently, a downright heroic Principal in an elementary school with a very high poverty rate told me that contrary to popular rants, many of the parents are actually over employed working 2 and 3 jobs just to break even. Hard to have the energy to read to your kids each night, if you are even home.

So why do guys who have made it, guys like Paul Ryan, continue to get digital ink for blaming the poor for being poor? No one blames the rich for being rich, we celebrate them! Does Mr. Ryan not understand how much talent we are wasting here? All those John Lennons who are languishing in poor circumstances may never develop their abilities without adequate support.

Just like in the 60’s it may be time for the people to take matters into their own hands. A great start would be for all of the adults who have an hour a week to spare (c’mon, we can all find an hour) to contact an organization like Delaware’s Connecting Generations and participate in school-based mentoring. (Full disclosure: We just shot and edited their story which you can see at www.ContentDelaware.org).

Mentoring has almost magical powers especially for children in need. Everyone wins but mostly the kids. It could become the cool, new, all-American pastime. Are you with me friends? And as for you Paul Ryan, you’re probably a nice enough guy, so stop acting like a heel or instant karma’s gonna get you!

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Maybe the Last Really Shall Be First

There are a LOT of really crazy theories out there. Most of these theories are driving without a license as they cruise the distance, end to end, of the information super highway. Well I’ve got my blinker on, about to enter the on ramp to the hammer lane. Have I got a theory for you.

I use the driving metaphor because my colleagues and I spend a considerable amount of time traversing our state of Delaware recording the voices and faces of our neighbors, your neighbors including the 47%, maybe mostly the 47%. We’re storytellers. They’ve got stories and they seem to like telling them to us. (#trust)

Right now we are midway through a series of tales about the reinvention of our Public Libraries. These wonderful spaces are, among other things, digital oases for the many who still live on the backside of the digital divide. Can you imagine having to leave your palm, your lap, your personal space just to be able to check your email or check in on Facebook? What, no Twitter? OMG!

Now there is a good deal of posturing by the giant communications conglomerates about closing the gap between the digital haves and have-nots but it doesn’t seem to be happening very quickly. I mean do they really need them? With the rest of us borderline addicted to our devices, these providers are making PLENTY of doe-re-mi as my Aunt Helen used to say. And speaking of addiction, the smart phone is now officially recognized as an entity to which people can become addicted. Teens are losing sleep as they text through the night, and grades are suffering.

Oh come on, we older folks text incessantly. We check our email, look up all kinds of things because we can and generally feel insecure if we are too far away from our devices. When was the last time you saw someone’s hands during a meeting? In that same setting, eye contact is, well, intermittent. We’re all guilty. Well, maybe not all of us.

You see my theory is that we are not in the midst of a digital revolution but an evolution where many of our species will become increasingly obsessed with their devices, eventually losing all of their human communications skills. The 47% on the other hand will still be heading to our incredible Public Libraries to use computers in 30+ minute sessions. They will get the information they need while maintaining the ability to interact with others, conversing for long periods of time, and all the while making eye contact. When they “like” something it will be because they really like something. And as these skills once again grow in popularity and favor, they will rise, and the last shall be first!

OK, it’s just a theory and until then it’s important that we keep working to achieve digital parity for all of our citizens. Are you with me friends? I mean I had to write this because my Internet’s down and I was about to go stir crazy. Maybe I’ll head over to the library, research a script, see what’s new.

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