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Series that shouldn’t have stopped (plus). July 18, 2014

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As we all wait…and wait…for “Game of Thrones” Season Five (and for “The Hobbit” and “Mockingjay” and… ), our friend Ben is picking up the theme from yesterday’s Silence Dogood post “Feel-good films.” There are some film series and TV series that Silence and I loved and feel simply shouldn’t have stopped, or should have swapped out leading actors. Here are a few that ended before their time, starred the wrong guy, or passed on the chance to star the right girl:

* The Conan movies. We love “Conan the Barbarian” and “Conan the Destroyer.” Rather than waiting until Ah-nold was too old for the role, then trying to revive the series with a younger man (Jason Momoa of Khal Drogo fame), they should have kept going while the going was good. (And kept Conan’s original sidekick rather than replacing him with that creepy little man.) Robert E. Howard wrote many Conan stories, so the filmmakers had plenty of material to work with. A missed opportunity for fun for all ages, more classic lines from Ah-nold, and campy entertainment for adults.

* The Tony Hillerman PBS “series.” Tony Hillerman wrote a shelf or two of Navajo murder mysteries featuring Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, with a slew of great recurring characters, lots of Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni rituals and beliefs, and the breathtaking backdrop of the Four Corners as his setting. Robert Redford saw the books’ rich visual potential and filmed three PBS “specials” starring Wes Studi as Leaphorn, Adam Beach as Chee, and the marvelous Native American character actors Graham Greene as Slick Nakai, Gary Farmer as Captain Largo, and Sheila Tousey as Leaphorn’s wife Emma. But rather than making a regular series, Redford made one episode a year, stopping after just three. He should have filmed all the books while the cast was together, rather than letting them drift and losing momentum.

* The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Alexander McCall Smith’s series of novels that follow the adventures of the beloved Botswana detective, Precious Ramotswe, her assistant, Grace Makutsi, and a cast of gently humorous and unforgettable characters (shout out to you and your famous fruitcake, Mma Potokwane), calls out for a series. And it looked like it was finally getting one, with Anika Noni Rose giving a true star turn as Grace Makutsi, but it fizzled and died after just three episodes. No fault of the series or the actors—the director suddenly died. I’d have thought another director would have been brought in, but instead, the series ended just like the Tony Hillerman specials. We are hoping, hoping, hoping that The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and the Tony Hillerman novels both get a second chance.

* Master and Commander. Russell Crowe and the ensemble cast gave such a strong showing in the film version of Patrick O’Brian’s Napoleonic seafaring novel, showcasing everything from warfare at sea to natural history and Regency-era espionage, that it seemed a natural for followups based on O’Brian’s subsequent novels. Instead, no more were ever made. Silence and I are still waiting.

Moving on to casting:

* Sean Connery in “Shogun.” James Clavell wrote the lead character in his blockbuster novel Shogun with Sean Connery in mind, and Connery would have been perfect for the role. (He proved his range beyond Bond once and for all in “The Man Who Would Be King,” and gave his greatest performance, in our opinion, in “Rising Sun.”) Watching the series, if you picture Connery in Richard Chamberlain’s place, everything suddenly makes sense. What a wasted opportunity, since everyone else in the series was so good, and Sean Connery would have made it perfect. But in this case, it wasn’t the producers’, director’s, or casting team’s fault. Whoever played Pilot-Major Blackthorne would have had to commit to filming in Japan for two years, and Connery wasn’t willing to do that. Chamberlain was.

* George Lazenby as James Bond. Speaking of Sean Connery, there have been a lot of Bonds over the years, but none were so perfect in our opinion as Australian model-turned-actor George Lazenby, who was chosen to succeed Connery. In “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” Lazenby proved virile, resourceful, intelligent, educated, and—in the only instance known to Bond—capable of actually falling in love. (Well, it was Diana Rigg.) You could totally believe both his 007 and human sides. This is a depth of character missing from most Bond portrayals, and, as Silence is constantly pointing out, he was very easy on the eyes, too. Yet he just played Bond in the one film. Why? Because his agent told him that being typecast as Bond would hamper his career. No doubt that great advice is why we all know him as an A-list actor. (Sarcasm.) I hope that agent is now supporting himself as a Wal*Mart greeter. We think Sean Bean, who played villain Alec Trevelyan in another Bond film, “GoldenEye,” would have made a fantastic Bond, too, so much stronger than Pierce Brosnan.

* Liv Tyler as Arwen Evenstar. Peter Jackson brought back Hugo Weaving as Elrond and Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, but passed on the opportunity to bring the gorgeous Liv Tyler back to Middle Earth in his film trilogy “The Hobbit.” She was, in our opinion, the strongest character in Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (sorry, Sean Bean and Andy Serkis, we loved you, too), and since they decided to simply stuff Orlando Bloom’s Legolas into “The Hobbit,” not to mention Galadriel, we don’t see why Liv Tyler’s Arwen couldn’t be there, too. We do applaud the choice of Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, though.

Speaking of “The Hobbit,” which stars Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins and Benedict Cumberbatch as the dragon Smaug, we are very concerned that the series “Sherlock,” starring Cumberbatch as Holmes and Freeman as Watson, might go the way of the Tony Hillerman specials. As it is, you’re lucky to get three episodes of “Sherlock” every two years, and its stars, and even its co-creator Mark Gatiss, who plays Sherlock’s brother Mycroft in the series and now the Banker of Braavos on “Game of Thrones,” are becoming increasingly busy with other projects. They’re promising a “Sherlock Christmas special” in December 2015 and three more episodes in 2016, but gee, that’s a long way off, and a lot of inertia and dispersion can happen between now and then. Hey, guys, show some pity! We could be hit by a bus between now and then and miss the next installment… if there even is one.

In an ironic turn, Sir Ian McKellen, who plays Gandalf in all the Peter Jackson movies, is also playing Sherlock Holmes (at 93) in the upcoming movie “Mr. Holmes.” We look forward to seeing it!

Now it’s your turn: Tell us some we missed, or what you miss.

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Bring back “Sherlock.” May 28, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. If there’s one thing that’s really aggravating, it’s when your favorite books finally are made into a series and then they just… vanish. Today, “Game of Thrones” fans are outraged because the producers chose to skip a Sunday showing over Memorial Day. Fans have to wait two weeks for the next episode.

But this is not a hardship compared to fans of “Sherlock,” who are apparently now going to have to wait until 2016—and, in case you’ve forgotten, it’s now 2014 and we last saw a season of “Sherlock” in 2013—for the show’s next season, thanks to star Benedict Cumberbatch’s hectic filming schedule.

Or fans of Tony Hillerman’s Navajo mysteries. Robert Redford took an interest and filmed three great PBS specials starring Wes Studi as Joe Leaphorn, Adam Beach as Jim Chee, the marvelous Graham Greene as Slick Nakai, the always delightful Gary Farmer as Captain Largo, and the fantastic Sheila Tousey as Leaphorn’s wife Emma. But rather than filming a weekly series, Redford chose to release a single episode a year. For three episodes, total. No surprise when you have a bunch of busy actors and are trying to get them together once a year. But what a disappointment, since we know there will never be any more episodes with these beloved actors. Shame on you, Robert Redford! You had a great chance, great plots, and great actors, and you blew it.

Ditto for Alexander McCall Smith’s bestselling “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series, starring Jill Scott as the beloved, compassionate, and wise detective Precious Ramotswe and the incredible Anika Noni Rose as her outspoken assistant, Grace Makutsi. The director died after just a few episodes were filmed, and the project was sidelined. For those of us who’ve read all the books and wait eagerly for the next tempting slice of the formidable Mma Potokwane’s famous fruitcake to be served up, this was and is a serious blow. Can’t blame the director this time, or the producers for not knowing how to move the series forward without him. But what a shame.

So, “Game of Thrones” fans, it’s tough to skip a week. But think of those of us who don’t get HBO and won’t pirate the series and are going to have to wait a whole year to get Season 4. Aaaagghhh!!! At least the showrunners are promising that they’ll take “Game of Thrones” through Season 7.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Pumpkin’s biggest booster. November 21, 2013

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Silence Dogood here. If you’re a fan of Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, you know that the agency’s founder, Precious Ramotswe, loves her pumpkin. Apparently pumpkin is a staple dish in Mma Ramotswe’s native Botswana, and she turns to it as a comfort food, and to preparing it as a way to calm herself when thinking about a perplexing case.

With Thanksgiving around the corner, we might turn to Mma Ramotswe for tips on new ways to serve up pumpkin. And fortunately, we have some clues from Stuart Brown, who wrote Mma Ramostwe’s Cookbook (Polygon, 2009). Problem being, most of us Americans (including yours truly), measure things in numbers and cups and the like—3 large butternut squash, 4 cups vegetable broth, 2 tablespoons olive oil—and Mma Ramotswe’s cookbook is British, which means that everything is measured by weight, and oven temperatures in degrees C rather than F. Ow!

Fortunately, one of the pumpkin recipes the book offers is so straightforward, even I could make it. Apparently, Mma Ramotswe favors pumpkins with greenish rinds; over here, we might consider them to look more grey. Consider this alternative to sweet potatoes as you plan your Thanksgiving menu:

Steamed Pumpkin Slices
Serves 6

Ingredients:
Pumpkin
Water
Salt
Sugar (optional)
Butter

Method:
To steam, place slices of pumpkin in a pan with a little water, salt (and sugar, if you love your sugar as Mma Ramotswe does). Cover with a lid, ensuring that the water does not all evaporate. Cook for 30-40 minutes until the outer skin is soft (the greenish pumpkin has a thicker skin). Serve with butter.

“It was time to take the pumpkin out of the pot and eat it. In the final analysis, that was what solved these big problems in life. You could think and think and get nowhere, but you still had to eat your pumpkin. That gave you a reason for going on.”
—Precious Ramotswe, The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

What will become of Mma Ramotswe? July 30, 2011

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Silence Dogood here. Long-time readers will know how much I adore Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and anticipate each yearly addition to the series with enormous pleasure.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure, the series involves the fictional adventures of Precious Ramotswe, the first lady detective in Botswana, and her associates, including the formidable Mma Potokwane, matron of the Orphan Farm and creator of the famous fruitcake, my favorite character; the hapless but lovable Phuti Radiphuti, proprietor of the Double Comfort Furniture Shop in Gabarone and suitor to Mma Ramotswe’s assistant, Grace Makutsi; and the evil Violet Sephotho, arch-rival to Mma Makutsi. Mma Ramotswe’s beloved tiny white van is as much a character as anyone in the series. Red bush tea, cattle, shoes, and Precious’s beloved Daddy, the late Obed Ramotswe, also figure prominently.

One of the really endearing things about the novels is that Mr. McCall Smith recognizes the importance of continuity, that he has created enduring icons that people come to love because he loves them and has delightfully brought them to life. So he carries them on into each succeeding novel. I, and I’m sure many devoted readers, would be horrified if the famous fruitcake, Mma Ramotswe’s “traditional” build, the tiny white van, Mma Makutsi’s talking shoes or her 97% certificate from the Botswana Secretarial College (the highest mark ever received from that institution), or Mr. McCall Smith’s beautiful closing tribute to Africa failed to make an appearance in any No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novel. And Mr. McCall Smith does not disappoint.

Admittedly, if I could ask the author a few questions, I certainly would: Why did you slap Mma Ramotswe’s suitor and eventual husband, Mr. JLB Matekoni, with chronic depression? Why did he abruptly adopt two orphans? Why did Mr. Polopetsi suddenly appear, then unaccountably turn into a fairly major player, only, as unaccountably, to pretty much vanish? Why did you dispose of Kremlin, one of the strongest, most priceless characters in the series, rather than bring him back with subsequent misdeeds and general bad behavior? And, most important, what possessed you to maim poor Phuti Radiphuti, one of the most likeable characters, even though you’d already loaded him with handicaps like stuttering and terminal awkwardness? What had he possibly done to deserve that? 

I’m sure Mr. McCall Smith had his reasons, even if I can’t fathom them. However, now I have more serious things to worry about than what on earth he was thinking or what the differences are between Botswana, Batswana and Motswana or whether Phuti and Grace will be happy or Mma Potokwane and her very persuasive fruitcake will appear in the next volume. Now I’m wondering if there will even be a next volume.

I’ve been worrying about this ever since I read the most recent novel in the series, The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party (Pantheon, 2011).  As an editor and author, I’d have said that in this novel, every loose end in the series is tied up: Grace Makutsi definitively triumphs over her old rival, the much sexier, unscrupulous Violet Sephotho, once and for all. Mma Ramotswe at last retrieves her tiny white van, better than ever, from its junkyard grave. Mma Makutsi and the apprentice mechanic Charlie bury the hatchet after he finally admits she’s not a warthog and she finally admits he’s not totally worthless. And, at the end, Mma Makutsi and her awkward but lovable suitor, Phuti Radiphuti, are married at long last. Every beloved element, from Mma Makutsi’s shoes to Mma Potokwane and a special wedding fruitcake, are brought into play. There really is nothing left to say after this entirely lovable wrap-up.

So what now? Was The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party Alexander McCall Smith’s gentle way of ending his series? And if not, where can he go from here?

             ‘Til next time,

                         Silence

Precious Ramotswe weighs in. May 14, 2011

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Silence Dogood here. Have you noticed that sometimes your favorite fictional characters tend to take on a life of their own, sometimes appearing in your own life and offering advice? I’ve found this to be true of the characters in Alexander McCall Smith’s delightful No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series.

I’ve been savoring the latest book in the series, The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party. It involves the ongoing adventures and misadventures of the two lead characters, Mma Precious Ramotswe, the “traditionally built” (aka elephantine) and solidly grounded founder of the agency, and her somewhat more eccentric but always passionate and almost invariably accurate (even if extremely tactless) assistant detective and former secretary, Mma Grace Makutsi, best known for her enormous glasses and weakness for new shoes.

Mma Makutsi’s shoes have a disconcerting habit of talking to her, generally in an attempt to bring her back down to earth and point out the sensible path back to everyone’s best interests when she’s been getting a little, shall we say, carried away. In the same vein, I discovered today that Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi (along with my favorite character, Mma Potokwane, indomitable matron of the Botswana orphanage and purveyor of irresistible fruitcake) were apparently trying to communicate with me.

It all came about this way: Every Saturday, I’m confronted with the prospect of cleaning the filters in our two aquariums. I have the choice of lifting out the filter pads, rubbing them vigorously in the sink to remove the accumulated slime from the previous week, and replacing them in the filter, or tossing and replacing them with new filter pads. Let me just say upfront that I hate touching filth and slime. One of our friend Ben’s most endearing qualities is his willingness to wash the pots, pans and dishes after I’ve cooked our meals.

I’d already washed one of the filters, and was contemplating whether to wash out the filter pad in the smaller aquarium or decide that after five weeks’ washing it was time to give it the heave-ho and replace it, when I suddenly heard a voice. I realized that it was Mma Ramotswe, and she was trying to get my attention:

Precious Ramotswe: Excuse me, Mma. I can’t help but notice that you’re thinking about tossing that aquarium filter rather than wash it out in the sink and put it back in the tank.

Silence: You’re right, Mma. I’ve already washed it out five times, and I absolutely hate touching filth, so every single time has been a torture. I’m thinking that maybe it’s time to just toss it and replace it with a nice pristine filter pad instead. 

Mma Ramotswe: But Mma, just think! Isn’t it a perfectly good filter, with lots of life in it yet? Think of my tiny white van. I loved that van, despite its shortcomings, and I’m sure it loved me. I never wanted to get rid of it just because it took some extra effort to restore it to working order. I was devastated when Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni decided to replace it with a newer van, and have never ceased to search for it every day.

Silence: Yes, but Mma, your van! A vehicle has a personality and life of its own. Here at Hawk’s Haven, we have our ancient red Volkswagen Golf, the Red Rogue. It is used, but not yet late, Mma. Many people have told us it should be late, that we should trade it in on a less-used vehicle, Mma. But we will not consider that until the tiny red Golf has breathed its last. It is ours, and we are loyal.

Mma Ramotswe: True, but a fish filter is not a vehicle, Mma.

Mma Makutsi, breaking in: Besides, Mma, have you noticed the price of new fish filters? Fish filters are not cheap, Mma. A package of fish filters costs almost as much as a new pair of shoes, at least, if the shoes happen to be on sale and the shop proprietor happens to know my fiance, Phuti Radiphuti, owner of the Double Comfort Furniture Shop.

Silence, now terminally confused: Uh, you don’t say?

Mma Makutsi: Not that I’m suggesting that you bring up Phuti’s name in order to bring down the price of fish-tank filters, Mma. Rather, I suspect that continuing to wash the filters rather than replacing them would be a wise economic move.

Mma Makutsi’s shoes: Good thinking, Boss. 

Silence: Uh, did you say something else, Mma? I’m not sure I caught that. 

Mma Potokwane, scenting trouble and screeching up to add her two thebes: Mma Ramotswe! Mma Makutsi! Mma Dogood! I’ve just dropped by to see if anyone wanted to come back with me to the orphanage for red bush tea and a slice of fruitcake. Make that two slices.

Mma Ramotswe, visibly brightening: What a wonderful idea, Mma! Unfortunately, we seem to be stuck at an impasse here regarding Mma Dogood and her aquarium filters.

Mma Potokwane: What’s the problem, Mma?

Mma Ramotswe: Replacement filters are pricey, but cleaning off encrusted, slimy filter pads, as she must every weekend to keep the aquarium water clean and fresh, grosses Mma Dogood out.

Mma Potokwane, thinking quickly: Mma Dogood, I heard a rumor that your Rra our friend Ben is rather fond of desserts.

Silence: You heard right, Mma.

Mma Potokwane: I think I saw that today’s Wall Street Journal had a special feature on Key lime pies.

Silence: Right again, Mma, OFB and I were reading that article just this morning and I was thinking how easy it would be to make one, even embellishing it with fresh blueberries or raspberries.

Mma Makutsi: Aha! So you could use the money you’d otherwise have spent on new fish filters to buy those berries for the Key lime pie!

Mma Makutsi’s shoes: Excellent point, Boss.

Silence: Hmmm, you’re right, Mma.

Precious: And wouldn’t you and OFB enjoy a nice, luscious Key lime pie more than a new fish filter?

Silence: Of course, Mma. But what about the poor fish?!

Mma Ramotswe: As my dear daddy, the late Obed Ramotswe, often said, “Precious, cows are cows.” Wash the filters and give them another week.

Good times for the traditionally built. May 26, 2010

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Silence Dogood here. If, like me, you’re a fan of Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and its “traditionally built” heroine, Mma Precious Ramotswe, these are very good times.

Mr. McCall Smith has just come out with a new novel in the series, The Double Comfort Safari Club, and reviewers are all praising it as the best one yet. I just got my copy from Amazon yesterday, and am hoping that it contains larger roles for two of my favorite characters, Mma Potokwane, the redoubtable matron of the local orphanage and creator of the famous fruitcake, and Phuti Radiphuti, hapless proprietor of The Double Comfort Furniture Shop.

A new No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novel is always cause for rejoicing. But there’s more good news for cooking fanatics like yours truly: I discovered that there is now a cookbook accompanying the series, appropriately called Mma Ramotswe’s Cookbook: Nourishment for the traditionally built. (Alert readers may recall that about two years ago, I e-mailed Mr. McCall Smith and begged shamelessly that he write one.) 

As it turns out, the book is actually written by Stuart Brown, though it carries an introduction by Alexander McCall Smith and apparently features lots of gorgeous photos of Botswana and its life and culture as well as of the food. Here’s what Amazon has as the product description:

“Pull up a chair and join Mma Ramotswe at the table as she celebrates the flavours of the bestselling series ‘The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’. Discover the favourite recipes of our ‘traditionally built’ heroine and her friends, accompanied by lavish photography—sumptuous stews for sharing, fabulous fruit cakes for eating under shady trees, with redbush tea of course, and the spices, traditions and culture of Botswana that make every meal together special. Welcome Precious, her friends and the sunshine of Botswana into your kitchen. It offers a traditionally-built feast for all the senses!”

Needless to say, I ordered a copy immediately. What fun! Unfortunately, it’s shipping from Britain, and is expected to take up to two weeks to reach me. But I plan to make good use of the intervening time. I’ll finish The Double Comfort Safari Club. I’ll watch the TV series, also called “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” and based (sometimes rather loosely) on the books, again. And I’ll also watch the delightful documentary,  “Botswana: In the Footsteps of The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency with Alexander McCall Smith,” again. It’s been too long since I’ve seen it. By the time the cookbook arrives, I’ll be ready for that cup of red bush tea.

If you want to join me in ordering a copy of the cookbook, better get a move on: Amazon has just 16 new copies available, and the used ones are way too pricey. Again, it’s Mma Ramotswe’s Cookbook by Stuart Brown (Polygon, hardcover, 144 pages, 2009, new from $20.14, used from $65.07 on Amazon).

Never fear, I’ll give you a reveiew (as opposed to a preview) once I’ve had a chance to check it out and (gulp) try a few of those recipes!

              ‘Til next time,

                             Silence

What would Mma Ramotswe do? September 14, 2009

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Silence Dogood here. You’re probably all familiar with the bracelets, bumper stickers, mugs, and the like bearing the initials “WWJD” for “What would Jesus do?” Their intent is to get people to slow down and think before they act, so their behavior is less impulsive and more Godlike.

But as our friend Ben points out, God is a rather intimidating role model. Surely there must be someone on the continuum between Jesus and Homer Simpson to whom we could relate without feeling the need to be perfect. I nominate Mma Ramotswe.

For those who don’t know her, Precious Ramotswe is the heroine of Alexander McCall Smith’s marvelous No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels, which are set in Precious’s native Botswana. (My favorites are Blue Shoes and Happiness and Tea Time for the Traditionally Built.) Mma Ramotswe is “traditionally built”—which is to say, so enormous her van actually lists to the driver’s side when she is heading off somewhere—and her heart is even bigger than her hefty build. Her big heart, her traditional values, her gentle spirit, and her sympathy for the human condition are what put the heart and soul into the beloved novels.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels have finally been turned into a TV series for HBO. Sadly, OFB and I don’t get TV reception here, and have been waiting, and waiting, and waiting for the series to come out on DVD. Finally, we discovered through Netflix that the series was available, and I wasted no time ordering it (along with a tour of Botswana hosted by Alexander McCall Smith himself) from Amazon. OFB and I have been enjoying a nightly episode ever since, and are dreading the day when we run out. (But we hear a second season is in the offing.) Though, as always happens, none of the characters are quite as I’d imagined them from reading the books, Mma Ramotswe is, indeed, precious. And all the supporting characters are endearing.

So, what would Mma Ramotswe do? She would support the traditional values of respect, courtesy, and consideration, of love for one’s family, one’s fellow man, one’s country, and the land. She would say that using common sense and kindness can do more good than following the letter of the law no matter how much damage it inflicts. She would point out that all of us are brothers and sisters under the skin, and it’s about time we started acting like it. She would say from personal experience that neither a wrong choice nor personal tragedy has to ruin your life; you have the choice to learn and grow rather than wilt and die. Above all, I think, she would say that the only right action is an action grounded in love.

Hmmm. I think Jesus would approve.

            ‘Til next time,

                        Silence