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September 30, 2004 [feather]

You are a sixteen-year-old student attending a private high school. Your school continually holds mandatory meetings in which students are separated according to identity categories: there are "all girls' meetings," "all boys' meetings," and meetings for students of various races. You are offended by this. What are your rights? And what moral, philosophical, or legal recourse might you have?

Comments are wide open and welcome.

Erin O'Connor, 5:21 PM | Permalink | Comments (16)

September 28, 2004 [feather]
Ban book banning

It's Banned Books Week, and the American Library Association is a good place to go to learn more about the history of book banning in this country. Here's a list of the 100 most challenged books during the 1990s (a "challenge" is an attempt to ban):

1. Scary Stories (Series) by Alvin Schwartz
2. Daddyís Roommate by Michael Willhoite
3. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
4. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
6. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
7. Harry Potter (Series) by J.K. Rowling
8. Forever by Judy Blume
9. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
10. Alice (Series) by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
11. Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman
12. My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier
13. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
14. The Giver by Lois Lowry
15. Itís Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris
16. Goosebumps (Series) by R.L. Stine
17. A Day No Pigs Would Dieby Robert Newton Peck
18. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
19. Sex by Madonna
20. Earthís Children (Series) by Jean M. Auel
21. The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
22. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine LíEngle
23. Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
24. Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers
25. In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
26. The Stupids (Series) by Harry Allard
27. The Witches by Roald Dahl
28. The New Joy of Gay Sex by Charles Silverstein
29. Anastasia Krupnik (Series) by Lois Lowry
30. The Goats by Brock Cole
31. Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane
32. Blubber by Judy Blume
33. Killing Mr. Griffin by Lois Duncan
34. Halloween ABC by Eve Merriam
35. We All Fall Down by Robert Cormier
36. Final Exit by Derek Humphry
37. The Handmaidís Tale by Margaret Atwood
38. Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
39. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
40. Whatís Happening to my Body? Book for Girls: A Growing-Up Guide for Parents & Daughters by Lynda Madaras
41. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
42. Beloved by Toni Morrison
43. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
44. The Pigman by Paul Zindel
45. Bumps in the Night by Harry Allard
46. Deenie by Judy Blume
47. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
48. Annie on my Mind by Nancy Garden
49. The Boy Who Lost His Face by Louis Sachar
50. Cross Your Fingers, Spit in Your Hat by Alvin Schwartz
51. A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein
52. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
53. Sleeping Beauty Trilogy by A.N. Roquelaure (Anne Rice)
54. Asking About Sex and Growing Up by Joanna Cole
55. Cujo by Stephen King
56. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
57. The Anarchist Cookbook by William Powell
58. Boys and Sex by Wardell Pomeroy
59. Ordinary People by Judith Guest
60. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
61. Whatís Happening to my Body? Book for Boys: A Growing-Up Guide for Parents & Sons by Lynda Madaras
62. Are You There, God? Itís Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
63. Crazy Lady by Jane Conly
64. Athletic Shorts by Chris Crutcher
65. Fade by Robert Cormier
66. Guess What? by Mem Fox
67. The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
68. The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline Cooney
69. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
70. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
71. Native Son by Richard Wright
72. Women on Top: How Real Life Has Changed Womenís Fantasies by Nancy Friday
73. Curses, Hexes and Spells by Daniel Cohen
74. Jack by A.M. Homes
75. Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo A. Anaya
76. Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle
77. Carrie by Stephen King
78. Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume
79. On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer
80. Arizona Kid by Ron Koertge
81. Family Secrets by Norma Klein
82. Mommy Laid An Egg by Babette Cole
83. The Dead Zone by Stephen King
84. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
85. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
86. Always Running by Luis Rodriguez
87. Private Parts by Howard Stern
88. Whereís Waldo? by Martin Hanford
89. Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene
90. Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman
91. Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
92. Running Loose by Chris Crutcher
93. Sex Education by Jenny Davis
94. The Drowning of Stephen Jones by Bette Greene
95. Girls and Sex by Wardell Pomeroy
96. How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell
97. View from the Cherry Tree by Willo Davis Roberts
98. The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
99. The Terrorist by Caroline Cooney
100. Jump Ship to Freedom by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier

You can compare that list to the most frequently challenged books of 2003. Don't miss the ALA page on book burning throughout history.

One wonderful thing about the internet: You can't burn the material on it. Book burning remains ugly--but increasingly it's a purely symbolic act, incapable of actually destroying information for good.

Erin O'Connor, 2:15 PM | Permalink | Comments (22)

September 27, 2004 [feather]
What's wrong with this title?

From the sports page of today's Daily Pennsylvanian: "Penn should have ran on first down."

Erin O'Connor, 7:38 AM | Permalink | Comments (8)

September 26, 2004 [feather]
Just borrowed:

Jasper Fforde's debut novel, The Eyre Affair. Here's the blurb from the back cover:

Welcome to a surreal version of Great Britain, circa 1985, where time travel is routine, cloning is a reality (dodos are the resurrected pets of choice), and literature is taken very, very seriously. England is a virtual police state where an aunt can get lost (literally) in a Wordsworth poem, militant Baconians heckle performances of Hamlet, and forging Byronic verse is a punishable offense. All this is business as usual for Thursday Next, renowned Special Operative in literary detection, until someone begins kidnapping characters from works of literature. When Jane Eyre is plucked from the pages of Bronte's novel, Thursday must track down the villain and enter the novel herself to avert a heinous act of literary homicide.

The George-Orwell-meets-Lewis-Carroll-hitchhiking-through-literary-history sound of this book is just irresistible to me. It's going to the top of the bedside stack, to be read just as soon as a finish R. F. Delderfield's marvelous, marvelously long novel about a WWI veteran who recovers from shell shock by devoting himself to teaching in a boys' boarding school, To Serve Them All My Days.

Erin O'Connor, 10:41 PM | Permalink | Comments (10)

Exercises in perspective

A fun writing exercise, from John Gardner's The Art of Fiction:

Describe a lake as seen by a young man who has just committed a murder. Do not mention the murder.

Readers are welcome to post their efforts in the comments section.

UPDATE: The people at Sheila O'Malley's are playing, too.

Erin O'Connor, 10:24 PM | Permalink | Comments (26)

September 23, 2004 [feather]
Who pays any attention to the syntax of things...

Kudos to the grammarians who have collectively either corrected the errors in my worksheet, or elucidated the debates that surround the particular usages contained therein. I'm glad I'm not the only one out there who thinks grammar is fun--not just to puzzle over, but to discuss.

My colleague and I distributed the worksheet as an informal diagnostic, a way of gauging just where on the grammar curve our students are. What we discovered did not surprise us particularly. I won't discuss details for reasons that should be obvious, but I will say that after ten years of teaching, I am moved to generalize: Most high school students these days are not on the grammar curve at all. The parts of speech are largely mysterious to them; the rules of punctuation and agreement are likewise unfamiliar. Semi-colons, colons, and dashes do not come into play in their writing because they do not know what they are for. Sentence fragments abound because many do not know that a sentence requires a subject and a verb, nor can they tell reliably when something is a subject and when something is a verb. Forget about objects and indirect objects, simple and compound sentences, subordinate clauses and participial phrases: such terminology is Greek to the vast majority of them.

Don't get me wrong. Kids today are as smart, creative, and sharp as ever. Their grammar deficit is not their fault. They can't be blamed for what they were never taught. It's increasingly unfashionable to emphasize grammar and the rules of syntax in school, the reasons ranging from the hang-loose notion that the rules of usage are confining and binding and irrelevant anyway since language is a living, breathing thing, to the feel-good notion that grammar is boring and mind-numbing and kids will be turned off to reading and writing forever if they have to learn it.

What I've found is that kids--and the adults they become--dislike not being able to tell whether what they have written is written correctly, that they recognize on a fundamental level that they have been done a collective disservice by their teachers, and that they are quite eager to learn a skill they know to be crucial to their ability to function effectively as adults in this world.

More power to them, and lots more grammar to come. We'll be devoting at least one class period a week to grammar; I'll post the exercises we do on Critical Mass so readers can play along.

UPDATE: Girl Flip has more.

Erin O'Connor, 11:22 AM | Permalink | Comments (20)

September 21, 2004 [feather]
Fun with grammar

This is a worksheet a colleague and I handed out to our high school writing class today. We asked the students to take ten minutes to look over each sentence and correct any grammatical errors they found. We noted that some sentences may already be grammatically correct.

Driving along the road, the scenery was beautiful.

Susanís clothes were dirty, so she put them in the wash.

At our school, the boyís dorm is called the Barn.

A person should know when they are in the wrong.

ìMe and Samuel are taking a chemistry class,î said Edward.

The wording of the documents have changed.

Whenever the coach or his assistant issue an order, chaos ensues.

ìThe cake is for Mary and I,î said Jane.

One is only as strong as their muscles.

The next subject he took up were the various instances of theft on campus.

Mrs. Cleopatra Brown, along with her husband Ebenezer and her daughter Penelope, are winding up the families vacation in Hawaii.

The team of doctors have treated this disease many times.

The team of doctors have gone home.

It may mark me as strange, but I think grammar is fun. So, naturally, I thought it would be fun to post these sentences for Critical Mass readers to do with as they will. Comments are open. Enjoy.

Erin O'Connor, 8:23 PM | Permalink | Comments (28)

September 19, 2004 [feather]

I'm slowly easing myself back into writing this site after an absolute whirlwind beginning to my life as a boarding school teacher. The past two weeks are a blur, but the overall feeling is pretty good right now. For the moment, it feels important not to go into too much detail about it all--partly out of respect for the privacy and integrity of the place, partly because I don't want to become a public diarist. But I will say that so far, things are good.

Observant readers will perhaps have already noted that the University of Pennsylvania is listing me as "on leave" this year. That's accurate. Penn gave me the option of returning to my university teaching job in a year's time. Family members who are wiser and more cautious than I am convinced me to take that option rather than quit my job outright as I had planned and, frankly, hoped to do. The reasons for my making a slower, more careful exit than I had originally envisioned are at once too obvious and too personal to bear discussion here; I trust that readers will understand and respect that.

In any case, it is my sincere hope that things work out here in the Berkshires, and that this time next year, my long-awaited break with academe will be at last complete.

Erin O'Connor, 10:44 AM | Permalink | Comments (8)

September 6, 2004 [feather]
Cumberland College update

Ever since Cumberland College professor Robert Day was fired for publicly criticizing the school administration, Douglas Bass has kept close track of events at the school--the AAUP's unsuccessful defense of Day, Day's chairman's unsuccessful defense of Day, and now, the departure of that chairman and the disappearance of the website that got Day into so much trouble, wecareforcumberland.com.

We can only wonder whether things would have turned out differently--for Day, for Day's chairman, and for academic freedom at Cumberland College, had a group like FIRE become involved in it. When I first learned last fall about what was happening with Robert Day, I urged him to contact the people at FIRE, and he did so. But nothing appears to have come of it--just as nothing came of it when Nona Gerard, the Penn State theater professor who was fired for her unwelcome criticisms of her colleagues, brought her case to them (something I urged her to do, too).

FIRE is a small organization, and I know the people there cannot take on even a fraction of the cases that come before them. But I will say I was deeply disappointed last year that these two cases in particular were not addressed publicly and decisively by what is really the only group around that had a chance of saving the careers of Day and Gerard from the reckless and arrogant administrators who sought to ruin them--Day and Gerard seemed, to me at least, to have much more pressing problems than, for example, an openly religious adjunct who did not get to teach his first choice of courses and conservative students who were getting into trouble for holding affirmative action bake sales. The latter took up a huge proportion of FIRE's work over the fall and early winter last year--which was precisely the time that Robert Day and Nona Gerard found themselves in need. I spoke up for those students myself--their rights were being violated, and that was wrong. But in the grander scheme of things, I can't help but feel FIRE's time would have been better spent defending Day and Gerard, and I can't help but wonder whether their careers would still be intact if that had happened.

Erin O'Connor, 1:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (13)

September 3, 2004 [feather]
Reading Andersonville, contd.

This post picks up where this one left off.

Something about this scene struck me. It read like an announcement of some kind. It had a quality of display that seemed at odds with the unassuming character of Kantor's prose elsewhere in the novel. The care with which Swarner spells out his name, regiment, and company to Ed Blamey, and the care with which Ed Blamey then records Swarner's name, regiment, and company for the prison officials was clearly also Kantor's way of underlining this soldier's identity for his reader. So much attention given to such a passing episode; such a seemingly gratuitous act of labelling; so much attention given to the importance of seemingly gratuitous acts of labelling: There was a frame around the scene. It was a set piece. Kantor's breach of his own otherwise understated narrative rhythms felt to me somehow like a sort of a tribute, a gesture of recognition, even of memorial. On a hunch, I looked J. H. Swarner up. He was real. He really did serve in the New York Second Cavalry, and he really did die in Andersonville.

According to the database of Andersonville prisoners maintained by the Macon County, Georgia, Chamber of Commerce, Jacob Swarner--or Sworm, as he was apparently also known--was a musician who served, as Kantor tells us, with the Second New York Cavalry, Company H. Captured at Liberty Mills, Virginia, he died at Andersonville on July 26, 1864. The cause of death was listed as "anasarca," or, in dictionary-ese, "Dropsy of the subcutaneous cellular tissue; an effusion of serum into the cellular substance, occasioning a soft, pale, inelastic swelling of the skin." Officially, Jacob Swarner swelled to death. The discrepancies between the historical record and Kantor's telling are as intriguing as the correlations: If Kantor is absolutely clear that Swarner served in the 2 New York Cavalry, Company H, he is also quite clear that he died of some sort of nonspecific, but non-swelling, ailment in February of 1864. I'll discuss these discrepancies in more detail later. For the moment, my point is simply this: that I began reading Andersonville differently after learning that J. H. Swarner actually lived, and that what Kantor had done with this scene was to use narrative--paradoxically, peculiarly--to try to memorialize the otherwise unknown, irretrievable, probably unremarkable story of his death.

I had expected to find the major figures of the Andersonville episode made over into characters, and I did: Camp Commandant Henry Wirz was there, operating endlessly on his shattered, neuralgic wrist to remove bullet fragments and agonizing, petulantly and ineffectively, about the poor facilities at the camp; Brigadier General John Winder was there, cavalierly refusing to ensure that the Confederate prison camps were adequately supplied; the ascetic Irish priest Peter Whelan was there, tending the Andersonville sick, administering last rites, and tolerating conditions no other clergyman had been able--or willing--to stand. Even Willie Collins, the thug who beat Ed Blamey up, is there--one of the few Andersonville prisoners to acquire some notoriety, and hence personal distinction, in the camp, Collins is remembered as the leader of the Raiders, a prison gang, and as one of the several men whose lawlessness and violence ultimately led their fellow prisoners to try, condemn, and hang them. Working towards literary characterization from archival records, Kantor paints each of these characters vividly, convincingly, true to historical fictional form.

All this was to be expected. What I had not expected was to find ordinary, run-of-the-mill Andersonville prisoners, people about whom virtually nothing is known, given a similar pride of place in Kantor's novel. I had expected Kantor to preserve the sheer faceless anonymity that characterized the waning lives and horrible deaths of the majority of Andersonville men, if only by virtue of necessity. That is not how Kantor chose to pursue his project, however. His decision to make a character of a man about whom we know very little besides the fact that he was at Andersonville and that he died there is tremendously suggestive, at least from the standpoint of the reader who approaches the novel with a vested, if potentially misplaced, historical interest, who is hoping the novel will say something the historical record cannot about what it was like to be a person living in that place at that time.

Once I discovered that J. H. Swarner was not, like Ed Blamey, a figment of Kantor's imagination, but was, rather, a sort of literary memorial planted by Kantor, Andersonville stopped being for me a straightforward historical novel and became instead a work of embedded genealogy. I started watching for my ancestor in Kantor's prose, reading with the not wholly unrealistic hope that David Sells might also make an appearance in the story, if only, as in the case of Swarner, as a largely speechless near-corpse.

To be continued....

Erin O'Connor, 8:18 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

September 2, 2004 [feather]
Reading Andersonville, contd.

I have not forgotten my series on family history and Andersonville. I'm just putting my thoughts together slowly, as time and inspiration permit. I do have more posts in the pipeline, but for them to make sense, it's necessary for me to share with you a passage that appears early in Kantor's novel.

It's the very end of February, 1864. The scene is the camp itself, just a day or two after it has officially opened. Prisoners have been pouring into Andersonville--then still known by its official name, Camp Sumter--by the hundreds, shipped there in boxcars from the overcrowded and disease-ridden Belle Isle, only to find, at the other end, a virtually empty enclosure of bare, muddy ground: no housing, no kitchen, no privies, no shade, no fuel, not even a real water supply, as the brook that was supposed to run through the camp had been trampled into swampy sludge by the workers who had prepared the site. Still, Andersonville looks pretty good by comparison.

One prisoner, Edward Blamey, a corporal from the First Rhode Island Cavalry, goes exploring on his first morning in the camp. He gets beaten up by a thug named Willie Collins after he strays onto his personal territory. On his way back to his shebang (the word prisoners used to describe the makeshift tents they made from old coats and blankets slung over low poles), searching for a cudgel with which to defend himself against future attacks, he makes a discovery:

During his search he had chanced upon a lone blue figure curled in a hollow and partly sheltered by roots. The first time he passed he did not bother to make further examination; that looked like a good place to sleep, and Edward Blamey supposed that the man was sleeping there--it was out of the wind. But as he circled the hole on his homeward trip he heard a wail and a chattering. The figure moved, and there was the sound of weak retching. Edward paused and looked down. He could see foam on the man's mouth. Hi there, he said, out of some sense of Christian duty. He remembered his father reading about the Levite who passed by on the other side. The man did not move.

Hi, mister.

The curled-up man opened his eyes, they were glass, they saw nothing, the eyes fell shut again.

Want something?

A weak voice said, Catherine.

What say?

The fellow wore a short cavalry jacket very like Edward's own, but newer and cleaner; he could not have been long imprisoned, but was about the be Exchanged. That was what they'd called it on the Island--and probably in every other prison camp, North or South. When someone died the others were apt to term him as Exchanged. When someone was shot by a guard they called him Paroled.

Hi, mister. What's your name?

The eyes failed to open, but the fellow shook quickly in spasm, and more fluid issued from his mouth. Swarner, he said.

What did you say? Warner?

Swarner. J--H--Swarner.

Where from?

Second New York Ccccavalry. He managed to stutter the last word loose, but it was an almighty effort for him to do it.

You sick?


Yes, you be. It was contrary to Edward's habit, but again he considered his father's favorite Chapter about the Good Samaritan (the moral of the text was cited often but practiced seldom by Mr. Blamey). Also his encounter with Willie Collins stirred Edward into a recognition of Virtue as opposed to Wickedness. He supposed that he must be virtuous in the sight of God, if it would cost him nothing. He got down into the hole and bent over the huddled Swarner. Want some water, mister? I could fetch some.


I hain't got any rations. You want rations?

No. Ccccatherine.

His attempted ministering thus unsuccessful, Edward climbed back out of the depression and walked to his shebang. Found a sick feller up yonder, he said casually to the others, but they gave little attention. They had seen many sick, many dying, many dead. In the middle of the afternoon, they drew rations, and the food seemed munificent: nearly a quart of uncooked cornmeal, half a pound of beef, and a spoonful of salt per man. Mess Two still had five sweet potatoes left as well, and under the leadership of the New Hampshire sargeant--a mason by trade--a furnace of mud and sticks had been constructed. Ed Blamey and his family fed well, and they babbled about the improvement over conditions in Belle Isle. However, Ed still imagined that New York cavalryman bent like an abandoned cruller in his hole. Before dusk he turned his steps in that direction again, drawn as much by curiosity as by saintly intent. He came back from the east faster than he went.

Fellers, that man's dead as mackerel.

What man? Man you saw?

Said his name was Swarner.

Well, what do we do about it? Ain't he got no friends?

There don't seem to be nobody about.

The New Hampshireman whose name was Colony went back with Ed Blamey; so did the brothers Wingate, when they heard that the dead man was from York State. They were from Troy. The four men stood around and looked at the curved stiffening morsel in the fairly new and fairly clean jacket.

Got a good coat on him, said the youngest Wingate. I could use a coat like that.

Take it, said Colony. He'll never need it more.

Si Wingate slid down into the hole and, with some struggling, removed the jacket from the corpse. He climbed out, shook the garment violently, and turned out each pocket in turn. There was nothing in any of them except a half-gnawed turnip and, in the breast pocket, a letter worn to dirty tissue, a letter without an envelope. It was written in pencil and the penciling was blurred from much handling. Tup Wingate held the paper up to the fading light and spelled out a few words.

Seems to be from his sister, for she calls him Beloved Brother. Her name is Catherine. Hain't no address that I can see.

Take care with that coat, said Sargeant Colony darkly. Maybe he's dead of a plague.

No, looky there. He ain't broke out in any way.

He's too nigh to us for comfort, and if we leave him laying here he'll stink. Get a hold on him and we'll fetch him over to that nearest gate.

They went, carrying Swarner gingerly by his cold hands and rag-wrapped feet. As they approached the gate the adjacent guards called down a question from their sentry shacks.

He ain't from our mess. Don't know where he's from. We just come acrost him in a hole.

Well, Yank, put him next the gate. Somebody'll tote him out, the next time the gate's open.

They did as instructed and turned away through windy gloom. Then Edward Blamey owned an idea. He had a pencil in his pocket. Give me that there letter of his, Wingate, and the York State man handed it over. Blamey held the letter spread against a flat chip, and across the fading text he printed in big black capitals: J. H. Swarner, 2 N Y Calvary. He returned to the gate and stuffed the paper beneath the ragged trouser-band of the corpse where someone would be apt to see it. It was odd, but again it seemed that he could hear that weak stutter of, Ccccatherine.

The others were waiting silently, and they all walked back to their new shebang together. Scratches and cuts on Blamey's face were stiff and puffing; his entire face felt as if it were on fire. He wished that he were older and hairier, he wished that he had more beard than this dirty mouse-colored down which he still wore at nineteen. A beard would have protected his skin somewhat when Collins kicked him to the ground.

I wonder if he's the first to die in here? said Tup Wingate.

Colony said, Won't be the last, I'll warrant you that.

Next fellow dies, I trust he has some socks, said Si Wingate. I got great need of socks. This here jacket is a good fit.

Colony spoke again lugubriously. Won't be the last.

Oh, come now, Sarge. We victualed well today. This puts Belle Isle in the shade.

Ed Blamey walked in silence, feeling the hurt of his torn face, but feeling also immeasurably noble as compared to an ogre like Willie Collins. Once back in Rhode Island he would be bound to tell his father that he had assumed the role of Good Samaritan, or at least had tried to.

Won't be the last, repeated that dreary clipped voice.

This may seem like a throwaway passage, or at least like an innocuous, mood-setting one. But it's huge--for the novel, and for the problems of memory, history, and genealogy that I have been discussing. More soon.

Erin O'Connor, 9:28 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

September 1, 2004 [feather]
Quick poetry survey

To all comers:

Do you now, or have you ever, read poetry for fun? If so, what did you read, and why?

Erin O'Connor, 9:58 AM | Permalink | Comments (61)