Goodreads Review: Look Who’s Back

Note: This review is from my Goodreads account. I will be periodically be sharing my reviews on that site to my blog. Please enjoy.

Look Who's BackLook Who’s Back by Timur Vermes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I learned about this book after reading a review in The Wall Street Journal. Reading the review alone left me gasping for air because I was laughing so hard. Now that I have finally gotten the book and read it myself, I am glad to say that it was just as enjoyable as I expected.

The premise of this book is that Adolf Hitler wakes up in an empty lot in Berlin in 2011 with no memory of anything that happened after 1945. He is at first astounded at what he sees, but soon adapts to modern life while digesting the status quo of contemporary Germany through his rather… unique point-of-view. He winds up as a viral YouTube sensation as he struggles to make it clear that yes, he is the real Hitler, and yes, he means every word he says.

One half of the genius of this book is that it manages to humanize one of the most vilified characters of modern history, Adolf Hitler. As another reviewer wrote elsewhere, he is neither likable nor unlikable, he simply is. Since Hitler is the narrator of his own first-person account of this admittedly farcical story, the fact that Vermes managed to pull off such a feet is incredible. We see him fiddle with a television set, struggle with a bad night’s sleep, and express genuine sorrow.

The other half of the genius of “Look Who’s Back” lays in the originality of its premise and the execution thereof. The book is very much a darkly comedic satire, mocking the superficiality of the YouTube generation through one of the greatest monsters in history. Hitler’s take on everything from dogs to cell phones to Vladimir Putin is nothing short of hilarious. It edges toward the disturbing, however, when you realize that you’re laughing in the context of the antics of a fictionalized version of, well, Hitler.

A lot of this book depends on the reader’s knowledge of German pop culture, politics, and Hitler’s personal biography, but a short glossary in the back of my English edition manages to more of less clear this up for non-Germans. Granted, the book is probably much funnier for Germans, but I will be the first to declare that it remains a brilliant parody of our modern celebrity culture.

View all my reviews

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Supernatural Aid

In keeping with my running theme of basing blog posts off Campbell’s monomyth, I will now talk about the invaluable help I received in getting on the path to the metaphorical world of adventure.

Some time in the middle of winter quarter at a local community college, I began to feel that I wasn’t learning anything. I’d gone to college to get training and knowledge, for I wanted at the time to become a college professor.

But none of the classes seemed to be teaching me much. My political science class was taught by an avowed socialist who I foolishly antagonized. My drama class was a farce, no pun intended. The only class that seemed to make sense was a remedial math class. How ironic that my least favorite subject would become my refuge.

To cut a long story short, I declined to return to college after the quarter ended, opting to get a job at Burger King. The ratio between cost and return wasn’t balancing out.

But I was not without purpose.

I had made contact online with various persons involved in the Praxis program, which I meant to apply to at the time. One of those people was Derek Magill.

Derek Magill runs his own blog, has consulted for several high-grade companies, and is really, really good at what he does. He’s the Director of Marketing at Praxis, and I suppose it was his job to interact with people like me who were interested in the program.

However, I’m glad to have interacted with Mr. Magill online, having read his blog and his eBook How to Get Any Job You Want. I even found out about Ryan Holiday’s book Trust Me, I’m Lying through his blog.

Mr. Magill’s advice gave me the idea and drive to strike out on my own and try to find a job. Although I didn’t get into Praxis, his blog has been a valued source of information regarding career advice. His general theory of career success is to find where you want to work at, do valuable free work for that company, and then ask them to hire you to keep doing it.

It worked well for him, so I’m certain it could work just fine for me. Stay tuned.

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The Threshold Guardians Kicked my Butt, and I’m Glad They Did

It’s been two weeks since I was politely denied admittance to the Praxis program which I mentioned in my first post.

In short, it looks like the threshold guardians kicked my butt.

To enlighten those of you who haven’t read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the First Threshold which the hero crosses in his monomyth (see the aforementioned first post) must face an obstacle, referred to as “threshold guardians,” in the way to his entrance into the world of adventure.

In this case, the threshold guardians were a couple of fine gentlemen who kindly showed me the door, throwing my metaphorical butt down the stairs of the first threshold.

In a word, “Ouch.”

I wanted to get into the Praxis program, I really did, but I think I know why I didn’t make the cut. Firstly, my interviews weren’t very impressive. That’s a big road block.

Second, I now realize (and they probably knew it before I did) that I was seeing Praxis as just another conveyor belt. Like the college student before me who expected a job right when they graduate simply because they have a piece of paper that says they sat through a bunch of classes and passed some tests, I thought that if I could just get into Praxis, I’d be set.

But these fine, indefatigable Threshold Guardians knew better. They had no time for such layabouts as I, so they picked me up by both arms, gave me a nice reality check, and threw me back over to where I had met up with my Supernatural Aid (more on that in a later post).

So there I sat (metaphorically and literally, as most of this was done while I was sitting), wondering what on Earth would become of me.

But then I had an idea: There are other thresholds.

So, remembering Moltke’s maxim that “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy,” I picked myself up, put some cold water on my face, and set to work on another fork in the road, heading to another Threshold. With luck, the threshold guardians there will be a little more forgiving.

Either that, or I’ll be a little tougher.

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Never Judge a Book by It’s Cover. Seriously, Don’t Do It.

I recently finished reading a book called The Sales Bible by Jeffrey Gitomer. My dad bought it and gave to me, instructing me to read it and glean whatever sales knowledge I could from its pages.

I took one look at the book, and I thought, “Are you kidding me? This thing’s a McBook!” McBooks. The real-life, physical equivalent of clickbait.

This book had the all the indications of such a book. Chapters containing lists. Multi-colored contents. Lots of exclamation points. A writer with a smarmy sense of humor, no doubt a pretentious blowhard who thought he was just so clever.

But having resolved to read every book on sales and marketing that I could get my hands on, I picked up the book and began to read.

A few weeks later, I closed the book, satisfied that I was mostly wrong in my prejudgment of The Sales Bible. The introduction did have a lot of fluffy, self-help, positive-thinking mumbo-jumbo that I could have done without, but in the meaty center of the book was a load of good sales advice.

For more on my thoughts on this book, please see my review on Goodreads. In the meantime, please remember that the old cliché is in fact worth heeding: “Never judge a book by its cover.”

The folly of judging a book by its cover nearly led me to ignore a pretty good amount of good sales advice. Likewise, the impulse to judge a book by its cover has led me to waste time on mediocre or bad books.

There is one such book of this sort that I have read several times, and no matter how many times I read it, I just did not find it memorable enough to enjoy those repeated readings. My only reason for rereading this particular book was that I thought I could somehow find it more enjoyable the second time around.

(If you want to know what that book was, please send me a message and I’ll consider discussing it in a future post.)

The point of this post is to read indiscriminately. If you are told to read a book for a class, read it. If there are books assigned for extra credit, read those too.

If you see a book on a shelf, and it catches your eye, read it. If you hear about a book that sounds interesting, read it. If you receive a book as a gift, read it.

If somebody else recommends a book to you, for goodness sake, read that one too. There are plenty of books that have been recommended to me that I didn’t read or read later, convinced that I knew it all and would find it dull or uninteresting, only to have my mind utterly blown over how this masterpiece almost escaped me due to literary chauvinism.

That’s how I discovered Redwall by Brian Jacques. Thank you, Emily.

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Art Needs More Entrepreneurs (Part 2/2)

In my previous post in this series, I discussed how popular culture and the arts have been in a state of stagnancy for a while now, but are slowly making a comeback. I will now expand on the subject of how we can encourage more and greater artistic innovation and growth.

In the internet age, it is easier than ever for artists and writers to market themselves, get their work out, find collaborators, and accumulate followings. But not many artists seem to be taking advantage of this state of affairs. Their lack of commercial success is not often a matter insufficient products, but of insufficient marketing.

As I stated in part one, I primarily buy old back issues (comic books, that is) that I know are good instead of those new, hot-off-the-presses books that, while good-looking, tends to lack substance. Again, if I have no reason to have confidence in the product’s quality, why should I buy it?

This is not to say that today’s entertainment lacks quality fare.

In comics, there is plenty of stuff both outside of the Big Two publishing houses (Marvel and DC) that’s both original and compelling, if not generally clean. I don’t always read stuff from independent publishers such as IDW and Image, but they and their publications do have significant followings.

Webcomics continue to provide quality content, such as Gannon Beck’s Space Corps and Scott Christian Sava’s The Dreamland Chronicles. Most of them are independent, creator-owned works, examples of true artist-entrepreneurs. We’ll return to this concept later.

In the realm of theatre, new musicals such as Hamilton and Newsies have taken young audiences by storm. I look forward to watching Hamilton myself one day, as it has come highly recommended from sources I know to be reliable. Any musical that gets people thinking about the lives of the Founding Fathers is definitely worth taking a look at.

Even in film, genuinely good movies are still being made, notwithstanding the sneers that certain popular adaptations continue to draw. The 2013 film 12 Years a Slave, for instance, is without a doubt the best new movie I’ve ever seen, though it was quite painful to watch due to the heartrendingly realistic portrayal of chattel slavery. I wouldn’t want to watch it again.

Going back a few more years, Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception remains the most original film, sci-fi or not, to be produced in recent memory. It is definitely worthy of its robust box office and numerous accolades.

Inception is also one of a very short list of recent films which fall within the classifications of “good” and “popular.” I’m certain the two need not be (nor haven’t always been) mutually exclusive.

The point of all this is that new, innovative artistic talent exists. There are people out there who are creating fresh, original, entertaining stories. They just aren’t always visible to mainstream audiences.

This isn’t so much a failure of product as it is a failure of marketing. Plenty of artists have a good product, but don’t have the marketing savvy or inclination toward business to get their name out.

The central reason this problem exists, I think, is because many artists shudder at the mention of “money,” “business,” “marketing,” “sales,” and “profit.” This is absolutely not true for all artists, maybe not even most artists, particularly Millennials.

But for many older persons in the arts industry, the prevailing wisdom in their circles has been that if you manage to make money or achieve popularity through your art, then you’re a “sell-out.” One theatre guy I know apparently gets most of his funding through government grants while his audience dwindles.

In the minds of these artists, if something sells and is popular, then there is definitely something wrong with it. I took a drama class during my community college days, and this attitude was rampant, especially in the textbooks we were assigned.

The drama enthusiasts seemed open to new types of theatre that attracted young people, but paradoxically were opposed to any kind of commercial theatre. I’m not alone in noticing this attitude. As Lyn Gardner, a theatre critic for The Guardian pointed out in a 2009 article:

That squeamishness is daft; after all, way back in a golden age of new writing, the careers of Shakespeare, Marlowe and their contemporaries relied entirely on the entrepreneurial flair of theatre owners. Our greatest playwright was a commercial writer working for a commercial management.

But this chrometophobia is not found in all artists. What may in one case result from antipathy toward anything related to the word “profit” may in another case result from simple ignorance of basic marketing principles.

One of the biggest is, “You have to spend money to make money.” This could mean hiring a decent web-designer to make you a good-looking landing page. That alone would surely increase the amount of traffic that half of these webcomics get.

Plenty of artists know how to use Patreon and Indiegogo but most aren’t making it clear through their website design that people can actually donate. I didn’t know that Space Corps had a Patreon account until last month, and I’ve been reading it for the better part of a year!

I’m not saying this stuff is easy, it’s not. I am saying that more artists need to start thinking like entrepreneurs if they want to get a large following behind their work.

Like it or not, art is a business, and that’s perfectly okay. If people are willing to pay money for something, that’s generally a good indicator of quality. (Key word: generally.)

(Image credit: Vienna Opera Backstage, Austria” by Jorge Royan is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

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Don’t Get Your History from Comment Sections

Shortly before I started this blog, I signed up for a Quora account. On Quora, you can write detailed answers to people’s questions, complete with editing tools absent from standard comment sections. It allows you to find, ask, and answer pretty much any question related to any topic under the sun.

But while this is a useful and fun tool, the information available from Quora is not infallible. Although useful for finding specific and arcane knowledge from people of various walks of life, it shares all the shortcomings of any social media outlet. This includes the tendency of people to give extremely lopsided, ax-grinding accounts of rather prickly issues.

For example, one thread involved a handful of people comparing Winston Churchill to Hitler and Stalin. Comparing just about anyone to Hitler is not new on the internet, but as a lover of history, I found this assertion incredibly asinine. The topic in question involved Churchill’s stance on the British Empire’s rule of India.

I am hardly an expert on Churchill, but I knew enough about history to think a detailed response was warranted. I was fully prepared to do so, except I was out of internet range and my phone was nearly dead, if I recall correctly.

The long and short of it is that I completely forgot about this incident until a few days later, and then got the idea to write this blog post. Mercifully, my now cooler head prevailed and I did not write a reply to that Quora comment.

Nothing I say is going to stop people from getting information online. Plenty of people continue to do so, and I think it’s for the better. More information, true and false, accurate and mistaken, is readily available to more people than at any other point in history. The question is being discerning enough to sort out the good from the bad.

But there is a reason that I prefer books over the internet. It is easier (for now) to qualify the author as a reliable source, whereas on the internet, literally anybody could be writing about anything. Typically, when one seeks an incisive record of past events, they either get a sterile catalog of the raw facts, or else they get a polemic infused with the most virile historical revisionism.

It is absolutely possible to find trustworthy information on the internet. It’s only a matter of seeking out the right sources. It’s no good trying to find a completely “unbiased” account of history, as so many people foolishly yearn for. But it is equally foolhardy to believe that no account of history is to be trusted, from which we get the moronic truism, “History is written by the winners.”

(A more accurate statement would be, “History is written by historians.” Please remind me what Herodotus or Thucydides “won” that made them able to write their historical accounts.)

If you really want to learn the history of Winston Churchill, find an article about him on the internet which has citation notes. Yes, Wikipedia counts. Then find citations which refer to books. Read those books, and then you’ll have a good idea both of what actual historians have to say about Churchill, and you’ll know the context of the hodge-podge of information you read on Quora.

Just don’t, by all that is holy, get your information about history from comment sections, whether on Quora or anywhere else. Even the History Channel is better than that.

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Art Needs More Entrepreneurs (Part 1/2)

In this day and age, we are said to live in the Golden Age of Television. We’re watching more TV more often and more enthusiastically than ever before. On lunch break you’re more likely to chat with your coworker about the latest season of Orange is the New Black than the last thing you saw at the nearest movie theater.

Indeed, television is going through a renaissance, what with the dawn of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime which allow us to stream innumerable hours of TV, old and new, into our homes and onto our screens. These new platforms also allow for the production of original content which, appropriately enough, is refreshingly original.

But while TV is doing fine, can the same be said of other art forms? I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie in the theater that wasn’t an adaptation, let alone a good movie. Going to the movies is also quite pricey, so regularly going to see any movies in the theater other than the latest Marvel flick is not something I’m interested in.

Comics are a growing area of interest in terms of aesthetic quality. They have been for a long time. Indeed, new advances in technology have allowed fans of older issues like myself to catch up without accumulating a pile of back-issues. Comic book art (penciling) is better and more original than ever before.

However, that’s where the innovation ends. Chuck Dixon lamented on a Goodreads blog post that quality of writing has gone out the window, even as penciling continues to improve. I can’t say I disagree with Mr. Dixon, whose run on Robin is my primary area of interest at the moment. I am happily reading through his work on that title at present, which dates back to the mid-1990s. Thank goodness for Comixology.

There are plenty of good new novels to read, I’m sure. But the most popular ones seem to serve merely as fodder for distended, big-budget movie franchises, often of dubious quality. The books themselves are hit-or-miss, ranging from spectacularly good (The Book Thief) to hilariously awful (Twilight).

I’ve dabbled in the theatre, and have found the typical production put on by my local community theater to be wanting. The last play of theirs I went to see was an obscenely pretentious melodrama where every other line had the characters bursting into song.

A glance at the program told me that this was almost literally the case, with a brief, expletive-laden exchange between two characters being listed as one of the musical numbers, even though no actual song was sung in that instance. A college theatre class, and the plays we were instructed to watch and study, were all it took to solidify my suspicion that most modern theatre is a pompous exercise in pointless vulgarity.

However, I do love a good play, such as the production of Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Carol that this same theatre put on last Christmas. I still remember an occasion where my father and I went to see Max McLean’s Screwtape downtown when it was on tour in Seattle a few years ago. I eagerly await the arrival of West Side Story and 1776 in the mail from Netflix.

So, we see that all art, from TV to comics to theatre, is having its ups and downs. But what is the common factor that could inaugurate a golden age not just for television, but for all art?

The answer is entrepreneurs and freer markets. We’ll talk more about that next time.

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1984: A World Without God

I read 1984 earlier this year, and found it to be one of the best novels I’ve ever read.

It’s utterly bone-chilling, moves at a break-neck speed, and foretells all sorts of things happening in this day and age, from microaggressions (see “thoughtcrime”) to NSA shenanigans. It also reminded me that the novel is indeed an art form, and should be treated as such.

But my biggest takeaway from reading 1984 was on a theological level. Simply put, 1984 depicts a world without God. Such a world is a very scary place.

In this book, evil has gone ape over the whole world. The terms “true” and “false” have no meaning, because “the Party” determines by fiat what the facts are.

War, death, and sex are the primary objects of worship. The state effectively controls reality, and there is no means of stopping it from within or without. There is no hope of freedom or happiness, for the Party actively suppresses both through the omniscient Thought Police.

In this world, the character of O’Brien bluntly denies the common justification for Communist dictatorships, that such tyranny is necessary for the ultimate good. He instead states that “God is power” and that the Party seeks only to maintain its control over Oceania.

They know that they will forever remain in perpetual warfare with Eurasia and Eastasia and their people will continue to wallow in poverty. They rejoice in their evil, fully immersed in the concept of “doublethink.”

“God is power.” How appropriately demonic. Having just recently finished rereading The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis, which seems like an amusement park compared to 1984, I can see the connection with new clarity.

In a world where the Devil has won and God has no power, good has no hope of winning because He that is good, God, does not exist. If God existed, the Devil could not win.

The novel’s protagonist, Winston Smith, is asked at one point by O’Brien whether he believes in God or not. Winston replies in the negative, instead appealing to “the spirit of man” as the source of truth and goodness. But when O’Brien demonstrates from Winston’s own words that he was perfectly willing to do evil things in the name of freedom, Winston realizes that he has no moral high ground to stand on.

The book’s author, George Orwell, an anti-religious atheist and, paradoxically, a socialist, probably would not agree with my interpretation of his work. From what I’ve read of him online, his personal biography and writings are rife with contradictions and leaps of logic.

All that said, I am only encouraged to read more of his writings, namely Animal Farm and Homage to Catalonia, his autobiography. It’s important to read primary sources.

1984 is a novel which I was thoroughly engrossed by, but which I would be reluctant to read again. But Orwell was without a doubt a visionary. He wrote of a plainly totalitarian, fascist regime which is not too far off from what you might see in North Korea and China, all in the year 1949.

Orwell may not have had much affection for God, but he undoubtedly understood that the principles which spring from the Bible, on which Western civilization is built, are incompatible with Communism. If only this colorful Englishman had been able to see the full implications of this line of reasoning. Perhaps he did.

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Why Read Fiction?

I’ve known at least one guy who just doesn’t read fiction.

This particular guy is an incredibly smart man. He’s a student of mathematics and physics, having formerly been employed by Boeing. But he plainly told me that he does not read fiction, preferring to instead read books on those areas of expertise.

Being a “Live and let live” type of person, I am happy to let my acquaintance read about mathematics and physics to his heart’s content. However, I am left wondering just how many educated, employed, successful persons share this view, that reading fiction is a waste of time that is better spent “learning” about “practical” subjects.

I instead assert that reading fiction is good both as a means of recreation and as a way to sharpen the imagination.

As children, we are encouraged to read, at least I was, and I was of course drawn to fantasy. I remember being curled up on the sofa for hours on end, absorbed in a Redwall book. I often found myself cajoling my dad into journeying to the nearest Barnes & Noble so I could use my hard-earned lawn mowing revenue to purchase the latest Bionicle pulp novel.

But as I got older, especially in recent years, I began to read fiction less and less. I had important things to do, like reading books on history, politics, economics, business, and theology.

I enjoy all of these subjects thoroughly, but I found myself seldom reading prose fiction. I was instead drawn to comic books and graphic novels, fine stuff in their own way, but not quite the same.

Before this year, I can remember reading two fiction books within the last three years: The Book Thief and Ender’s Game. Both were remarkable books, and I got such a thrill out of reading them from cover to cover. Ender’s Game blew my mind and The Book Thief made me genuinely  sad. But I soon was back to business as usual.

Eventually, out of some fervent desire to get back to what I was missing, I finally cracked. I picked up an old, dusty copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, and sat down and read it in two days.

Up to this point I had rigidly been abiding by a complicated series of reading lists, where I just had to read these books in that order, never mind what I actually wanted to read at any given time.

But emboldened by my sudden, out-of-the-blue reading choice, I checked out 1984 by George Orwell from the library. Thus began the transformation. 1984 was an absolutely thrilling novel, and the only one to actually scare me in years. I swear I jumped in my seat while reading the thing during a ten-minute break in the Burger King break room.

I began listening to fiction audio books on my phone on the walk home, including The Iliad and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I balanced these out with works of non-fiction, but the course was set. I was now consuming real, prose fiction again!

I have just finished reading The Pilgrim’s Progress for the first time all the way through. Now I’m happily rereading The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis, a remarkable work of epistolary satire. I hope to read a comic book next, just to spice things up, though I hope to continue on my fiction streak after that.

I’ve found that since deciding to make a concentrated effort to read more fiction, my creativity and critical thinking skills have improved fantastically. I feel I can solve problems more quickly, more easily overcome obstacles at work, and more effectively engage in problem solving.

To summarize, reading fiction is not only fun, but also useful for expanding the imagination and encouraging innovative and ingenious thought. If I can’t find a solution to that marketing problem at work, I’m bound to have something brewing the next day after having spent the evening reading.

Without imagination, there is no ingenuity. Without fiction, there is no imagination. Therefore, I will read fiction.

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Crossing of the First Threshold

In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell states that all of the world’s mythologies follow the same basic structure, beginning with “The Call to Adventure.”

This is the beginning of a process in which the hero receives the calling to depart from the ordinary world, enter the world of adventure, and eventually return transformed.

The first post of this blog is not so much “The Call to Adventure” but instead “The Crossing of the First Threshold.” That is to say, I’d already answered the call to adventure before I started this blog, and now I’m finally entering the world of adventure.

My journey began when I graduated from high school, and then moved on to community college. I received the Call to Adventure when I heard about the Praxis program. But I ignored it at first, neatly stepping into the second step of the hero’s journey, or monomyth: “Refusal of the Call.”

Eventually, however, reality caught up with me: College is expensive. The things you learn there are often useless, dull, and Marxist. The long bus rides back home are no picnic either.

I had been home schooled before all this, many years of which involved a co-op, and it was a good experience. But I’d sat in a classroom long enough, and if I wanted to learn anything new, I could do it on my own.

I reached out to the guys at the Praxis program from before, and began talking online with some of them. The seemed like good guys. Thus the next step in the monomyth, “Supernatural Aid.”

This is where the hero receives help or a helper to guide him into the world of adventure, often imparting to him special knowledge and expertise that will be useful on their quest.

My quest? To become a entrepreneur, a writer, a businessman, a statesman, a reporter, a poet, a churchman, a big shot, a grunt, a leader, and a servant.

(I wouldn’t mind settling for “employed.”)

So I dropped out of community college, got a job at Burger King, worked for nine months, and then applied for Praxis.

Armed only with my social media savvy and a laptop, I have crossed the first threshold.

To be continued. 

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