Stuff I'd Rather Have a Root Canal Than Do
Good Words for the Anglican Ordinariate Mass

52 Authors: Week 34 - G.K. Chesterton

“Anything worth doing is worth doing badly” said Gilbert Keith Chesterton and that gives me the strength to tackle this post, when a fear of not being able to do it well enough would prevent me from even starting.

From 6-8 August, I attended the American Chesterton Society's (ACS) Conference in San Antonio, Texas (a mere four hour drive from my house!) entitled “A Miscellany of Men.”

I had a blast! There were some people there I had met last year, so it was great to see them again and I met plenty of good people at this conference too.

The talks I particularly liked were:

Chesterton and Orestes Brownson

Chesterton and William Cobbett

Chesterton and Distributism

Chesterton and Oscar Wilde

Chesterton as a Model of Lay Spirituality

I'm giving these titles here in case anyone might be interested in hearing them when they become available to download for just a couple of dollars each from the ACS website (here is the link). Kevin O'Brien gave such a passionate talk on GKC and Orestes Brownson, using illustrations of the struggles in his own life, that we gave him a standing ovation.

The talk on William Cobbett (1763-1835 – basically one century before Chesterton) was very interesting to me, because I had only recently heard of him as one of the early historians to challenge the official Whig History of England. I had just bought Chesterton's biography of Cobbett at the book table and GKC's dedication moved me so much I was in tears:

To all the present-day Cobbetts, wherever they may be, who let neither fortune nor favour stand in the way of their defense of the Truth, in season and out, and its proclamation from the housetops. Take courage: for Truth has already overcome the World.

I nearly didn't bother attending the talk on Chesterton and Distributism, because I felt I'd heard it all before. However, I changed my mind, attended, and am pretty glad I did. It was given by John Medaille (pronounced May-die: he wants a hospital named after him!). The Dismal Science hurts my brain at the best of times and especially at 4pm on a Friday afternoon. Consequently I really didn't understand much, but I picked up enough to realise that this was an important talk. He spoke of needing to explain Distributism as a real alternative to modern economics and to demonstrate it as such he applied its principles to cost accounting. Yes, it was getting more dull by the nano-second. I can't explain it to anyone else, but I think that anyone who is truly interested in Distributism would do very well to listen to this talk when it is put up on the ACS website, and that's why I've included this information here.

Joseph Pierce gave a talk entitled Chesterton and Oscar Wilde. I highly recommend it – again, when it becomes available to download. He mostly speaks of Wilde's lifelong love affair with the Catholic Church and by itself, the list of Decadents who eventually converted to the Faith is worth listening to the talk for. Chesterton was no great fan of Wilde, but he did have this to say:

The time has certainly come when this extraordinary man, Oscar Wilde, may be considered merely as a man of letters. He sometimes pretended that art was more important than morality, but that was mere play-acting. Morality or immorality was more important than art to him and everyone else. But the very cloud of tragedy that rested on his career makes it easier to treat him as a mere artist now. His was a complete life, in that awful sense in which your life and mine are incomplete; since we have not yet paid for our sins. In that sense one might call it a perfect life, as one speaks of a perfect equation; it cancels out. On the one hand we have the healthy horror of the evil; on the other the healthy horror of the punishment. We have it all the more because both sin and punishment were highly civilized; that is, nameless and secret. Some have said that Wilde was sacrificed; let it be enough for us to insist on the literal meaning of the word. Any ox that is really sacrificed is made sacred.


The American Chesterton Society has done great work in keeping the work of Chesterton alive and spreading the good news. Lots of people have converted to the Catholic Faith at least partly because of Chesterton, so it is valuable work. Its website has been nominated for best resources website at Best Catholic Websites. I include their blurb here:

The American Chesterton Society (ACS), founded in 1996, works to promote interest in G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), one of the 20th century’s greatest writers. A convert to the Catholic Church, Chesterton wrote over a hundred books during his lifetime and published over five thousand essays in newspapers and magazines.

One of the most quoted writers in the English language, yet one of the least studied, G.K. Chesterton foresaw and wrote about the issues we struggle with today: social injustice, the culture of death, the decline of the arts, assaults on religion, and attacks on the family and on the dignity of the human person.

One of the talks from last year's conference which I really loved was by David Fagerberg:

Chesterton Is Everywhere

He has a book of the same title and naturally I bought a copy. Here are a couple of GKC quotes from the book, which I only found as I was skimming through it this morning:

Once I found a friend
“Dear me,” I said, “he was made for me.”
But now I find more and more friends
Who seem to have been made for me
And more and yet more made for me,
Is it possible we were all made for each other
all over the world?

(from one of his early notebooks in his youth)

A Man Born on the Earth

Perhaps there has been some mistake
How does he know he has come to the right place?
But when he finds his friends
He knows he has come to the right place.

I often feel that Chesterton really is everywhere. By now I have read quite a few of his books and certainly many quotes. He wrote about so many things that I often think of what he would say, when I'm at home looking after the children, when I'm at the store, when I'm with friends and family and especially when I am online!

I first read Chesterton some time in the nineties, I think. I would have read some of the Fr. Brown stories, but didn't read anything else of his until some time in 2002. For some reason, my husband had bought me a subscription to the St. Austin Review and one edition was devoted to Distributism. This certainly had me interested in finding out more, so I next read more about this topic and also tried to read Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man. Initially, I didn't have much success, but then I worked out that Chesterton does not write “linearly.” He sort of meanders about, it seems to me. So then I decided just to follow him around and I've been doing that ever since! I re-read Orthodoxy, or parts of it fairly regularly. After these, I read his biographies of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi, which I enjoyed. More recently I have read What's Wrong With The World and so far this is one of my favourites. I love reading a chapter or two regularly. (It can be read online at Project Gutenberg.)

From the chapter “The Emancipation of Domesticity”:

The shortest way of summarizing the position is to say that woman stands for the idea of Sanity; that intellectual home to which the mind must return after every excursion on extravagance. The mind that finds its way to wild places is the poet's; but the mind that never finds its way back is the lunatic's. There must in every machine be a part that moves and a part that stands still; there must be in everything that changes a part that is unchangeable. And many of the phenomena which moderns hastily condemn are really parts of this position of the woman as the center and pillar of health. Much of what is called her subservience, and even her pliability, is merely the subservience and pliability of a universal remedy; she varies as medicines vary, with the disease. She has to be an optimist to the morbid husband, a salutary pessimist to the happy-go-lucky husband. She has to prevent the Quixote from being put upon, and the bully from putting upon others. The French King wrote—

"Toujours femme varie Bien fol qui s'y fie,"

but the truth is that woman always varies, and that is exactly why we always trust her. To correct every adventure and extravagance with its antidote in common-sense is not (as the moderns seem to think) to be in the position of a spy or a slave. It is to be in the position of Aristotle or (at the lowest) Herbert Spencer, to be a universal morality, a complete system of thought. The slave flatters; the complete moralist rebukes. It is, in short, to be a Trimmer in the true sense of that honorable term; which for some reason or other is always used in a sense exactly opposite to its own. It seems really to be supposed that a Trimmer means a cowardly person who always goes over to the stronger side. It really means a highly chivalrous person who always goes over to the weaker side; like one who trims a boat by sitting where there are few people seated. Woman is a trimmer; and it is a generous, dangerous and romantic trade.

I don't wish to start a quarrel in the commbox about the role of women in the home v. women in the workforce. I simply include these large passages because they are directly applicable to my own life as a homeschooling mother and I have found much comfort in them when I have really needed it:

To put the matter shortly, woman is generally shut up in a house with a human being at the time when he asks all the questions that there are, and some that there aren't. It would be odd if she retained any of the narrowness of a specialist. Now if anyone says that this duty of general enlightenment (even when freed from modern rules and hours, and exercised more spontaneously by a more protected person) is in itself too exacting and oppressive, I can understand the view. I can only answer that our race has thought it worth while to cast this burden on women in order to keep common-sense in the world. But when people begin to talk about this domestic duty as not merely difficult but trivial and dreary, I simply give up the question. For I cannot with the utmost energy of imagination conceive what they mean. When domesticity, for instance, is called drudgery, all the difficulty arises from a double meaning in the word. If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman drudges in the home, as a man might drudge at the Cathedral of Amiens or drudge behind a gun at Trafalgar. But if it means that the hard work is more heavy because it is trifling, colorless and of small import to the soul, then as I say, I give it up; I do not know what the words mean. To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whiteley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets, cakes and books, to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people's children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one's own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman's function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.

Finally, Chesterton is on Twitter!

Some of today's quotes from GKC fans on Twitter (August 16th):

“We fight for the right of normal people to define normality”

“There are only two things that can bind men together; a convention and a creed.”

“Morality is always terribly complicated—to a man who has lost all his principles.”

“There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.”

“All that talk of not caring for creeds has simply become one fixed, very formal, and slightly hypocritical creed.”

“In the modern world we are rapidly going back to dividing the tolerable and the intolerable merely as the familiar and the unfamiliar.”

“The weakness in the Liberal theory of toleration was this: that its apostles seem to have taken common morals & natural religion for granted.”

"A patriot is always a little sad."


—Louise is an Australian homeschooling mother of six, currently living in Texas.


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Well done Louise! A difficult topic

Very nice. It actually makes me want to read Chesterton. "How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone?" If that doesn't hit the nail on the head, I don't know what does.

The first quote Louise uses is one I think of often. It helps me keep going on things, especially writing projects small and large, that I feel are too much for me.

You're not saying you haven't read *any* Chesterton, are you, Robert?!!?

Not at all. In fact, I taught an online course about Chesterton. I just find him to be hard to read, especially his fiction. One can easily get mental indigestion reading his nonfiction purpose.

I wondered--I thought I remembered discussing him with you.

Funny how different people like or dislike different aspects of Chesterton. I've heard people say "The Father Brown stories are excellent, but the rest of his stuff is uninteresting." My own preference is for the essay collections, where he doesn't go on too long about any one thing.

Thanks, everyone. You've made my day! Robert, I sometimes prefer GKC in little snatches: an essay, a paragraph, a sentence.

"The first quote Louise uses is one I think of often. It helps me keep going on things, especially writing projects small and large, that I feel are too much for me."

Glad to hear it. It helps me out with many a task, or dream, or inclination.

I meant "nonfiction prose." Autocorrect, and all that.

What a wonderful thing to be able to attend a conference about someone "in antiquity" who you admire! I need to start doing this with my life. Lovely post, lovely man, always fun and informative to read. Thank you.

Good essay Louise. Have you read & re-read "The Ballad of The White Horse" yet?

Kiwi Steve

That's my favorite thing by Chesterton that I've ever read.

Admittedly, I have not read a ton of Chesterton.


That's an instance of what I was saying about people having such very different views of Chesterton. I don't care much for his poetry, in general, and I don't think I ever finished "White Horse", although it had some bits I really liked.

It's the bits I liked.


Yes I have, Kiwi Steve. :)

I rather liked The White Horse. I might take the trouble to learn parts of it by heart.

"What a wonderful thing to be able to attend a conference about someone "in antiquity" who you admire! I need to start doing this with my life."

Thanks El Gaucho. Yes, it was a lovely experience. We spent the whole weekend laughing. FYI next year's conference will be in Pittsburg.

I vote for Milwaukee on 2017.

I do like Chesterton. But I agree with Robert Gotcher that he can be very difficult to read. Sometimes when I assign his books I look at them and wonder if even a postgrad can get something out of them. Because it almost seems like free association at times, from one image to another. Rather than ratiocination. No problem with that. I'm thinking of back in Aberdeen when I used to set 'The Dumb Ox" for my MTS course on 'Catholicism'. I would wonder if the students were learning from it, and if so what. On the other hand, I later tried 'The Everlasting Man' for the same course, and I think it was over many people's heads.

I like the Ballad of the White Horse IN PARTS. It has some great lines and verses. But it also has some surreally nonsesical stuff like the psychedelic Bob Dylan of the
Gates of Eden period. You know the kind of thing I mean. Wicked kings drinking green wine. And I'm like what is this magical realist nonsense? GREEN wine? Its not green for humour as in Seuss or for the rhyme as in Dylan. Its just that Chestertons mind somehow associated itself there

Autocorrect: talking to a friend yesterday on fb he wrote 'o really' but the machinevturned it into 'pretty lafy'. Its a good thing I've known him 20 years!

I always assume those odd things like "green wine" in Chesterton are British lore that I don't understand. Hadn't occurred to me that they're just weird.

I'm very surprised to hear you say that you find Chesterton difficult, when you regularly read truly difficult theologians. I find him obscure occasionally, and definitely rambling, but overall not generally hard to follow.

No I don't find him hard to follow. I just wonder if students are going to be able to follow the 'logic'. It also presupposes a huge amount of cultural knowledge which they don't have.

Tonight we watched the BBC series of Father Brown in my room. The interns at the conservative magazine on which I am a 'creative writer' did not know who Flambeau is. So I could guess they dontcread much Chesterton

I am not going to say anything about the quality of this TV series. My room is the guest room and the TV room and a few other things and the people who live here love the show.

Oh, I see. I really would be surprised if many young people are able to read him, still more if they were previously aware of him. I think it's mostly only Catholics who would ever have heard of him.

The interns are Catholics and about half the people in my Catholicism course were RC

I held back from saying this, because it sounds sort of snooty, and there are all sorts of problems with the way it has to be phrased, but: I was thinking not just Catholic but "orthodox", "conservative", "traditionalist"--those words--Catholic. Only at one of the colleges in that milieu, or perhaps a high school, would a Catholic ever be given GKC to read.

I think I've seen some of those BBC Father Browns. I guess it's been some time, or else they just didn't make much impression on me, because I don't recall having a strong opinion. Now that I think about it, aren't there two different series? One relatively recent and one from maybe back in the '80s?

This is a 2014 series and believe me the interns on this magazine are orthodox and traditional

I didn't mean that the o&t *would* have read him, but that if anybody had it would be the o&t (most likely).

Yes, there was a series with Kenneth More in the 70s. Fr. Brown is the main thing I've read by Chesterton. I listened to them on tape first in the car on a long trip. I think I liked them that way best. I don't know if I actually like those stories, but I do find them very interesting. I don't think I cared much for either BBC series, but I'm curious about the movie with Alec Guiness. You know, it was during the filming of that movie that he decided to become Catholic. I see that you can watch the whole thing on YouTube and I've found that YT works really well on my TV, so I think I'll watch it this weekend.


There is a funny "division" in our home school group: Lewis v Chesterton. I'm definitely on the Lewis side. My 14 year old son devoured the Father Brown Omnibus this summer. He must be on the other side.

I've been spoiled by Doyle, which I devoured when I was 14.

I never read Chesterton until I was well into my 40s, except the Dumb Ox and the book about St. Francis.

Surely I'd remember if I'd seen a 2014 Fr. Brown. Yet I keep thinking I have some sort of vague impression of a recent one, so maybe I just read something about it.

Lewis and Chesterton are really pretty different. Similar sensibilities in a lot of ways, but for the most part their writings are very different. So I wouldn't say I prefer one to the other overall. I certainly like Lewis's fiction better.

One thing I always remember in reference to Chesterton is what a former teacher of mine said about him. I was in my late 20s or so and had just discovered Chesterton and was having lunch with the teacher. His specialty was Victorian Lit and he was somewhat familiar with Chesterton. The one word I remember in his remark about GKC was "aphoristic." Indeed--Louise opens with one of his best.

Oh, I did read St. Francis and liked it, and I'm liking Everylasting Man, but I wonder about some of the things he says about anthropology. How have things changed one way and another since he wrote the book?


His basic point in the first part is that no matter what evolutionary anthropology says, once man was man, he was man in full with all the human impulses and capacities.

Well, I know that, but if you are going to discuss this people who don't believe it, you want to make sure you have your facts straight. He does make statements about anthropology and I don't want to say, "Chesterton says x, y, z," and have them say, "Yes but, in the past 50 years we've found blah, blah, blah." I think the underlying premise is sound, but I don't want to get lost in the details.


"There is a funny "division" in our home school group: Lewis v Chesterton. I'm definitely on the Lewis side. My 14 year old son devoured the Father Brown Omnibus this summer. He must be on the other side."

I find this to be hilarious! I was going to say "only in a home school group" but that probably isn't true.

Janet, getting lost in the details is an infuriating aspect of modern "discourse" (I use the term loosely).

Trying to keep things on point is almost impossible. It doesn't matter when there is broad consensus and the discussion is mostly convivial (like at this internet wonderland here), but if one is trying to debate about important topics it's very frustrating.

I wonder if you could give a specific example of the kind of thing you mean about anthropology? I can't think of any.

"My room is the guest room and the TV room and a few other things ..."

Grumpy, that sounds terrible!!

I had a conversation the other day with a young man who is a Tolkien scholar. I invited him to the CSL Society meeting, but he just kept telling me how much better Tolkien was. Well, I agree, but we don't have a Tolkien Society and we do discuss all those authors who are associated with Lewis in some way. I didn't know they were mutually exclusive.


People are so funny. :)

Louise, its temporary, just for a week more.

I think people do divide over Lewis and Chesterton. There's a real difference. One writer, named Brookhiser, said that Chesterton tries to sell you a way of life whereas Lewis takes you by the collar. One gathers he was a Lewis guy! My own teacher, Louise Cowan, said that what Chesterton had, that Lewis lacked, was earth.

I ate dinner with Dale Ahlquist and when I tried to talk to him about Lewis, he would have nothing of it.


I think Tolkien also has earth. Maybe it has something to do with being Catholic. Maybe that is why Lewis liked Williams and Tolkien didn't. Williams was a platonist in the bad sense. Lewis tended in that direction as well. Lewis claimed to walk the middle path between the arid north and the sensuous south. As Chesterton points out in Orthodoxy, the Catholic position embraces them both full throttle.

This is interesting--I haven't encountered this either-or polarization among the devotees, though of course we all have our preferences.

Of course! Tolkien has Middle Earth. ;-)

I know the reason I like Tolkien so much better is because he was Catholic. I think I said here before that the difference between Narnia and LotR is the difference between Protestantism and Catholicism. The latter is just so much deeper.

And right about the path, etc.


That's a relief, Grumpy. I was feeling rather concerned!

Interesting about Lewis and Chesterton. Since reading GKC, I haven't read much Lewis. I still like him.

"I ate dinner with Dale Ahlquist and when I tried to talk to him about Lewis, he would have nothing of it."

I can imagine!

Of course, Chesterton want wasn't even Catholic when he wrote Orthodoxy.

"...that the difference between Narnia and LotR is the difference between Protestantism and Catholicism"

I've always thought that, too. Lewis the Protestant spells out what Tolkien embodies.

That's a good way to put it.


Over time I lost interest in CSL somewhat during the process of leaving Protestantism behind in the early 90s. I still, however, appreciate his fiction and his letters, and would argue that The Abolition of Man is one of the most important "conservative" books of the 20th century. The late Orthodox theologian Fr. Thomas Hopko recommended that people read it once a year, "just to be reminded of what we're up against."

As far as GKC, I must confess that I've never really been a fan, despite trying numerous times over the years. I like the Distributist things, What's Wrong With the World and The Outline of Sanity primarily. But the only fiction of his that I ever really warmed to is The Napoleon of Notting Hill. Haven't read it in ages, however, so I'm not sure what I'd think of it now. I don't really care for the short mystery story, so my opinion of the Father Brown tales is colored by that prejudice.

That's another instance of someone liking this Chesterton but not that one. I read Napoleon and didn't care much for it. After two readings I remained completely unmoved by The Man Who Was Thursday, which many people regard as some kind of masterpiece.

I find that in general I like him in smaller doses. He gets tiresome to me over the long haul. I've run across some real gems--a few sentences or a paragraph--in short journalistic pieces.

CSL's fiction is what I like most. I agree about Abolition of Man. I don't know whether The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters count as fiction or not but I think they're both brilliant, especially the latter. His strictly discursive theological works I haven't been back since first reading them.

I found myself getting increasingly critical of Lewis while re-reading Pilgrim's Regress in the group (always rather put off by the rejection of everything in the North and South). It was when John met Mother Kirk and he describes a church that could only possibly be the Catholic Church. What I mean is, no other church could be what he says Mother Kirk is, and yet he doesn't see it. Lewis has a large blind spot in relationship to the Catholic Church, whether because it was bred into him or by a deliberate refusal to see, I don't know. Tolkien seemed to think it was the latter.

He is saying the exact same thing in his talks and essay that he is saying in his fiction, but for me the fiction does the job much better. It might must be me. I think the same about Percy and Berry, and almost anyone who writes both fiction and non-fiction except MFOC. I like her fiction and her talks, etc., equally well.


In general I have the same leaning, but in the case of Percy I value the fiction and non-fiction about equally. If I had to choose only one of his books, it would come down to a tough choice between Lost in the Cosmos and one of the novels. Berry I'm not so sure about, though I like what I've read of both.

I value Lewis for his spiritual psychology, which I don't think Chesterton has. The Man Who Was Thursday only works for me when I look at et as a romance about the woman with the red hair.

I think I've said all these things before here.

A Message in a Bottle is brilliant.

I have A Message in a Bottle at home. I ought to read it sometime.


Yes, "The Abolition of Man" is extremely good IMO.

Was it here that someone once mentioned that Chesterton was a fan of the French Revolution? If so, can anyone explain what that was all about?

I can't say much about that, though I think "fan of" might be overstating it. I do recall that he had some sympathy for it, but I can't remember anything specific.

I haven't read Message in the Bottle. Somehow I'd gotten the impression that it was over my head.

Mac, don't be silly.

No, really--I have the impression that it's pretty technical philosophy-linguistics stuff.

He makes it make sense.

The message in a Bottle bit is really good. As is the delta factor.

Oh wait. Maybe I did read part of it.


Marianne, yes I thought that too. But I have just re-read the chapter from The Everlasting Man on The Five Deaths of The Faith.

This chapter is my favourite part of the whole book and I would recommend it to anyone who might want a bit of encouragement about how things are going. It's online too.

He mentions the French Revolution, but seems to indicate that he at least believed it to be bad for the Church, so I'm not sure we could say he was a "fan." I do get the impression he was in favour of it in certain aspects, but I would have to look up his writings.

Nicely done, Louise! Chesterton is a tough nut to crack, and you've presented him admirably. I'm a little envious of your going to the Chesterton conference; I'd like to go sometime myself.

As some people here know, I have been "curating" The Hebdomadal Chesterton for a number of years now. I usually read a little bit of Chesterton every day. True, he can sometimes be tedious -- try reading his essays and articles, which are extremely numerous, about the Germans during the first years of WWI -- but I believe that he was a very wise man. The flair with which he expressed himself has always had its detractors; I'm not among them.

By the way, you would be astonished at how few people search the Internet for the phrase "Hebdomadal Chesterton".

Sorry, Mac. Evidently I bungled up the html tags.

I fixed it. Don't you hate it when you do that and can't go back and fix it? I'm hesitant to use tags in comments on other blogs for that reason.

I need to put a link to the HC on my sidebar. Not that it would get you many visits, but partly for me, as I forget it's there. I just read that post where he says that the book of Job is the greatest religious poem. It's things like that that make me come back to him in spite of the fact that he gets on my nerves sometimes.

Thanks Craig. :)

Not many people google "Hebdomadal Chesterton"? How odd. Anyway I have bookmarked it now.

FYI the Conference next year will be in Pittsburg. I'm not sure where you are. If you can get there at all, I would definitely recommend it.

"I usually read a little bit of Chesterton every day. True, he can sometimes be tedious...but I believe that he was a very wise man. The flair with which he expressed himself has always had its detractors; I'm not among them."

Yes, this is pretty much my own view.

Craig, that Chesterton quote about white being a colour is beautiful. :)

Lewis reviews 'The Hobbit' -- a friend sent this around this morning:

Very nice.

I was first introduced to The Hobbit by a co-worker when I was 18. She was talking about this stupid book her roommate was reading about little people with big, hair feet who lived in holes in the ground, and I got hold of it as soon as I could.

For some reason, I didn't read LoTR until much later.


Lewis's last line certainly turned out to be accurate. Thanks, Rob.

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