Year of Important Books: A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle

Madeleine L’Engle can teach us a lot about perseverance and patience. Born in New York City in 1918, she was a shy and bookish child who preferred writing and reading to just about anything else, which resulted in less than stellar grades in school. Her parents disagreed about how best to raise her, and as a result she was bounced around from boarding school to boarding school, and from governess to governess. The family also travelled quite a bit when she was a child, and so it’s not wonder that young Madeleine retreated into the world of books and writing in order to cope with all the upheaval in her life.

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Publicity photo of Madeleine L’Engle, from Square Fish Books

 

Madeleine had her first book published when she was twenty-seven, and a year later married her husband, actor Hugh Franklin. Through the years of raising a family and moving to rural Connecticut, where they purchased and operated a small general store, Madeleine continued to write, publishing several novels between 1946 and 1958. But real success was elusive, and despite books being published, she was haunted by rejections letters, as most writers are.

By the time she turned forty, in 1958, she was determined to give up writing all together, as the amount of time she had spent on it hardly translated into any financial gain at all. But fortunately, she found she couldn’t. Writing had become part of her nature. While on a cross-country camping trip preceding the family’s move back to New York City so that Hugh could resume his acting career, Madeleine got the idea for A Wrinkle in Time, and that, as they say, was that.

Or was it? Madeleine completed the book in 1959, and began sending it out to publishers. It was rejected over thirty times (!) until the publishing house of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux picked it up and published it in 1962.

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This cover is from the original 1962 edition. Before the Newbery Medal was attached! 

What made this book such a difficult sell?

Well, I suppose a children’s book which included ideas of quantum physics, travelling through space and time, and some deep spiritual overtones was seen as a bit too much for children. As an article written on its 50th anniversary in 2012  explains,

L’Engle’s granddaughter, Charlotte Jones Voiklis, describes the publishers’ befuddlement… “Was it for adults, was it for children? What is this, science fiction? Oh, I know what science fiction is, but there aren’t female protagonists in science fiction. Are you sure you want to talk about good and evil — isn’t that a little bit philosophical? Can’t you just cut that part out?”

But it seems that much of the appeal to children was just this complexity. L’Engle doesn’t talk down to children, she assumes they are able to handle these themes and concepts, and I’d say that 10 million copies of the book in print proves her right.

I don’t remember exactly when I first read this book, like so many of the others on this list of Important Books this is a book I read so many times as a child that I can’t recall exactly when the first time was, or how old I was at the time. But I would guess that I was somewhere around 9 or 10, and I know I got it out of the library, as it wasn’t one of the books left over from my older siblings’ childhood.

I suspect I was first drawn by the shiny silver Newbery Medal on the cover. I had begun to understand that Newbery Medal books were special ones, and that medal introduced me to many great books, including this one. A Wrinkle in Time, after its many rejections, won the Newbery Medal for “the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature” in 1963, and Madeleine L’Engle’s writing career took off.

Before I read the book again, I thought about what I remembered. Tesseracts, Meg and her mother, Charles Wallace…these jumbled together in my mind, along with the foreboding Black Thing that enveloped our planet that the children had to defeat.

But primarily I remember the astonishment I felt when I read the book. To have Meg, who, with her unruly hair, glasses, plainness,and awkwardness, was so like me in so many ways, be a genius in math was the first astonishment. Girls weren’t good at math, were they? And then there was her mother, the beautiful Dr. Kate Murray, who, with her husband, Meg’s missing father, were involved in some kind of science experiment that resulted in the disappearance of Meg’s father. A beautiful , brilliant woman who loved science? Huh?

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Is this Meg?? Hmm….I don’t know. Storm Reid has been cast as Meg in the new film adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, which also stars Oprah Winfrey and Chris Pine. Jury’s out on this one for me. Photo by Deidhra Fahey.

I loved the concept of tessering, travelling through a “wrinkle” in time much like going through a wormhole. The little added illustration of the ant going between two fingers across a string, and then bringing the string together and having the ant step from one finger to another, gave me enough context as a child (and an adult!) to feel like I could understand the concept and move on in the story without struggling with understanding the “how”.

Meg and her brother, the odd five-year old genius Charles Wallace, are thrown together with Calvin O’Keefe, a popular athlete and the Mrs W’s (Who, Which, and Whatsit)- guardian angels –  who help the children in their quest to find Meg’s father, and ultimately, to fight the Black Thing, the evil shadow that has enveloped our planet and others, as well.

The planet Camatotz, where Meg’s father is imprisoned, is a weird and creepy place where the people are all enthralled to the huge brain, IT. Here evil controls all, everyone does the same thing at the same time, and they are all enslaved to whim of IT. Any diversity is quickly punished, and the offender brought into line.

There are hints of Orwell’s 1984 here, which would make sense as L’Engle was writing in the shadow of the Cold War, and the threat of being taken over by a totalitarian government was pervasive. But it is amazing how this portrayal of evil still resonates today. “Thought police” are still alive and well, unfortunately.

Meg discovers in the end that her faults – her anger and impatience – can actually be used against IT to rescue her father and Charles Wallace, who also gets enslaved to IT. In the end it is she, alone, who has to do the task, which is probably another reason why I loved this book so much. As a young girl in the 1970s there were not many books out there that showed a girl by herself defeating the powers of evil, after all. Which is a whole other story!

Ultimately the book also shows us that although at times our weaknesses can be our greatest strengths, it also reveals the power of love, for it is love that frees Charles Wallace from IT – and not just a universal love, but Meg’s specific love for her baby brother, with all his faults and strengths.

A Wrinkle in Time is thoroughly based on a Christian worldview, and the deeper you dig into it the more you see how L’Engle’s faith informed her work. But although she is unapologetic about it (she quotes Scripture several times in the book, for example) she also manages not to be preachy about it. A good example for others to follow, including me!

This book gave me some hope that an awkward girl who didn’t fit in anywhere could somehow find a place where she could make a difference and do great things. And that is a powerful message that I, and so many others, need to hear.

I’m so grateful that Madeleine L’Engle didn’t give up her writing before she wrote the book that was to have such a profound influence on so many others. After Wrinkle  she went on to write more books about Meg and Calvin, and their children, which I also devoured. And many other ones as well, including the marvellous Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (1980). 

She is a great inspiration for anyone who feels like giving up when their hard work is not producing the results they seek. Keep going, I think she would say, stay true to your vision, and success might just find you after all. 

 

 

Saturday Short – A Delicious Irony

It’s been awhile since I shared any of my fiction  writing here on the blog, so it’s time to do so again. As this story features a werewolf of sorts, it fits here in the waning weeks of October. So grab your beverage of choice, snuggle under your blanket, and be transported back to India in the 1830s, where the British colonizers ruled supreme and there were perhaps worse things to be feared than the murderous thuggees…

 

A Delicious Irony

        India, 1831

The palace loomed impressively over the landscape, studded with spires and towers, its windows flashing in the merciless sun. But if one walked down the long path that pointed like an arrow to the door and entered through it (the only door, take note), the interior would close around the unfortunate visitor, folding and shrinking in a shrieking, creaking cacophony.

What most did not know was that the palace was home to a raghosh, a magical shape-shifting being. And due to an enchantment the creature had placed upon it, the castle was smaller on the inside than it looked to be on the outside.

Harold MacCumber the Third, of Cumbria (not to be confused with his distant cousin, the famed Henry MacCumber, Esq., of Snowdonia) found out about this peculiar quality of the shape-shifter’s lair the hard way.

He went in.

His motive was pure: to rescue the missing daughter of a local prince, the beautiful Nishta, she of the liquid eyes and graceful form. Gossip about the missing princess abounded, whispers of the evil raghosh who had stolen her.

Harold thought the superstitious bit a load of bosh, typical of the natives and their primitive mindset. She had likely gone off with a lover, or perhaps the raghosh was in reality one of the thuggees who were infamous in that part of India.

The fact that the thuggees were devotees of the goddess Kali, serving her through murder, not kidnapping, bothered Harold not a bit. Harold never thought too deeply about anything.

When an anonymous note arrived at his rooms, directing him to where the princess was being held and asking for his assistance, Harold was both flattered and delighted. He was bored with doing the same things and seeing the same sites as the rest of his peers who were serving the Empire in India. This mysterious note gave him an excuse for a bit of a lark.

It also gave him an opportunity that had long eluded him, that of finally making a name for himself outside of the long shadow cast by his cousin. Henry had all the advantages of being the heir, of visiting exotic places and doing wondrous things. Because of the similarity of their names, all of his life Harold had been mistaken for Henry, and this frequent misidentification chafed at him. He longed to wrest the spotlight from his more illustrious relative. He wanted nothing more than to never again see that faint dismissive pity cross another’s face once they realized who he was–or rather, wasn’t.

As he stared at the note, his imagination took flight. At last! The vaunted Henry MacCumber, Esq., of Snowdonia, would have to explain that it was not he, but rather his cousin, Harold MacCumber the Third, of Cumbria, who rescued the beautiful Indian princess right out from under the slavering jaws of the evil beast (or from the kidnappers, as the case may be). Henry would finally get his comeuppance, and at the hands of the overlooked MacCumber, no less. A delicious irony Harold could not resist.

It was not to Harold’s credit that he didn’t think any further of this adventure than the glory to come once it was over.

He made no plan, and carried only his long sword. But he didn’t think he would need to use it. Its presence, along with his red uniform, would be enough to scare the kidnapper off, whomever or whatever he might be, indicating as they did that he was a representative of the British Empire. One glimpse and the vermin would go scuttling back into the hole from which he had come.

Such were the thoughts that occupied Harold’s mind as he strode down the path, and opened that singular door, and stepped inside. To say he was surprised when the whole place folded around him like an accordion would be an understatement.

Once the castle stopped its terrible re-arrangement, Harold lifted his head from his knees, for he had been crouching on the ground, arms up to protect himself. Although he was myopic and slightly stupid, Harold was, in fact, rather brave. Where a lesser man would have turned and bolted through that lone door which still stood open behind him, Harold paused for a moment as a soft sob reached his ears. Presuming it to be the Princess Nishta he stood up in the little space afforded him, straining to see in the darkness.

It really was imperative to see, for behind the sobbing he could hear a low throaty growl.

Carefully, Harold drew his sword and took a step forward.

The growl stopped, along with the sobs.

Harold gripped his sword, emboldened at this small success, oblivious to the dangerous silence that enveloped him. “Princess?”

But before he could say more he was knocked to the ground, his sword ripped from his hand. He barely had time to be surprised before he was trussed up and deposited in a bundled heap on top of another swaddled form, which emitted a startled squeak.

Sirdar, be careful! He almost crushed me!” The voice, presumably belonging to the princess, was indignant.

The creature’s hot stinking breath fouled the air as it breathed harshly in ragged gasps above him. Harold wriggled off the princess, her musky perfume making his head whirl. He could not make sense of what had happened.

He squinted at the unblinking yellow eyes fixed on him in the gloom, seeing a suggestion of a huge hulking shadow behind them, and gathered his dwindling courage. “Now see here,” he began, his voice wavering. “This is not on, old chap.”

The beast emitted a pained howl, which cut off as the eyes blinked out and the shape twisted and writhed in the gloom, coalescing into a hunched form, which stood gracefully and stepped towards him.

A lamp flared, illuminating the chiseled features of a young man with blonde hair and golden eyes. He was naked, the light casting a yellow glow on his muscular body. “Who are you? Speak, now!”

There was no question of disobeying that imperious command. Harold lifted his chin. “Harold MacCumber, the Third, of Cumbria.”

The raghosh drew back, and snarled. “Cumbria? Then you are not the MacCumber of Snowdonia?” He drew closer, and Harold recoiled from that lambent scrutiny. “This one is worthless to us!” The creature’s voice was harsh as he whirled around, fixing his gaze on the princess.

She quivered under his regard. “But Sirdar, we could not know there were two of them!”

“Now see here,” Harold protested, stung. “I am here to rescue you, Madam, and I thank you for keeping my cousin out of it!”

The raghosh turned back to him, interest sparking in his eyes. “Your cousin?”

Beside Harold, the princess divested herself of her bonds, which, he now realized, were merely loosely tied around her. She stood beside the shape-shifter, both of them eyeing Harold with speculative interest.

“Hmmm….” The raghosh‘s voice was a low rumbly growl, his eyes narrowing to golden slits. He glanced at the princess. “Perhaps all is not lost, janu.”

Harold struggled against the ropes binding him, the terrible truth dawning upon him at last. “You mean to say this was all a trick? To lure my cousin here? You thought I was he?”

But the other two ignored him. The raghosh strode over to the corner of the room, the lamp he carried illuminating more details as he did so: a threadbare covering over a small bed, tattered tapestries hanging from the wall. As he put down the lamp on a rickety table a moth detached itself from a tapestry and fluttered over to the lamp, beating against the cover, causing the light to flicker.

The raghosh shrugged into a robe (which had a patch on the elbow), frowning. “News of this one’s disappearance will surely spread,” he said, slowly. His gaze sharpened on Harold. “Ah! We will put out word that you are held by the thuggees, and that they require payment to release you. The great MacCumber of Snowdonia will surely stoop at nothing to retrieve his cousin from certain death. He will come with his gold, and all will be as planned.” He peered more closely at Harold. “Unless you have gold to buy your life?”

“No,” Harold choked out, hating to admit his lack, especially in these dire circumstances. A familiar impotent fury seized him. Once again, his cousin Henry was the only MacCumber that mattered. And likely Henry would have as little care for Harold’s fate as he would for a grasshopper. They had never been close as children, and less so in adulthood. Henry would write off this ridiculous demand as a prank, or worse, ignore it. There would be no ransom coming from Snowdonia, of that Harold was sure.

What would become of him once these two grew tired of waiting? Harold quailed at the remembrance of the raghosh‘s other form, and thought rapidly for a moment.

The solution was obvious. There was a way to survive this predicament and supplant his cousin, once and for all. “Listen, old chap, I have a better idea,” he began, and with as much dignity as he could muster whilst being trussed up like a Christmas goose, he explained his plan.

#

Four months later the newspapers were full of the news of the terrible death of Henry MacCumber, Esq., of Snowdonia. They trumpeted the heroism of his cousin Harold, who tried to save Henry from the fearsome and mysterious creature they stumbled upon on the remote slopes of Yr Wyddfa, where they were training in preparation for an Everest expedition. Henry had been viciously mauled, it was reported. Harold stated that he could not see much of what happened in the blowing snow, although he was able to attempt a shot at the creature, who disappeared into the blizzard, leaving the dying Henry behind.

Stories followed detailing the generous provision which Harold received in Henry’s will (apparently they were very close, reporters speculated) and the reward given by the Queen herself in recognition of Harold’s bravery, thus allowing Harold to set up a modest but very comfortable estate in the Cumbrian hills. Two weeks later a feature story was published as a wrap-up to the whole affair. Harold had been given honorable discharge from the Army, for he had served his country well. During the summer months Harold would live in his Cumbrian estate with his exotic Indian manservant and the beautiful Indian princess he had taken to wife. In the winter he would retire to India, to the magnificent palace given to him in as dowry by his wife’s father.

#

On the whole Harold was pleased at how easily they had been able to pull off his plan. Once again he savored his triumph as he swept the courtyard of the raghosh’s palace, its fantastical spires shimmering in the heat behind him.

He paused for a moment, leaning on his broom, relishing the memory of Henry’s futile protests as he signed the newly revamped will, recalling the strident headlines which praised Harold’s bravery. He, Harold MacCumber of Cumbria (and India), was the one now spoken of in hushed terms of awe, his the name all men looked up to.

“Quickly now, you must finish! The sheik comes tonight, and all must be ready!” The raghosh‘s command broke through Harold’s reverie, and he bent his back to the work with a murmured “Yes, sahib“, ignoring the twinge of doubt that struck him, as it sometimes did in unguarded moments. His freedom was but a small price to pay, he reminded himself. The results had been worth it.

It wasn’t a bad life, after all. He lived in a marvelous palace, and on days like today he could even pretend, just for a short time, that he was the master of it. Once his work was done he would don the garb of a wealthy nobleman. Together with the princess Nashti he would greet their guest, who would take no notice of their golden-eyed servant.

No notice at all, until the palace folded itself around him and left him begging for mercy underneath the claws of the raghosh.

The beast would let the sheik live, for a small fee. If he refused, well, the raghosh would satisfy his baser nature in a most disagreeable way. If the man agreed to pay, he would be taken to the desert wastelands and released, with enough water to survive the trip back, although it was true there had been a few who had not.

Harold had no fear of discovery from those who survived. The threat of a return visit from the raghosh was enough to make them keep quiet about their ordeal.

All in all, a satisfactory arrangement. Slowly but surely the palace was being restored. Harold’s inheritance, plus the gold coin they were extorting, allowed the raghosh to make his lair as splendid in reality as it was in its magical enchantment.

As for Harold, he had achieved all he wanted, and so he was content. To ask for more would be greedy, and that would not suit Harold MacCumber, of Cumbria (and India), not at all.


Featured image by Himanshu Singh Gurjar, on unsplash

Book Bingo: Westlake Soul, by Rio Youers

Quite awhile back I announced I would try to do a Book Bingo this year. I have failed miserably at it so far. And seeing as there are only four months left in the year, I’m under the gun, so to speak (or is that, under the B?).

Just as a quick reminder, I have set myself the challenge of filling in the middle row of the following Bingo card:

 

speculating-canada-bingo

It’s not like I haven’t done anything. I have read a short story collection by Canadian Tom Simon.  I will put up my review of that book sometime in the next month or so. Then I got distracted and well, forgot.

But I recently got renewed in my search for books to fill my card, because I read an absolutely spectacular book about by a Canadian author, and I realized it would fit as part of my Book Bingo! The book is Westlake Soul, by Rio Youers, and it was published by ChiZine Publishing in 2012. So, I now have two books that will fit on this card.And they are in the same line, under the “G”.  I’m on a roll!

It’s funny how some books come into your life. Most of the books I have read have been books I have chosen. Some of the rest are gifts, some are recommendations by friends, some are books read for my Book Club. But a few arrive in your life by magical means, maybe as a BookCrossing book, a book left behind on a bus, or won in a door prize.

This is one of these magical books. While I was the When Words Collide festival in Calgary last summer, I visited the book store, of course. I didn’t buy anything, I had too much to read on my plate already, and I just couldn’t bear the thought of adding one more book to that pile. But as I was going through the room I saw, off to the side, a bunch of books on a table with a sign, “Take one free for an honest review.” I glanced at them but kept on going. No time, and all that.

But I passed that table again and my conscience got the best of me. After all, soon (I hope) I will be entering the Published Authors Club and it will be me looking for reviews on my book on Amazon and other book sites. I am beginning to understand the importance of reviews and so I decided I should do my duty to my fellow authors and so I scanned the books on the table. There were a few books offered, but this one caught my eye. First of all, because it was small, and not too long (240 pages). And I liked the cover. And once I picked it up to read the back cover and reviews, I began to get more interested.

westlake

So, I popped it in my bag and took it home. It sat beside my bed for a few months until last month, when I (sigh) picked it up to read it in order to get it over with and stop my conscience from bothering me.

Well. I devoured this book. Not exactly devoured, I suppose, this book is too thought-provoking and emotional to use that word, but wow. Every ringing review on this book’s cover is true, and then some. I hurried over to Amazon and gladly gave it five stars.

Westlake Soul is the name of the main character of the book, a young man who has been horribly injured in a surfing accident, and is now in a vegetative state. At least that is what it looks like from the outside. He is unresponsive and unable to react to the world at large. But inside his mind, he is absolutely all there, and in fact the accident has given him some “superpowers” in the form of a greatly increased intelligence and the ability to project himself out of his body to anywhere he likes, like a form of astral projection.

Oh, and he can talk with his dog, Hub, which makes this already-marvellous book even that much better. Just for fun, here is the link to the youtube trailer for the book. I don’t like the surfer-dude voice, Westlake is Canadian, after all, but still, you get a small feel for the book. The music definitely fits the melancholy nature of the book and Westlake’s cool vibe, though.

Like all superheroes, Westlake has an arch-nemesis, Dr. Quietus, the embodiment of Death. Westlake has beaten him into a corner for now, but he’s lurking in the background, ready to do his mischief. And soon Westlake realizes that something bad is coming, and he had better be prepared…

This book is a wonderful reflection on big themes of life, death, friendship, family and humanity. Pretty big subjects, but Youers handles them deftly with sparse but lyrical prose. The book is told from Westlake’s point of view which helps to really immerse us into his world.

I couldn’t’ help but wonder if Youers wasn’t inspired to write this book by the story of the “Ghost Boy” – the young Australian man who contracted a mysterious disorder which caused him to retreat into a vegetative state, but whose mind slowly returned, and due to his physical limitations could not communicate that to his family. There are similarities here to that heart-wrenching story, and the news of the “ghost boy” was being reported  in the couple of years before Westlake Soul was published.

But no matter how he got the idea, Youers has taken it and given us a beautiful book. It was nominated for a Sunburst Award in 2012 as one of Canada’s best speculative fiction books. I am amazed it didn’t win (if it did, it would have qualified for another square on my bingo card, heh). I’m really surprised I haven’t heard of this author, but like all Canadian authors, I’m sure he struggles to be heard over the  noise from our fellow writers to the south. The good news is he has a new book coming out in June 2017 with a major publisher (St. Thomas Press/Thomas Dunne Books) which I am looking forward to reading. It’s a supernatural thriller called The Forgotten Girl, and it looks really good! Hopefully he will start to get some recognition.

In the meantime, grab a copy of Westlake Soul and a box of kleenex (trust me, you will need it). As Hub would say, Dude, you have to read this book.

 

Giving Thanks

Here in Canada we are celebrating Thanksgiving this weekend. We don’t have the stories of the Pilgrims and the Mayflower, but we do have a wonderful tradition of giving thanks in this country as well. I didn’t know much about the history of our Thanksgiving, but in a quick search on the web I found these fascinating details:

  • Some historians say that the first North American Thanksgiving was held in 1578 as explorer Martin Frobisher, who with a fleet of ships was searching for the Northwest Passage, gave thanks and celebrated Communion after a particularly harrowing voyage from Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island and back again.
  • French settlers who crossed the ocean with Samuel de Champlain and arrived safely in Canada with him in 1604, celebrated with a feast of Thanksgiving. They formed the Order of Good Cheer (don’t you love that name?) and held weekly feasts, during which they shared food with their First Nations neighbours.
  • Thanksgiving Days were celebrated to commemorate important events, such as the end of the Seven Years War (1763), the end of the War of 1812, the end of the Lower Canada Rebellion (1838), and even the recovery of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) from a serious illness in 1872.
  • It wasn’t until 1957 that the second Monday in October was officially designated Thanksgiving Day by Parliament.

sir_martin_frobisher_by_cornelis_ketel

Sir Martin Frobisher, the first to celebrate Thanksgiving on North American soil. Apparently after returning to Frobisher Bay after the harrowing voyage in which one ship was lost and another returned to Europe, the chaplain, Robert Wolfall, “made unto them a godly sermon, exhorting them especially to be thankefull to God for theyr strange and miraculous deliverance in those so dangerous places.” Photo : Portrait of Sir Martin Frobisher, by Cornelis Ketel, on Wikicommons

In doing the research on my books, I discovered that the Celtic Christian monks of the early Middle Ages excelled at thanksgiving. Their lives were founded upon praise, celebration and giving thanks. Every day they would recite Psalms 148-150, the praise psalms, which all begin and end with “Praise the Lord”. These words etched their way into their hearts and minds. They would find it very odd indeed to be “thankful” without that thankfulness spilling over into specific thanks to God, the Creator and Sustainer of all.

I don’t want to distract you for too long from your turkey feasts and family celebrations, so I will leave you with this ancient Celtic Christian prayer, recorded in the Carmina Gadelica. Whether you are in Canada or not, why not take some time this weekend to say this prayer slowly, with gratitude for all God has given you? We are truly blessed to live where we do and in the time in which we live.

Thanks to thee, 0 God, that I have risen to-day,
To the rising of this life itself;
May it be to Thine own glory, 0 God of every gift,
And to the glory of my soul likewise.

0 great God, aid Thou my soul
With the aiding of Thine own mercy ;
Even as I clothe my body with wool,
Cover Thou my soul with the shadow of Thy wing.

Help me to avoid every sin,
And the source of every sin to forsake ;
And as the mist scatters on the crest of the hills,
May each ill haze clear from my soul, 0 God.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!