Tag Archives: social media

The Power of Words in “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak

It’s been a while since I published a blog post. I’ve been quite busy with work and travel (went to Spain, which was “fantastico”). Anyway, amid the craziness and busy-ness, I managed to read The Book Thief. My daughter had loaned it to me, saying that she loved the book and felt I would love it too, which I certainly did. I had seen the film, but as usual, the book was WAY better than the movie.

The first thing that struck me about this book was the narrative voice, which is the voice of Death. Omniscient narrators are nothing new, but Death as a character certainly provides a unique vantage point from which to tell a tale, particularly one set in Nazi Germany during WWII. The narrator exudes a strange sense of detachment and sadness, which if you are the Grim Reaper is probably how you would need to be. You would need to detach yourself enough to reap souls, but it would be cruel to do so without some feeling of sadness at the many lives cut short.

While this story is so rich and offers much to explore, I’d like to focus on the power of words as presented in the text.

As a writer, I am keenly aware of the power that words have. They are symbols that evoke images, sway opinions, enlighten, and mislead. When people say that the pen is mightier than the sword, what is actually meant is that words are the most powerful weapons anyone can wield.

Yes, the Fuhrer decided that he would rule the world with words. “I will never fire a gun,” he devised. “I will not have to.” Still, he was not rash. Let’s allow him at least that much. He was not a stupid man at all. His first plan of attack was to plant the words in as many areas of his homeland as possible.

He planted them day and night.

He watched them grow, until eventually, great forests of words had risen throughout Germany. . . It was a nation of farmed thoughts.

(p. 445)

The protagonist, Liesel (the book thief), loves books. But at the height of her despair, she has an epiphany where she fully grasps the power of words as tools to spread evil.

She tore a page from the book and ripped it in half.

Then a chapter.

Soon, there was nothing but scraps of words littered between her legs and all around her. The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Fuhrer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or wordly tricks to make us feel better.

What good were the words?

She said it audibly now, to the orange-lit room. “What good are the words?”

(p. 521)

Words, like swords, are double-edged. They can cause immeasurable suffering, but can also heal the deepest wounds. This is why when I see people throwing words around on 24-news stations or on social media, I cannot help but feel concerned. If people would only pause and consider before reacting with words, we would avoid a lot of pain and conflict.

We all need to choose our words more carefully. I, for one, will try to be vigilant regarding how I use these powerful tools, and hopefully I can use them to advance society and humanity.

Thanks for taking the time to read my “words.” Cheers!

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“Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Six Pillars of Nonviolent Resistance” by Maria Popova

mlk

I subscribe to the Brain Pickings newsletter, and while I do not always have time to read all the thoughtful essays, I am spiritually and intellectually stimulated each time I do. This week’s installment included an article about Martin Luther King, Jr. entitled “An Experiment in Love: Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Six Pillars of Nonviolent Resistance and the Ancient Greek Notion of ‘Agape’” which I figured would be appropriate to read this morning for MLK Day.

Popova begins the essay by pointing out the spiritual traditions and philosophies that influenced King.

Although Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929–April 4, 1968) used Christian social ethics and the New Testament concept of “love” heavily in his writings and speeches, he was as influenced by Eastern spiritual traditions, Gandhi’s political writings, Buddhism’s notion of the interconnectedness of all beings, and Ancient Greek philosophy. His enduring ethos, at its core, is nonreligious — rather, it champions a set of moral, spiritual, and civic responsibilities that fortify our humanity, individually and collectively.

Popova then begins exploring the key tenets in King’s essay “An Experiment in Love,” which I have not yet read in its entirety, but suspect I will have to soon. The first quote that really struck me concerns how we treat those we oppose.

Nonviolence … does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.

This single sentence perfectly captures my present sentiment. I recently had to cut myself off from much of social media because of the toxicity that permeates it these days. I get the sense that social media has become a tool for people to denigrate those they disagree with through snarky tweets and memes that depict the opposition as objects to be feared or ridiculed. Social media, instead of bringing us closer together, has helped drive a wedge between us, and I refuse to expose myself to this any longer.

The other passage that resonated with me concerns physical and spiritual violence.

Nonviolent resistance … avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. The nonviolent resister would contend that in the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.

This tenet applies to the social media toxicity I mentioned earlier, as well as the divisiveness we are experiencing in the aftermath of a most contentious election. There is so much hatred and fear and anger and distrust directed at “the others,” that it has resulted in a violence that manifests physically and spiritually. We have found ourselves in a terrible place and as a society we need to move past it.

If our civilization is to survive, we need to transcend the “us and them” mentality and begin to see ourselves as one people, regardless of our differences. We do not have to agree with everyone, but we need to begin respecting everyone and treating everyone with dignity. If we don’t, we will cease to advance.

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“Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living” by Krista Tippett

becomingwise

I picked this book up while at the Faith in Literature conference, where I was fortunate enough to attend two conversations with Krista Tippett, as well as a luncheon with her. She was so inspiring that I could not pass on the opportunity to acquire an autographed copy of her book. It was promptly placed at the top of the “to-be-read” pile.

The book is basically a collection of her thoughts along with snippets of conversations with spiritual thought leaders, activists, writers, and poets from her radio show, “On Being.” She divides the book into five main sections: Words, Flesh, Love, Faith, and Hope. There is so much wisdom in this book, that it is impossible for me to do it justice, so I will just share a few passages and my thoughts on them. The first one concerns the power of stories.

They touch something that is human in us and is probably unchanging. Perhaps this is why the important knowledge is passed through stories. It’s what holds culture together. Culture has a story, and every person in it participates in that story. The world is made up of stories; it’s not made up of facts.

(p. 26)

I had a professor in college who specialized in Irish literature, and I remember him telling me that stories mattered. That has stayed with me throughout my life. There is power in stories and poems. They convey something about the human experience that cannot be expressed in a spreadsheet or a graph. It saddens me when I talk to people who say they never read fiction or poetry, because they don’t have the time or they only want to read “factual” books. These individuals miss out on something unique to the human experience, a communal sharing that our society desperately needs.

Growing up, I connected to the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s and did my best to carry the torch of social change. But after a while, I became disillusioned, and Krista captures what it is that has changed between the 60s and today.

A comparison was made with the 1960s, another moment of social turmoil, including many assassinations. A journalist said that he thought the difference between the 1960s and now was that even though there was incredible tumult and violence, it was at the very same time a period of intense hope. People could see that they were moving toward goals, and that’s missing now.

(p. 156)

It is hard to remain hopeful when we are bombarded with negative stories via social media and network news stations. I really make an effort to stay positive, but sometimes I can’t help feeding in to the hype. One of my short-term goals is to try to be more positive and hopeful.

I have always been fascinated by both science and mysticism, which is why the following quote resonates with me.

Both the scientist and the mystic live boldly with the discoveries they have made, all the while anticipating better discoveries to come.

(p. 186)

What I love about science and mysticism is that they both seek to illuminate the hidden mysteries of existence. There was a time when the mystical arts and the sciences were aligned. That changed for a while and the two were at odds. But lately, I see the paths converging again, and I think that it will ultimately be the unification of the scientific with the spiritual that will usher in the next stage of human evolution and ultimately save us from ourselves.

With all the negativity, divisiveness, and hostility that I have seen this past year, this book was exactly what I needed to shift my perspective back to the positive. Too often my cynicism kicks in, but Krista reminds me that there is always hope and that we should never stop striving to improve ourselves and the world around us. I want to close with one more quote that really captures the importance of this book, which I hope you will read soon.

Our problems are not more harrowing than the ravaging depressions and wars of a century ago. But our economic, demographic, and ecological challenges are in fact existential. I think we sense this in our bones, though it’s not a story with commonly agreed-upon contours. Our global crises, the magnitude of the stakes for which we are playing, could signal the end of civilization as we’ve known it. Or they might be precisely the impetus human beings perversely need to do the real work at hand: to directly and wisely address the human condition and begin to grow it up.

(p. 14)

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How to Be Happy

behappy

I recently cashed in some frequent flier miles for some magazine subscriptions (use them or lose them). I ordered Wired and GQ was bundled with it. I really don’t care much about men’s fashion and the articles in GQ are mainly about things I couldn’t care less about, but then as I was flipping through an issue, I came upon an article about happiness which caught my eye.

Click here to read article online.

It was about a Buddhist monk who teaches the keys to happiness. In fact, the monk, Matthieu Ricard, even wrote a book called, appropriately, Happiness. Anyway, the article was written by a person who went to Nepal to meet Ricard and discover the secret to happiness.

“Happiness is a skill,” he wrote. “Skills must be learned.”

This kind of surprised me. I had always considered happiness to be a response to things internal or external, so the idea of happiness being a skill piqued my interest, because I can certainly learn new skills.

In the wake of recent events, I have made a commitment to try to turn off the external noise and focus on the positive. It seems that I am not the only person feeling this way right now.

…these past months had raised a bevy of stark questions about our own humanity. In Paris and Orlando, Nice and Istanbul, the center could not hold. We’d been tossed headlong into a new maelstrom of violence, both physical and verbal. I wanted to know: How could happiness flourish in a sucky world? And how could we find it again?

I have thought about this a lot recently, and as such, have limited my access to news, filtered certain people out of my social media feeds, and recommitted myself to regular meditation. Ricard affirms that this is the right way to improve my overall happiness.

“The search for happiness is not about looking at life through rose-colored glasses or blinding oneself to the pain and imperfections of the world…. It is the purging of mental toxins, such as hatred and obsession, that literally poison the mind.”

The author of the article cites some dismal statistics from the WHO:

The World Health Organization claimed that people in wealthy countries were more depressed, at eight times the rate, than counterparts in poorer ones. Living in affluence seemed to mean you never had enough. Professional status was one more ego-feed, and as useless as the number of likes garnered for posting a picture of your kid playing a piece of celery in the school play.

So does this mean our society is doomed, condemned to a permanent state of unhappiness? It seems that the answer is “No.”

But, I wanted to know, were we changeable, or doomed, in the end? Matthieu flashed a smiling impatience. Of course, we were changeable! We contained molecules of greatness, the possibility of enlightenment!

I am tired of feeling fearful, stressed out, anxious, and unhappy. This is not what life is about. And while I am not going to stick my head in the sand and ignore the world around me, I can make the conscious decision not to feed into the negativity that seems to flourish and instead spread some light and joy to those around me. Hopefully, that happiness will spread to others.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope your day is filled with happiness.

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“Revisiting History” by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

This essay is included in the book Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism. Since most of the essay concerns Italian politics and media (a topic which I know little about), the names and references were somewhat meaningless to me. Still, there are a couple sections that discuss fascism and dictatorships that I found interesting.

There seems to be a belief that true political change only occurs through extreme action or revolution. But Eco points out that this is not really the case, that a Fascist Revolution is gradual.

At school they spoke to me about the “Fascist revolution,” but afterward it became clear to me that Fascism hadn’t arrived overnight, like the tanks in Budapest or in Prague, but crept into the country gradually.

(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 166 – 7)

As the election campaign in the US heats up, the rhetoric and tweeting and social media noise is reaching epic levels. As such, dialog and debate is being suffocated, as I see it. People are no longer open to constructive debate and only seek validation of their already established views, and anyone who expresses disagreement with those views is attacked ruthlessly. This is creating a dangerous environment which, as Eco points out, is ripe for the rise of a dictatorship.

In other words, the absence of political debate spells dictatorship, in which criticism is forbidden and newspapers that don’t toe the government line are closed down.

(ibid: p. 177)

Thankfully, the United States is not a fascist country, nor is it ruled by a dictator, but it would be naïve to pretend that we are not moving close to a precipice that we could easily tumble over. Looking back over the past 30 years, you can see the trend towards intolerance for dissent, factionalism, tribalism, and a stark division between the political right and the left. If this trend continues, it will not end well. I hope that the current ranting will move back toward constructive debate.

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Thoughts on “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace – Part 10: Art and Being Hip

InfiniteJest

I live in Asheville, which is considered a “hipster” city. As a result, I see people who work very hard and spend a lot of money perfecting their non-conformist images. I like to say that these people “conform to the established idea of non-conformity.” Not that I am passing judgment. Everyone has a right to express themselves in a way that feels right, but I suspect that some impressionable individuals buy into the idea of non-conformity that is promoted through the arts and social media, especially young people.

With this in mind, I’d like to point out an interesting passage in Infinite Jest.

It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. It’s maybe the vestiges of the Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz, which means world-weariness or hip ennui. Maybe it’s the fact that most of the arts here are produced by world-weary and sophisticated older people and then consumed by younger people who not only consume art but study it for clues on how to be cool, hip – and keep in mind that, for kids and younger people, to be hip and cool is the same as to be admired and accepted and included and so Unalone. Forget so-called peer-pressure. It’s more like peer-hunger. No? We enter a spiritual puberty where we snap to the fact that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded encagement in the self. Once we’ve hit this age, we will now give or take anything, wear any mask, to fit, to be part-of, not be Alone, we young. The U.S. arts are our guide to inclusion.

(p. 694)

This rang true for me on several levels. Certainly, the hipster “conforming to non-conformity” I mentioned at the beginning of this post, but also the need to belong, especially in one’s adolescent years. I was like that, and I’m sure we all were to an extent. I dressed the part of the crowd that I was hanging out with, listened to the same music, went to the same places, all to be a part of a group and to avoid having to be alone. Because what happened when you are alone? You have to face yourself, and that was hard for me as a teenager and I suspect it is difficult for others too.

Anyway, as I have gotten older, I am more comfortable with myself and no longer feel the need to be a part of a particular group. I do what makes me happy, and whether I do that in a group or alone, doesn’t make that much difference to me. But Wallace taps into something that is almost universal for people growing up. We all want friends and we want to be a part of a group, and we look to art to teach us what is cool and how we should be if we want to fit in with the hip crowd. It makes me wonder if we have some tribalism hidden away in our collective consciousness.

Thanks for stopping by, and have an amazing day!

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Thoughts on “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace – Part 7

InfiniteJest

V&V’s NoCoat campaign was a case-study in the eschatology of emotional appeals. It towered, a kind of Überad, casting a shaggy shadow back across a whole century of broadcast persuasion. It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase. It just did it way more well than wisely, given the vulnerable psyche of an increasingly hygiene-conscious U.S.A. in those times.

(p. 414)

Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany, claimed that American advertising was an inspiration for his propaganda. The goal of propaganda is to create a sense of fear and lure people into accepting an ideology. The more subtle, the more effective.

I had never given too much thought to advertising creating fear and using that fear to sell products. But it makes sense. Advertisements for home security systems are all about the fear of someone breaking into your home. Even just showing a picture of a baby in a high chair waiting to be fed will subconsciously create a fear for parents about the health and well-being of their child.

Media is bombarding us with information all designed to heighten our fear, whether it’s the news, advertising, or memes on social media. The irony is that all this fear-mongering is making me fearful about where our civilization is heading. There is just no way to escape it.

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“For Whom the Bell Tolls: A 2001 Appeal for a Moral Referendum” by Umberto Eco

UmbertoEco

So it’s officially 2016, which in the US means it’s an election year, and already the battle lines are being drawn. People are choosing who they will support and social media is buzzing with political memes. And sadly, I am seeing the beginning of what promises to be a polarizing and divisive election. Who will end up suffering as a result? We will, of course. Which is why this essay written by Eco 15 years ago resonated with me. It’s almost prophetic.

In this short essay, included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism, Eco looks at an election in Italy, the influence of media on the electoral process, and the groups of people who form various factions of the electorate. One of the categories of voters he calls the Mesmerized Electorate, and this is a group that I see playing a prominent role in the upcoming US election.

The second category, which I call the Mesmerized Electorate, the most numerous, has no defined political opinion but has based its values on the creeping form of “culture” imparted for decades by the various television channels, and not only those owned by Berlusconi. What counts for these people are ideas of well-being and a mythical view of life, not unlike that of the people I would call generically the Albanian immigrants. The Albanian immigrant wouldn’t have dreamt of coming to Italy if the TV had showed him for years only the Italy of Open City, Obsession, or Passion—he would have steered clear of this unhappy country. He comes because he knows Italy as a country where a colorful television hands out easy money to those who know that Garibaldi’s given name was Giuseppe: a rich, showbiz Italy.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 117)

Here in the US, I picture people in this category sitting on the couch, remote control in hand, switching between reality TV, game shows, and FOX News. They are fed a constant stream of how great things are, the threats to their imagined way of life, and how their life should be, yet are distracted from the realities that are growing around them.

While the image of a Mesmerized Electorate is unsettling, I find the Discouraged Electorate to be much more disturbing.

We are faced with the Mesmerized Electorate and the Motivated Electorate of the right wing, but the greatest danger to our country is the Discouraged Electorate of the left (I mean the left in the broadest sense of the term, from the old secular republicans to kids in Rifondazione Communista, down to Catholic volunteers who no longer have any faith in politics). This electorate is made up of that mass of people who know all the things said here (and don’t need to hear them repeated) and are disappointed with the outgoing government. They castrate themselves to punish their wives. They ensure the victory of the de facto regime to punish those who failed to satisfy them.

(ibid: p. 119)

Unfortunately, I know many people who fall into this category: people who supported Obama and felt they were let down; people who think Hillary Clinton is a liar and untrustworthy; people who feel Bernie Sanders is too far to the left; and those who are so disillusioned with politics that they view all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, as part of a corrupt political system which they no longer want to be a part of.

As the rift between voters in this country widens, the debate becomes more vitriolic. Personally, I do not see this as helpful to the advancement of our society. I encourage everyone to read broadly, learn as much as possible, and keep an open mind between now and November. Try not to let emotions, fear, or the media cloud your judgment and lead us farther down this path.

“And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.” (John Donne)

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“The Loss of Privacy” by Umberto Eco

Image Source: Microsoft

Image Source: Microsoft

This essay is included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism and deals with an issue that has been getting a lot of attention lately: privacy.

Eco begins by discussing boundaries and their importance. He points out that the concept of boundaries applies to humans and animals, and that when someone or something crosses these boundaries and invades our space, or natural inclination is to feel threatened.

Ethology teaches us that every animal recognizes around itself, and its fellows, a bubble of respect, a territorial area within which it feels safe, and that it will see as an adversary whoever steps over that boundary.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 77)

To define and secure our boundaries, we often erect walls, either physical or emotional. Eco cites examples of walls constructed by governments to create a sort of communal privacy and states that “people have always paid for the communal privacy by accepting the loss of individual privacy.” (ibid: p. 78) I am reminded of the walled and gated communities that were dominant in Miami when I lived there, where people subjected themselves to the scrutiny of the all-mighty Homeowners’ Association for the false sense of security gain by living within the enclosed walls.

It seems as if every week there is news about a computer hacker accessing a system and stealing personal information. This is blown up in the media as a major threat to our privacy. But Eco claims that this is not the biggest threat to our privacy, that online tracking used by corporations is much more insidious and dangerous.

The big problem facing a citizen’s private life is not hackers, which are no more frequent and dangerous than the highwaymen who beset travelling merchants, but cookies and all those other technical marvels that make it possible to collect information about every one of us.

(ibid: p. 79)

So then the million-dollar question is: How did we allow ourselves and our society to get to this point? Eco claims it is because we have become an exhibitionist society.

It seems to me that one of the great tragedies of mass society, of the press, television, and Internet, is the voluntary renunciation of privacy. The extreme expression of this renunciation is, at its pathological limit, exhibitionism. It strikes me as paradoxical that someone has to struggle for the defense of privacy in a society of exhibitionists.

(ibid: p. 82)

It is kind of ironic when you consider this. We love to put ourselves out there for the world, sharing our lives on Facebook and Instagram. Even blogging is a form of exhibitionism. I accept this about myself. I put my thoughts, my ideas, and my reading preferences out there for the world to see. When I was younger, this would have been part of my private world. I would hide in my room and read under the covers. Questionable books my friends and I read were discussed in closed rooms, away from the prying eyes of those who want to market to my tastes or track any subversive books I read. I remember there was a time when the government wanted to collect records from libraries regarding the books that people checked out and the public outcry against this. Now, your reading habits are tracked online. All you have to do is look at a book on Amazon, you don’t even have to purchase it, and immediately ads begin popping up based upon the fact the you just clicked on that one link.

Eco concludes by stating that most of us have come to accept the loss of our privacy and have taken it to the next step. We now believe that the best way to keep our secrets is to just put everything out there. If everyone’s secrets are made public, then ours will not seem that interesting anymore when compared with those of everyone else.

But it’s a vicious cycle. The assault on privacy accustoms everyone to the disappearance of privacy. Already many of us have decided that the best way to keep a secret is to make it public, so people write e-mails or make phone calls in which they say everything openly, certain that no one listening in will find interesting any statement made with no attempt at concealment. Little by little we become exhibitionists, having learned that nothing can be kept confidential anymore and that no behavior is considered scandalous. Those who are attacking our privacy, seeing that the victims themselves consent, will no longer stop at any violation.

(ibid: p. 87)

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Kick-Ass: Issue #5

KickAss_5There is nothing quite like drinking coffee and reading a comic at 5:30 in the morning.

This installment is excellent, probably my favorite so far. Instead of focusing on blood and fighting (there is neither in this issue), the writer incorporates some great social commentary.

This issue introduces Red Mist, a new “superhero” who captures the media attention and causes Kick-Ass to become envious. The public begins taking sides on who is the better superhero, resulting in tee-shirts claiming “Red Mist > Kick Ass.”

Dave: Actually, it’s the most stupid thing I ever saw. Red Mist is greater than Kick-Ass? What age are you, man? Ten?

Store Clerk: People just like taking sides, Dave. Is Batman cooler than Superman? Is Bourne better than Bond?

This sums up one of the biggest issues I see in society today. People always feel the need to pick a side or a “team” and support them whether they are right or wrong. Politics is the perfect example. Are you Democrat or Republican? Liberal or conservative? If you are part of the other team, then I will oppose you no matter what. It is this mentality that has led us to the situation that we are now in, where nothing gets done anymore because no one wants to be a “traitor” and collaborate with the other side. It’s like the team-sports mentality has seeped in to every aspect of our society.

The other thing that is addressed in this issue, and also in previous issues, is social media. Emphasis is placed on how social media defines who we are in today’s world. Bloggers provide commentary on events and that often sways public opinion. Additionally, success is measured in the number of hits or friends you have online, as demonstrated when Dave relishes the fact that he has “Two million hits on Google. A hundred thousand friends on MySpace.”

The issue ends with Hit-Girl and Big Daddy asking Kick-Ass if he wants to join them on a mission fighting against the mob. I suspect the red ink will be used liberally in the following installment. I’ll have my review up soon. Cheers!

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