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    Tuesday, November 25, 2008

    Rant: Pure Pulp Power

    Rewatching The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) I was bowled over again by that closing soliloquy, courtesy of Richard Matheson.

    ... So close, the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet, like the closing of a gigantic circle ... And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!

    Heady stuff for a sci-fi tale that gives away the game in the title. But that’s the genius of Matheson, providing a textured, philosophical climax without skimping on the thrills. Scott Carey’s epiphany occurs after he’s fought a battle royale with a giant (to him) spider, for Christ’s sake.

    Matheson works similar magic in I Am Legend. Robert Neville spends pages killing the vampiric creatures that have taken over the Earth, only to realize that they are not the monsters of his world – he is the demon of theirs. It’s a demanding notion that survived, albeit in muddled form, into last year’s blockbuster movie adaptation, only to wind up an alternate ending on the DVD after test audiences gave it thumbs down.

    Shrinking Man was remade once as farce, and a second such treatment is in the works with Eddie Murphy. Thus proving that the famous dictum “Dying is easy, comedy is hard” applies only to execution and not signing on the line that is dotted; half the remakes cited in the trades nowadays are “comic reimaginings.”

    Such is the way of the world. I don’t expect studios spending millions on popular entertainments to spring for existential wrap-ups. What bothers me is how few Oscar bait movies attempt to convey ideas as nuanced as Matheson’s anymore. Once you got food for thought in the story of a man who almost becomes food for a house cat. Now most films aimed at adults can’t convey an idea more sophisticated than “Love endures” or “Families are good.” Yet another sign that we are no longer a serious society, and that we are fated to end in ruin.

    Rant over.

    ASIDE #1: The Shrinking Man DVD also included The Monolith Monsters (1957), featuring ISM’s star Grant Williams and a story by that film’s director, Jack Arnold. I saw Monolith once as a kid and never forgot it. The monsters of the title – fragments of an asteroid that grow to skyscraper heights when exposed to water only to collapse and start the process anew – are the very definition of implacable. The movie doesn’t hold up completely, but damn, are those rocks still scary.

    ASIDE #2: Irving Gertz, who composed the music for both movies and plenty of others, died this month at age 93. Margalit Fox offers a sterling example of the obituary writer’s art.

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    Tuesday, June 17, 2008

    Sports Rant: Black and Blue and Orange

    It’s never easy being a fan of the New York Mets. But it’s been particularly difficult lately. First there was last September’s epic collapse, presided over by manager Willie Randolph. Then this season’s mediocre run, compounded by constant rumors of Willie’s imminent dismissal and mixed signals from the front office.

    All of that paled in comparison to last night’s shenanigans. Following a win in Anaheim, Willie and two coaches were fired at 3:15 AM EST. The Mets management apparently believes that fans, lulled by the pastoral rhythms of the game, are unfamiliar with the internet.

    Say what you will about Willie – and I’ve said a lot – he didn’t deserve the treatment he received this season. He certainly didn’t warrant being dismissed under cover of darkness in what Fox’s Ken Rosenthal calls “one of the most shameful episodes in sports history.”

    I could rant on and on. Instead, I’ll just point you toward this piece. Or this one. Or this one. Or you can pick your favorite search engine, type in “Mets” and your pejorative of choice, and read what turns up.

    All this plus the Mariners have the worst record in the majors, and I’m sucking wind in my first foray into fantasy baseball. It’s a grand old game.

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    Wednesday, February 13, 2008

    Book/Rant: Confessions of a Political Hitman, by Stephen Marks (2008)

    This book is lousy. Which is unfortunate, because there’s a great tale to be told about the world of opposition researchers, who dig up dirt on political candidates.

    Marks insists on referring to himself throughout by his alter ego “Oppo Man,” a device that gets tired instantly. The book is clogged with lazy writing; Rudy Giuliani’s 1989 mayoral campaign is caught “flat-footed” twice in three pages, while Congressman Richard Gephardt responds “lamely” twice in two pages. And it comes off the presses past its sell-by date, with Marks singing the praises of sure-to-be-GOP-nominee Giuliani and offering a handful of tips to John McCain “if he’s still even a factor in the race.”

    But the book’s worst feature is its truly abysmal copy editing. Not just the dropped punctuation marks that seem commonplace in every book published these days. I mean the misspellings of names.

    I’ll let “Brittany” Spears slide. But a book that purports to give you the skinny on how politics really works should not feature appearances by former House Minority Leader Bob “Michael,” California Congressman Dave “Dreir,” Florida Governor and Senator Bob “Gramm,” Utah Senator “Orin” Hatch, New Jersey gubernatorial candidate “Brett” Schundler, Michigan governor “Gennifer” Granholm, and Pennsylvania Congressman “Kurt” Weldon.

    I’m not a shadowy political operative. I’m just a guy who reads the newspaper every day. And even I knew those names were wrong.

    Oh, and “Hitman” isn’t one word.

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    Thursday, February 07, 2008

    Rant #1: So Long, Inside The NFL

    HBO announced that it was canceling Inside the NFL after 31 years. I can understand the network’s argument; in the era of all-sports channels, Wednesday is a little late for a highlights show. Even when NFL Films provides the footage.

    NFL Films, owned by the National Football League, says they’ll bring the show to a new station in the fall. I’d wager that a serious contender would be the network owned by the National Football League.

    Guess what, NFL? I’m still not anteing up for your damn channel.

    Rant #2: Wrong Robots, Dude

    “These are not the droids you’re looking for.”

    When that Star Wars line was referenced in The King of Kong, I realized I was getting tired of it. Now that Mitt Romney has said it, its usefulness is officially at an end. The moratorium begins ... nnnnnow.

    TV: Weird Show Biz Story of the Day

    Arrested Development’s Will Arnett is forced to give up his job on Knight Rider because of his commercial work for General Motors. And I was so looking forward to hearing KITT say, “With club sauce.” At least Val Kilmer makes an excellent replacement.

    Miscellaneous: Ministry of Silly Walks Links

    The AV Club has a great interview with John Cleese. But they don’t ask the question I want answered. Why is he providing election analysis for Fox News?

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    Tuesday, December 04, 2007

    Miscellaneous: An Open Letter To The New York Times

    Dear Editors,

    It is with heavy heart that I inform you that the paper of record’s readership is not funny.

    For the duration of the Writers Guild of America strike, you have replaced the Sunday edition’s normal round-up of the best jokes from the week’s late-night shows with reader offerings from the paper’s Laugh Lines blog.

    I am begging you, as a longtime subscriber, to kill this feature at once. Leave the space blank until the strike ends. Failing that, give it to Frank Rich so he can make additional tortured comparisons between the current number one movie at the box office and the failings of the Bush Administration.

    As a product of the American public school system, I am loathe to rain on anyone’s creative parade. But the truth must come out. The comedic efforts of Times readers are uniformly terrible. They’re obvious, too long, and have overly elaborate punchlines. The consistently poor nature of these jokes has led to a new Sunday ritual in my household. I read as many of them as I can aloud before my wife beats me unconscious with the rest of your publication. I am beginning to believe that the truly humorous people of our great nation take USA Today.

    The situation reached a nadir this past Sunday, when you saw fit to run an item about an “articulate hound” in “a dog-on-the-street” interview saying good things about “Bark Obama and Mutt Romney” but opining that his favorite presidential candidate is “Joe Bite ‘em.”

    I say without a trace of exaggeration that I have read Bazooka Joe comics that are funnier than that. I will provide examples upon request.

    Comedy is best left to professionals. I implore you, for the good of the Republic. Take this feature. Please.

    Vince Keenan

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    Thursday, November 29, 2007

    Miscellaneous: The November Stuff-I-Didn’t-Get-To Post

    ... will be fairly thin this month. I’ve got projects stacked up like jets over O’Hare, so naturally the ol’ internet homestead is going to suffer. And letting the site lie fallow for a few days always prompts those “you must go on, I cannot go on, I’ll go on” thoughts, even after almost eight hundred – Mother of God! – posts.

    Then there’s content. It helps to have stuff to write about, and lately I’ve come up short in that department. In the past six weeks I’ve read a slew of recent crime novels and found most of them disappointing. No names; as I’ve said many times before, if VKDC is about anything, it’s about love. Several of these books have been nominated for awards or were written by authors whose previous work I’ve enjoyed, so maybe it’s me being cranky.

    Or maybe it’s not. I read a review by John Williams late last year and haven’t forgotten this line about contemporary crime writers:

    “These are writers happy to work within the crime field, extremely genre-literate in a post-Tarantino kind of way, but there’s a sense that for the most part they’re knowingly catering to a minority audience of crime buffs.”

    I’m in that minority audience, and the last few well-regarded crime novels I read felt insular, airless, uninteresting. As if they were written for people who would appreciate all the in-jokes and cleverboots references. People like ... well, me.

    Pop culture has become so specialized that at times I feel inundated by like-minded voices. And I’m not the only one who’s noticed. New York Times columnist David Brooks wonders why popular music isn’t, you know, popular any more, and turns to Steven Van Zandt for answers. (Please tell me there’s an audio file of the bookish conservative that even liberals can pretend to love talking rock with Silvio Dante. Please.) In a recent review, Variety critic Todd McCarthy noted:

    “... ‘Enchanted,’ in the manner of the vast majority of Hollywood films made until the ‘60s, is a film aimed at the entire population – niches be damned. It simply aims to please, without pandering, without vulgarity, without sops to pop-culture fads, and to pull this off today is no small feat.”

    I suppose what I ultimately want is to be seen as more than the sum of my niches. I want a return to the days of the generalist. Think I’ll start by going to see Enchanted.

    Not that the month was a total loss. I did enjoy Park Avenue Tramp, a 1958 novel by Fletcher Flora recently republished in Stark House’s A Trio of Gold Medals. It’s a strange book, paced like an opium nightmare. Not a whole lot happens, and what does is obvious from the outset. But Flora’s rich psychological descriptions and his compassion for his doomed characters keeps you reading. It’s a novel that’s haunting for its failures as much as its successes.

    And then there are the brilliant posts I just don’t have time to write. This month I watched The Deal, the incisive 2003 film from the writing/directing/acting team behind The Queen that examines the relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown when they were both plotting to restore the Labor party to Downing Street. I also saw Johnnie To’s dazzling Election (2005), about the brutal campaign between gangsters to take control of a Hong Kong triad. And it occurred to me that both films make potent parallel arguments about the sacrifices needed to acquire power and the greater ones required to maintain it.

    But I’ve got to go back to work. So you’ll have to check out the movies for yourself.

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    Sunday, October 07, 2007

    DVD: Tension (1949)/Where Danger Lives (1950)

    Onward into Warner’s Film Noir Classic Collection Volume 4 we go. Tension is the sleeper of the set so far. Richard Basehart stars as a mild-mannered pharmacist utterly devoted to wife Audrey Totter. Trouble is, Audrey’s not devoted to him. While he’s mixing pills on the graveyard shift, she’s swanning around town with her lover. Basehart wants to off the beau, but realizes he doesn’t have it in him. However, if he creates another identity for himself ...

    Tension’s structure has dated somewhat; the proceedings are introduced and narrated by Barry Sullivan as a homicide detective with the great unlikely moniker of Collier Bonnabel. But the storyline about what people are capable of when they let slip their everyday lives is as sharp as ever. The cast makes the most of it, especially the magnificent Audrey Totter. She’s always a lot of fun to watch.

    Where Danger Lives is a dud, but an oddly compelling one. Doctor Robert Mitchum saves a woman’s life after a suicide attempt, then promptly falls in love with her. (Don’t they cover these situations in medical school?) There’s a murder, and the couple goes on the run – even though initially, no one is chasing them. The first half of the movie is a series of miscues and mixed signals, while the second half grows increasingly surreal as Mitchum begins feeling the effects of a concussion.

    The troubled woman is played by Faith Domergue, one of Howard Hughes’s “discoveries.” Faith, alas, isn’t a very good actress. But as the extent of her character’s mental illness is revealed, the weaknesses in her performance become ... well, not strengths, exactly, but interesting shadings in a psychological portrait. Let’s leave it at that.

    Movies: Enjoy The Show

    Yesterday we saw Michael Clayton, the terrific directorial debut of one of my favorite screenwriters Tony Gilroy. Great to see a smart, grown-up movie in a packed house. Still, the experience prompted a few rants.

    Rant #1. Every preview we saw – and there were a lot of them – was for a movie about death. Dead kids, dead spouses, dead lovers, dead friends. Two in a row was depressing. Three was kind of funny. Four had people turning around to look at the guy who couldn’t stop laughing. For the record, attending a movie that addresses adult concerns does not mean that the audience is simply marking time until the sweet embrace of the grave.

    Rant #2. The people who sat on the other side of Rosemarie brought an entire picnic with them. Thermoses full of liquid, large plastic sacks of bite-sized chocolate bars to be individually unwrapped. I’ve made my peace with the fact that people are incapable of sitting still for two hours without feeding themselves, and that many of these people are cheap.

    But then the guy right next to Rosemarie ate an apple.

    Anyone who eats an apple in a movie theater is a jackass. Apples are the loudest of the natural snacks, and they spray juice into the dark.

    And don’t bother giving me the speech about how you’re hypoglycemic. Not everyone who claims to have blood sugar woes can be so afflicted. Statistically it’s not possible. You know the last society so fixated on humors of the body? Ancient Rome. And we all know what happened there.

    Lastly, if you do insist on eating an apple during a movie, at least have the decency to take the core with you when you leave.

    Ah. I feel better now.

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    Sunday, September 30, 2007

    Sports: Express Train To Mudville

    Leave us journey back, if you will, to a simpler, happier time. A time when your humble correspondent was a younger, more virile figure. I’m thinking about a month ago.

    The Seattle Mariners are in control of the wild card race and about to host the the Angels Angels of Anaheim (translation from the Spanish) in a crucial series. Take two out of three games and they’re in first place in the AL West. My beloved New York Mets, meanwhile, have a considerable lead on the competition. If they do well in a four-game stand against the second-place Phillies, the NL East will be decided early. I allow myself to fantasize about a Mets/Mariners World Series.

    Not that my loyalties would be divided. I follow the Mariners, because I live in Seattle. I root for the Mets, because they are the team of my Queens childhood. In my fantasy World Series they don’t beat the Mariners. They crush them in four perfect games.

    The Mariners get swept, never contend for the division again, and blow the wild card. They finish tied for the fifth best record in the AL. Not bad for a team that wasn’t expected to be a factor this year, but still disappointing.

    The Mets? Oh, where to begin ...

    They’re swept by Philadelphia, which prompts them to play their best baseball of the year. By September 12 they’d rebuilt their seven game lead, just in time for the Phillies to roll into Shea for a rematch.

    They were swept again. Thus beginning what sportswriters are calling the most complete regular season collapse in modern baseball history. (Post-season collapse honors still go to the 2004 Yankees.)

    The numbers are too ugly to contemplate. Still, let’s look at ‘em. The Mets closed out the year 5-12. They lost six of their last seven games at home to teams under .500.

    Yet somehow, this morning their fate was in their hands. Win the final game of the year and at worst they forced a playoff against the Phillies for the division, with a shot at the wild card as well. Win and 2007 could still be the Mets’ Tom Cruise year.

    You know how early in Cruise’s career he’d play cocky guys who had never been tested? Then Goose dies and Tom goes into freefall? But through adversity Tom recovers his swagger and proves that he’s every bit as good as he thought he was? Hell, better? That works for me.

    The thing is, Maverick never gave up seven runs in the top of the first inning. And the Mets finish out of time, out of chances, and out of the money.

    Making it worse, both the Mets and Phillies games were shown in their home markets over the air. Which meant I had to follow both games listening to the Marlins and the Nationals announcers praise their teams’ performances as spoilers. The compliments were deserved; both squads finished the season strong. But it’s not the same as hearing the joy from Philly, or the ruthless anatomization of a year gone wrong from the Mets booth crew, the best three-man team there is.

    I should be heartbroken, but the truth is I never embraced this Mets team the way I did last year’s. That bunch, which was a swing of Carlos Beltran’s bat away from the World Series, could never be counted out of any game. This year’s team lacked that fire, and seemed to play with a sense of entitlement. As if they were saying, “Remember what we almost did last season? We’re gonna almost do it this year, too.”

    On Thursday I told my friend Mike that I started wanting the Mets to choke because at least we’d get an epic failure out of it, something to make the season memorable. Years from now, when a team falters late, their fans will say, “Yeah, they suck, but it coulda been worse. It’s not like they were the 2007 Mets.”

    I know the idea of rooting for a team is irrational. A bunch of millionaires wearing a particular uniform has nothing to do with me, with the place where I grew up, with the memories of my boyhood. But that lure is powerful. The other day I spotted a guy wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates cap and T-shirt. The Bucs logged their fifteenth consecutive losing season this year, but still he was letting his colors fly. I respect that. Even more, I understand it. I understand it all too well.

    The 2007 Mets were overhyped, overconfident, underachieving assholes. But they were my overhyped, overconfident, underachieving assholes. And I’ll let my colors fly.

    But not today. Today I don’t need the aggravation.

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    Tuesday, August 07, 2007

    Rant: All The News That’s Print To Fit

    It’s day two of the incredible shrunken newspaper. Yesterday, the New York Times cut one-and-a-half inches from the width of its pages. This hard on the heels of another increase in price. The Times has managed to convince some fools to pay more for less.

    Meet one of those fools.

    I have a more romanticized notion of the daily paper than most people my age. Blame my father. Not that he was an ink-stained wretch. He worked at the airport, and every day he’d salvage whatever newspapers were left behind on planes and spend the night paging through them. He’d walk through the door with a stack so thick a cop in a James Ellroy novel could beat a guy with it. Not just the New York rags, but papers from around the globe. Occasionally a copy of the Sun would be in the mix, and I’d ogle the page 3 girl while pretending to broaden my horizons. The idea was fixed in my head from a young age: reading the paper is what grown-ups do.

    I’ve been subscribing to the New York Times for years. Not too long ago, I was about to break the relationship off. The size change and the rate hike were factors, but the main reason was much simpler. I was tired of reading the paper. If I didn’t tackle it early enough in the day it became a burden, like a troll dwelling under a bridge I had to cross on my way home.

    Me: I can’t believe enough shit happens in the world to fill this damn thing every day.

    Rosemarie: You don’t have to read it if you don’t want to. You’re allowed to take a day off.

    Me: I can’t. It’ll know.

    The Times’s checkered recent history didn’t help. The excesses in the Wen Ho Lee case. The Jayson Blair scandal. Judith Miller’s flawed reporting on WMDs in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. I’d gone from thinking of the paper of record as an institution, like marriage, to thinking of it as an institution, like the Department of Motor Vehicles.

    Whole sections of the paper I never even look at. I could not describe under pain of death the contents of Thursday Styles or House & Home. The magazine irks me, largely because of Deborah Solomon’s odious feature in which she puts condescending questions to accomplished people. I hate the sports coverage because it slights the Mets in favor of the Yankees.

    Then we have the op-ed pages. I skip the editorials. Maureen Dowd’s poisonous coquette act has been tiresome for 12 years. Every Nicholas Kristof piece on Africa is the same. (There, I said it.) One out of every seven David Brooks columns is interesting; the others are unhinged because of Brooks’s desperation to cling to his conservative bona fides while appealing to the paper’s liberal readership. And if Thomas Friedman explains how “going green” makes sound business and political sense one more time, I will track him down and tear out his transit cop mustache with my bare hands.

    When the letter announcing the increased rates arrived, I snapped. That’s it, I said. I’m not standing for it. I can read the damn thing online, the way I read the local Seattle papers, and for free.

    I logged onto the Times website to cancel my subscription. What followed was a curious exercise in number crunching.

    Do I get $6.40 worth of value out of weekday delivery of the Times? Obviously not.

    Do I get $6.50 out of Sunday delivery of the Times? Hell, no. The national edition doesn’t even include much of the good stuff. Rosemarie likes the crossword puzzle, but not that much.

    Do I get $12.80 out of seven-day delivery?

    Hang on a minute.

    Yes. Yes, I do.

    I need to read the paper. I have to get my news from somewhere, and I haven’t watched it on TV since Lynne Russell left CNN. The Times is to newspapers what democracy is to systems of government according to Churchill: the worst we have, except for all the others.

    And I don’t want to read the Times online. I spend too much time staring at my computer screen as it is. I never finish anything beyond a certain length anyway. (This post is getting dangerously close to that limit.)

    Online, I’d only read articles that interest me, about culture and politics. I wouldn’t see striking photographs or pullquotes that might draw me in. I might miss the bylines of Times staffers like Jack Hitt and C. J. Chivers whose reporting is always worth a look.

    Also, it’s difficult to drag a laptop into the bathroom. I admit it, I read in there. It’s the only place where I multitask. The rest of the time, baby, I’m focused like a laser. (Incidentally, the new smaller size makes restroom reading even easier.)

    Portability has an added benefit. One of the great pleasures in life is reading the Times in coffee shops. While everyone else huddles over their laptops or has inane conversations on their cell phones, I pore over the vital issues of the day. It’s one of the rare times in life when I truly feel like an adult. Like a grown man. And I’m willing to pay close to thirteen bucks a week for that privilege.

    But three bucks for the coffee? That’s another story.

    Miscellaneous: Links

    Behold the awesome power of animation! From the great comedian Louis CK.

    Salon (yes, you’ll have to sit through an ad) interviews blogger Paul Clarke of The Cocktail Chronicles, who sings the praises of a local watering hole I may have mentioned once or twice.

    New York magazine discovers that winning a competition reality show like Project Runway or Top Chef is no guarantee of success. And this comes as a surprise to whom, exactly?

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    Friday, June 22, 2007

    Rant: Deface The Nation

    It’s not like it was the first time I checked out a library book and discovered that someone had written in it. I often find scratches in the margins, usually some private code I was never meant to understand.

    Still, it’s odd to open a non-fiction book and find ‘ALL LIES’ scrawled on the first page of text. Stranger still to realize that the phantom scribbler actually agrees with the author and is trying to back him up. You’d think lucid, machine-printed prose would be enough.

    I flipped through the book and found several more unnecessary contributions. Fortunately, they were made in pencil. (True believers use ink.) The several minutes I spent erasing made me feel like a good citizen. Next time I’ll wait and do it in the library, so as to lead by example.

    I get the same feeling removing a new type of spam comment that’s cropping up around here. Recently I made an idle crack about the ad campaign for an upcoming fall TV series that I’m interested in. I won’t mention its name again for obvious reasons. Instead, I’ll take a cue from Knocked Up and call it Shmiva Shmaughlin, whose star Shmugh Shmackman is best known for playing Shmolverine in the Shmex-Men movies.

    Since then, I’ve gotten numerous “comments” that are excerpts from newspaper articles about how the show might fare in the ratings. Said “comments” have been deleted. My house, my rules. And if said “comments” keep turning up, maybe I won’t watch the show after all. Take that, ShmeeBS.

    On The Web: Cultural Ignorance

    From Andrew Sullivan comes this post by Ilya Sonin on “rational ignorance of pop culture.” It was prompted by Forbes’ list of the top 100 celebrities as determined by pay and media exposure. Sonin hadn’t heard of 26 of them, the highest being Jay-Z at #9.

    Big surprise: I knew 98. I’d heard of Michael Schumacher (#25), but not his Formula One cohort Kimi Raikkonen at #41. I also couldn’t place motorcycle racer Valentino Rossi (#58); clearly I don’t follow motor sports. I’m going to give myself Rhonda Byrne at #93. Her name was familiar, and I knew she had something to do with self-help, but I had to click on the link to see that she’s one of the people peddling that mystical hooey The Secret. Why not test yourself?

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