Letter to Marci from Hot Springs, SD

Letter for Marci from Hot Springs, South Dakota Post Office

Dearest Marci,

Did you ever hear me talk about how I wanted to measure my trip across the Dakotas in pronghorn antelopes? I honestly can’t remember who I told about that metric and who I didn’t — but I think it’s actually a semi-meaningful way to measure travel in these parts. The pronghorn are really quite limited in their habitat. They need massive open grasslands, with a minimal number of farms and fences. So it’s really only out here, in the western Dakotas and the plains of Montana and Idaho (and probably other plains states, too, though I can’t speak to those from personal experience).

Eric's Three-Day Road Trip to Colorado

The pronghorns’ favorite territory is some of my favorite territory. So: Guess how many pronghorns I saw today, on my drive from Minneapolis to Hot Springs (really, they were mostly from Regent, ND, to Newell, SD)…

I SAW FIFTY-THREE PRONGHORNS TODAY!!!! That’s cumulative, from eighteen different sightings. 

But I mean, like, I’ve only ever seen four or five pronghorn on a given trip across the Plains, most times. There was one time, when we were driving back east through Idaho, in 2021, getting kind of close to Craters of the Moon National Monument — and I saw eight or nine pronghorn together on a grassy slope as dusk was falling. That was super-exciting (though I think everyone else in the car was sleeping or otherwise distracted). Today, however, was five- to ten times the number of pronghorn spotted. There were adults and juveniles, males and females, solitary pronghorn and clusters of seven or eight. It was fantastic: a good gift from the Father of Lights.

I know you probably don’t care about the pronghorn as much as I do — but I’m gushing with you because I feel like all that gush has to go somewhere. And I also feel like the pronghorn are emblematic of something bigger, or smaller, or more personal. Like, freedom or vitality or something like that. It really does feel like I’m emotionally preparing myself for the darkest, hardest, saddest part of caring for my parents. And somehow, some way, today helped with that. I don’t know when I might get to take a big swing out west again — at least not until after something has further shifted with my parents, anyway. So, it was just good to have such a long and adventurous and pronghorny day on the Great Plains — on the very same prairies where both of my parents grew up, no less — with fifty-three pronghorns serving as some kind of farewell gift. 

My soul is full, but my body is tired. I’ve developed some heartburn from some less-than-healthy eating patterns (Garrett’s Popcorn, Wisconsin cheese curds, and Miller Lite for two of the past three meals now, plus snacking). I got a tension headache towards the end of the day today; maybe too much sun in my eyes, maybe too much craning my neck to see all those pronghorns, maybe just two 12-hour driving days. And with my third new time zone in as many days, I’m just feeling off-kilter. So, as much as I enjoy the journey, it will be good to reach my destination tomorrow. I’m hoping to do one more hike through the prairies of Wind Cave National Park tomorrow morning before showering up and getting back on the road. But late-afternoon tomorrow, I should be settling in at the YMCA of the Rockies.

For now, I’m going to get to bed, so I will close this letter and hope to write again soon.

I love you!
Eric

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Enchanted Highway

Eric's Three-Day Road Trip to Colorado

I knew I wanted to take my time winding through the Western Dakotas. I wanted to drink up the rolling hills, the enormous skies, the vast ranch-lands. I wanted to stop at all the campy roadside attractions I might find. And I wanted to do it all with two-lane local roads and state highways, instead of the four-lane Interstate freeways — guided by my trusty Randy McNally Road Atlas, instead of Apple Maps on my phone.

Eric's Three-Day Road Trip to Colorado

What I didn’t know, perhaps, was how much I wanted to be enchanted along the way.

Eric's Three-Day Road Trip to Colorado

So when I turned South in Gladstone, North Dakota, following the appeals of some billboards along I-94 West, I found myself on a two-lane road that’s come to be known as the Enchanted Highway. It is the quintessence of the roadside attractions that characterize the Great Plains: very much in line with the World’s Largest Ball of Twine… and the World’s Largest Strawberry… and the World’s Largest Buffalo. But what’s special about the Enchanted Highway is that there are seven such attractions on one 32-mile stretch of highway, and they are all the work of a self-taught scrap-metal artist from Regent, North Dakota (the town which serves as the southern terminus of the Enchanted Highway).

Eric's Three-Day Road Trip to Colorado

I stopped to see (and take pictures of) the “Deer Crossing,” “Grasshoppers in the Field,” and “Pheasants on the Prairie” — and I also drove past “Geese in Flight,” “Fisherman’s Dream,” “Teddy Roosevelt Rides Again,” and “The Tin Family.” But honestly, the best part of the Enchanted Highway was the general spirit of roadside kitsch combined with the grandeur of the high plains and buttes and rolling grasslands.

Eric's Three-Day Road Trip to Colorado

When the Enchanted Highway ended in Regent, North Dakota, I tried to find a place where I could buy a postcard or a sticker — or both — but the town was ghostly silent. The official gift shop for the Enchanted Highway was closed. The museums and antique shops on the opposite side of the street were partially-opened, but there was no one tending the antique shop that I actually dared to enter. So, I just took a couple of pictures and moved on.

Eric's Three-Day Road Trip to Colorado

Leaving Regent was the only time when I got kind of lost, feeling the tension of navigating without GPS. I probably wasted 20-30 minutes probing the area, trying to find the state routes that I needed to continue the journey. But it was on one of those wrong turns that I saw my first two pronghorns! And when I finally got moving again, it was an epic adventure from Hettinger, North Dakota, to Newell, South Dakota.

Eric's Three-Day Road Trip to Colorado

The two-lane highways (ND Route 8, US Route 12, ND Route 75, SD Route 20, and SD Route 79) probably slowed me down a little bit and decreased my fuel efficiency (my Civic had been getting better than 40 miles per gallon before I exited I-94!). But really, there were no annoying stuck-behind-a-tractor sorts of moments at all. Just driving fast and free.

And let me tell you: it was enchanting.

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Big Chief Breakfast

Eric's Three-Day Road Trip to Colorado

It’s 7:45 AM, and I just stopped for breakfast at the Big Chief truck stop / diner (“Home of the Bison Burger”) in Fergus Falls, Minnesota — which just so happens that I’m now roughly halfway between my father’s hometown of Kerkhoven, Minnesota and my mother’s hometown of Jamestown, North Dakota. I’ve been listening to the audio version of Eugene Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor, and his introduction and the first chapter about “Topos and Kairos” just fit the moment perfectly. This is the region from which “my people” have hailed for several generations. And even though I’ve broken the chain of generational continuity, with no real claim to this region except for an emotional one, I consider this a sort of “hometown” in which I’ve never actually lived. This feels like a day of traveling through sacred ground.

My goal for today is to not use my smartphone to help me find my way — relying instead on Rand McNally and my general awareness of cardinal directions to get me to Hot Springs, South Dakota, by nightfall. I’d also like to avoid eating at any chain restaurants, so this Big Chief breakfast has gotten me off to a good start.

I’ve already covered a lot of ground over to get to this point, but I’ve still got a long way to go. And I could hardly be more excited about that.

Posted in Aging Parents, Family, Food, Health, Introspection, Middle Age, Photography, Recreation, The Dakotas, The United States of America, Travel | Leave a comment

Really, Really Great Plains

I’m heading west-by-northwest: Kent, Ohio, to Chicago, Illinois… to Minneapolis, Minnesota… to Jamestown, North Dakota… to New Salem, North Dakota… to Regent, North Dakota… to Hettinger, North Dakota… to Hot Springs, South Dakota… to Guernsey, Wyoming… to Estes Park, Colorado. It’s going to be a lot of driving, but I’m excited for the journey. Even the thought of this journey makes me feel kind of squiggly inside.

I regularly gush about the Great Plains, so I’m especially excited to have about 24 hours in the Western Dakotas. I’m not just saying that I like the Great Plains; I love the Great Plains. I think they’re really, really great! But why?!?

I think there are actually many reasons, but I had some time to think about it this week, and I believe that one of the things that I really love about the Great Plains is the way that they are so vast, so enormous, almost eternal. The Great Plains remind me of my smallness, my insignificance, and my inadequacy — and I actually find this deeply comforting. I can delude myself into believing that I’m pretty important, over the course of regular life in Northeast Ohio. I become self-important. When I’m really just a blade of grass on those great, Great Plains. I’m a low-profile leader of a relatively-small church in a relatively-obscure network. I’m a blogger with readership more meaningfully measured in the dozens than the hundreds, thousands, or millions. I’m a farmer of forty acres which feel like everything I can handle — and then some — most times.

Yet God still loves me. God still includes me in His family and His family business. And that’s pretty amazing. To have a chance to soak in that — and the campy roadside attractions and the buffalo and the antelope and the old-school diners and the Wild West vibes — is a gift, and I’m looking forward to unwrapping that present. Stay tuned for more gushing about the greatness of the Great Plains.

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Mantua Station

Mantua Station Old-Fashioned Soda Fountain

Cor and I discovered an old-fashioned independent drug store with an old-fashioned soda fountain like something from a black-and-white Jimmy Stewart movie except this was just yesterday, just a twenty-minute drive from our house in Kent!

Mantua Station Old-Fashioned Soda Fountain

Cor got a cherry phosphate, and I got a vanilla phosphate (even these menu items sound like something from a bygone era, don’t they?!?).

Mantua Station Old-Fashioned Soda Fountain

The woman who served us said that a lot of the materials for the soda shop were salvaged from Quaker Square in Akron: the marble-topped tables… the brass-backed chairs… the stained-glass lamps… the beaded woodwork on the walls and the ceiling… and of course the counter with its attendant stools.

The drug store is also independently owned and operated, which also feels like something that I didn’t even know might still be in existence. Mantua Station feels like a special treasure, right here in our own back yard! You should go and give it a visit sometime, for the phosphates, for the malts, milkshakes, and scoops of ice cream and, you know, for old time’s sake.

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Clayton

Centennial Road Trip to North Carolina

Nich and had fried chicken twice within the first twelve hours after arriving in Clayton, North Carolina. That’s actual fact, not just some kind of metaphor. But it was a full weekend, and I’m still feeling full even after the nine-hour drive back to Northeast Ohio and the night of sleep that I got to have in my own bed.

I’m not complaining about the fullness.

As for the chicken, Bojangle’s breakfast is my personal favorite (with a little bit of strawberry jelly on the Cajun Chicken Filet Biscuit) but the Smithfield’s chicken came with the best sweet tea that I had during our time down South. And honestly, all of the food that we got to eat in North Carolina was lovely. But we really didn’t travel through the Appalachian Mountains and across the Carolina Piedmont for the food. We were there for people time. And it just so happens that people time often coincides with (and is enhanced by) food time.

Centennial Road Trip to North Carolina

That Bojangle’s breakfast, for example, was a gift from our friends Tabby and Bianca. And we all got to enjoy it with relaxed conversation on a private brick patio in the cool of the morning. It was just me and three college students talking about life and faith and our plans for the rest of the weekend. There was no weirdness. There was just camaraderie. Which was really the whole goal of the road trip.

Centennial Road Trip to North Carolina

I learned a lot about Tabby by meeting her family. I learned that everyone in their family likes to order virgin Piña Coladas to go with their shrimp dinners. I learned that they (and other North Carolinians) sometimes call North Carolina “North Cackalacky.” I learned that Tabby is kind, generous, and hospitable because her people are kind, generous, and hospitable.

Centennial Road Trip to North Carolina

I learned a lot about Tabby by meeting her friends, too. I learned that they all love to rock out to Darius Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel” (although for Bianca, I think it’s a love-hate relationship). I learned that they love Jesus, but they’re still trying to figure out the best community space for living that out (I don’t know for sure if Tabby is going to settle in with Bianca and her mother at the Church at Clayton Crossings for the summer, but it does my heart good to hear the way that people there talk about their faith and the stories behind their decisions to get baptized). I learned that the people of Clayton love to get burgers and milkshakes from Jones Cafe, but they also have to visit Jones Cafe for their school field trips as a way to make the issue of segregation accessible for kids.

We got to see a lot of interesting sites. We got to eat a lot of delicious food. We got to enjoy a lot of meaningful conversation. It was a full weekend, but a lovely weekend.

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In the Land of the Pine

Centennial Road Trip to North Carolina

I’ve traveled from Northeast Ohio to Northeast North Carolina for a quick weekend visit. As described in the prayer letter I sent out earlier this week, this trip was originally designed to be one of those classic summer road trips with our H2O Centennial Life Group “family.” And initially, there was a large group of people who were excited to do this road trip together to the point that it actually felt kind of challenging to work out all the logistics. In the weeks leading up to the road trip, however, circumstances kept chipping away at the group, to the point that we ended up with just three of us. Which felt kind of challenging in a different way. Still, Tabby and Nich seemed enthusiastic about the idea even the slimmed down version of things so we went ahead with the road trip.

But now I’m wondering if it was actually a bad idea.

Honestly, the trip has gone super-smoothly. I sincerely believe that it’s been a worthwhile investment of time and money and energy. Still, I’ve noticed that several of the people who we’ve encountered along the way on this trip have been somewhat confounded by what we’re trying to do. And their looks and questions have got me wondering about my own heart or, at least, my self-awareness in the continued progression of my cross-generational, cross-cultural ministry to Kent State University students.

I mean, I get it. Why is a 47-year-old man making an 8-hour road trip to visit a 20-year-old girl, bringing along a 19-year-old boy as a traveling companion?!?

It’s kind of weird, if you think about it like that. I saw it in the eyes of Nich’s parents, when they came out to the curb yesterday morning to shake my hand, look me in the eye, and say good-bye to their son. I saw it in the way that Tabby’s father wanted to meet with us at Smithfield’s Chicken ‘N Bar-B-Q right after we first got into town. He was feeling protective, and he wanted to meet us before he opened the “gate” to any further time with his family. I heard it in the tone of voice with which our AirBnB hosts asked about how Nich and I knew each other.

I’m realizing that I need to think about avoiding all appearance of evil, not just evil itself. So, I want to keep that in mind going forward. I want to be mindful of the way that the increasing age gap affects relational dynamics. I want to be sensitive to the “intimacy” of an “intimate gathering” with just a couple of students (even when the circumstances dictating participation are out of my control). In addition to those kinds of considerations, this trip is also crossing cultural (North / South) lines, racial lines, socio-economic lines, denominational lines… It’s a stretch in more ways than one!

I’m honestly not sure if I will ever take a trip like this again. Even though I’d say it’s been a successful trip.

Meaningful conversations with the others mentioned above seem to have diffused and dispelled any potential weirdness. Still, I don’t know what it looks like for others to see a picture of Nich pop up on my BeReal… or to see Tabby pop up on my Lapse… After some reflection while journaling, it seemed important to do some of the same reflecting here, in a more public space. Just in case my actions this week have gotten anyone else wondering about my intentions.

I still think it’s important to be creative in helping college students find community during the summer months. Their summer experiences remind me of my decade in Amsterdam, feeling so alone on the far side of the Atlantic. It honestly felt like I lived on the far side of the moon sometimes! When my friend Jason took it upon himself to check in on me with weekly phone calls and periodic visits during that period of my life, it meant so much to me. And that’s honestly what I was going for with this road trip to North Carolina. I’d like to think I can still play a role in catalyzing these sorts of dynamics for others in times of loneliness. At the same time, I also want to make sure things don’t get weird. I want to move forward with wisdom and creativity. Wherever God may take me.

Posted in Church, Culture, H2O Kent, Introspection, Leadership, Middle Age, Small Groups, Travel, Young Adulthood | Leave a comment

The Lentz Scale

I recently learned that my friend and colleague, Jared Lentz, has made a significant scientific advancement. Well, okay. It probably depends on how one might define the words “significant” and “scientific” and “advancement.” Still, he’s developed a scale for quantifying opinions, or preferences, for responding to new ideas for organizational dynamics. And I think this “Lentz Scale” has some legs and could actually go somewhere (it it hasn’t already done so, under a different name).

For instance, say that someone proposed a new location for our weekly staff meeting. It’s one of those things where some people might have really strong feelings in either direction and others might be largely indifferent. So, the group could be polled according to a seven-point scale with the results being used to identify who feels what, and to what extent. Here’s the seven-point scale:

  1. Advocate Against
  2. Firmly Against
  3. Softly Against
  4. Neutral
  5. Advocate, No Involvement
  6. Advocate, Involvement
  7. Advocate, Lead

So, those who are indifferent could register their neutrality by categorizing their input as a “4,” or they could shade one direction or the other by going with a “3” or a “5.” In any of these situations, though, it’s really no “skin off their nose” if group consensus dictates one way or the other. People coming in at this point on the Lentz Scale are just being given an opportunity to express their opinions.

If someone were to feel more passionate about the issue, the further ends of the Lentz Scale offer more nuance and assignment of responsibility (which is a key element of this metric, in my opinion). Those who would advocate for change can volunteer to be agents for that change, either as a part of a team (by registering as a “6”) or taking a leadership role for making that change happen (by registering as a “7”). So, in the hypothetical scenario of changing locations for a weekly staff meeting, those who come in at a “6” or “7” would potentially bear the burden of proposing viable alternative locations, scouting those locations, and accommodating the shortfalls that a new location might present.

It changes the dynamics — for better and for worse — if a person as “skin in the game,” not just an opinion poll. This is one of the best features of the Lentz Scale, if you ask me.

Those who are more resistant to a proposed change can register the level of their resistance to the idea with a “2” or a “1.” And if the employment of the Lentz Scale were to reveal several people landing on that end of the spectrum, a group (or its leader / leaders) might be more slow to disrupt the status quo.

No metric is perfect in these sorts of situations because each of our own hearts are often divided. We have mixed motives. Still, I think the Lentz Scale offers some intriguing possibilities for group dynamics. What do you think about the Lentz Scale?

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Road Trip Season

Inaugural USG Student Org Games

I look up to the mountains — does my help come from there?
My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth!
(Psalms 121:1-2)

​ Greetings from Kent! It’s road trip season! I love the snacks that go along with a road trip (my personal favorites are Lemonheads and Blue Diamond Smoked Almonds). I love the songs that go along with a road trip (our family creates a new collaborative playlist every summer). And I love the variety of landscapes that go along with a road trip: farmlands… cities… grasslands… mountains… And this summer, I’m thrilled that I’m going to get to experience more than my fair share of mountains, thanks to a couple of different ministry opportunities that I want to share with you (and for which I could hopefully recruit your prayer support).

First, at the end of this week I get to travel to and through the Appalachian Mountains, to Clayton, North Carolina. This trip was originally conceived of as a Centennial Life Group Road Trip, with about a dozen of us from Northeast Ohio who were excited to visit one of our group members whose home town is in the Raleigh region. We wanted to take advantage of “road trip season” to build community, alleviate loneliness, and encourage one another in the Lord. Unfortunately, as summer jobs and internships and family commitments started falling into place, our prospective crew kept getting smaller and smaller: from multiple-vehicles-size… to minivan-size… to a size that can fit in my Honda Civic. Even so, after further prayer and conversation, it seemed like the smaller-scale road trip would still be worthwhile. So, we’re gearing up and getting ready to leave on Friday morning. Please be praying for us!

Last Centennial Life Group Gathering of the School Year

My main travel companion for this road trip will be a student named Nich, who is heading into his second year of studying Exercise Science at Kent State University (he is pictured in the center of this group photo, wearing a black T-shirt). He’s one of three new apprentices to join the Centennial Life Group leadership team at the end of the most recent school year. He had an amazing year of spiritual growth in his first year with H2O, and he was baptized in the Spring. At that time, he said, “I was blessed to grow up in a Christian family… But it wasn’t until around high school, and really the past couple of years, when I started to build that relationship with [Jesus] and understand the difference between knowing of Him and knowing Him personally. And that’s when things really started to change and I really started to see what He can do for my life. And especially since coming to college and meeting everyone here at H2O, I’ve seen the peace and the joy and the clarity that He can bring someone. And me, personally, I’m just so thankful for that.”

H2O Centennial Super Bowl Party

The student that we’re traveling to visit in North Carolina is a young woman named Tabby. She is also heading into her second year at Kent State University, studying Nursing. And she’s also one of the three new apprentices to join the Centennial Life Group leadership team in April (Tabby is pictured with the long hair on the right, sitting next to the third of our group’s new apprentices, Shekinah). She doesn’t have much in the way of spiritual support systems, back in North Carolina, so Nich and I are eager to hang out with her and her family for a while. We’ll also be visiting a church together on Sunday morning, before we head back to Ohio. But hopefully, we can help to see Tabby continue to build on the momentum that she established during the school year.

Tabby was also baptized this Spring (about a month before Nich), and at that time she reflected on something another student had shared in her Snapshot (testimony) during a previous H2O worship gathering, calling out the myth that “God gives His toughest battles to His strongest soldiers.” She said, “I agree [that such a sentiment is not accurate]. Because God puts us into situations sometimes where we have no choice but to call on Him. And I feel like He’s done that for me. And I feel like that’s why I can testify to the grace that He’s had on me and is having on all of us.” Hopefully, our road trip to North Carolina will be another opportunity for all of us to testify to God’s grace and provide some life-giving encouragement for each of us to keep walking by faith through what we at H2O often call “The Summer Scatter.”

After a week back in Ohio, I’ll get to travel to and through the Rocky Mountains. As in previous summers, I’ll be helping to lead the Collegiate Mentoring Program, focusing on staff development (even as those staff focus on student development through the Leadership Training program). I’ll share more about that in our July prayer letter. But for now, I just want to say thank you for your partnership in ministry that helps to make these mountainous, road trip ministry adventures possible! Please keep praying for us! We’ll be in touch…

Posted in Church, God, H2O Kent, Ministry, Prayer, Prayer Letters, Small Groups, Travel | Leave a comment

Slant

AllSides Coverage of Trump Conviction

Marci and I happened to be lounging around the house yesterday afternoon when the news broke of the jury reaching a verdict in the New York court case involving Donald Trump. So, after our phones tipped us off to the fact that the decision was being announced, we quickly turned on the television and dialed in to our primary news outlet (Cleveland’s ABC affiliate, WEWS). They were broadcasting the national feed featuring World News Tonight anchor David Muir relaying the information that Trump had been convicted on all 34 felony counts. But after that piece of information, there weren’t a whole lot of other details to pass along. So, inevitably, the broadcast shifted to commentary and analysis as it awaited Trump’s exit from the courthouse and comments to reporters.

It felt a lot like cable news, which we generally try to avoid. But since we didn’t have a lot else to do on this evening, we kept watching for maybe ten minutes. And then I suggested that it would be interesting to see how a more conservative news outlet was covering the latest developments. So, we changed the channel to Fox News and watched their coverage for another ten or fifteen minutes.

It was a fascinating experience. And it made me think about the Emily Dickinson poem:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Emily Dickinson, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant —” (1263)

ABC News coverage used the phrase “convicted felon” several times, during the course of its coverage. Fox News used a variety of terms like “reversible” or “appealable” (referring to disputed points in the case) in its analysis. The ABC News coverage repeatedly showed a full-screen graphic featuring three columns listing the words, “Count 1,” “Count 2,” “Count 3,” etc. — each with a red box around the word “GUILTY” next to each item. The Fox News coverage didn’t use any full-screen graphics, but it featured a picture of Donald Trump in the top right corner with the word “GUILTY” in large letters beneath it. The ABC News commentary was provided by its Chief Washington Correspondent, Jonathan Karl, and a legal expert discussing the potential impact of the verdict on voter opinions. The Fox News commentary was provided by the host of one of its more popular (editorial) programs, Judge Jeanine Pirro, and a legal expert talking about the potentially-disputable points in the case that could be appealed.

The juxtaposition of the two different broadcasts reminded me of the importance of a “balanced diet” in news coverage (as in most other aspects of the human experience). Have you ever heard of the website / app AllSides? It’s useful because it pulls headlines from three different news sources for each story that’s in the news at a given moment. The three different sources are labeled on a five-point scale, showing each source’s bias on the Left / Blue to Right / Red spectrum. I’ve found it to be a really insightful tool for watching the way that American media covers national and global events.

Almost all reporting carries some level of “Slant.” We can look at that as malevolent and misleading, or we can look at it as kind and digestible. Or somewhere in between. But let’s all keep this in mind as we head into the November General Election.

Posted in American Politics, Culture, Introspection, Politics, Recommendations, Recommended Browsing, The United States of America | Leave a comment