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Relearning How to Read in the Internet Age

There’s the old joke: “I know it’s true because I read it on the interweb.” Now– it’s not even funny. For most of us, the Internet has become our main source for news and information.

How can you know if what you are reading is true?

Fact, Fake or Spin?

One thing I learned how to do over the past year was how to tell the difference between fact based news, ‘spin’ or biased news… and of course, fake news.

We used to be able to depend on news sources to report the facts of a story without adding ‘color’, their opinions, spinning it a specific direction… or reporting ‘gossip’ as truth. Sure, the news has always been used as a propaganda machine to some extent. For the most part though, we were allowed to come to our own conclusions based on the facts we read. That’s all changed. Today, we are most often told exactly what we are supposed to think, believe or feel about a story. True or not.

You can’t believe everything you read. Can you believe anything?

The first things I look for in any article are quotes and source links. This doesn’t make it completely reliable but it lends some support for accuracy. If the subject is of true interest or importance to me, I will click on at least one link (for sources) while I’m reading. If the article is suspect, don’t be surprised if the link takes you to advertising or some totally unrelated website. I found, on more than one occasion, linked sources that were cited in an article were not what they claimed to be. Some were dead links or “page not found”. This should make you doubt any validity in what you are reading.

May, Could, Might…

Whether you’re reading or watching a news story on television, you can be sure you’ll see or hear words that should immediately send up red flags.

When a reporter asks someone what they think— they are asking for an opinion or an assessment. Neither of these constitutes fact, even if it supports what you want to believe.

When you read, “The Constitution is the framework of the United States Government.” This is a statement of fact. If you read, “The Constitution may have inspired the governing documents of Latin American countries.” This statement is conjecture. It might be true but would require further research to find whether or not it is a fact.

On the other hand, you could also read, “John Doe is a racist.” (A statement of “fact”.) If this is true, where are the documented sources that back this up? If there are none, or the supporting information is a conclusion based on interpretation– don’t accept it as truth. Look for other sources that will either support or disprove that accusation.

Here’s another example: It seems that every day there’s a new article about some food or diet supplement that may cause cancer. These are all highly suspect. The word may is the key. What other information is provided to back this up?

We should never be afraid to question the validity of what we read. More important, never accept something as fact just because you read it somewhere.

Studies, Polls and Findings…

For every topic, you can find studies, polls and findings in the search of answers to important questions. You have to look at a) who sponsored it, b) how many people participated in it and c) under what condition was the data collected.

Can you trust them?

One of the more famous ‘false claims’ (findings) in recent years is that diet soda causes obesity. You can find many articles that will provide studies and polls to back up that claim. Sort of. What they don’t tell you is that the respondents also may consume a half gallon of ice cream, two bags of chips and a candy bar in between their meals. Diet soda, itself, doesn’t cause obesity. If a person drinking it assumes they can eat more of everything else because they are reducing their sugar intake by not drinking regular soda… guess what? They aren’t going to lose weight or can just as easily gain weight. This should be common sense.  So what those articles are really inferring is that obese people who drink diet soda, are often likely to justify replacing those missing sugars with something else… furthering their high sugar intake.

Polls. Many polls aren’t very reliable. Often the sampling of people surveyed might not be large enough or broad enough. Polls are also highly susceptible to emotion. An individual’s feelings (opinion) can change based on many factors; changing the result of what the poll was supposed to measure.  Because of this, they aren’t always an adequate predictor of future behavior or actions– even when every effort is made to interview a broad cross-section of respondents. The 2016 election is a perfect example of how inaccurate polling can be.

Breaking News…

News as it happens.  Breaking News is now a daily event. We can’t always know the who, what, when, where and how as it is unfolding. Jumping to conclusions is the worst thing we can do. The fact that the media, and often our leaders do it — is just irresponsible.

Three recent acts of violence– Las Vegas, Cincinnati and London were all immediately speculated as ISIS attacks. Terrorism. Those accusations in all three cases were later proved to be unfounded.

We have to be careful of the narrative we’re fed as news is happening. Things aren’t always what they initially seem.

Misleading Headlines…

It’s hard to go online, especially on social media and not see shocking or sensationalized headlines. Some you can immediately identify as fake news. Others, you can’t be sure. The art of writing the headline is what sells advertising and makes readers click and read.

A quick way I’ve found to test the reliability of a headline, can be found in the first paragraph. Real news will usually state facts about the subject at the top of the article. (This isn’t always the case with an expose or human interest story, though.) If the first paragraph launches into something totally unrelated to the headline, you’re best bet is to find a different source.

Ridiculous? Yes.

Many headlines for articles posted online are geared towards getting you to click– then be subjected to tons of advertising and pop up spam. I’ve found some articles that amount to nothing more than a couple of meaningless paragraphs surrounded by dozens of advertisements. There are many ‘news sources’ that do this and many that are just plain fake news sites. As you identify these, you’re better off avoiding them in the future. The headline may be enticing– but why waste your time?

Whatever you do : Don’t accept a headline as truth, or a statement of fact without reading the article. Most definitely, don’t share the link to something you haven’t read. This is how fake news became so prominent.

Memes…

True or false? Did he say it? This meme is FALSE.

They can be funny or cute, provide an inspiring quote of the day, or a list of fast facts to make you think. Are they true? A meme is just a picture (usually) with some words, meant to grab your attention. What harm can they cause? The answers are: they aren’t always true and just like fake news– they can cause damage.

I’m sharing a pretty harmless one here: Winston Churchill and the Arts. It doesn’t hurt anyone– but the fact is: there’s no evidence that he said it. It has, and continues to be shared frequently because it supports a narrative that favors the arts.

Search for the Truth…

So how can we know if what we are reading is true? The answer isn’t a very satisfactory one. The only way you can be fairly confident something is true– is to research it. Are there multiple unbiased sources that report the same facts? If it involves a person, are there actual quotes (preferably video) backing up the claims?

People have busy lives. Researching everything you read (to find if it’s true) is not something most people can, or want to do.

I will regularly use sites like snopes.com and factcheck.org to see if a trending story has already been researched.

Wikipedia can be a great launching point for finding quick information but it should never be your final source. Anyone can update, post or change the information on Wikipedia. Fact or fiction. Check the sources.

As a rule, if I can’t find documentation to back up a claim, I won’t accept it as truth. Through the Internet, we have immediate access to so much information. The real challenge is deciding whether we can really believe it of not.

We have to be vigilant in our search for the truth and not be afraid to question everything. It’s always better to be safe now than to be sorry later.

The Post I Wasn’t Going To Write

IMG_0290I wasn’t going to write a September 11th blog post today. I’ve written several already, along with posts on the National September 11th Memorial and Museum. No, today, after changing my Facebook cover photo, posting my favorite Memorial picture on Instagram and watching  the coverage in New York and Washington; I had intended to remember privately.

I also wasn’t going to write about something else (directly connected) that has really bothered me for quite some time.

Such is life– things changed. So here I sit and write.

In the past, most of my posts have been structured with a specific point. This one is going to be a little more free-thought.

A few hours ago I was scrolling through Facebook and saw I was tagged in a post from a former student, then a post from another student and one from a teacher-friend. Plans changed.

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 12.35.45 PMWhen I was working at Bartlett High School, I wrote a play called, September’s Heroes; an ensemble, multimedia production; performed in honor of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I’ve been stalling getting it published because I felt it still needed some work. In any case, had things gone the way I planned, September’s Heroes should have been on stage tonight. (I’ll get back to that later.)

Three Posts On Facebook. Natalie is an incredibly gifted young actress currently studying theatre at the University of Miami. I had the privilege of working with her and she was one of the key ensemble members in the cast of September’s Heroes. This morning, Natalie posted this:

“On September 11th, 2011, I walked off the Bartlett High School stage with tears in my eyes because I was so moved by the story of “September’s Heroes” that I had just shared with the audience. This was the first time I had reacted so viscerally to a piece of theatre. Each year I grieve for the souls we lost in 9/11 — each soul that didn’t get to finish their story. I am proud to be a theatre maker. And proud to be an American.”

Then I found a post by another student in that production that moved me for similar reasons. Ken wrote:

“It’s necessary to remember 9/11 as an important part of our history. To readily mourn the innocent lives lost that day and the graphic images captured of the tower collapsing.

However, its just as important to acknowledge the level of Islamaphobia that followed 9/11 that continues to haunt muslim folks, south asian folks, and everyone ‘mistaken’ as such still today .

Both the pain of those that lost loved ones on 9/11 as well as the families that continue to feel endangered today matter.

Acknowledging the former without recognizing the latter is being downright selective of the kind “American” history you want to remember.”

Ken- September's HeroesIn September’s Heroes, Ken had a monologue we referred to as “Hate” calling attention to the rise in fear and open racism that was a by-product of the 9/11 attacks. Now, Ken is becoming a voice– an activist; speaking out for minority rights. He current studies African & African American Studies at the University of Minnesota.

The third Facebook post by Charlie, a teacher-friend that I know from past theatrical productions wrote:

“9-11 isn’t even a memory to those I now teach. It is something they (may) have heard about…wow. As Ferris said, life moves pretty fast.”

Three different people. Three different posts. All three, unknowingly giving me a kick in the butt to do something I’ve put off for too long. Publishing September’s Heroes.

How Today Was Supposed To Happen. In June 2014, I started the process of securing space from the City of Elgin to produce a season of five shows, two weeks each at the Elgin Art Showcase. September’s Heroes was to be one of those shows. It should have– it would have been on stage tonight if it hadn’t been for the irresponsible actions of a city employee.

From the time I began the process, I dealt with three different people responsible for booking the space. The first left (who kept putting me off, delaying the process), the second was filling in (and tried valiantly to be accommodating with my requests) and then there was the third: the newly hired coordinator for the space. She flat out told me I couldn’t have the dates because she wanted them, even though they had already been promised to me.

I need to back up and say that I had also applied for this coordinator position. I had more than enough qualifications and experience, I’m an Elgin resident but I didn’t even get an interview. I was later told (by an insider) that the person they hired had already been tapped for the job, before the opening had even been posted. On top if that, she doesn’t live in Elgin (city officials claim to favor residents first) and she already holds a conflicting position, managing another space downtown. Strangely, her space is constantly active, while the Art Space sits empty.

Of the ten weeks I wanted, there has only been one, two-hour event in the space during the entire list of dates I had requested. It was nearly the end of last October before I was given contractual dates. At this point, it was already too late to successfully publicize the first two shows. I planned to release all but the last two bookings but when I discussed this (through email) with the new coordinator, she told me I couldn’t have the September dates, she was using them for her event. So I cancelled them all.

It turns out, IF they are using the space, it’s not on the city calendar AND the event (which is happening) isn’t until next week. My production of September’s Heroes could have gone on. At no point was I ever contacted and told that I could, in fact, have those original dates I had requested.

Yes, I’m bitter about this. I’m bitter about not being given consideration for the job and more so for having dates I had been given– in writing, taken away from me and then not used. The city pays a lot of money to subsidize this space and due to poor management– it sits empty. Yet another example of Elgin’s waste of taxpayer’s money.

Moving On and Being Inspired. So September’s Heroes is not on stage tonight but that’s not the end of it. Thanks to the inspiration of friends, I’m working on a new edit of my script to publish. Hopefully it will see productions for next year’s fifteenth anniversary.

Theatre moves, educates and inspires people. There is a whole new generation of children in school that weren’t even born when the terrorists attacked. They need to know the story. They need to hear about the heroes and the innocent people that lost their lives that day.

One Last Story. I want to end with this. I may have shared it before but if I have, it bares repeating. One of the people that ‘liked’ one of the Facebook posts this morning, is the mother of another one of the young actors that was in September’s Heroes in 2011. I didn’t really know him very well (at the time) besides the fact that he was talented and very polite. During the rehearsals, I got the feeling he was having a little trouble connecting to the material.

In January 2013, I chaperoned a student trip to New York and he was also on the trip. Besides seeing Broadway shows, we toured a little bit of the city and visited the National September 11th Memorial. We stood at the two pools that form the footprint of where the World Trade Center once towered over lower Manhattan. It was there that I saw this strong young man, emotional, as it all became real for him. It was a touching moment. An important moment that I’ll never forget.

It reminds me constantly of the power of theatre… the importance of history… and the necessity of telling and retelling the story.

It’s our duty to share, remember and #neverforget.

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Public Education Is ‘Dumbing Down’ America

IcanhazjobWe don’t need to know how to spell, calculate simple math equations, write in cursive or expand our vocabulary, do we? We have computers. If education in America continues on its current track, students will be reduced to nothing more than computer operators with limited thinking skills and the inability to function without them. The evolution of the brain and our abilities to think and communicate are being thwarted by a system that seeks to create a society with restricted measurable skills, in affect, dumbing down individual potential.

Powerful leaders through history have known that if you can control how and what people think, you can control the masses. Programs like No Child Left Behind and now, Common Core strive to produce group results not successful individuals.

einstein-8otaj2lv7-95294-530-366Why do you think there is such a great importance on standardized testing? The public is led to believe that it is to provide concrete proof of learning (or lack thereof) and guide educators to improve student performance. Face the fact: Testing only measures a very limited, specific result. It does not measure thinking skills, creative problem-solving and is not an honest indicator of a learning disability or poor educational environment.

The goal of our current public education system is to limit students’ abilities to be creative in both their thinking and problem-solving skills, restricting their knowledge base and reducing their abilities to explore their unique individuality.

Don’t blame the teachers. Their hands have been tied for years. Look to the leadership. Ultimately, the road map is being sent down from the state and federal levels.

But, that’s just the way I see it.

I Am the Captain of My Soul

553152_10201873988749120_967075786_nI was having a conversation with my parents today that bounced from life to travel and politics to education. We don’t talk on the phone often but when we do, we’re usually all over the map as we catch up and try to solve all the world’s problems. After I hung up (Do we still say that with cell phones?), this phrase popped in my head:

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.

My fourth grade teacher, Mr. Hill made my class learn the whole poem and recite it, day after day, in class until we all had it memorized and could repeat it by memory on our own. It was the first thing I can recall being asked to memorize and I spent hours at home reciting it from the tattered mimeographed page we’d been given.

Before I looked it up, besides the above phrase, all I could remember was something about a gate and the line, ‘black as the pit from pole to pole’. I’m not even sure I ever knew the title of the poem until now. I just remember Mr. Hill telling us we should live our lives by this. That, we were in charge of our lives and responsible for how we lived.

Mr. Hill was a big, strong African American man teaching elementary school in Florida in the 1970s. I’m sure that, in itself, had its challenges. His larger-than-life presence was enough to scare us at that age and he was the only male teacher I had until middle school. He was both nurturing and warm but he had the ability to scare the bejesus out of you with his intensity. He was also one of the best teachers I had in all my years of public schooling.

I remember he loved math. He taught us well — not to memorize numbers and equations but to understand how and why the equations worked. He made us all feel, no matter how much we struggled, that we could all learn. We were all individuals and our feelings and our experiences mattered. He never treated us like a bunch of bothersome kids he was stuck with for an entire year.

Mr. Hill taught us our subjects and he also related them to life. Which bring me back to the poem.

The poem is William Ernest Hensley’s Invictus. As it turns out, it is not only considered to be one of the best poems ever written by many, it is also considered highly controversial in some circles.

Invictus

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

— William Ernest Hensley

Choosing that poem for fourth graders, is pretty extraordinary by today’s standards. Even though I didn’t understand the whole poem then as I am able to do today, I did understand that last phrase. It has popped into my thoughts repeatedly throughout my life.

Today, we undervalue the importance of true learning in the classroom. Students aren’t taught how to think. We undervalue great teachers that go beyond the rigid curriculum to teach students morals and responsibility. Most of them are gone now.

Today we simply medicate unruly kids that need focus and guidance. We discourage the question why — or any original thought. Individuality is frowned upon. Just do it has replaced how and why we do it. We aren’t relating studies to real life. We definitely aren’t nurturing life-long learners.

That’s not education.

I guess I was lucky.

May I Return To The Beginning?

It’s three in the morning. The birds are chirping like crazy, there’s the sound of a train in the distance and across the street the meter man is ticketing cars parked on the wrong side of the street. I guess it’s just some of the benefits of sitting on my front porch and living in my little acre “forest in the city” I’ve created. Mostly tranquil, it’s a great place to relax and reflect.

I love my yard, loosely landscaped– some parts manicured, others untamed. It’s a lot of work to maintain but I love working outside and getting my hands dirty. It gives me time to reflect on life and dream of the future as my mind unwinds all the knotted and pent up thoughts stored away from the stressful activities of everyday life.

This is a year of milestones. I turned 50 in December, Michael and I celebrate our 20th anniversary in September and my career is taking an unexpected turn that has yet to be determined.

At school, the colleagues I’d worked with for fourteen years all retired. Together, we’d built a musical program that I’m extremely proud of. For the past year though, it was hard to watch this beautiful thing come to an end. I just didn’t know how final it was for me. Now, all of us are gone and the future of the program is completely unknown. It’s a bittersweet ending to a very stressful but extremely rewarding chapter in my life.

Over the years, the musicals have taken us from back alleys to exotic lands. We conjured up hope and laughter, tears and sorrow– celebrating the joys of life and the difficult challenges of the human condition. Live theatre is like nothing else.

There were some years we knew exactly what musical we wanted to do next but more times than naught, it was an organic process that just felt right. This year, we did Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat — and perhaps not so coincidentally, it was the 30th anniversary (for me), directing it as my very first show in 1983.

From my 1983 production of Joseph.

From my 1983 production of Joseph.

The final number in the show, Any Dream Will Do, asks the question, “May I return to the beginning?” I got it– a milestone and the end of a collaboration. It was a time for reflection and of celebration.

This the 7th time I’d directed the show– each one, somewhat unique. I’ve never tried to duplicate a previous production but it has always been important to me that one element remain: the magic.

That 1983 production was magical. Nearly every person involved in that show went on to have, or had a career in the visual and performing arts. The right group of people brought together at the right time, in the right place can make magic and somehow we did. We were all novices then– unseasoned thespians full of passion and youth.

That was my beginning.

Joseph 1995

Joseph 1995

In 1995, I directed a production that was inspired by the Donny Osmond version that had become wildly popular. Every kid out there knew about Joseph, had seen it or been in it. This year was totally different. None of the students knew the show or were necessarily excited about doing it, so it was my challenge to bring that excitement to life.

After so many productions, you’d have thought this one would be easy. Yet, time and time again I found myself second guessing my choices and vision and tried to keep the overall focus, while allowing elements of the show to evolve naturally as rehearsals progressed. It was a true collaboration of thoughts and ideas that really made the show work for me. Being such an ensemble show, it was fun seeing the cast’s excitement build and all their hard work and determination pay off in the end.

Joseph 2013

Joseph 2013

Then it was over.

The show, a fourteen year collaboration of an amazing creative team –and as it turned out, the end of my time at Bartlett High School.

All bittersweet.

May I return to the beginning?

I’ve learned a lot over the years about the importance of reflection. Though I don’t feel like I live in the past or want to actually re-live the past, the lessons learned only move us forward. I’ve had the privilege to work with, and learn from, many wonderful people. Teachers, parents and most of all– the students, have inspired me and taught me in so many different ways.

Do I actually want to return to the beginning? No. It was a marvelous, wild ride while it lasted. I wouldn’t change a minute of it. Now it’s time to move on.

I think it’s a huge mistake to live in the past, yet there is so much to be learned from it. It’s nice to look back from time to time at where I’ve been. It often helps put today in perspective and helps guide my tomorrow.

I’m on my second pot of coffee now, the sun is coming up and sounds of distant trains and chirping birds is slowly being over taken by that of garbage trucks beeping and other people starting their day.

A new beginning.

Don’t Forget Me

I couldn’t feel more humbled or honored than I do right now from all the love and support that has been expressed in the few short hours since my announced departure from Bartlett High School. Reading all the wonderful words of support, the song Don’t Forget Me from the TV series SMASH is stuck in my head… Not because I’m afraid of being forgotten or have a selfish need to feel appreciated but because there is something to learn here.

In our lifetime, we meet so many people. The impact they have on us may be immediate or may take years to realize. We are who we are because of the people and experiences that make up our lives.

I sometimes feel like I have the gift of being able to see into people’s souls. I look in to the eyes of students and I see their potential for greatness. I know some will think I just mean talent but it’s much more than that. There’s nothing more exciting than talking to a student and then thinking, “This is our future. This person could change the world.” That’s what I see. Some may only see a stupid action or a mistake but I see heart, passion and hope. Sometimes I see frustration and the struggle to fit in. No one likes to see that– but then that’s where I have had the chance to try and make a difference. I’ve always thought, maybe by reaching out to them, their whole world will change. In the long run? I have been given back more than I have given, tenfold.

Watching students move on through their high school years and beyond, I sometimes feel like the Bette Midler character in the movie Stella— when she’s standing alone in the rain, watching the daughter she gave up, get married (through the window at Tavern on the Green. ) There’s a moment of sadness but then her face brightens with a brilliant smile knowing she did the right thing.

I have watched so many go on to start amazing lives. I rejoice in their successes and my heart breaks when they feel defeated. In both cases, I am now, the observer and I feel great joy that if even for a brief moment, our paths have crossed.

One of the most amazing experiences in life has been the realization that you can never predict where your source of inspiration or support will come from. I couldn’t have gotten through the past year as easily, had it not been for two high school friends that were there to cheer me on via the magic of Facebook. One, was really more of an acquaintance in school but has turned out to be a wonderful friend today. The other was someone who played a huge part in my discovery of who I was but we lost touch and only recently found each other again. In both cases, I never would have thought (back then) that their real purpose in my life was to be blossom into an amazing support network today. Both are beautiful strong women.

We are trained to be an emotionless society– especially in Education. We are told, Don’t get close to students and You can’t save them all, so don’t get involved. I say this is exactly the time TO get involved. I always felt I was at Bartlett, not so much for my creativity, as my chance to make a difference. I was able to do that. Maybe I didn’t impact the masses but I know I was able to help a few.

What did I do at Bartlett High School? I worked. More importantly, I helped students to not drop out of school by making them feel they belonged. I encouraged them to think outside the box and look outside themselves for answers. I recently had a former student tell me they were suicidal in school and that having a safe place to go and talking to me every day helped them to get through. That is what I did at Bartlett High School.

So when I say, don’t forget me… what I’m really saying is: I won’t forget you. I won’t stop caring and hoping and wishing that you find the perfect place for you to belong. I won’t stop praying for your dreams to come true or your lives to be filled with love and light.

When you land that big job, find love or have your first child… I’ll be there– Perhaps standing on the outside looking in. But I’ll be smiling.

You are loved. We are loved. Remember that. Don’t forget me.

GOODBYE, BARTLETT HIGH SCHOOL!

Goodbye, Bartlett High!

Last Exit.

Last Exit.

Today was my last day as AV Director & Auditorium Manager after thirteen years and ten months of service. I just found out late last week and have only told a couple people until now.

This was not my choice, the district stated that BHS wanted to move in a different direction with the present position. As a non-union employee, I always knew this could be a possibility.

That said, I’ll blog all about it at some future point in time. Let’s just say, the past five to six months have been utter hell for me. At least now I can move on.

I’ll miss working with the students and watching them grow and discover themselves most of all. I’ve made many friendships that I hope with continue to grow as time goes by.

For now, I wanted to share a few parting images that will forever remind me of BHS. Odd, little things that most people wouldn’t even notice.

Last look at the tech booth, stripped of all personality.

Last look at the tech booth, stripped of all personality.

This was written on the wall years ago. Not sure why but it always makes me smile.

This has been on the wall forever. Not sure why but it always makes me smile.

A lock someone attached to an auditorium seat years ago. I don't know how many times I thought about cutting it off.

A lock someone attached to an auditorium seat years ago. I don’t know how many times I thought about cutting it off.

For my 'boys' in the shop. You made my job on the musical easy the past couple of years.

For my ‘boys’ in the shop. You made my job on the musical easy the past few years.

This I won't miss. The ignorant vandalism of a few heartless students.

This I won’t miss… The ignorant vandalism of a few heartless students.

Keys no more. Carried this wad of keys for far too long.

Keys no more. I carried this wad of keys for far too long.

Every work day for nearly 14 years, this was the first and last image of BHS.

Every work day for nearly 14 years, this was the first and last image of BHS.