The Lovely Dragon of Choice
The Freedom Not to Be Free
by Anthony Esolen
The simple knight Percival, on the quest for the Holy Grail, had not been much of a planner. Had he been, he would not have lost the trail of his desired companion, Galahad. He would not have lost both his own horse and the horse he persuaded a stable-boy to lend him. He would not now be sitting, arms across his knees, on a bare cliff overlooking the sea, expectant and hungry and disgusted with himself and his poor fortune.
But all things come to them that wait. Into sight silently draws a ship, draped in black silk, with a maiden of radiant beauty aboard, eager to speak to Percival and to him alone. She asks him the obvious question, “Percival, what are you doing here? Who brought you to this mountain, so lonely that your rescue hangs on a quirk of chance, and so utterly desolate that you will die of hunger and distress before anyone notices your presence?”
It is a rule of the questing life: Beware of maidens in black silk. Those maidens ask reasonable questions like this. Gentle and reasonable are the slopes to eternal loss. It is a broad and well-designed highway that leads to perdition, conveniently banked for the long bends; and precisely because it is apparently so capacious, so easy, so answerable to just what we like, many travel it. One could go down that road in one’s sleep, and many they are that do.
For hidden in the sweet words of the maiden is a denial of the quest itself, the quest for the deepest mysteries. A modern reader may knit his brows and ask, practically enough, how can one be on a quest when one is stuck on a cliff? Surely a man on a quest needs Questing Supplies, to be purchased at a discount at the Questing Depot; or maybe Questing credentials, a B.Q. at least, to be purchased at usurious rates from the nearest coven of charlatans (a mossy dungeon in the Rhineland, let us say, or Harvard), so that he may be equipped with the most advanced Questing Strategies, or at least that he may have practiced upon Standardized Quests.
Modern man is afraid of the quest, and is not particularly fond of hunger and cliffs, either. He will not see that the very point of an adventure is that you cannot plan it. And to be in quest of the Holy Grail—that is, the mystery of Christ made manifest in our world under the humble appearances of bread and wine—is to be prepared for the appearance, sudden and awful, even on a bare rock and when one’s stomach knots with hunger, of the ineffable God.
To suggest, as this maiden does, that Percival’s fate hangs on a “quirk of chance” is to deny Providence, surely—but it is also to cast contempt upon the unforeseen, that which, willed by God in the unplumbable depths of his foreknowledge, must strike us as a kind of chance. Modern man is in flight from chance, because modern man is in flight from life. A denial of the bliss of the accidental befits a carnal imagination that sees Percival’s forced fast as mere hunger, and hunger as foreboding death, and death as nothingness.
“Do not be quite so adventurous,” whispers this very modern young lady in silk. “Take heed for the morrow.”
Now our Percival is as innocent as a dove and not much cleverer. He replies frankly and cheerfully, like a child repeating his catechism. “Damsel,” he says, “if I should die of hunger it would be proof that I was not a faithful servant. For none is servant to so great a lord as mine, provided he serve him loyally and well, without receiving everything he asks. Himself says that his door is shut to none that come, but he that knocks, enters and he that asks, receives.”
Percival is thinking of food that we cannot provide for ourselves: the egg and not the scorpion, the “good things,” most especially his own life, which the Lord will give to those who ask. So the maiden changes the subject.
The knight’s main weakness is bound up with the softness of his heart. Percival loves and admires the Good Knight, Galahad, and longs to be his companion on the quest, but he has lost him, and all his straining to catch up with him has ended in frustration for himself and serious losses for others. So the Lady pledges to tell Percival some startling news about Galahad, if only he will bind himself in chivalric duty to her, vowing on his honor that he will do whatever she bids him.
A strange offer of freedom and servitude, this. Note that the silky damsel seeks to bring Percival’s quest to a sudden end, this time by casting herself in the role of a Providence that will dispense (in a calculated way) to the youth exactly what he needs in sustenance and knowledge and counsel. She will be the planner of Percival’s adventure—and thus there will be no adventure. Percival falls for the ruse, answering “that he would if it lay in his power to do so.”
Percival has made a choice. He has used his intelligence (a fitful intelligence, but whose is not?) to take the situation in hand. He will, he thinks, soon find Galahad, and that means he will soon discover the mysteries of the Grail.
He is in danger of losing his immortal soul.
The Dragon We Love
Choice is the dragon of our day. It smuggles into its charcoal-smelling barrow not goblets and gilt pommels but human souls, one after another after another, enticing them there with “choices,” all of them more or less trivial, while it sits upon the hoard and snores away in its inhuman sleep.
We like that dragon. We eat the fruit of the land in season, out of season. We surf the speckled Internet for spiky games and delights, or for the sheer satiation of ennui, only a click away. We shop for schools, we demand “electives.” We shop for churches (alas that we should have to shop for churches), even shop for creeds. We will give the dragon our gold for the privilege of wider choice in how we may put our brain waves to sleep for a couple of hours a day, irritable and unaccountable as those brain waves are.
We find arranged marriages abominable. What, no choice? And after we marry, we retain a fail-safe, lest married life prove to be married life and not the predictable scripts of our own writing. We are the first people in the world who expect that our children will live far away from us and from each other. Why should anyone be subject to the geographical accident of having been raised in Bag-End, near a certain hill or beside a certain brook?
We even believe in the “freedom to choose,” a lizardly slogan that darts past the silent object of the infinitive: as if we feared that the children of our own wombs would be reptiles themselves, now come to prey upon our precious choice. We like that dragon. We like our choice.
I used to believe, when I was young and dumber than Percival, that the “freedom to choose” was a legitimate freedom so long as the object of the infinitive was legitimate. If it is legitimate to live in New Jersey, then it is legitimate for me to choose to live in New Jersey. But now I pray rather that God will give me the faith to reject “choice” as the standard whereby I measure my freedom even in the licit disposition of worldly things.
I am not merely saying that there is a freedom higher and more blissful than the freedom to choose how one spends one’s money or where one buys a house or whom one marries. I assert that even regarding questions of money or dwelling or spouse or any earthly thing, there is a freedom that slays the freedom to choose. Call it the wisdom of tossing the choice away. Call it the hope not in choosing but in being chosen.
Let me begin by asserting the limits of choice. Against all the evidence to the contrary, I will concede that Man is an intelligent being; literally, he chooses among various things, mixing wattles and mud to build a house, sawing off a couple of teeth in a gear to make a rack-and-pinion, seasoning his roast pork with clove and rosemary and salt. All his artifacts, from the elegant (the word itself means “choice”) antelopes on the cave walls at Lascaux to the crude smudges of color sloshed onto a modern canvas, show Man the chooser, Man the designer. The Mohawk who shaved all the hair off both temples was delicate in his choice, as fussy as a lady matching roses to her mauve blouse.
We cannot worship the Almighty, nor ought we to try to, without this artistic, willful, playful intelligence, this embrained choosing. Hence the precise symbolisms of color and gesture and matter in a high-church liturgy, or the delicacies of musical meter and pitch and tempo and rhyme in a Baptist revival.
But those same examples of art and liturgy show that this choosing-among, this intelligence, cannot be primary, cannot itself provide the criterion controlling the choice. The elegant painter chooses the red ochre for the stag because he sees something that precedes choice. He has a vision, perhaps, of the power and the vitality of the stag, and wishes to render the stag as red as he is to the hunter’s heart, though it may be redder than he is to the hunter’s eye.
Such a vision is never chosen. It is felt as something given. A man can choose not to see, and then, when he comes to his senses, he can choose to stop choosing not to see. But he cannot choose to see. Wisdom bloweth where it listeth. Aristotle, that most commonsensical of philosophers, says that the love of wisdom begins in wonder.
To pursue wisdom is not to exercise one’s power of mind but to open oneself to that wonder: It is to pray, to wait, to obey, to listen, to give over one’s own interfering and noisy choosing, the static of one’s life of half-sleep, that dragon of the noonday hour, in the hope that the wisdom will come. The pagan poets themselves invoke the Muse, and she, note well, is the one who chooses.
The Scriptures, my sword and buckler in this fight, exalt the wise man and are at best ambivalent about the choosers of this world. Consider the state of Man in the Garden of Eden. Man was intelligent; you cannot tend a garden, as the first couple were charged to do, without exercising care in selecting what to prune, what to clear away, and what to plant. In Paradise Lost, Milton makes a particular point of this and insists upon the dignity of such labor of the choosing faculty. Says Adam to Eve at fall of night, thinking of the next day’s business:
The reader will mark, however, what Adam and Eve are doing at this moment: It is evening, and they are relaxing after their dinner. In such quiet, and moved by love, they hear and see, and what they hear and see surpasses all human planning. Eve replies to Adam’s suggestion about the morrow’s labor with happy compliance and an impromptu hymn of astonishing beauty, finally asking, as the shadows deepen into night, why God has spangled the sky with so many stars, apparently shining upon no one. Adam suggests that there is an order he and she may apprehend but not fathom, for “Millions of spiritual creatures walk the Earth / Unseen, both when we wake, and when we sleep” (677–678).
At that, the pair walk hand in hand to their bower, pray a simple prayer of gratitude and of hope for children, and retire. Nor did Adam turn from his fair spouse, says Milton, “nor Eve the Rites / Mysterious of connubial Love refus’d” (742–743). Far above their choices arches the vault of Heaven, whereunto their minds and hearts turn, yearning in innocence. Choice may well arrange the flowers when wisdom heeds the stars.
Milton understands the adventure of Eden, where intelligence is good and free but submits to a better and freer wisdom. When, in Genesis 2:19, the Lord God brings the animals to Adam, the man exercises a godlike authority in granting them names, not, we are to suppose, based upon the dictates of his willful pleasure, but upon his insight into what they really are. And because he knows them as they are, he knows they are not fit companions for himself.
Finally, when Eve is brought to him, Adam bursts into his most splendidly inspired naming, for the name is consequent upon the object of the name, and the one to be named, says he, is “bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (2:23). So too will Eve herself exercise this authority, naming her children according to the truth she sees revealed in them (Gen. 4:1,25). No Ashleys in the first family.
The Encouraging Serpent
But compare Adam’s naming of the animals with the temptation and fall. In the former, God ministers to man, allowing man to see the beautiful living things and to name them accordingly. The choosing of one set of sounds or another, at the discretion of Adam, is subordinate to the vision. But in the temptation, the serpent encourages Eve to prize her judgment and her choice because they will be hers. He is not just tempting her to choose disobedience, but to disobey by elevating what she can figure out over what she has been given to know regardless of her inability ever to figure it out.
For the serpent, all is strategy, all is cleverness and choice. He attributes God’s prohibition to a scheming desire to keep man stupid. “God chose to lie to you about the tree,” he seems to hiss, “because he is afraid of its power and wants to control you.”
Now of course the assertion is silly. God need not have created man at all, nor need he have created man in his image, nor, having done that, need he have established one certain tree as the pledge of man’s obedience. To accept Satan’s argument is to deny the Deity, to blind oneself to who God is and what man is. The serpent says that eating of the tree will make Adam and Eve “like gods, knowing good and evil,” but we have been told by Scripture that they were already like God, in their very essence like God; and we have seen that they already possess the power of judgment.
Eve is tempted to become like God according to secondary possessions, those of Eve’s own choice; she wants to see herself as choosing to know good and evil. In the fall, man for the first time assumes that what are good and evil lie in his own determination. Eve evaluates the fruit as it appears to relate to herself, judging “that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise” (Gen. 3:6).
Feminist theologians have celebrated Eve as the first exegete. Exactly: Eve would hold an endowed chair of exegesis at a fine usurious university, where she would be protected by wealth and pride and tenure from ever submitting herself to the danger of a Word beyond her utterance. The fallen Adam and Eve do grow fit for such a place. They are “wise” in the way of the world—a wisdom that cramps them, that makes them hide like scared little children, ashamed of their own bodies, ducking and scraping like resentful toadies, blaming anyone but themselves. God’s curse is surely a relief—who would want to live eternally like that?
Clever choosers do not fare well in Scripture. Genesis is a veritable epic of human misery caused by planners within the family: Rebekah and Jacob, Laban, Simeon and Levi at Shechem, all the brothers of Joseph together. Onan is the pettiest among them, Lot the most paradigmatic.
Abraham gives Lot, a man of middling goodness and middling courage, his choice of where to take his herds. It had been better for Lot had he seen that he owed everything to Abraham, had he thus rebuked his grumbling servants, and had he followed the old man whatever the inconvenience; for Lot chose Sodom (Gen. 13:7–11). Lot chose Sodom, and even as he leaves the condemned city, he has the nerve to ask the angel to give him yet another choice of dwelling, not a dangerous mountain but the little nearby town of Zoar (19:17–23).
By stark contrast, Abraham’s life was one of being chosen. What sane old man would choose to leave his clan among the Chaldees and trek a thousand miles across the wasteland to find—what? A mere earnest of a promise, a land that he himself would not possess, and descendants only one of whom he would ever see. And on that gray dawn at the foot of Moriah, as he dismissed his servants and began to climb the mountain with his son, Abraham must have slain the choice of his heart long before he raised the knife to slay Isaac.
Like Abraham, the young David is a man after God’s own heart. It is fitting that he stands up against Goliath without armor, for Scripture suggests that he has determined to challenge Goliath long before it comes to him how on earth he is going to kill him. For Goliath spews his obscene insults, and David, in the throes of a righteous anger (and not thinking up an electoral strategy), says, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (1 Sam. 17:26).
David’s words show that he sees the outcome from the start, as a fact accomplished not by him but by God: “The Lord that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine” (17:37). Note that David never draws up plans on how to defeat a giant Philistine, to be followed by the requisite auxiliary prayer. First he places himself at God’s disposal, giving God all the credit; only then do the ironic means of destruction come to him, in the form of nice round pebbles in the stream.
Goliath laughs when he sees the boy approach, asking whether the Israelites think he is a dog, that they should come after him with mere sticks and stones (17:43). Alas, the Israelites do not think so little of Goliath; they think too much of him. It is God who thinks little of Goliath—and David who thinks much indeed of the might of God.
David the wise fool, who in the inimitable old translation “slang” the stone from the bag to kill the foreskinned oaf; David, abandoned to joy, dancing naked before the Ark of the Covenant, while Michal his wife glares from above at what is just not done (2 Sam. 6:14–23)—what a relief he is after the brooding, strategizing, back-and-forth countering Saul!
We think it perhaps unfair that Saul should lose God’s favor just because he did not wait for Samuel to arrive to offer the sacrifice (1 Sam. 13:8). Saul was worried; his men were deserting him; he took matters into his own hands. What was wrong with that? Or we squirm when we hear how vehemently Samuel rebukes Saul for failing to slay Agag, chief of the Amalekites, whom God had put under the ban (1 Sam. 15). Saul did not even intend to spare Agag; all he wanted to do was to give him an extra day or so, so that he and Samuel could make a really fine (and probably popular and politically advantageous) sacrifice of Agag and the chief’s family at Gilgal.
But Samuel diagnoses the source of Saul’s deep disobedience: He has forgotten that he was little in his own sight, before the Lord made him head of the tribes of Israel (15:17). To the extent that Saul connives, thinking that he can choose in what way God will accept him—thinking, in other words, that he can have God’s favor at his beck and call—to that same extent does he show the hardness of his heart.
This is the same man who will be pitched headlong into a fury of willfulness, throwing a javelin at David to pin him to the wall, and then repenting of it, and then repenting of his repenting. In the end we find him thoroughly modern and thoroughly cowed: pro-choice, apparently, on the matter of causing witches to summon the dead (28:7–25), and on suicide (31:4).
Scripture is full of the self-ensnaring choosers and plotters and determiners of the future: Dathan, Abiram, and Korah, those early apologists for egalitarianism; Jezebel, the scheming persecutor of the prophets and effeminizer of the king; Antiochus Epiphanes, the enlightened ruler with a grand design for world peace and unity in faith.
It is also full of wise fools to whom it is granted to see what no one else sees, and who choose to yield all choice up to what God promises, even when that appears foolish and impossible: Moses, following a voice from the heart of a smallish tree on fire; Elijah, waiting for death on Mount Horeb because it seemed that his tirelessness and loyalty had been in vain, yet listening also and obeying the strange directives of a God made manifest in a whisper, I imagine like the rustle of a dry leaf or the fiat that burst the universe into being; Ezekiel, the madman made to fast in the desert and eat his paltry dinner over a fire of dried dung, but also led to the valley of the dry bones to glimpse an allegory of the great day all Christians await.
Few Are Chosen
I have always wondered about Jesus’ use of the passive voice in describing our prospects for salvation: “Many are called, but few are chosen” (e.g., Matt. 22:14). The parables show a great deal of choosing, of exactly the day-planning and life-determining kind that we now deem central to human existence.
When the king proclaims a feast for the wedding of his son (Matt. 22; Luke 14:16–24), a lot of people choose not to attend because they have already chosen better ways to be the busy deities over their own time; they have already chosen their nap in the lair of the dragon. One man chooses to tend his field, because he has already chosen that good harvests of grain will direct his life. Another man is busy with his merchandise. Another has recently married. Finally, the angry king sends his servants out to find those whose very poverty and debility have sundered them from the illusions of important business: the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind.
Jesus does not sum up such parables by saying what we might expect, “Many are called, but few are they who choose to attend.” That is certainly because salvation lies in God’s choice and is a gift of his grace alone: “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
But it is also, I think, because some people have chosen never to be chosen. They have hooded themselves, have plugged up their ears. They are too busy, in the godlike disposing of their means and of their lives, to be put at God’s disposal. Many would cry out, “Lord, Lord, we chose you!” What they did not do, what they thought it beneath their dignity to do, was let the Lord choose them.
And perhaps that is another meaning of those so variously vindicated words of Christ: “Whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matt. 16:25). The worshipers of choice will sanction a man’s losing his life, so long as it is in the man’s choice to lose it, say by hypodermic needle or stuffed exhaust pipe or revolver. What they would find intolerable would be that he lose his choice itself, and perhaps his life, for the sake of someone else’s choice.
But the wise Christian will not flinch here. I recall Jesus’ poignant words to Peter, full of love and admonishment and promise: “When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and thou walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not” (John 21:18). It is a prediction of Peter’s crucifixion in Rome.
And more: Peter, the man who tried his hand at guile in verbally denying Christ so as to hang around the court precincts, is now given his freedom from the knots of that same self-will. When he was young, he went where he wanted; that is, he was a man and a sinner, and he followed his will. In his age he will go where he does not want to go (Peter does not choose to be martyred!), and in that dying he will have triumphed over his Roman executioners. He will die like Christ, because he will have become like Christ. He will have learned to see. He will have been chosen.
The Dragon Choice
But in all things short of the ultimate, is choice really the dragon I have made it to be? I think we need some prudence and hardheaded facing up to reality here. There are many things, among them the most beloved and noble in life, that are compromised or vitiated or changed in nature just insofar as they are chosen or planned.
If you choose martyrdom, you are not a martyr but a suicide. The truly brave man is not the man who chooses to stay in the battle, but the one who sees that he has been chosen to fight and who has given up any choice to run away. The faithful husband is precisely he for whom infidelity has ceased to be a choice. The vagabond monks of Benedict’s day were caught in the trap of their ceaseless choosing; only with that wise vow of stability, which is a wise and brave tossing of choice to the winds, could a monk begin to climb the mountain of God.
If a group of people get together and choose to form a village, they have formed not a village but a club, a clique. The true village embraces all the romance and adventure of a pirate raid: people next door who insist on keeping chickens; a troop up the street who yell like Huns on furlough; the near genius who drinks too much, who can take your car apart and rebuild it better than it was, but who cannot keep a job; Irish and Italian boys who get into brawls now and who marry each other’s sisters later.
There they are, the crazy lot of them, from the smug churchgoer to the even smugger atheist, thrust into one cranny of a continental crust, forced by the accident of birth not only to put up with each other but also to keep their streets clean, rebuke each other’s children, spike the punch on holidays, and bury each other at the last. When Christ asks us if we loved our neighbors, how many of us modern choosers will be hoping he means those nice people with the good grace to live far away in India, people whom we chose to help, rather than those strange and terrible beings who just happened to live on our block?
The whole of modern life, says Chesterton, is an attempt to flee from real dealings with other men and to retreat to the haven of a clique. So have we fled the family:
The adventure of the family is that it has not been planned, engineered. Insofar as one plans a family, one plans not a family but a narcissistic extension of oneself, a sort of dreary cloning, or at best a selfish concession of some, but only some, of one’s time and love. Everything ought to be reasonable, we insist, meaning that everything ought reasonably to come to its senses and conform safely to the pleasures of our wills.
But, says Chesterton, “Aunt Elizabeth is unreasonable, like mankind. Papa is excitable, like mankind. Our youngest brother is mischievous, like mankind. Grandpa is stupid, like the world; he is old, like the world.” We plan parenthood, because we wish to shut out that world, too alive and too muscular for our weak nerves.
If you plan to be surprised, you will not be surprised. If you choose joy, it is not joy. If you plot out the turns of an adventure, you are on no adventure. Worse, you make it difficult for yourself to wake from your sleep and see that adventures are crouching out there to get you. A merchant does not buy a costly pearl and bury it in a field so that he may discover it. Not one of the prophets applied for the position. If you are going to be God’s delegate—and in some fashion we are all so called to be—then by definition the choice is not yours, nor will be the time and the manner and the means.
What Chesterton says about orthodoxy is true about the wisdom of tossing choice away: As the real excitement is not in the chosen heresy but in riding the unchosen and unutterable truth, so the most glorious life awaits beyond the reserve of decision. Modern man, clever in tiny things like technology, confused about bigger things like neighborhood and family, and quite flummoxed in matters of good and evil, likes to portray himself, Social Security pension and seat belts and little white balloons and all, as a pioneer, but as far as the real romance of the quest is concerned, the only difference between modern man and the squeakingest churchmouse is all to the advantage of the churchmouse. For he is to be found rather more often in church.
You may be wondering whatever happened to Percival. He is seduced by the calculating lady; she plies him with wine, lulls him into a stupor, cozies up to him, and leads him to a rich bed under a tent. At this point Percival is sensibly and easily preparing to copulate with, well, one of the fallen angels, when by chance—by chance!—his eye lights upon the hilt of his discarded sword. The cruciform shape clears his mind for an instant. He makes the sign of the Cross, and the illusion vanishes in noise and smoke and stench, with the lady shrieking, “Percival, you have betrayed me!”
But the simple knight is going to see more. He resumes his wait on the cliff, now deeply sorry for his sin, so sorry that he pierces himself in the thigh—and that “thigh” may be a euphemism for a region farther north. At this point a mysterious old man returns—by a rudderless ship—to speak to him, one who had already warned him that he would undergo a temptation.
This man explains to Percival the meaning of his dreams and his sufferings, and exactly what fate God has saved him from by delivering him from the seductions of the lady. Throughout all of this we do not know the man’s identity. It is revealed to us by Percival himself, Percival not intelligent but wise, Percival who sees because he has been chosen to see—because he has humbly allowed himself to see. The old man asks him about his wound, and Percival replies:
He has hardly finished speaking when his visitor vanishes without his knowing what had become of him. Then he hears a voice which says: “Percival, thou hast conquered and art healed. Enter this ship and go wheresoever adventure leads thee.”
To See & Live
To see and to live is better than to choose; to ride the adventure of faith and hope and love is better than to plot your course to the Fortunate Isles, those illusions. Only an ingrate will not accept a gift, and if I decide what you are to give me, I am just such an ingrate. Heaven itself is God’s choice and not mine, and for that I am grateful. Quite a fit place for myself in the hereafter could I design, with features all of my own choosing. A tight and fit little place would it be, but it would have that unmistakable tang of char breathed out from a reptilian belly.
Beware of Choice, the Dragon, and be wise.
The story of Percival is taken from The Quest of the Holy Grail, written by an unknown Cistercian monk of the 12th century and translated from the French by P. M. Matarasso. The quote from Chesterton is taken from his “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family,” a chapter from his book Heretics.
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“The Lovely Dragon of Choice” first appeared in the October 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Click here for a printer-friendly version.
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