Archive for March, 2010

Rev. Dr. Pamela Couture

It may not be within our power to eradicate sin and evil, but it is within the power of each one of us to receive and, by God’s grace, create moments of what the Rev. Pamela D. Couture calls “Palm Sunday” time–at any time.

And maybe we need only look to the little children to see how this works.

This is an excerpt from the Rev. Dr. Couture’s sermon titled “Time Suspended.” **

In the midst of a season that is rightfully serious, the celebrations of Palm Sunday open up a different kind of time, a time of suspended goals, what philosophers call “paratelic time,” time that stands still—suspended time. The lives of adults and, increasingly, the lives of children are crowded with goals and offer little opportunity to experience paratelic time. But, frequently, children remind us of their and our need for paratelic time. Paratelic time, suspended time, Palm Sunday time–whatever you want to call it–is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children and ourselves. It keeps hope alive.

Some friends and their children and I recently gathered for an evening at a musical event that was really aimed toward adults. The band was setting up on a stage at the front of the restaurant that was table height above the main floor. As some of the children entered the room and their mother chose a table in the middle I heard one of the boys say, “But I want to sit in front.” We motioned them to the front to join our table, and the performance began, less than ten feet from the four children.

The children became enthralled. First they gazed intently at the performers and then inched their chairs closer to the stage until they poked their feet onto the stage. A mother who was new to the experience began to correct them, but another mother who knows these performers and their attitudes toward children assured her, “It’s okay.” . . . .

Eventually, the waitress brought hamburgers and chicken fingers to the children, and the children used the front of the stage as a table, eating at the feet of the performers, still riveted on their music. As we knew they would, the performers occasionally talked to the children between songs. Knowing they were welcome, the children became more and more intent on the music and, of course, didn’t want to go home. In the music and the relationships they were building, the children were losing themselves in the kind of suspended time that children crave. . . .”

Dr. Couture is vice president for academic affairs and dean and professor of practical theology at the United Methodist-related Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo. Under her leadership, the contextual education program at Saint Paul has been redesigned to expect students to learn in and from the local neighborhood, a low-income, inner city neighborhood.

She is the author of “Child Poverty: Love, Justice and Social Responsibility,” which looks at concerns related to children and poverty in larger social systems. She also has written a number of articles on children and poverty.

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Illustration: “Take up and read,” from a series of frescos on the life of Augustine, bishop of Hippo (now Annaba, Algeria) done by Benozzo Gozzoli in San Gimignano (1465)

Jessa Crispin, editor of bookslut.com, has this review of a book about memoirs, titled Memoir: A History, by Ben Yagoda. 304 pages. Riverhead. $25.95.

Crispin’s reviews are usually better than the books she reviews. She can wax witty, very sarcastic and occasionally eloquent but always incisive.

Many people write books about themselves, few people actually should, she says in this review. It’s her usual incisive kind of review, and she gets it right about our great Christian Saint Augustine and his powerful (and I would argue fun) memoir Confessions.

By Jessa Crispin**
Poor Saint Augustine. For years now people have drawn the source of the memoir back to his Confessions. As if because of that book, Augustine’s hands now bear the ink stains of James Frey, tales of addiction, incest and mental illness, the word “momoir,” and a dozen Holocaust survivor fakers. Just like Jane Austen, who occasionally bears the blame for the candy-coated chick lit aisle of your local bookstore, Augustine deserves a better legacy.

Even Ben Yagoda accuses Augustine of the crime of inventing the memoir in his new book Memoir: A History. It’s a long road from Confessions — written around 400 A.D. — to the memoir’s current dominance in the publishing scene, although the template hasn’t changed much in all of those centuries: I have done some horrible things, and I would like to tell you about them. The difference comes mostly in the filter. Augustine framed his writings around the concept of sin, an outdated concept that has been replaced with the more vague idea of “recovery,” whether from a trauma or a mental illness or an addiction. Either way, the goal is mostly redemption and so the pathway is the same: confess, confess, confess. {My bold type for emphasis; JB}

There’s a lot of talk about the fakers in the memoir industry, and Yagoda takes a particular interest in them. The Holocaust survivors who turn out to not even be Jewish, the faux Native Americans, the white suburban girls who pretend they are inner city hardasses. We swallow their tales whole, even the bit about being raised by wolves in the European countryside while the rest of the continent tore itself into pieces, and then become indignant when they’re revealed as frauds. It doesn’t even take the James Frey-level deceit to raise the audience’s ire. Judy Blunt exaggerated a scene in her memoir Breaking Clean, saying her father-in-law smashed her typewriter with a sledgehammer when all he did was unplug it. Called on it by the New York Times, Blunt said the machine’s bludgeoning was “symbolic,” not to be taken literally. And so we’re outraged, and we engage in online debates about what the definition of “truth” is, and then someone else comes along claiming he was a teenage male prostitute, and we say, “Oh you poor thing, aren’t you brave, aren’t your books powerful,” never mind the fact that the books were never that good to begin with.

And that’s all very interesting to Yagoda, who fills Memoir with accounts of liars and exaggerators, discussing the malleability of memory and our reality TV culture that really just wants to watch a pretty woman eat a spider for cash, or a “symbolic” memoir equivalent. But lying is not that interesting once it’s divorced from the lie itself. There’s something curious about the fact that everyone, if pressed, could describe what it would be like to survive the Holocaust and could get the atmosphere correct enough to write a convincing memoir. It’s kind of like people who really want to be abducted by aliens, and can rattle off the probing and the big eyes and the telepathic communication well enough to sound like everyone’s story, thereby gaining access to a community of abductees. Maybe they believe it themselves now, too. But in reality, it’s just a bunch of people who wish they had more interesting lives. Maybe things came a bit too easily to them, and they never really had to struggle and as a result their lives lack gravity. So they make up a story wherein they are tested, they survive, and they inspire others with their bravery and their transcendence. “I wanted to tell my tale, you know, because if I help just one other person like me, then it was all worth it,” you imagine them practicing in the mirror for their Oprah appearance.

Meanwhile, in the other corner, live the people whose lives have all the gravity they’ll ever need, so much gravity, in fact, that hey can barely stand up straight. Their memoirs are understated and graceful; they don’t need to add “raised by wolves” just to liven things up. Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday is so bittersweet, a love letter to pre-World War II Vienna, a city that doesn’t love him back. Or Caroline Knapp’s quietly furious Drinking: A Love Story. It lacks the bombast of James Frey’s fairy tale about how hard, how addicted, how strong he is, but that’s because she was hard, she was strong, and she didn’t need this ridiculous “Look at me! Look at me!” persona to get that across.

With all the talk of the liars, however, I want to know more about the people who tell the truth. Not the writers of extraordinary memoirs — the Primo Levis, the Michael Greenbergs, the Calvin Trillins, the Lucy Grealys — but the mid-list authors who now believe that writing a memoir is just another step in establishing a writing career. They’re willing to serve up little bits of themselves, taking something unusual that happened to them and constructing a narrative out of it, handing it over to the world to examine and poke and judge. And the world does judge. When Julie Myerson released The Lost Child, her memoir about her son’s addiction to skunk, I wonder if she was at all prepared for the mess she was about to step into. She was dragged in front of cameras to be chastised as a bad mother on live television, she was called filthy names and accused of being a famewhore, of being willing to sacrifice her son’s future by using his name and calling him a violent addict in exchange for a spot on the bestseller list. Whether you are telling the truth, or spinning fraud, once a memoirist becomes a target, all civility seems to be denied.
It’s easier to hate or judge the writer of a memoir than the author of a novel. The novelist at least has the shield of fiction to hide behind (so long as they bothered to disguise whether they were plundering their social circle for their characters). But if the memoirist is not self-aware, is trying to convince the world that her molehill is a mountain, then it’s easy to sneer and conflate writer and book. After all, they are presenting themselves and their lives as a consumable product. Hence my mean-spirited, petty reaction to a memoirist who wrote a book about cheating on her husband, but without any self-reflection, as the actions happened right before she began writing. Her cheating came off as something she was proud of, something she still took pleasure in, and I started to hate her after a while. I didn’t hate the book, although it wasn’t great, but the author. I began to watch as many interviews with her as I could, smugly reveling in her obliviousness, her self-delusion that the reason people didn’t like the book (it was getting very poor reviews at the time) was because she was telling dark truths people didn’t want to hear. “That’s not it at all! Not even close!” I wanted to howl. Then I felt gross and like a horrible person, but that didn’t stop me from watching more interviews with her whenever I found them.

The memoir is a weird gig. Yagoda barely scratches the surface of that weirdness. When one person is simultaneously the artist, the muse, and the model, you can get a fierce, genius Frida Kahlo. But for every one Frida, you get a couple hundred 22-year-old girls who plaster their Facebook page with faux-arty pictures of themselves and feed off the anonymous male commenters who tell her she’s hot. It’s the 22-year-olds that interest me. I wonder what happens to them when they finally get sick of living their lives in full view of the public. But there will always be another pretty girl for the audience to fawn over, even if in reality the whole thing’s being run by a 50-year-old overweight man.

*Jessa Crispin is editor and founder of Bookslut.com. She currently resides in Berlin, but spent many years in Chicago.

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These are from Jean-Paul Li, who works as a videographer for the American government in Mons, Belgium. Found at:

Photos below:
“After shower,” street scene following rain in Lhasa, Tibet
Water tower in Oklahoma
Statue of Maria Theresa, Prague
“Smile,” 13 year old school girl in Afghanistan
Inside of the Cologne Cathedral in German.

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Just a little something to feast the eyes on. . . .

“Stormshot,” by photographer and artist Sonya Cuellar (along with one of her paintings). Other photo by photographer Jon Lee.

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“People still love Jesus for what they want him to do for them, not necessarily what his heavenly Father sent him to Earth to do.”
— Marv Knox, “Baptist Standard

Here’s a Palm Sunday reflection that Marv Knox, the excellent editor of the Baptist Standard, wrote back in 2003. And thanks to L.K. — from whom we posted a prior Palm Sunday reflection this morning, for bringing it to us:
(Art by Jan Richardson; see more at her blog The Painted Prayerbook.)

April 7, 2003
Palm Sunday crowd got words right, meaning wrong
___If you love irony, Palm Sunday’s for you.

___This coming Sunday, one week before Easter, Christians around the globe will remember Jesus’ short trip from Bethany to Jerusalem five days before his crucifixion.

___We call it Palm Sunday because of what happened during that trip. The scene crystallized in my mind when I was no more than 5 or 6. Our Sunday School teacher held up a painting of Jesus riding bareback on a colt. What caught my eye were all the other people. I loved how happy they looked as they worshipped Jesus. They lined both sides of the trail ahead of him. Faces radiant, they laid palm branches–symbols of military victory–in the road to make the passage smoother for the Lord.

___Their expectant words, echoing Psalm 118, have reverberated down through the generations: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the King of Israel!”

___For centuries, Christians have called this trip Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. To the contrary, it was a parade of pain. Only Luke records that Jesus wept when the journey ended. Not because the party was over, but because the people just didn’t get it. “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace,” the Lord said, “but now it is hidden from your eyes.”

___No, they didn’t know what would bring them peace. How could all those people be so nearly right and so completely wrong?

___On the surface–the view from that Sunday School painting for children–Palm Sunday seems wonderful. A smiling, cheering throng lining the road as Jesus journeys to Jerusalem. They shout words we know to be true: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the King of Israel!” That’s our Savior they’re talking about. We know he not only “comes in the name of the Lord” but is indeed Lord. We know he not only is “King of Israel” but King of all creation. We wish we could’ve been there, to join that happy crowd, to glimpse Jesus.

___But those palm fronds give away the bitter, ironic truth. Sure, the crowd cut them down and laid them in the road to smooth his path. But they might as well have thrown stones at his pony, for all the good they did him.

___The palm branches signaled their expectation of a military victory. Here they were, captive in their own homeland. Foreign soldiers ordered and organized their society. The boot of Rome crushed their necks. These people came out to cheer for Jesus, the miracle-working rabbi from Nazareth, because they wanted him to overthrow their oppressors. They expected Jesus to lead an uprising of military and political liberation, not to lay down his life as a spiritual sacrifice for Romans as well as Jews.

___The Palm Sunday crowd loved Jesus for what they expected him to be, not for what he was. That “love” evaporated between Sunday morning, when he rode into Jerusalem, and Thursday night, when the Roman and Jewish leaders collaborated to try him for treason. Even his hand-picked followers, who had spent three years watching him perform miracles and listening to him teach, fled in fear.

___Vanity tempts us to judge them harshly. We know “the rest of the story”–yes, he died on a Roman cross later that week, but he arose from the grave the following Sunday and defeated death, offering eternal life to all who will believe in him. So, we condemn their hard-hearted spiritual blindness. We can’t understand why they couldn’t get it.

___Ironically, not all that much has changed in 2,000 years. People still love Jesus for what they want him to do for them, not necessarily what his heavenly Father sent him to Earth to do, which was to offer spiritual healing to all people, eternal life to “whosoever will” embrace him in faith.

___Like the crowd who lined the road from Bethany to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, we’re tempted to succumb to the selfish chromosome in our human DNA. We want to turn Jesus into a national mascot, a denominational totem, a personal genie. Like they did so long ago, we still project our desire upon God’s will and proclaim it to be the truth. But if they were wrong, we might be too.

___Put it this way: How often have you heard someone claim to know the absolute “will of the Lord” when that divine will didn’t also happen to be in the best interest of the one making the proclamation? That may run true to human nature, but it runs counter to the spirit of Christ. Yet we live in an age when everyone from politicians to pundits to preachers claims holy sanction for personal agendas.

___This Palm Sunday, we need to remember the crowd that lined Jesus’ path. We need to remember the palm branches and allow them to remind us how little that crowd understood Jesus’ mission, how wrong they were. But rather than look back in smug satisfaction, we need to pray for humility and ask God to grant us vision to superimpose God’s will for our lives and this world over our own selfish desires.

___Pastor/preacher/professor Fred Craddock warns against making Palm Sunday a “false Easter.” We’ll have time for celebrating Jesus’ resurrection a week later. Palm Sunday remains part of Lent, a season of repentance. May we ask God to forgive us for projecting our will upon his and to help us live in humility before him and with others.

–Marv Knox

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The Messiah was supposed to go gunning into Jerusalem on a big white steed waving a killer sword–or something like that. The expectation and anticipation of the Messiah was of one who would kick rears and take the names of the oppressors.

Instead, Jesus — the guy who rose up from birth in a barn and a nowhere village– who was born to a humble little teen mom and a humble carpenter — comes ambling into town on a humble colt.

Go figure this guy Jesus, always turning our expectations of him upside down.

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Illustration by German artist Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872.

Our sometimes co-contributor and research assistant here at JFJ.com, the mystic, contemplative Christian L.K., sent along these thoughts last night about what Palm Sunday means to her:

To me, Palm Sunday is the saddest Sunday of the year. I usually can’t get through the service without crying. I know most people think of it as a glorious triumphant day, but about 10 years ago, when I was reading John, it knocked the breath out of me when I realized that Jesus knew exactly what was going to happen to him that week and that these same people who were praising him would be calling for his death in just a few days. Yet he looked straight ahead and went willingly forward.

And while all four gospels record this event, only Luke 19 tells about how Jesus wept as he looked upon Jerusalem on this day:

41As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it 42and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. 44They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

So please understand why I don’t want to happily march around with palm fronds today and shout “Hosanna.’ It’s so very painful to be reminded that I am still very much a member of that crowd. My mouth praises him while my actions so often deny him.

I love this day. I cherish this day. But this day is the day that my heart begins to break and will continue to break as this week goes on. This day is testimony to the fact that Jesus went lovingly and willingly to his death, for me and for all.

He did not deserve what he endured. We do not deserve what he endured for us.

Jesus wept, but not for himself. He was weeping for all of them and for all of us who will not see what will bring us peace.

The peace that surpasses all understanding, our Lord Jesus the Christ


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In the photo: somebody’s idea of sexy boots?

Somebody named Donnie–and you know who you are, Nurse Donnie–asked me why I never play any U2 here and I retorted, “Cause they’re a second-rate band?”
Here’s your U2, people, with intro vid from Letterman.

(For Nurse Donnnie, by request)

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Rumi is a 13th century Persian (Iranian) poet who has been translated by many people and whose stories and poems give us a glimpse of the transcendent. Highly regarded as the best of Rumi scholars is Coleman Barks. See excerpts on him below.

I searched for God among the Christians and on the Cross and therein I found Him not.
I went into the ancient temples of idolatry; no trace of Him was there.
I entered the mountain cave of Hira and then went as far as Qandhar but God I found not.
With set purpose I fared to the summit of Mount Caucasus and found there only ‘anqa’s habitation.
Then I directed my search to the Kaaba, the resort of old and young; God was not there even.
Turning to philosophy I inquired about him from ibn Sina but found Him not within his range.
I fared then to the scene of the Prophet’s experience of a great divine manifestation only a “two bow-lengths’ distance from him” but God was not there even in that exalted court.
Finally, I looked into my own heart and there I saw Him; He was nowhere else.

“These Spiritual Window Shoppers”
These spiritual window-shoppers,
who idly ask, ‘How much is that?’
Oh, I’m just looking.
They handle a hundred items and put them down,
shadows with no capital.

What is spent is love and two eyes wet with weeping.
But these walk into a shop,
and their whole lives pass suddenly in that moment,
in that shop.

Where did you go? “Nowhere.”
What did you have to eat? “Nothing much.”

Even if you don’t know what you want,
buy “something,” to be part of the exchanging flow.

Start a huge, foolish project,
like Noah.

It makes absolutely no difference
what people think of you.

Other Extracts from poetry by Rumi:
I died from minerality and became vegetable;

And From vegetativeness I died and became animal.

I died from animality and became man.

Then why fear disappearance through death?

Next time I shall die

Bringing forth wings and feathers like angels;

After that, soaring higher than angels -

What you cannot imagine,

I shall be that.


Soul receives from soul that knowledge,

therefore not by book nor from tongue.

If knowledge of mysteries come after emptiness of mind,

that is illumination of heart.


If thou wilt be observant and vigilant,

thou wilt see at every moment the response to thy action.

Be observant if thou wouldst have a pure heart,

for something is born to thee in consequence of every action.

Here are excerpts of a 2000 New Times article, “Translating Ecstasy: Coleman Barks on Rumi with a Side of Curry.” Rumi is a 13th century Persian (Iranian) poet who has been translated by many people and whose stories and poems give us a glimpse of the transcendent. The preeminent translator is Coleman Barks. . . .

Coleman Barks, preeminent translator of the 13th-century mystic poet Rumi, squirms audibly at the suggestion that he may be a prophet. He says only, “I can write and recognize poetry when I hear it.” He describes a prophet as “someone through whom some revelation can come – and anyone can. I have met people who have more of the light of God in them than us normal people, but I’m not one of them.”
Barks continues to describe himself: “I’m a tremendous doubter.” Further, he says that his greatest inspiration has been his encounters with a holy man, first in a dream, and then in Philadelphia; that his practice of communal spiritual worship features going for lattés and driving his convertible; that he is most authentically himself when writing poetry or playing with his grandchildren; and that his idea of a perfect day is one spent working outdoors and working with words. Coleman Barks may participate in a conference diagonally across America from where he lives, but he says, “There’s something always in me that’s waiting until all this public stuff is over so that I can get back home to that place of writing and working in the dirt.”
The message Barks conveys is of Rumi’s ecstatic poetry, which, as Barks said to Bill Moyers, PBS journalist, is “trying to get us to feel the vastness of our true identity . . . like the sense you might get walking into a cathedral . . . what Jesus referred to when he said, ‘The kingdom of God is within you.’ “
Barks gave a precise definition of ecstasy in that Moyers interview: “each moment [is] solid and actual, yet numinous, shot through with divine light and guidance.” He also gave a telling anecdotal definition of ecstasy when I asked him more recently to define it: “I was with my granddaughter, going around the yard lifting up stones to see what was there — ; there’s always something good, something interesting — ; and a woman walking by on the street just turned her head and said, ‘You’re going to spoil her.’ This universe is just so incredible that we’re all spoiled, and it’s okay. Rumi said, ‘The eye is meant to see things; the soul is here for its own joy.’ “
Rumi’s poetry and Barks’ lifework express ecstasy with an openness, whimsy, and practicality that make the everyday resonate with the sacred; that make the everyday holy. So how does one train to be a poet in the ecstatic form? Barks taught his students, “You may as well tell as much truth as you know in poetry, because nobody makes any money off it … and then I turned out to be a liar!” referring to the royalties he receives from his translations of Rumi.
Jalal Al-Din Rumi, born in 1207, was the founder of the Sufism, an openhearted exploration of unity. Rumi fled from Mongol-ridden Afghanistan to come to Turkey, where he lived and taught until his death in 1273. Rumi’s words offer an all-encompassing spirituality relevant to our times: being present in the moment, finding the holiness in laughter.
Coleman Barks describes his own practice of spirituality, his worship services: “I go for lattés and I go riding in my ’72 Dodge convertible. Everything is church, isn’t it? I love to sing old hymns . . . I used to go to old singings in the mountains of North Carolina.
“Rumi was without boundaries. He would say that love is the religion and the universe is the book, that experience as we’re living it is the sacred text that we study, so that puts us all in the same God club.”
Today, The Essential Rumi, translated by Barks, is among Book Sense’s top-selling poetry books, along with books of poetry by the Irish Nobel Prize-winning Seamus Heaney, American Poet Laureate Pinsky, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Mary Oliver, and pop singer Jewel. The Soul of Rumi, new translations by Coleman Barks, is due to be published in September 2001 by HarperSanFrancisco.

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Excerpts from an article in Friday’s Dallas News. More of the article at the top right widget to your right on this blog page (Special postings) under title “Docs on reform law.”

Texan-led doctor group kept health care bill alive
By DAVE MICHAELS / The Dallas Morning News
WASHINGTON – At any point in the yearlong odyssey that yielded the health care law that passed this week, physicians could have overwhelmed the effort with opposition.
The traditionally conservative American Medical Association helped kill President Bill Clinton’s health care effort in the 1990s. Three decades earlier, it opposed Medicare as “the beginning of socialized medicine.”
But this time, the nation’s largest physicians’ organization was loyal to the overhaul, helping to keep nervous Democrats behind the historic and controversial legislation. At the helm of the opinionated doctors’ group: J. James Rohack, a Texas cardiologist who decided long ago that the country’s inefficient health care system couldn’t fix itself.
“It was going to require a federal intervention to balance the market and make it a better system,” Rohack said in an interview this week. “At the end of the day, Congress took a step in the right direction. But it’s not the final step.”
Rohack, whose tenure as AMA president coincided with the overhaul effort, didn’t get everything his members wanted. Some critics, particularly Republicans, say he’ll go to the next impassioned AMA meeting without much to show for his long and stressful year as the group’s leader.
For instance, the law doesn’t repeal a formula that annually threatens to slash Medicare payments to doctors. Rohack said last year that permanent repeal was necessary to persuade physicians to fully support the legislation.
“Doctors are the ones who really have kind of an empty briefcase right now,” said Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, an obstetrician and AMA member who has known Rohack for years.
“The insurance companies, for all the drubbing they’ve taken from the Democrats, they are in pretty darn good shape right now,” Burgess said. “Their stock was through the roof the day after we passed this bill.”

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