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Category Archives: Learnings

Body Ritual among the Nacirema

I still vividly remember the thrill of reading this anthropological study (originally written in 1956) for the first time back as a “mature” student at King’s. I’d re-searched for it before, wanting to read it again, and today found it!

Here you go:

Most cultures exhibit a particular configuration or style. A single value or pattern of perceiving the world often leaves its stamp on several institutions in the society. Examples are “machismo” in Spanish-influenced cultures, “face” in Japanese culture, and “pollution by females” in some highland New Guinea cultures. Here Horace Miner demonstrates that “attitudes about the body” have a pervasive influence on many institutions in Nacirema society.


The anthropologist has become so familiar with the diversity of ways in which different people behave in similar situations that he is not apt to be surprised by even the most exotic customs. In fact, if all of the logically possible combinations of behavior have not been found somewhere in the world, he is apt to suspect that they must be present in some yet undescribed tribe. The point has, in fact, been expressed with respect to clan organization by Murdock[1] . In this light, the magical beliefs and practices of the Nacirema present such unusual aspects that it seems desirable to describe them as an example of the extremes to which human behavior can go.

Professor Linton[2] first brought the ritual of the Nacirema to the attention of anthropologists twenty years ago, but the culture of this people is still very poorly understood. They are a North American group living in the territory between the Canadian Cree, the Yaqui and Tarahumare of Mexico, and the Carib and Arawak of the Antilles. Little is known of their origin, although tradition states that they came from the east. According to Nacirema mythology, their nation was originated by a culture hero, Notgnihsaw, who is otherwise known for two great feats of strength—the throwing of a piece of wampum across the river Pa-To-Mac and the chopping down of a cherry tree in which the Spirit of Truth resided.

Nacirema culture is characterized by a highly developed market economy which has evolved in a rich natural habitat. While much of the people’s time is devoted to economic pursuits, a large part of the fruits of these labors and a considerable portion of the day are spent in ritual activity. The focus of this activity is the human body, the appearance and health of which loom as a dominant concern in the ethos of the people. While such a concern is certainly not unusual, its ceremonial aspects and associated philosophy are unique.

The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease. Incarcerated in such a body, man’s only hope is to avert these characteristics through the use of ritual and ceremony. Every household has one or more shrines devoted to this purpose. The more powerful individuals in the society have several shrines in their houses and, in fact, the opulence of a house is often referred to in terms of the number of such ritual centers it possesses. Most houses are of wattle and daub construction, but the shrine rooms of the more wealthy are walled with stone. Poorer families imitate the rich by applying pottery plaques to their shrine walls.

While each family has at least one such shrine, the rituals associated with it are not family ceremonies but are private and secret. The rites are normally only discussed with children, and then only during the period when they are being initiated into these mysteries. I was able, however, to establish sufficient rapport with the natives to examine these shrines and to have the rituals described to me.

The focal point of the shrine is a box or chest which is built into the wall. In this chest are kept the many charms and magical potions without which no native believes he could live. These preparations are secured from a variety of specialized practitioners. The most powerful of these are the medicine men, whose assistance must be rewarded with substantial gifts. However, the medicine men do not provide the curative potions for their clients, but decide what the ingredients should be and then write them down in an ancient and secret language. This writing is understood only by the medicine men and by the herbalists who, for another gift, provide the required charm.

The charm is not disposed of after it has served its purpose, but is placed in the charmbox of the household shrine. As these magical materials are specific for certain ills, and the real or imagined maladies of the people are many, the charm-box is usually full to overflowing. The magical packets are so numerous that people forget what their purposes were and fear to use them again. While the natives are very vague on this point, we can only assume that the idea in retaining all the old magical materials is that their presence in the charm-box, before which the body rituals are conducted, will in some way protect the worshiper.

Beneath the charm-box is a small font. Each day every member of the family, in succession, enters the shrine room, bows his head before the charm-box, mingles different sorts of holy water in the font, and proceeds with a brief rite of ablution[3]. The holy waters are secured from the Water Temple of the community, where the priests conduct elaborate ceremonies to make the liquid ritually pure.

In the hierarchy of magical practitioners, and below the medicine men in prestige, are specialists whose designation is best translated as “holy-mouth-men.” The Nacirema have an almost pathological horror of and fascination with the mouth, the condition of which is believed to have a supernatural influence on all social relationships. Were it not for the rituals of the mouth, they believe that their teeth would fall out, their gums bleed, their jaws shrink, their friends desert them, and their lovers reject them. They also believe that a strong relationship exists between oral and moral characteristics. For example, there is a ritual ablution of the mouth for children which is supposed to improve their moral fiber.

The daily body ritual performed by everyone includes a mouth-rite. Despite the fact that these people are so punctilious[4] about care of the mouth, this rite involves a practice which strikes the uninitiated stranger as revolting. It was reported to me that the ritual consists of inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, and then moving the bundle in a highly formalized series of gestures[5].

In addition to the private mouth-rite, the people seek out a holy-mouth-man once or twice a year. These practitioners have an impressive set of paraphernalia, consisting of a variety of augers, awls, probes, and prods. The use of these items in the exorcism of the evils of the mouth involves almost unbelievable ritual torture of the client. The holy-mouth-man opens the client’s mouth and, using the above mentioned tools, enlarges any holes which decay may have created in the teeth. Magical materials are put into these holes. If there are no naturally occurring holes in the teeth, large sections of one or more teeth are gouged out so that the supernatural substance can be applied. In the client’s view, the purpose of these ministrations[6] is to arrest decay and to draw friends. The extremely sacred and traditional character of the rite is evident in the fact that the natives return to the holy-mouth-men year after year, despite the fact that their teeth continue to decay.

It is to be hoped that, when a thorough study of the Nacirema is made, there will be careful inquiry into the personality structure of these people. One has but to watch the gleam in the eye of a holy-mouth-man, as he jabs an awl into an exposed nerve, to suspect that a certain amount of sadism is involved. If this can be established, a very interesting pattern emerges, for most of the population shows definite masochistic tendencies. It was to these that Professor Linton referred in discussing a distinctive part of the daily body ritual which is performed only by men. This part of the rite includes scraping and lacerating the surface of the face with a sharp instrument. Special women’s rites are performed only four times during each lunar month, but what they lack in frequency is made up in barbarity. As part of this ceremony, women bake their heads in small ovens for about an hour. The theoretically interesting point is that what seems to be a preponderantly masochistic people have developed sadistic specialists.

The medicine men have an imposing temple, or latipso, in every community of any size. The more elaborate ceremonies required to treat very sick patients can only be performed at this temple. These ceremonies involve not only the thaumaturge[7] but a permanent group of vestal maidens who move sedately about the temple chambers in distinctive costume and headdress.

The latipso ceremonies are so harsh that it is phenomenal that a fair proportion of the really sick natives who enter the temple ever recover. Small children whose indoctrination is still incomplete have been known to resist attempts to take them to the temple because “that is where you go to die.” Despite this fact, sick adults are not only willing but eager to undergo the protracted ritual purification, if they can afford to do so. No matter how ill the supplicant or how grave the emergency, the guardians of many temples will not admit a client if he cannot give a rich gift to the custodian. Even after one has gained and survived the ceremonies, the guardians will not permit the neophyte to leave until he makes still another gift.

The supplicant entering the temple is first stripped of all his or her clothes. In everyday life the Nacirema avoids exposure of his body and its natural functions. Bathing and excretory acts are performed only in the secrecy of the household shrine, where they are ritualized as part of the body-rites. Psychological shock results from the fact that body secrecy is suddenly lost upon entry into the latipso. A man, whose own wife has never seen him in an excretory act, suddenly finds himself naked and assisted by a vestal maiden while he performs his natural functions into a sacred vessel. This sort of ceremonial treatment is necessitated by the fact that the excreta are used by a diviner to ascertain the course and nature of the client’s sickness. Female clients, on the other hand, find their naked bodies are subjected to the scrutiny, manipulation and prodding of the medicine men.

Few supplicants in the temple are well enough to do anything but lie on their hard beds. The daily ceremonies, like the rites of the holy-mouth-men, involve discomfort and torture. With ritual precision, the vestals awaken their miserable charges each dawn and roll them about on their beds of pain while performing ablutions, in the formal movements of which the maidens are highly trained. At other times they insert magic wands in the supplicant’s mouth or force him to eat substances which are supposed to be healing. From time to time the medicine men come to their clients and jab magically treated needles into their flesh. The fact that these temple ceremonies may not cure, and may even kill the neophyte, in no way decreases the people’s faith in the medicine men.

There remains one other kind of practitioner, known as a “listener.” This witchdoctor has the power to exorcise the devils that lodge in the heads of people who have been bewitched. The Nacirema believe that parents bewitch their own children. Mothers are particularly suspected of putting a curse on children while teaching them the secret body rituals. The counter-magic of the witchdoctor is unusual in its lack of ritual. The patient simply tells the “listener” all his troubles and fears, beginning with the earliest difficulties he can remember. The memory displayed by the Nacirema in these exorcism sessions is truly remarkable. It is not uncommon for the patient to bemoan the rejection he felt upon being weaned as a babe, and a few individuals even see their troubles going back to the traumatic effects of their own birth.

In conclusion, mention must be made of certain practices which have their base in native esthetics but which depend upon the pervasive aversion to the natural body and its functions. There are ritual fasts to make fat people thin and ceremonial feasts to make thin people fat. Still other rites are used to make women’s breasts larger if they are small, and smaller if they are large. General dissatisfaction with breast shape is symbolized in the fact that the ideal form is virtually outside the range of human variation. A few women afflicted with almost inhuman hyper-mammary development are so idolized that they make a handsome living by simply going from village to village and permitting the natives to stare at them for a fee.

Reference has already been made to the fact that excretory functions are ritualized, routinized, and relegated to secrecy. Natural reproductive functions are similarly distorted. Intercourse is taboo as a topic and scheduled as an act. Efforts are made to avoid pregnancy by the use of magical materials or by limiting intercourse to certain phases of the moon. Conception is actually very infrequent. When pregnant, women dress so as to hide their condition. Parturition takes place in secret, without friends or relatives to assist, and the majority of women do not nurse their infants.

Our review of the ritual life of the Nacirema has certainly shown them to be a magic-ridden people. It is hard to understand how they have managed to exist so long under the burdens which they have imposed upon themselves. But even such exotic customs as these take on real meaning when they are viewed with the insight provided by Malinowski[8] when he wrote:

Looking from far and above, from our high places of safety in the developed civilization, it is easy to see all the crudity and irrelevance of magic. But without its power and guidance early man could not have mastered his practical difficulties as he has done, nor could man have advanced to the higher stages of civilization.[9]

[edit] Footnotes are added by Dowell as modified by Chase

  1. Murdock, George P. 1949. Social Structure. NY: The Macmillan Co., page 71. George Peter Murdock (1897-1996 [?]) is a famous ethnographer.
  2. Linton, Ralph. 1936. The Study of Man. NY: D. Appleton-Century Co. page 326. Ralph Linton (1893-1953) is best known for studies of enculturation (maintaining that all culture is learned rather than inherited; the process by which a society’s culture is transmitted from one generation to the next), claiming culture is humanity’s “social heredity.”
  3. A washing or cleansing of the body or a part of the body. From the Latin abluere, to wash away
  4. Marked by precise observance of the finer points of etiquette and formal conduct.
  5. It is worthy of note that since Prof. Miner’s original research was conducted, the Nacirema have almost universally abandoned the natural bristles of their private mouth-rite in favor of oil-based polymerized synthetics. Additionally, the powders associated with this ritual have generally been semi-liquefied. Other updates to the Nacirema culture shall be eschewed in this document for the sake of parsimony.
  6. Tending to religious or other important functions
  7. A miracle-worker.
  8. Malinowski, Bronislaw. Magic, Science, and Religion. Glencoe: The Free Press, page 70. Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) is a famous cultural anthropologist best known for his argument that people everywhere share common biological and psychological needs and that the function of all cultural institutions is to fulfill such needs; the nature of the institution is determined by its function.
  9. Did you get it?

From: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Body_Ritual_among_the_Nacirema

In many ways it is now my job to come into supposedly “familiar” cultures and make the same kinds of observations. What is “normal” to the churches I serve can be reflected back to them in a similar way.

 
 

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Something got me thinking (again)

The writings of Lesslie Newbigin – when I encountered them at Seminary in the early 90’s – were, like the talks I’d heard by Tony Campolo in the late 80’s, something that resonated harmoniously in my inner being. They harmonized confusing notes that were bouncing around there. When Brian McLaren first started publishing, I read almost everything he wrote up to about the year 2002, and his questions and provocations too resonated with some of mine. But I saw also that to run with his thinking would be dangerous. So, due to that awareness and a number of other things, I stopped reading him.

Saturday, browsing the qideas website in a time of work avoidance (or, to say it justifyingly: Waiting for my sermon to ripen in my brain before writing it out) I took in two things in sequence, and saw a strong connection.

First, I read a great article by Micheal Goheen on Newbegin:

http://www.qideas.org/blog/the-lasting-legacy-of-lesslie-newbigin.aspx

in which he wrote:

the mission of God’s people is undermined when it is compromised by cultural idolatry. Newbigin believed that this is exactly what happened to the Western church; it is an “advanced case of syncretism.” A missionary encounter requires that the church embody its comprehensive story over against the cultural story. This encounter is eclipsed when the church allows its story to be accommodated into the cultural story. Thus, it is necessary to analyze Western culture and understand its religious foundation.

Newbigin wrote that “incomparably the most urgent missionary task for the next few decades is . . . to probe behind the unquestioned assumptions of modernity and uncover the hidden credo which supports them.” He quotes a Chinese proverb: “If you want to know about water don’t ask a fish.” Western Christians are unaware of the religious beliefs of their culture because they are swimming in it all the time. They are too easily seduced by the myths of a Christian culture or of a neutral secular or pluralistic culture. Western culture, however, is neither Christian nor neutral—it is shaped by a false religious credo.

And then I watched this video of Brian McLaren being asked some tough direct questions and struggling to explain that he’s trying to examine the (Greco-Roman)”Christianity from outside of it’s regular paradigm and so has difficulty answering questions that come from within that paradigm. And I thought: He’s doing what Newbigin said. He’s trying to step out of the water of G-R Christianity (I enjoy the fact that the initials are going to bring something else to mind) and is trying to swim in a Jesus stream instead.

http://www.qideas.org/video/conversations-on-being-a-heretic.aspx

I have some sympathy and admiration for him doing that. I think it is essential that we have people willing and able to do that in Christendom.

 

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Reflections on being delayed.

I was recently asked to reflect on what I’m learning from the experience of being delayed from crossing the border by the same people (CRC Network) who asked me to tell the story of the delay so others could be warned (This is the same information as in the blog post previous to this one). I won’t reprint the whole thing here, but simply give you a link.

 

R-1 (US non-immigrant Religious Worker) Visa Delay for Canadians.

I’m a Canadian CRC pastor transitioning into becoming a Specialized Transitional Minister (STM) who has accepted an invitation to cross the border to serve a church in Iowa. The crossing-the-border part of that has not gone well, so I am currently in limbo, having been refused entry to the US as a Canadian because my R-1 Visa was not complete at the time I tried to cross. This left me homeless and unemployed for, at the time of writing, almost 2 months already. Anyone planning to make a similar crossing will benefit from knowing the difficulty and delays the church and I have encountered. Sharing the story here, it is my hope to prevent others from experiencing the same disappointing delays.

Since I previously had an R-1 in 2007 when I worked as an Interim Pastor in Washington State for 6 months, I thought I had a good idea what was going to be expected to get a new one. But I later learned that in late fall 2010 the process was changed to become more complicated and require more detailed application filing and information about both the person wanting to come in, but also from the church applying to have a Canadian come work with them. The biggest change though is in the time it takes to process the application.

If what you have read so far feels like it may be relevant for you or someone you know, then you will be interested in reading a full account of the most pertinent steps and details here below. I will likely also create a separate, more personalized and reflective blog posting about the experience of such a delay.

Late in the fall of 2010, living in the Nanaimo area of Vancouver Island, I began conversing with a church in Iowa about coming to serve there as an STM. In January 2011 I visited there, and by March 2 had accepted their invitation to come. I found a website guide to the process of getting the requisite R-1 (Religious worker) Visa,* purchased the forms, sent the church their copy and we began the process of applying.

* I should note that I later realized this was not an official government site. I don’t think it had bearing on what we encountered, but it is worth knowing. I don’t recall ever finding an official government site from which to obtain the forms and a process guide. If someone knows one, it would be good to provide a link to it via a comment.

I’d had an R-1 in 2007 so I had some vague idea what we did then to get it, mainly getting some official letters and presenting them at the US border as I crossed, where an R-1 card was stapled into my passport. This website showed a somewhat more involved process, as the requirements had been changed late in 2010. By mid-March I had the parts of the application (I-129) that related to me done (one of the specific details you need to track down is exactly how your parents’ names are printed on their passports! So it can take some time to gather it all), and by March 28 the government offices in California had received the more than a dozen page completed application (I -129) from the congregation along with it’s numerous supporting documents.

Along the way of completing this process, we ran into both vague information and information that appeared to be wrong, though we only realize that in hindsight. The vagueness came from there being very little information – or varying information – as to how long the steps of the process would take and exactly what steps were required. The wrong information was in things like the documents indicating I had to make an appointment with the nearest US Embassy once all applications were in, so that the process could be finalized in an interview. When I tried to set up the appointment with the nearest US Embassy in Canada, both online and through the automated calling system, I was told that the R-1 Visa did not call for an in-person interview. However, it did not tell me what was needed. Here is a screen capture of the page I was led to from the US Embassy site in Vancouver on March 29, 2011:

I found a way to phone the Embassy and speak to a person, and was told to take my documents and present them at the border. The man I spoke to reviewed with me the list of required documents. I had all those documents already. I do recall him mentioning a “government packet of information” I should be receiving related to the church’s application, but not that it was an important part of what I needed. Wanting to verify doubly, I called the folks at the border (US Customs and Border Protection) and the lady I spoke to verified that what I had in hand was enough to cross.

So, believing all was good to go, I packed a U-Haul and left my home April 9th. But when I got to the border south of Lethbridge Alberta around mid April I was denied entry to the US because the church’s application needs to be approved before I cross and I need to have the resulting document, called an I-797 proving that when I cross. One shock had already come when I was underway. In that time we got access to an “application tracking” website, and were astonished to see that they projected it would take 2 months for the application received March 28th to be processed!Below is a screen capture of the top part of the tracking page. I’ve created an empty block to cover our receipt number (we don’t need a whole continent of CRCers checking it). I do not have a capture of when it showed a 2 month wait on the bottom half.

The result was that I was now homeless and incomeless, with no idea exact idea how long it would take to finalize this process, but knowing it was now likely to be another month and a half of waiting at the veryleast.
As I write this, I’ve been in this holding pattern for a month and a half already. Meanwhile, I noticed a change in the tracking site information to
worse news sometime in mid-May when it began to look like this:

Our application is at the California Service Center, and where it had shown a time expectation of 2 months, it was now showing 5!

We don’t know exactly how to interpret this. It is debatable if it means our application is now expected to take 5 months to process from the March 28th receipt date or if it means applications that came in after March 31, 2011 can expect 5 months, but ours still is under the 2 it used to show. It is hard to assess how long we have yet to wait.

I have family near where I got turned back, so I became the homeless, unemployed boomerang Dad-with-dog on my son’s couch for a time, and also at my brother’s place.

Fortunately and providentially, right now, I have found a couple of pastorless churches to do some preaching at that should keep me busy serving the Kingdom and the CRC and being useful in some small capacity until sometime into June and possibly July if it takes that long.

After encountering several different anecdotal accounts of similar trials – it seems lots of people have heard of a pastor who this kind of thing has happened to – I feel a strong need to get the word out about my delay so that others can be better informed than I was and can avoid such problems. If even one person can avoid this problem because they read my story here on the Network, it will have been worthwhile to share it.

If anyone reading this has either a similar experience or has some better information or advice, your input via comments will be appreciated by anyone investigating such a move from Canada to the US.

Pastor Pete VanderBeek, June 6, 2011 — Currently biding God’s and the US government’s and his time in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.


 

George Holecz and God

There are stories nestled within stories here. I mainly feel compelled to tell the story of a man named George Holecz who I came to know briefly and somewhat indirectly.
George’s story unfolds within a context of a group of men who were a big part of my journey and that group of men — self-described and nicknamed as “Zealous for the Word” existed in a context of a church in Nanaimo BC.
I can see no way of sharing George’s story without telling about the context, since God used the context to create the story.
If you can visualize a story as an egg, Christ Community Church (CCC) in Nanaimo is the shell, the men’s group is the egg white, and George’s story is the yolk in the center.
I like to use yolk, because it can easily sound like joke (especially coming off the tongues of folks with Dutch accents). And there is a good measure of God’s joke here — God’s playful sense of humour. George mirrored some of that playful sense in his character. The outer context loop or shell is a story that shows me that in the Kingdom of God “what goes around comes around” or “you never know where an obedient, faith-driven action will lead.” George’s journey came into that shell and if you know a bit about how God sometimes works these loop stories, it makes sense there and brings glory to God even more because of the context. One central narrative line is how George went from recipient in the story, to participant and contributor, but the most striking one to me is how he has gone from being perpetually homeless-by-choice to going to his eternal-chosen-home. I hope I’ve not given it all away in this brief description and that you will still enjoy a tale of how God can work to bring people home.

Either of these links should take to you to the story: or else just click on the underlined text here:

http://wp.me/P4R5s-6o

https://pastorpete.wordpress.com/lifelessons/homeless-by-choice-george-holecz-and-his-journey-home/

 

I just wanted to… and it became a faith conversation!!! Argh!!!

One of the things I think God has been showing me over many years is that opportunities for what we call outreach or evangelism present themselves all the time – at least that is the case for me – but they are often inconvenient, and you have to learn to recognize them.

I have a string of stories of my experiences that point in that direction. In most of them I was just trying to do something ordinary: help a customer out, buy a vehicle, have it serviced, buy a Ferry ticket, watch a Hockey game in a bar, and hire a dog trainer. In each of these situations, some going back to the 1980’s, I was just “being me” or “doing my job” and a  faith or spirituality conversation intruded into what I was trying to do. I need to admit that these are only the ones I remember, and that with most of these I was kind of annoyed, saying to God under my breath “I just wanted to… why is this intruding?” Preaching, in my experience, is sooooo much safer than such conversations, because I get confronted with questions from perspectives I’m not used to encountering. I am educated and equipped to address dangers of slight variations of nuances near or within the Theological perspective I was raised in, but these people ask things that are hard.

So this post is my going public with my intent to compile these stories. If I don’t do so in the next few weeks and months, feel free to hold me accountable to this commitment. As I complete the stories, I will go back an link it to it’s listing above, so eventually all the stories will be findable from this post.

Well, back to packing.

Pastor Pete

 

I am not good at not wielding power!

I currently feed myself by being the caretaker in a summer Camp run by a church. I was the chaplain last summer and am biding my time until that role kicks in for 2010 again.

Recently, delegated regional leaders from the various congregations met and decided to put the Camp up for sale, hoping they can find a buyer who will commit to protecting the increasingly rare environmental treasure the camp is, and who will let Christian camp ministry continue. If both are accomplished there is no doubt God will have had to be active.

I was witness to this process as an employee. I was not an active delegate, not an appointed clergy person, I was merely an employee of the camp witnessing others undertaking the process of making a choice. It was agony! Being powerless to the point even of being voiceless pushed many of my buried inner buttons. And in that there was a lot of hard learning for me.

I need to admit that I failed to remain powerless. I “used” my knowledge with words and process and cashed in on my awareness that I had some respect – some ‘trust equity’ in the room – to finagle a chance to address the decision making body. So I failed to accept my powerlessness and clutched and grabbed for power anyway. I largely knew what I was doing. I didn’t strategize to accomplish it, but when little opportunities presented themselves, I instinctively leveraged them, I pried them bigger, so I could have a voice and feel empowered. Others did not have the opportunity. They were kept powerless. How frustrating that must be.

I didn’t know until this series of events how much I need to have power and voice. Alternatively also, I became freshly aware how much as a clergy person I was used having extra power and was accustomed to ‘managing’ such processes. In the past I “presumed” it was my responsibility to maneuver every step of things in a certain direction. If I were up on the podium, I would believe I was “doing my job” in that manipulation. So I was not angry so much at the leaders. I was astounded at how it felt to be on the receiving end of that kind of treatment, and astonished at how badly I needed to be the one dishing it out rather than receiving it. I don’t believe these words I’m typing can adequately share how frightening that is and how afraid of my sick need for power makes me. It does.

 

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