O beautiful for pilgrim feet!

A Thanksgiving post by Dr. Matthew Mehan.  

Nothing of this earthly world
is a wholly perfect thing,
but that does not exclude it
from our love and our thanksgiving.

First ThanksgivingThere is a poem, somewhat forgotten, which I recommend reading this Thanksgiving.  “The Courtship of Miles Standish” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow concerns the darkest and the brightest moments of the famed Pilgrims’ first years at Plymouth Rock.  There are indian wars, a humorous and touching love triangle, and some beautiful moments that highlight why we ought to be thankful for those Katharine Lee Bates’ America the Beautiful describes like so:

“O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!”

Much has been said about the injustices perpetrated by *some* Pilgrim ancestors against the Native Americans, but it is important to filter these critiques out every so often and concentrate on the good.  Gratitude requires we look purposefully to the virtues and merits of our religious, political, social, and, for a rare few, genetic Mayflower ancestors.  One way to do this might be to read “The Courtship of Miles Standish” wherein we find a presentation of those stern yet impassioned Pilgrims that may stir us not to self-satisfied judgment against them, but to real love for their sacrifice and humanity as they sought a place in the world to freely love God and each other.

There are many touching and rousing scenes; here is but one.  The Pilgrims give thanks as they face harsh weather and hostile territory, even as the Mayflower sails away, back to Europe.

Lost in the sound of the oars was the last farewell of the Pilgrims.
O strong hearts and true! not one went back in the Mayflower!
No, not one looked back, who had set his hand to this ploughing!

Soon were heard on board the shouts and songs of the sailors
Heaving the windlass round, and hoisting the ponderous anchor.
Then the yards were braced, and all sails set to the west-wind,
Blowing steady and strong; and the Mayflower sailed from the harbor,
Rounded the point of the Gurnet, and leaving far to the southward
Island and cape of sand, and the Field of the First Encounter,
Took the wind on her quarter, and stood for the open Atlantic,
Borne on the send of the sea, and the swelling hearts of the Pilgrims.

Long in silence they watched the receding sail of the vessel,
Much endeared to them all, as something living and human;
Then, as if filled with the spirit, and wrapt in a vision prophetic,
Baring his hoary head, the excellent Elder of Plymouth
Said, “Let us pray!’ and they prayed, and thanked the Lord and took courage.

ThanksgivingYou can read the whole poem here.

Have a happy Thanksgiving, and remember also that giving thanks is the fastest way to increase your zeal to do good, which is the great virtue against sadness. Worth remembering as the days darken, don’t you think?

And lest you think Thanksgiving a merely sectarian affair for Puritans, read this!

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Mr. de Vicente on Smart Phones

In his most recent letter to parents, our Headmaster, Mr. de Vicente, addressed Smart Phones and their use by teenagers.  The full text of the letter is available here and we encourage all parents, friends of The Heights, and educators to take a look.

One of our goals in education is to “empower your sons to become life-long prudential users of technology by truly mastering it.”  Does that goal, however, justify–or even necessitate!–putting a smart phone in a teen’s hands?  Likely not, especially when you consider the risks inherent in doing so.

It’s a simple cost/benefit analysis, and many of the smart phone’s benefits can be achieved by a regular or “dumb” phone.  Are such phones hard to find?  Possibly, but “if getting a regular phone is the right thing to do, then the growing difficulty of obtaining one is an inconvenience, but a small price to pay for doing what is right for your son.”

And the risks?  Well, Mr. de Vicente outlines them in some detail here, but suffice it to say, there are “great personal risks.”

Education at The Heights is holistic and personal.  Any Heights parent will tell you that we do not shy away from addressing tough issues if they are issues that affect our boys.  Smart phones can be a tough issue, and our stance is not popular or easy.  Our thanks to those who read–on a desktop, tablet, or smart phone–with an open mind.  Your sons will thank you in the end.

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Festival Clan Day

sibsTwo weeks ago we held the first Festival Clan Day at The Heights.  Our celebration in honor of All Saints Day, included all the elements of the traditional festival:  worship in the all-school Mass, poetry in the competition of the Bard, feasting in the BBQ, and games.  Oh the games…


This video captures but a fraction of the day’s highlights.  As you can see, we celebrated this great feast of our Church in fine style.  To The Heights!


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Setting Study Skills Straight: Sometimes You Need A Cast

110514-178 the heightsToday has been a busy day at The Heights.  The morning began at 8am with Mass for our faculty, and then we marched through a series of meetings at a rip-roaring pace:  advisory, literature, classics, to name a few.  While we don’t have a lengthy post for you this week, we thought we’d share one image proffered by our Dean of Advisory during our Sophomore Advisors’ meeting.

Our boys all have gifts; they all have weaknesses.  Some are industrious at home; some are not.  Where a boy does not have grades to match the “three hours of homework a night,” perhaps the three hours of home “work” were not all they were cracked up to be.  Sometimes they were, but you had better be sure.  Quantity is not quality–especially when it comes to mental exertion and academic work.

102314-451 the heightsWhen our bones break, we need a cast to set things straight–a system of external accountability, in a certain sense, for our arms or legs to heal properly.  Students with “broken” or lacking study skills can’t be expected to set things straight on their own.  They need us–parents and teachers–to provide structure and accountability, both at school and on the home front.  One excellent way to provide this external accountability at home is to demand 45 minutes of quiet, supervised study a night.  Find a place in the home with zero–ZERO–distractions, and tell your son to study, while you do something quietly nearby.  No earphones, no screens, no breaks, no excuses.  Over time, protestations will cease and habits will form.  The 45 minutes will become an hour, and that hour will be more productive and fruitful than the “three” he was spending before.

This will work for many, maybe most, not all.  But that’s what keeps education interesting.  It’s all about the person and people are different.  This is more art–a liberating, liberal art–than science (though we study plenty of that along the way).110514-181 the heights

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Headmaster’s 2014 Open House Speech

Our thanks to the many visitors who joined us for the Fall Open House.  Thanks are also due to our Heights parents for being here to welcome our guests and personalize their Open House experience.  The Heights approach to education is, after all, deeply personal.  We are grateful to you, Heights parents, for helping us convey this to our visitors.  We could not have done it without you.

For those of you who missed the Headmaster’s Presentation, or who heard it, but would like to listen again, here it is.  In this speech, Mr. de Vicente summarizes the mission of The Heights and our philosophy of education.


Mr. de Vicente leads during a Festival Clan Day in the courtyard.

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20 Practical Ways to Foster Responsibility and Independence in Your 21st Century Boy

Boys in Tree

My great-grandfather gave my grandfather his first rifle, a single-shot .22, for his eighth Christmas. Age nine earned Grandpa full responsibility over the family’s 80 x 150 ft. vegetable garden. By age 10, Grandpa was taking his flat-bottomed rowboat out on the Mississippi.  These are great experiences for a young man, and they lead to creativity, toughness, and a host of other wonderful traits, perhaps most important among which are independence and responsibility. Risk free? No. Positive for my grandfather and his descendents? Absolutely.  

Sadly, many of these experiences just aren’t in the cards for a 21st century Washingtonian boy; at least not routinely. There is, however, much that we can do to foster responsibility and independence in our sons and we asked our faculty to share their ideas with you.  Here, in this blog post, are the ideas that your faculty shared with us via email.  Modern technology put to service of good ole’ fashion values.Adventure Series - LEFT

  1. Don’t bring to school any items (food, sports clothing or equipment) that your son may have forgotten in the morning.
  2. Allow your son to fail or get hurt while under your supervision. Have consequences for his choices and actions. All of these thing are going to happen, wouldn’t you rather have them happen earlier and while in your care rather than on his own. Don’t bail him out without a full understanding of what took place and how that will not be the case later in life.
  3. If your high-school-age son is being picked up from school, metro, or anywhere else in your car for a drive that would take 20 or 30 minutes to walk, stop doing it.  That’s a great chance for him to grow.  Especially for those guys who are 20-30 minutes walking distance from The Heights (i.e., who aren’t walking home in the dark; it’s usually broad daylight).  If you take us up on this one, please tell your boy to stash (or better, dispose of) the headphones–he’s better off taking in the day, thinking, and paying attention to traffic.
  4. Household chores in general (cooking, cleaning, lawnwork) are a good source of independence, especially if you let your son screw it up.  And rather than fixing it for him if he screws up, tell him how to fix it and make him go back to get it right on his own.  Independence is tied to responsibility.
  5. Have a vegetable garden and give your son responsibility for some of the family produce.
  6. Do not try to bail him out of detentions–let him figure it out.  And make sure that he understands that an inconvenience for him is an inconvenience for the family.  Relatedly, make sports take a back seat to academics.
  7. Let him forget his lunchbox three times and he won’t forget it again!
  8. On an assigned school day, have him make breakfast for the family.
  9. Laundry, laundry and more laundry! A third grader should learn how to soak his sports/gym clothing if needed, and of course, know how to use the washer and dryer.
  10. Alarm clock.  Does he wake up and show up in the kitchen ready for breakfast on his own?
  11. Teach your son to ask the right persons for help when he needs it.  He will need to do this to succeed.  Don’t deprive him of the opportunity now.
  12. Gradually ask your boys to start pitching in for expenses like clothes and athletic gear.  Sure, those $200 cleats are nice, but how about you buy the basic $50 pair and junior makes up the difference?
  13. Bike rides.  High school is a great age to explore the trails that take an adventurous soul all over our city on two wheels.
  14. Hike to Georgia:  kidding… sort of.  The Appalachian Trail is an adventure in our back yard.  Again, high schoolers are old enough–so long as they have the requisite maturity–to tackle sections of it on their own.
  15. Let your son talk to his own teachers about grades and homework issues.
  16. Have your son shop for (with parent’s $$ of course), prepare, and serve the family dinner once a month (or however often). It get’s them thinking about how much their Mom (or Dad) puts into this on a regular basis, makes them appreciate it even more.  It also gives them the experience of planning ahead and eating on a budget.
  17. Stop paying your son an allowance.  Make him earn his spending cash by paying a set commission for a variety of chores.  Start at five cents for your three year old making his bed; move on to whatever you think is appropriate for your high schooler chopping wood.  Allowance is a handout.  Earning is reality.
  18. Kick your younger boys out of the house when they are bored, fighting, or complaining.  They’ll figure out a pastime soon enough.
  19. When your boy complains about a classmate, don’t call the teacher in front of him and definitely don’t tell your son that he’s a victim of bullying.  Maybe it’s true, but a victim mentality is easy to develop and hard to overcome.  Instead, tell your son how to handle the situation.  Maybe this includes coaching your boy through talking to a teacher.  In tough cases, never hesitate to call the teacher in private and let him know that you son has something important to talk to him about.  When the issue is resolved, your son will believe that he took care of business.  It’s a good feeling, and he’ll chase it in the future.
  20. And the winner for most frequently emailed suggestion:  LET YOUR SON FAIL.  You best serve him by letting it happen, and helping him learn from it.  Obviously, there are exceptions, but one day without a lacrosse stick, or gym shorts, or a homework assignment won’t devastate his future.  In fact, it will make it better.

Not a Heights teacher (though I think he’d like the place), here’s what Winston Churchill had to offer:  “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

Heights Pond and a shoe

Only at The Heights: Pond and Lost Shoe

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Identity: Who does your son think he is?

“Pride”;  “I bleed [insert mascot and color]”; “I am [insert school or adjective]”; “I will”–and the list of t-shirt slogans we see around campus goes on. Of course, there’s nothing intrinsically evil about these slogans, but we should think on them. The not-so-subliminal messages are an important element of a multibillion-dollar clothing and marketing industry that is working, deliberately and with great sophistication, to shape (some might say, claim) your son’s self-identity. UA, Nike, and the rest of them want your son to identify primarily as… drum roll, please: “ATHLETE.”  For, if he is an ATHLETE, not just an athlete, he will buy more stuff. Maybe this sounds more ominous than it actually is. But maybe not.  Again, we should, at the very least, think about it.

awesome shirtAll of this raises the question of identity:  who does your son think that he is? If he is proud, what is the source of his pride? If he wills, what is it that he wants? If he has the love of something coursing through his capacious adolescent veins, what’s its object?

treesIdentity is a buzzword. We’re told to find it, to develop it, to be fiercely rebellious in living it.  “Be yourself”; “follow your star”; “to thine own self be true.”  Ironically, there are no shortage of movements and industries fighting with each other to capture your sons’ attention and then tell them who they are.  On one hand, a boy is told, “be yourself.”  On the other, “be yourself by doing, saying, wearing or thinking x, y or z.”

Who is winning the battle for your son’s identity?  Who does he say that he is?  More fundamentally, who is he actually?

Tough question, but fortunately your faculty thinks about this a lot–and we talk to your boys about it too.  Your boys are sons of God.  Our hope is that all of them–the academes, the athletes, the drama guys, the musicians… all of them–see this divine sonship and divine filiation as their primary identity.  We don’t have a multibillion-dollar budget to get the point across, but we do have our friendship with your boys and a few thousand years of tradition on our side.

Coach GleasonThis is one of the reasons I love Heights athletics.  We are fiercely competitive; we play incredible teams and we send graduates on to the next level of competition.  But we are about more than just the game–it is, after all, just a game.  The beautiful thing about games is that they teach perseverance, fortitude, toughness.  Camaraderie through competition forms friendships that can be a conduit for great good–in my own life I think of rosaries on the bus after a soccer game with Kyle Maginnis, of Gatorade and conversation after practice with Coach de Vicente.  For better or for worse, your sons’ teammates and coaches will be among the most power influences in their lives.  That’s a good thing here.

Questions for us:  Right now, who do our sons say that they are?  Do we live in a way that encourages them to identify as sons of God?  Or do our sons think of themselves primarily as [pick your pastime], that sometimes gets to Sunday Mass so long as the club team schedule allows? Do we acknowledge the forces working to claim our boys’ attention and self-identity?  If we don’t raise our children, someone else will; have we given those someones 24/7 access to our boys’ through their phones?  The adolescent mind abhors a vacuum–what is filling your son’s mind when you are not?

Confidence is a byproduct of knowing one’s identity and purpose.  When we know it and live it, we are more confident than we would be otherwise. As Pope Benedict wrote in The Spirit of the Liturgy, “[L]ife only becomes real life when it receives its form from looking toward God.”  Further, “Man becomes glory for God, puts God, so to speak, into the light,  . . . when he lives by looking toward God.”  When our boys become men who are secure in their identity as sons of God and they live accordingly, they will be “Men Fully Alive.”

Should we gather and confiscate these shirts?  Nope, but please don’t fault us if we use a little Coach Lively-style humoristic sarcasm on your sons to temper their profession of athletic greatness.  It will be good for them in the long run, and they (along with their friends… think, “oh snap!”) always smile when we point these things out.  An admission of truth, perhaps?  Likely.

Tennis Cavalier

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Grades and the Disciplined Life

The always animated Mr. Cardenas teaching Spanish.

By Mr. Dave Fornaciari 

David Maxham’s post on competition motivated me to consider our society’s misunderstanding of grades. Grades are one way to assess student development, but in recent times grades have become the rage and are, for many, an end in themselves.

Grades are a measure of what one knows, not only in terms of content, but also in terms of what was known before vs. after study; and what is known in relation to other students. This is similar to what Mr. Maxham wrote about competition: “We seek to be the best; not in relation to those around us but in relation to the person we were before the game.” I would have included that competition is partly in relation to those around us.

At The Heights our mission is clear and we often express it like this: to develop young men who will be good husbands and devoted fathers. Developing the virtues needed for these callings leads to a successful life, but this development is about far more than just grades.

Lower School students on their way to music class in the Valley.The disciplined life promotes success. Who is the disciplined person? Is he the student who plays no sports, spends no time with friends, has no leisure and no time for God, but spends the vast majority of his days studying for that almighty “A”? On the other hand does that “A” mean anything if little effort was put forth earning it? If achieving an “A” was too easy, what is it worth in the sphere of the person? Conversely, if a student is underperforming and earning C’s, how is that leading to a disciplined life?

Successfully navigating one’s years at The Heights is not unlike navigating the years of life after The Heights. It takes discipline. Vince Lombardi said, “There is something good in men that really yearn for discipline.” To be able to use the will for good, to develop a schedule with time for work, family, God, leisure, friends, hobbies, reading for enjoyment, etc… This is the recipe for a successful life and better grades too.

3rd graders read with Mr. Heil.One obvious component of Heights life is homework, but homework is more than the written work due tomorrow. It’s more than just earning points towards a grade. Two to three hours nightly does not include study hall time. I tell my students to study early and often for test preparation, especially for midterms and finals. Repetition over time is one of the keys to learning. This takes discipline. This means making a schedule and revising it each weekend for the week ahead. This means doing the work due tomorrow honestly and not just to get it done, to earn the points. This means the struggle to do it for the purpose of learning, and do it each night for that purpose. Studying at The Heights is similar to a baseball season. It takes perseverance and persistence over the long haul. There are winning and losing streaks with grades, but the habits developed will last a lifetime. And, in the short term, these habits will lead to better grades.

One of the most unique aspects of The Heights is our advisory program. As advisors we are trained to discuss with our advisees 4 major areas: academic, physical, moral, and spiritual. This flows from the mission of The Heights to develop the whole person. As St. Josemaria would say: do your daily work for the love of God. Working in this way sanctifies our work and our lives. It also leads to a proper understanding of grades, which should lead not only to better grades, but also to a life of self-discipline.

Mr. Fornaciari looks on during one of this year's Clan Days.Mr. Fornaciari teachers science in the Heights Upper School and is the head coach of the varsity squash team.

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Our Headmaster’s Goals for the Year


We held our first All-School Assembly yesterday morning. Some things never change: the slightly excessive applause (are they really that excited for announcements or do they hope to postpone the beginning of class?); the ever-vigilant middle school faculty; the silence when Mr. de Vicente takes the microphone. Though much was familiar about the morning, the themes and goals Mr. de Vicente presented were largely new.

He shared with the students a bit about the impending beatification of Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, Opus Dei’s second prelate. Mr. de Vicente also spoke about the word, “please.”  It’s a simple word, they were told, but it indicates that when we ask for something, we don’t assume that we are going to get it. If we do get the requested item or service or favor, it is due to the kindness of the grantor. Not saying “please” is a clear sign of being spoiled or entitled.

A reminder of one of last year’s goals, students were encouraged to make their beds every morning. This goal was worth repeating. Mr. de Vicente told the boys that if they make their beds every morning, their grades, friendships, and lives will improve. He challenged them, “if you don’t believe me, try it for five or six years.”

Additionally, students were encouraged to visit our Lord frequently in the Chapel. It is the best, most beautiful, space on campus and it happens to host the most important Person on campus as well. We should visit Him.

Former Heights Teacher Eddie Smith at last year's Garden Party.

Former Heights Teacher Eddie Smith at last year’s Garden Party.

Finally, the boys were told to read every day. Not homework reading, but pleasure reading. Mr. de Vicente encouraged the boys to pick up a book that they want to read for reading’s sake—not because it was assigned—for at least five minutes a day. Our headmaster also told the boys of legendary Heights teacher, Prof. Eddie Smith, who decided years ago to read one book per week. This entailed choosing a book every Sunday, dividing its total pages by seven, and launching right into it on Monday. Imagine the knowledge gained during a lifetime (or even a year) of a book-a-week!

So those are the goals for your sons this year. Might they be good goals for us—teachers and parents—as well? Likely. John Paul II wrote, “Modern Man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”

Do we say, “please,” even when asking our children for things that we have every right to have? Do we make our beds in the morning? We’ve all had those moments of demanding a clean room when our own is a disaster—or maybe that’s just me. Do we visit the chapel with our children or students if a spare minute presents itself or when we are leaving campus for the day? Do we read? Is our home conducive to reading? Do we have nooks and corners of the house with books available? You know…the chair by the window that demands to be read upon on a quiet Sunday afternoon?

These goals are not complicated, but they are worth striving for. Let’s give them a chance on the home front, please.

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Quo Vadis and Playing Like a Champion

By Rich Moss

Quo VadisOver the summer I picked up a book from the freshman summer reading list that had been confronting me since I came home to The Heights a few years ago.  Quo Vadis:  the mere mention of the title strikes fear into the heart of many a student during the happy-go-lucky days of freshman summer.  I jest… sort of.  I think mostly this reaction is due to the sheer length of the book; I’ve been there; I understand.

Anyway, I took it on to experience what the troops are going through.  I am so glad I did.  I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to say that it deepened my faith–not so much in terms of my understanding of scripture, Aquinas, or any of that.  Rather, it linked my imagination–what was it actually like to be an early Christian?to my reading of scripture which had been a bit impersonal and unimaginative.

Take the following verse, for example:

“Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.  And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”  Romans 12:1-2.

Peter and PaulWe read passages like this in an historical vacuum–assuming we even hear them when they are read at Sunday Mass, distractions presented by children, a bug on the pew, or our fellow parishioners being what they are.  Quo Vadis fills this historical and humane gap for us.  “Present your bodies a holy and living sacrifice!”  This was written at a time where Christians were, literally, offering their bodies in sacrifice.  “Do not be conformed to this world.”  What world was the apostle talking about?  The pagan orgiastic self-indulgent culture of ancient Rome.  I know Quo Vadis is not entirely historically accurate–the smarter Freshman Core profs would know best.  Aside from Nero, Peter, and Paul, most of the characters likely lived only in the mind of the author.  Yet, I am indebted to Vinicius for helping me understand the patrician convert; to Patronius, for helping me understand the Roman aesthete.  Mostly, I’m indebted to author Sienkiewicz for helping me understand the personal, real, human aspects of Sts. Peter and Paul and the early martyrs–of martyrdom in general.

Contemplating the plight of ancient Christians also helps us process the plight of contemporary Christians in Africa and the Middle East.  We all know what’s happening there, but what do we do with that information?  It is, in no uncertain terms, a complete tragedy.  But…

Is there hope somewhere?  Is there inspiration?  Might the Christians in Mosul be gathered in prayer just as the Christians were in Rome?  Could there be a priest among them, on the eve of their death encouraging them as Peter encouraged the Christians in Rome:

“Why are ye troubled in heart?  Who of you can tell what will happen before the hour cometh?  The Lord has punished Babylon with fire; but His mercy will be on those whom baptism has purified, and ye whose sins are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb will die with His name on your lips.  Peace be with you!”Quo Vadis Peter

And for those of us who tend to bemoan modern times with it’s excesses and relativism, a read of Quo Vadis assures us that this is nothing the Catholic Church hasn’t seen–and survived–before.  In fact, it is during these dark times that some of the greatest saints are made.  We hear their names during Sunday Mass.

Quo Vadis does what great literature should.  It gives the present a sense of time and place within a tradition; it fixes the present as a chapter within a greater story.  At The Heights we’d call that story Salvation History.  This knowledge provides security and identity during the present’s darkest hours.  We learn that, in a certain limited sense (and maybe not so limited), the martyrs were and are the lucky ones.  They were confronted with a stark, binary decision:  Jesus.  Yes or no?  They chose well and have been, I am sure, rewarded accordingly.  Would that we could view each day–each decision of each day–with such clarity!  It’s hard, isn’t it, to approach the evening dishes and Sunday Mass with the same intensity and missionary zeal that the Christians had when confronted by Nero’s lions?

Mike Ortiz wrote here a few months ago that “the humane richness of ordinary life comes alive in the hands of a skilled writer.”  I’m sure he’d agree that it adds humane richness to extraordinary life as well.  Extraordinary death becomes meaningful, and we’re inspired by this meaning to live better, even if it is only in 21st century suburban D.C.

Forget about playing like a champion today.  Live like a martyr right now.


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