"[Gaga Stigmata has] very modern, edgy photography to free flowing, urban narratives without censure to analytical essays, et cetera—like Gaga, imagination without ... limits. And the beauty is that anyone can submit work to the site, so artists and writers from all over the [world] have joined this experiment." -The Declaration.org

"Since March 2010, [Gaga Stigmata] has churned out the most intense ongoing critical conversation on [Lady Gaga]."
-Yale's The American Scholar

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Letter to a Young Monster: In the Spirit of Minor Truths and Major Dreams

by Blair McDonald

Tamworth (Near Toronto) Canada
October 27, 2010

Dear Fellow Monster(s),

What keeps getting lost in all these discussions of Lady Gaga has nothing to do with the politics of interpretation. Sometimes, in our excitement to make sense of things, we cross a line as critics: we engage in inappropriate touching, or better – interpretative molestation. In most instances, Susan Sontag reminds us, “interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable” (8). We should also recall how Rainer Maria Rilke writes in the “First Letter” of his Letters to a Young Poet (the same letter that contains the quote on the necessity of writing that Gaga has tattooed on her left arm): “With nothing can one approach a work of art so little as with critical words: they always come down to more or less happy misunderstandings” (15).

I do not wish to add to the critical interpretations already surrounding Gaga’s growing body of work. It is not that I do not appreciate criticism, especially criticism of the right kind and the right spirit; it is rather that at this stage in the game, I am uncomfortable with this approach to Gaga. Interpretatively I am reluctant to touch her there. It feels unwarranted, too aggressive, in a word: inappropriate (at this time). Maybe it is because her work is too powerful and I am too proud to submit to it – as if I was overcome with a loss of and for words at the thought of being her “little” semiotician. Or maybe, that in the spirit of interpretation I will never win her heart, never creatively measure up to where I imagine encountering her someday.

What follows is not about analyzing every little thing she has said or worn, every frame in each of her videos, her lyrics, her performances, the tours, her activism, or the liner notes to her albums. No. I want to extend my appreciation of Lady Gaga into a bigger discussion on the nature of art – its necessities and its truths – and from that bring to life a very simple yet missing voice in all this: the work of art and its experience as a concern for pleasure and inspiration. When did we lose our sense of the importance of pleasure and inspiration for experiencing art – especially when that art is something as powerful as music? Is it possible today to respond in that spirit of philosophical appreciation, in the spirit of Sontag, not necessarily against but ambivalent to interpretation, and still have something to say about Gaga?

In her recent Rolling Stone interview (Summer 2010), Gaga makes a revealing and paradoxical claim whose essence, I believe, is rarely understood: “Music is a lie. Art is a lie. You have to tell a lie that is so wonderful that your fans make it true. That has been my motivation and my inspiration for the longest time and the new album is a lie that I want to become true so desperately” (71). To add to the paradox, her new album will be called Born this Way (set for release sometime early 2011), thus further complicating the seams between the fictional and biographical that make up the “truth” that is Gaga. And later in the same interview, another blurring of art + life: “When I wake up in the morning I feel just like any other insecure twenty-four year old girl. Then I say, ‘Bitch, you’re Lady Gaga, you get up and walk the walk today’” (70).

If we entertain the belief that art is both the means and ends of creation, the significance here is that Gaga is making a claim about the creative fiction that she herself is and lives by – that which she affirms daily on and off the stage. The paradoxical nature of these claims, and the controversy they have generated in the general public and media, come from the way in which she makes the everyday her playground for the fantastic; the way she undoes the belief that the great lie of art is a bad thing, and that the artificial is any less authentic or real because it is fabricated. Like a true rebel Gaga champions these; her minor truths – among others. Not necessarily as a reaction (as she said elsewhere in defense of her American Idol performance, “this is not a reaction, this is our [as in the Haus of Gaga] definition of the beautiful we are putting out there”), but a self-fulfilling destiny of art + identity. In her Vanity Fair interview (September 2010), she confirms this belief again: “I am my music; I am my art; I am my creativity. When I look into the crowd [at my shows], I feel like I’m looking into tiny little disco-ball mirrors and I’m looking into myself. And when I wake up in the morning, that’s what makes my heart tick” (331).

Gaga is and has become the fiction of her own creation, the monstrous creation that enigmatically also creates her in the process. Meghan Vicks’ discussion of Gaga’s “trickster” role(s) in popular culture affirms this doubling as well: Gaga is “both the product and the performance.” The truth of the matter is Gaga lives in and through this lie (self-assertively), and all her art is but the occasioning of this simple truth. Rightly, what perplexes many on-lookers is the way in which she productively blurs the traditional lines between art and life, truth and fiction, and the real and the fantastic. In the name of art, Gaga is but another lie in the history of the Big Lie that is Art, albeit a powerfully attractive and distractive one. She is a lie both for the times and for all times, uniting what Charles Baudelaire in The Painter of Modern Life so rightfully champions as true art: the union of the transitory and the eternal. The truth is that there is no other truth than this minor one: Art is the lie that tells the truth. Art: the source of everything that haunts us in dreams and fears is the instrument and the effect, the poison and the antidote, and more accurately, the unresolved within us needing outlet. What gets expressed is both pure fiction and pure truth at one and the same time. The truth of Gaga remains that through artifice she comes to life simultaneously as something other than and also as pure-truth-as-pure-lie. To speak in general: The truth of art is that we live in and through our artifices. We make them as much as they come to make us who we are.

How often, too, is the philosophical nature of Gaga’s claims lacking in appropriate consideration. For instance, in the same RS interview, when asked about her tireless work ethic, she champions the idea of art as catharsis: “In so many ways my music also heals me. So is it heroin, and I need the fix to feel better? Or is it the music is healing? I guess that’s the big question. When you work as hard as I do, or you resign your life to something like music or art or writing, you have to commit yourself to the pain” (70). With this kind of statement there is something to be said for the inspirational power of her work ethic that often gets overlooked in critical commentary. As a creator she commits to her emotional states (the highs and the lows), and is self-aware not only of her own creative process, but also of the release that her music provides for both her and her fans. Aristotle confirms this view of art as well. In the age-old debate on the utility of art, Aristotle responds to Plato’s claim that art is a useless lie, by saying that it is useful for healing and releasing us from uncomfortable emotions.

Art is a precious and necessary release of feeling. As much as we are all dreamers, artists are the dreamers that have the courage and the drive to bring their visions to life. They do something with them; they make something out of them. Their impact is a question of currency. It stands in direct proportion to our faith in these visions. The more we believe them, the richer and more powerful they become and the greater they endure in the hearts of all that hold them dear. As in Gaga’s “Manifesto for Little Monsters,” screened as an interlude during the recent leg of the Monster Ball tour, and featured in writing in her Super Fan Collectors Art Book of The Fame Monster: “It is in the theory of perception that we have established our bond. Or, the lie, I should say, for which we kill. We are nothing without our image. Without our perception. Without the spiritual hologram of who we perceive ourselves to be, or to become, in the future.” Admittedly, not everyone champions Gaga’s artistic currency, but moments like this define her as more than just a pop star, and as someone with remarkable philosophical acuity.

Art ought to be about understanding its pleasures, about finding new ways of appreciating and becoming aware of its effects – a knowledge of how and why art affects us in the way that it does. In Beth Goodney’s piece “Spectacle of the Other Woman: Lady Gaga and Art as Excess,” she argues (with the help of Elizabeth Grosz) that “the appeal of art is in the spectacle, and it is the spectacle that should be engaged with.” For Goodney, the over-analysis of signs has its drawbacks for understanding its transformative and thus “political” potential. The difficulty I have with Goodney’s conclusion, however, lies in the fact that in her resistance to the “all too pointed” nature of interpretation, she signals the radical opposite – what she calls the “allure of the pointless” that will transform norms because of its radical excessiveness. In Goodney’s resistance to interpretation, she champions the political powers that we find in the excess of what interpretation cannot contain. That is, in its sheer overwhelming power the work can transform us. “Rather than trying to understand ‘Telephone,’” Goodney argues, “we can appreciate the very aspects of it that defy understanding, not because the signs are so cryptic that only the most gifted semiotician could decipher then, but because they are arbitrary, superficial or aesthetic” (Emphasis mine).

While I have some sympathies with Goodney’s point, the move against interpretation cannot be one of apathy – it is not just arbitrary signification. In response to things we do not immediately understand, it is too simple and perhaps dangerous to say that it must be without purpose or simply arbitrary. Is there not also something inherently disrespectful in such a claim? However, there also seems to be something perverse in the opposite gesture that seeks to transform every little sign into a chain of conformable and intelligible propaganda – something that, in a way, sucks the very spirit out of the work in the name of that perfect, transparent intelligibility. The question remains: is our only option but to choose sides?

Criticism is neither good nor bad in and of itself. Its virtue is bound up with its intent, its respect for the work and what it accomplishes. The problem is not trying to understand something. The problem lies in the way a work is touched. I am not against interpretation – just poor frameworks and inappropriate fondling. The problem is the way in which something comes to be understood, the politics that come to govern a particular way of seeing, and the resultant eclipse of other modes of seeing. When one has a view in mind of how they want the work to appeal to them, one taints the lens from which they view. Such a perspective runs the risk of being inhospitable to what the work itself is trying to communicate. This leads us to another problem: the is-ness or the itselfness of the object in question. Regardless, what it is is what we make of it. We champion art because as much as it can tell us something about life and ourselves, it is also a significant source of pleasure – an experience of the gift like no other. Learning how to appreciate art goes hand in hand with developing new ways in which to experience it. Because art addresses our senses, criticizing is not the same as feeling. To develop how to feel in the name of the experience that is art is not the same thing as learning how to be critical.

What I feel is sorely missing from discussions thus far is a simple reminder of the idea that art releases us of and from our emotions – both the good and the bad. This is why it is important to recall Sontag’s call for the remodeling of our artistic sensibilities. From forty-six years ago, she commands: “What is important now is to recover the senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content out of the work that is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all” (14).

Effortlessly vocal about the magic of art, of spectacle, of her shows (she claims that her show has “a lovely naiveté and melancholy to it: a pop melancholy” [72]), Gaga wants this from us as well. She wants us to experience her art in all its glory – as inspiring, as empowering, as a rare gift to our dulled senses. Lamenting the current lack of imagination in and for music as art these days, she comments: “There is no fervor for the fantasy of music anymore. It’s all about No.1s and who’s on iTunes, and [while] I’m on iTunes and I’m No.1, I still care about the fervor of show business and music and womanhood” (331). The great thing about claims like this is that she walks the walk. Her live show (the Monster Ball) is testament to that belief. Quite simply, it is the best Pop show traveling the world today.

In today’s rather stale climate of so-called intellectual criticism, as mere listeners and observers, is a return to the fervor of music too much to ask? I don’t think so. Today, our greatest shame is that we refuse the intelligence of the senses in the name of criticism. We mock the experience of emotion and child-like wonder as if they were symptoms of one’s weakness and lack of seriousness. With Gaga in particular, her popularity is treated with suspicion (for to be popular and artistic is a rare thing), and for that reason her every move (both in life and art) is subjected to excruciating critique. “A true critic doesn’t feel,” you say, “because their work is to source its meaning – its symbolism.” In certain instances, yes, this is helpful. But the vitriol of their arguments often does more to highlight their ressentiment than to awaken us to a new way of appreciating the work before us or to give us the tools for understanding its cultural impact. And this is the virtue of artistic criticism, or else it is useless. There are virtues and insights found under the microscope of interpretation, but let’s not sacrifice what makes art enjoyable in the first place; let’s not turn a blind eye to the Muse of Wonder it conjures.

How often I am asked in my claims “against interpretation,” what am I signaling? While I think this is a difficult question, my response is to say that art is always bound up with its inspirational power – the spirit that it breathes into each and every one of us. For me, it is as much about what gets produced by Gaga as the fearless spirit underneath it all that breathes life into the entire constellation of her work. This is the source of my multiple appreciations. This excites me not to interpret but to remind myself that I have creative powers too, it puts that faith in me to do what I need to get done, for me to get going with my own creative projects. The courage to bring to life her visions, her dreams, to make of her existence and her work an Event is what breathes life into mine. It is in this spirit that I advocate against interpretation – not as a school, nor a position, but as a becoming-Creator, dreaming of the day when one’s own vision gives way to a life every bit as eventful – albeit in my own way. In this sense, personally speaking, my interpretations will not do her justice; only my own creations can win her heart.

My call to new forms of criticism is simple: it is time to wipe the dust off our eyes and ears; to stop over-analyzing things to the pleasureless point of no return; to stop fondling inappropriately and stamping terms on objects where they don’t belong. And, may I add: to be brave and less prejudiced with how one feels about their encounters with art and what it says about the experience that is life for whatever you choose to champion as art.

In the spirit of Gaga, let’s recall a new but fundamental life lesson that all of us can use, future pop stars or not: The best artists have to kill to make it happen. You have to kill to make art, and today, the rules of the game remain: the more monstrous the more memorable. And the next time the feeling arises within us to critically interpret, let’s try to think how we can do it differently, attempting a voice absolutely singular: inspired and respectful – as if we were in her presence, as consultant, as collaborator, as confidante, as if these words where en route to the Haus of Gaga via the glitter way.

Lady Gaga is the meteorite that our aesthetic senses need for today, tomorrow, and forever. For the time being the following truth stands: “Lady Gaga is the lie that tells the truth.” And let me add, in the writerly self that writes in her wake: “And we, faithful adherents to the work that is, in faithful adherence to its power, its inspirational energy, cherish this lie with all of our hearts. Us, mere fans, no, better, enthusiasts, ‘little monsters’ (whatever our designation) now stand tall with new dreams because of this work which brings to life our own monstrous imaginary – the starry-eyed Muse that now says before everyone and everything: ‘Now it is my turn. Now it is my time to set out to work on the project of my dreams, my fearless work driven by the same relentless courage.’”

As Kanye West so beautifully stated in his recent self-penned essay, La Dolce Vita, (whose recent performance on Saturday Night Live, [October 2, 2010] also suggest influences of Gaga) in the October 2010 issue of XXL: “I am one with the people, and as I change, the people change with me. I am one of the faces of the zeitgeist. (…) I am the voice of the dreamers. I am the creative dream come true, and I refuse to wake up” (79). It is in this spirit of creativity that I place Gaga’s allure, this same spirit that I find so difficult to criticize. How I dream of someday finding the right words, there where you and I need them most.

Blair McDonald



Excerpt from Blair McDonald, A Day in the Life of, (Lament + Promise, publication forthcoming, TBA):

The other night, walking home, dispirited, like a broken heart but different, I could hear the synth-bass in a car coming up behind me, that familiar opening that I have been championing since day one. Rarely do songs find me there where the events of my life are exacted, rarely do songs have that sort of fearlessness to change one’s perspective on everything for the time being, but this one does, it finds me there where I need it most, in the spirit where I love that chip on my shoulder (hers too), that chip I wouldn’t let go of for anything in the world, a chip rich with venom and on other occasions cavities of gold. The car speeds closer, I was right, I would have recognized that song anywhere and tonight of all nights it is just what I need to snap me back into focus, ‘The best kind of drug for the worst kind of nights,’ I once thought / I once wrote. The car drew close, its tires hissing in the rain and passed right as I approached the bridge, the time on the Nylex clock was 11:13pm, a slight rain meant nothing to my pace and the thoughts start to circle, always I used to laugh when the conditions and my instruments (without a pen) were against me. But let me say it again, obstacles make me possible; they possibilize, they galvanize, with Q-Tip and against Jay-Z, you better not get that chip off your shoulder, keep it next to your heart where it belongs, it’s your monster, creative or otherwise, it is your beacon for all your powers, your antennae to all that circulates unresolved and unvoiced within you. The light went from red to green, rounding the corner the car accelerated into the distance, moving under the street lights that I love so dearly, especially in the rain and for the moment I am caught out here sheltered in reflection, where normally one attempts to find shelter from the rain, I say ‘let it’ and continue, I should be at D.’s by midnight.



Baudelaire, Charles, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. New York: Phaidon Press, 1964.

Goodney, Beth “Spectacle of the Other Woman: Lady Gaga and Art as Excess”, GAGA StigmataSunday, August 29, 2010.

Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet (Revised Edition), Trans. M.D. Herter Norton, New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004.

Robinson, Lisa. “Lady Gaga’s Cultural Revolution”, Vanity Fair (VF 601), September 2010.

Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York and London: Anchor Books, 1990.

Strauss, Neil. “The Broken Heart & Violent Fantasies of Lady Gaga: The Rolling Stone Interview”, Rolling Stone (RS 1108/1109), July 8-22, 2010.

Vicks, Meghan. “The Icon and the Monster: Lady Gaga is a Trickster of American Pop Culture”, GAGA Stigmata, Friday, March 19, 2010.

West Kanye. “La Dolce Vita” XXL, October 2010.


Author Bio:

Blair McDonald is a freelance writer currently based in Ontario, Canada. His dominant interests include Continental Philosophy, in particular, ‘deconstruction.’ He recently worked as an Assistant Lecturer in Communication Studies @ Monash University in Melbourne, Australia and is hot on the pursuit of fresh research and lecturing opportunities. Creatively speaking, he is currently for sale.


  1. Blair,

    Have you read philosopher Brian Massumi?

    Kate Durbin

  2. "The fervor of music" That hits the nail on the head for me. That's what Gaga has given back to me, and she's brought me immeasurable pleasure and joy, as well as a few sleepless nights which I spend pondering some aspect of her work. Or watching her videos over and over again.

    I'm on the downhill slope of life and I frankly didn't think that music would ever hold that fervor for me again. When it does, it is the most liberating experience possible, whether you are making the music as a performer or experiencing it in concert, on records, CDs, or today's digital media.

    Music has held that fervor and given me that liberation twice before: once in the 1950s when rock n roll first blasted AM radio through the stratosphere. And it was way more than music: it was also fashion, media, performance, and rebellion.

    The second time was the late 60s to early 70s, the era of the Fillmore Ballrooms, the Grande, the San Francisco music scene, and Motor City Motown and Rock n Roll. That's when I picked up my first guitar from the late Fred 'Sonic' Smith (MC5), and learned to play from Steve Hunter (Mitch Ryder, Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, Bette Midler).

    Something died in the music I loved by the 80s, so I missed Madonna entirely. And while I've taken interest in various female artists over the years, none has left me nearly so gobsmacked as Gaga; in fact, I now know what it feels like to be gobsmacked and this is it. From the first note she sang in "Bad Romance", she had me at "Woooahhhh".

    And it's not just the music. A friend of mine said that hearing Gaga without ever seeing her is like reading a play but never seeing it on stage. It's her aesthetic, it's her work ethic, it's her 100% commitment to living and breathing and bleeding her work.

    And of all the legends I've seen in my lifetime (including a few from the 40s), none has had whatever it is that Gaga has that makes her so riveting. I can analyze this aspect or that, but at the end of the day, all I really want to do is to experience her...and experience the fervor and the liberation of music.

  3. Hi Kate,

    I am familiar with Massumi's role in the translation of Deleuze, but have not read his own work. Any particular works I should look at of his?


  4. Dear Blair,

    I would check out his interviews, which are on his website. He talks about a new form of criticism that isn't in fact criticism at all but intense engagement with the moment, with all the possibilities within the moment. It's more positive and open-ended and experiential than most forms of criticism.

    It seems that your wonderful immersement in Gaga's music speaks to a new form of criticality, along these lines.


  5. I particularly enjoyed what I thought was the Nietzsche lurking in this piece. In the ideas, of course, but in the syntax too. I still notice when I've written something in a Nietzschean fashion, and it's always fun in a little bit of a creepy way.

    Also, map props (oh no!) on suggesting an alternative critical mode that MIGHT ACTUALLY BE ALTERNATIVE - and for providing an example! The fact that the example is enjoyable is just the cherry on top of the whole piece.

  6. A big, heartfelt KUDOS to you, sir, for producing the most impressive thing I've read on the internet in a long while. This work that you've done, this movement toward naked, passionate expression, is precisely in line with the energetic shift captured and embodied by Gaga's project/selfhood. Thank you for sharing it!

    What I'd like to add is that there seems to me to be a difference between touching a work, lovingly, with the caresses of reverent but particularized meaning, and the "fondling" that you describe. I believe in an intercourse with the body of Gaga's (or, any artist's--depending on which way we happen to swing) work that can take place when the passionate critic brings all of himself, the body of his own emotional center/creative life-force, to the immediate experience of her art. From that moment of intersubjectivity, the writer can describe the beliefs that he holds within the depths of his innermost being that are awakened, expanded, and inspired by the artist/art. The writer becomes co-creator, finding and articulating the dreamspace shared by himself and the artist, and synthesizes a pure expression of his inner-light in conjuction with and/or within the system of symbols/images originally put forth by the artist. Through this process, he can share of himself deeply with others who are inspired by the same artist. The artist creates and shares the initial impetus for full emotional presence, and the critic respects this work and contributes to it if and only if he is brave enough to baldly express himself within that same energy of pure, trembling inspiration.

    We have this literary tradition called the critical essay, which is a form of sharing our internal realities with one another, through the conduit of a text or set of texts given us by a commonly recognized/respected personage, i.e., the artist. Rather than discarding this tradition or stripping it of its own creative power--namely, the construction of meaning--I vote that we "up the ante" within it, and bring that same degree of passion that Gaga brings to her own work. Let's share with each other the truths that bring us crying to our knees (or leaping with joy!) through the connective tissue of our mutual appreciation for Lady Gaga and our fluency with respect to her work. Let us author responsive writing that functions toward the realization of our own deeply held, most heavenly dreams. And, to the extent that is necessary, respectful, and beautiful, let us interpret, negotiate, and express meaning that we within ourselves feel to be associated with her art.

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  8. Let's share with each other the truths that bring us crying to our knees (or leaping with joy!) through the connective tissue of our mutual appreciation for Lady Gaga and our fluency with respect to her work. Let us author responsive writing that functions toward the realization of our own deeply held, most heavenly dreams. And, to the extent that is necessary, respectful, and beautiful, let us interpret, negotiate, and express meaning that we within ourselves feel to be associated with her art.

    If you ask me, I think that's what Lady Gaga herself would have us do. She has expressed a number of times that the purpose of her work is to bring us, her fans, closer together, to leave us more connected to each other than to her. In that sense, her art is functional, and not simply a thing meant to exist on its own plane and regarded as "untouchable" or beyond interpretation. Lady Gaga is an artist of the people, and her work exists for us to do with whatever functions most effectively toward our collective liberation and happiness. Indeed, in the assemblage of her art, Gaga experiences the immediacy of inspiration, and then shares that with us by communicating through a system of symbols that she derives from our culture. To make her work, Gaga herself touches the work of other artists, philosophers, and even literary critics. I even read somewhere once that she used to write pop cultural criticism.

    As I said, your essay here is beautiful, necessary, and expansive. You truly tapped into the real thing here, and I applaud you. I just wanted to express that I think we can have our cake and eat it too. In other words, that we *can* in fact keep our inclination, our academic training, and for some of us our inescapable compulsion to find meaning in art, while still respecting, revering, and loving art for all that it is. We can experience it in its fullness, and then share of that experience with each other through words, and derive some meaning from this process of experiencing and sharing. Without being colonizing, we can boldly and fearlessly intermingle our inner realities with the external artifact that we call art. We can, in fact, reach out and touch it, in its softest and most beautiful regions, without being afraid of violating it, or of getting our hands wet, of losing ourselves in the moment of connection. It is there for us, inviting us to do so, and as long as we stay centered within the purity of our love for the art, within an unyielding awareness of the visceral and awe-inspiring effect that it has on us, and within our own passionate and creative core, we should feel absolutely free to co-create meaning with beautiful works.

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  11. (My bad with the deletes and the repetition of the "Let's share..." bit; my browser had told me that the comments were too big as I originally tried to post them, and so I double-posted them, and then discovered that my browser had lied and they had actually posted upon my first attempts. Rather than clutter the page with even more deleted posts and would-have-been perfected postings, I just left the two that between them contained the whole of my response, despite the fact that a few sentences were repeated.)

  12. Thanks Kate. I have had a look at some of Massumi's interviews. You're right, I can see grounds for connection in his ideas on affect, art and potential with my own 'lines of critical flight' as it were.

    To everyone else, thanks for all the appreciative comments thus far.


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