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Ray Carney's Mailbag -- This section of the site contains letters written to Prof. Carney by students and artists, announcements of news, events, and screenings, and miscellaneous observations about life and art by Ray Carney. Letters and notices submitted by readers are in black. Prof. Carney's responses, observations, and recommendations are in blue. Note that Prof. Carney receives many more letters and announcements than he can possibly include on the site. The material on these pages has been selected as being that which will be the most interesting, inspiring, useful, or informative to site readers. Click on the first page (via the links at the top or bottom of the page) to read an explanation of this material, why it is being posted, and how this relatively small selection was made from among the tens of thousands of messages Prof. Carney has received.

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Ray Carney wants to mention a new web site/blog created by a friend, Sophia Kornienko, who has worked as a reporter for Radio Free Europe and Wereldomroep/ Radio Netherlands. He recommends it to his readers:

Subject: ken loach and abbas kiarostami movie

hi ray,

this is david in los angeles. hope all is well in boston. how goes everything at BU? the fall semester is winding down, i presume?

just wanted to know if you've heard of tickets. i read this article about the UK DVD release. it sounds fantastic. three of the best filmmakers alive today.

also, i recently saw a movie called sleeping dogs lie. it's about a woman who has to confess to her fiancee that she engaged in sex with her dog in college. even though the premise is vulgar and far-fetched, the film is an extremely well-acted and well-written piece. a bawdy, strange human comedy. i highly recommend it. i was really moved by the performance of the lead actress. in a way, it's the flip side of the puffy chair (a film that i'm still conflicted over).

anyway, keep in touch - take care and well wishes,

david chien.

Subject: Questions on the soul of physics

Hello Mr. Carney,

I know that you are terribly busy and I apologize for adding to it with this question. Do you have more information on the following? (Or can you direct me to where I may find more information?)

Running across your fine mailbag of info, I ran across something you wrote on Mailbag page 43 :

"Another secret -- Did you know that in a few years the existence of the soul will be scientifically proved? Scientifically. In physics terms. Equations and all that. And that the surprise, to some people at least, will be that the soul is not inside us where all the great religions place it, but just a hairbreadth above our skins, outside us as a spin layer of electrons in quantum superposition. And that it survives our death.

But we must build it by giving a personal identity to it. We must change the spin of those electrons to put our personal imprint on them, to create our personal taste, our ontological flavor. That's what makes it our soul and not someone else's. In other words, we are not born with spiritual identities (souls) ready made. We make them, gradually throughout our lives, by working on and with our consciousnesses."

This is fascinating. I have been searching through my life and art for some spiritual answers, unfortunately it is -- perhaps by necessity -- a rough and dangerous. (That may sound trite but I am sure you know what I mean.) Sometimes the search -- thru various times in my life -- threatens to break me. Any information you can share would be appreciated.

Your fan,

Jack Florek
New Jersey

RC replies:

Jack, Thanks. I've had a large number of inquiries about this passage. Sure grabbed people's attention. I have to think about whether or how I can explain why I know this. I'm not sure what I dare put on the site. See how stupid--or fatuous--that sounds? That's part of why I want to be careful. Why I have to be. (As you may have gleaned from other parts of the site, I have had some protests from my bosses about what is on these pages, and threats have been issued about removing material or taking down the site, so that is part of the problem; but in this particular case, my concerns about revealing the sources and saying more about what you are asking about go far far beyond that, and I am just not sure what I can say or not say in public. When I was writing the response to Darren's letter the detail I posted more or less just slipped out since it seemed relevant to his situation. But trust me, there is a lot more to say. A lot.)

But as a partial, and somewhat guarded response, I can tell you that I completely stand by the statement I made to Darren. As I say, I could tell you quite a few other things that contemporary science and "intelligent, educated" society do not admit as being possible but that will be discovered and proved true at some point in the future. Many equally exciting insights. But the details matter less than the larger, more important point: We must not take our truths, our understandings from our (historically limited) culture or from any pre-existing structures of knowledge (including but not confined to current physics, which is as limited in its methods and insights as the pre-Newtonian science of the 17th century was for its own era). To do so is to be a fashion slave. To be trapped by others' limited understandings. The physicists would convince us that science is about to close up shop--that they are closing in on all of the final answers, and will be there in a decade or two, with just a few more details to work out here and there, blah, blah, blah. Well, it just ain't true. It's classic hubris. Take my word for it: There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their philosophies. And truths about the soul and a heck of a lot of other things are among them.

I'll give some thought to saying more about this (and possibly posting more on the site) on a later date.

Keep thinking for yourself!


P.S. FYI: A sound scientific book to read about the hubrisistic side of contemporary physics is: Robert B. Laughlin, A Different Universe: Re-Inventing Physics from the Bottom Down (Basic Books, 2005). But, not to disappoint you, Laughlin says nothing about the things I am alluding to: the soul, God, heaven, the possibility of superluminal movement (faster than light travel, yes, up to a million times faster), and many other issues. He only briefly and cursorily alludes to the existence of a subquantum realm where neither the laws of quantum mechanics nor the theorems of general relativity ordain and even more tangentially hints at the possibility of currently unknown forms of quantum entanglement, which will become of critical importance to the physics of the future. These discoveries will bring much of what is now called the "metaphysical realm" --a misnomer of course -- into the realm of practical, common-sense, physical science. But Laughlin's book does understand the limitations of current science and the smugness of most of its practitioners. He correctly calls the two "final" discoveries of twentieth-century physics--Einsteinian relativistic space and quantum measurement probabilities--"emergent" phenomena (correctly calling the vacuum of space itself an emergent phenomenon of deeper systems of connectedness), and points out the troubling logical fallacies most current theorization is premised upon. His book is a good, sound, scientific corrective to the fatuousness and arrogance of contemporary string theorists and others (all the foolish J. Richard Gotts and Steven Weinbergs who clog the science columns of the New York Times).

Dear Professor Carney:

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I ‘m going to speak straight from the heart: your words are a constant source of inspiration to me. When I read the postings on your website or revisit Cassavetes on Cassavetes for the umpteenth time, it’s like a jolt to my soul – I immediately want to go out and live, create, love…., go crazy! Please keep following your muse because you’ve improved my life in ways I’m probably not aware of yet. Without your recommendations, I wouldn’t have gone to the ballet (an all–Balanchine program) or read Henry James’s late work. I could go on and on with examples like these.

Consequently, I seek your sagely wisdom and pose to you a personal query. I realize you are a very busy man, so please don’t feel obligated to respond. However, if you do have a free moment, I would greatly appreciate any advice you can impart upon me.

In May 2005, I graduated from NYU film school disillusioned, and moved back to suburban Chicago to live with my family. Since then I have been substitute–teaching elementary school to pay the bills. I’m 23 years old and have an unquenchable desire to create, mostly through writing (scripts, stories, poetry). But none of this work seems to have any value, in my opinion or others. Is it enough to want to be an artist, or is talent prerequisite to create? How does one know if they have “what it takes”?

Along those lines, do you have any advice on how I can develop myself both as a person and an artist? From your experience, are there any jobs that are better suited to foster such growth? Naturally, I want to travel the world – see places and meet people and love life to the hilt. Is this an impossible dream? What would you do if you were in my place?

I apologize if my questions come off as being pitiable. I love life passionately and feel things so intensely, yet I know hat I can do more and want to contribute something meaningful to the world.

You often say, “Keep going. It matters.” I want you to know that what you are doing truly matters to me and “has made all the difference.” I sincerely hope things get better with your teaching situation and look forward to your response.

Very truly yours,

Brian VandenBos

Ray Carney replies:

Dear Brian,

Forgive the delay in responding to your kind, thoughtful letter. I just worked my way to it and read it tonight. But maybe it was destiny that delayed my response. Just two nights ago I had almost the identical conversation with a student of mine who graduated the same month you did, who is more or less in the same situation. She and I were having coffee and spent a couple hours hashing over (and laughing about) those “What’s it all about?” “What is life for?” “Is there life after college?” and “What are you supposed to do after you graduate?” questions. By sheerest coincidence (since I hadn’t read your letter at that point) I told her almost exactly the
same things as you say about yourself in your letter: I told her that I am always hearing in the media, seeing in movies, or being told by other adults that the problem with the world is that people are greedy, or self–centered, or selfish, but that everything I felt about my own life and the life of almost everyone else I know told me that the problem was just the opposite: that most people want to give a gift to the world but the only problem was they don’t know how to give it, where to leave it, who to give it to – or the world didn’t seem to want it. The problem, in other words, wasn’t people’s selfishness or ambition or greed so much as finding some way to give their gifts. If I understand your letter, that’s what you’re saying, what you’re asking about – how to do it.

Of course, I have to start by saying that it’s almost impossible to answer your question without knowing you or without us spending time together talking and doing things; but, for what it is worth (maybe not much), let me take a stab at summarizing a few things I’ve learned in the course of my life – most of which or all of which you probably already know (but then sometimes we just need to be reminded).

First: life is long. At age 23 you are impatient for results this week, this month, this year. That’s natural. That’s even good. It’s what gets you going every day. But there is a lot of time to give your gifts to the world. Don’t be hard on yourself if you didn’t do everything you wanted to in the past year or the past month. Good things take time. Life will give you lots of opportunities, if you are willing to take them. You will change your mind dozen of times in the next few years about what you want to do. That’s fine. Let the changes occur. Don’t get panicky and think you have to make all the right moves, all the right decisions today. Locking yourself into a plan, putting yourself into a concrete mold for the next hundred years would be a mistake. Stay open to possibility. Change your mind a lot. That’s all great. (Read one of my interviews about how often I changed my mind about what I wanted to do “when I grew up” – and how often I still continue to! – if you need reassurance. Click here to go to one of them.) Not knowing, not being sure, is fine. Don’t beat yourself up. It’s the path of growth. Fixity is death. Being too sure, locking yourself into something too early would actually be a worse problem.

Second: Don’t feel you have to “shoot for the moon” to feel that you are doing something that matters. You don’t have to begin writing the great American novel next week; you don’t have to be planning to make a cinematic masterpiece next year to be doing something creative and important. Reading a complex, demanding novel or short story (since you mention his work, something like Henry James’s Washington Square, The Sacred Fount, “The Velvet Glove,” or “The Beast in the Jungle”) and really thinking, thinking, thinking about it as you read it, taking notes in the margins or on a tablet is a major creative activity. Listening to a Mozart piano concerto or late symphony over and over again and following it note–by–note, phrase–by–phrase, harmonic shift–after–harmonic shift, really staying in the music, not daydreaming or free–associating or allowing ideas of any sort to get between you and the sounds is a great creative event. So are keeping a diary of your impressions, taking notes about people you meet, writing poems and short stories, putting on scenes from Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard or Uncle Vanya with friends in your basement rec room. If you are doing these sorts of things (and there are a zillion others), you ARE ALREADY leading a creative life.

Third: Never forget that creativity is not limited to the arts. A mother playing with her children, a teacher working with students, a scientist trying to solve a difficult problem, a grocery store manager who finds better ways to stock the most interesting and healthful produce, a lover who prepares a wonderful meal or plans an exciting event for his or her beloved are all being supremely creative. As creative as any artist who ever lived. They are giving their gifts in those ways. They are expressing their hopeful, optimistic visions of ways to improve and enrich life in those ways. Creativity does not have to be verbal or visual. It does not necessarily involve spectators. We can live our creativity. That’s just as good a way of expressing it as making a work of art. Maybe better. Every time we act freely and bravely and lovingly, we are being supremely creative. We can give the same gift that art gives in every gesture and action and facial expression of our lives, every time we talk to someone, every time we smile or laugh, every minute of every day.

Fourth, none of these things are, or should be, done for the sake of getting something back from someone else – financial rewards or praise or approval or love – or whatever. The world is a tough taskmaster. It can be damn stupid. It can be pretty imperceptive at times. Half of the time you will offer it your gifts (of love and creativity and originality and freedom), it won’t understand or appreciate the offering. Heck, half the time it won’t even realize that you are offering anything! And some of the time, it will be downright cruel or heartless in its responses. I don’t know what you mean when you say “none of this work seems to have any value.” Seems to me, it depends on how you define “value.” Does what you are doing build your soul? Does it make you see and feel new things? Does it make you laugh or cry? Does it stimulate you to think about your life in a different way? What other “value” do you want? Money? Fame? Power? We know those aren’t important. We only have to watch television or read the newspaper for two minutes to see how depraved, how shallow, how limited people who believe in the importance of those things are. I know you can’t mean that. I know you understand that. I was reading a collection of Mother Teresa’s speeches the other night, a skinny paperback called My Life for the Poor: Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Over and over again, she says things like we must give until it hurts, or love always hurts, and if it does not hurt it is not real love, not really truly pure until it is painful. And my first impulse was to argue with her and say no, no, no: Love is a joy. Love is a dream. Love can’t hurt. It can’t be love if it pains us. But then I thought for a while about what she was saying and realized it’s more or less the same thing I am telling you. We can’t do the most important things for rewards, for approval, for positive feedback, to get something from someone, to get somewhere else by means of them. We have to do them for themselves, as ends in themselves. As I told the student I had coffee with, we have to give our gifts, we have to keep giving love, for the good of our own hearts and souls, even if the love is not reciprocated or appreciated or understood. We’re not doing it to get something out of it. That’s what Mother Teresa meant.

As far as having or not having “what it takes,” that will take care of itself. If you cannot give one kind of gift, you’ll find a way to give another. If you get bored giving one kind of gift, you’ll start giving another. The only way not to have “what it takes” (I mean not to have what it takes to give your gifts to the world) would be to enslave yourself to an immoral, selfish, emotionally stunted value system. Our culture tries to buy people’s souls in lots of different but equally immoral ways. It offers financial rewards for becoming part of lots of different, corrupt value systems that must be avoided at all costs. You already know what they are: value systems premised on the desire to make money and the need to be popular; systems of business values that put financial profit ahead of doing good things; systems that are centered on making money rather than creating genuinely valuable products and helpful services; systems that inadvertently and casually hurt or exploit others (or hurt or exploit the environment); systems that manipulate people by creating false fears, unnecessary needs, and other delusive emotions. As you probably know, in the past I’ve written or talked extensively about those subjects (If you need reminders, click here and here and here to read a few relevant statements about the massive misallocation of material and human resources that the profit-motive results in. Click here and here to read statements about some of the forms of emotional distortion and fraudulence our political and business culture promotes.) But, since I assume you understand the value of "truth-telling" in art, I hope you already see the importance of devoting your creative energies to creating genuinely valuable services and products in life. I assume you see beyond the preceding forms of imaginative and emotional enslavement and imprisonment. Every sentence of your letter shows me you already know that.

But let me conclude with an important point. When we are not sure where we are going, or what way to head, the only real mistake we can make is to stand still in puzzlement. If you are lost in a jungle, the only way to beat a path out is to start beating a path out – in any direction. To torment yourself with doubts and fears so much that you don’t move forward will only mean that you continue to remain lost and tormented with doubts and fears. Translation: The crucial thing in life is not to stand back and hope and dream and plan “to be an artist someday” – but to plunge
in and do something, anything every hour and every day and every year. What you do is less important than the fact that you start doing it. As the preceding paragraphs imply, you can find outlets for your creativity in many, many different ways: in your teaching, in your friendships, in your reading and writing and thinking on your own, in many different jobs. It doesn’t matter what the particular job is (as long it doesn’t require you to sell your soul, your imaginative freedom, your creativity in the way that I describe in the preceding paragraph). Don’t do those jobs. Leave them to others. Find a job that you can throw yourself into body and soul every day and express yourself in: maybe it will be full–time teaching (and that would require some college courses to get certified), maybe it will be through filmmaking or explicitly artistic work, maybe it will be by getting another kind of job in another field. But, again, it doesn’t matter what the particular job is. The key point is not to “stay at home” and brood or worry, not to withdraw into dreams or hopes, not to endlessly defer the plunge into life – not to “stand still in the jungle.” Find a job and see if it allows you to be creative. See if it can satisfy you. If it doesn’t (or if it is immoral in the “business values” ways I have described in the other paragraph) quit it, and find another, and another, and another, if you need to. Follow your inclinations. Keep up the reading and thinking and writing and filmmaking (if you are able to do this last) at the same time. You can be creative in many different ways at the same time. Doing one thing doesn’t mean that you have to stop doing other things. Keep giving your gifts, as best you can, expressing your creativity in every minute of your life. Don’t compromise on that. To repeat: I’m not saying just to do anything at all. Don’t let yourself be ground down in the mill of the ordinary. Don’t do something that requires you just to “fit in.” Don’t do anything that forces you just to become a mindless wage–slave. Find something, anything that will allow your creativity to be expressed. And the rest will take care of itself. Life has a way of sorting itself out, if you stay strong and brave as you move through it and don’t compromise your core values. I can tell from your letter that that won’t be a problem.

Sorry for the sermon. And sorry for the length. All best wishes,

Ray Carney

Subject: Robert Altman

My piece "Cavell, Altman, Cassavetes" appeared in the most recent issue of Film International, and now they've put it on their website as their tribute to Altman (don't know how long it will be there). Have a look!

All best,

Charles Warren

A note from Ray Carney:

One of my current writing projects involves "the problem of genius"--What is it? How do we know it when we see or hear it? How does it come about? What does it do? How does the world respond to it?

In my research I came across the following quote and wanted to share it with my readers. There is a lot to think about in it:

The teenage pianist Ignatz Moscheles was told, in 1804, of a young composer who had just arrived in Vienna, who "wrote the oddest stuff you ever saw, music that no one could play or understand. Crazy music. Insane music. That violated all the rules of composition. And that this composer's name was Beethoven." Moscheles went to the bookstore "to satisfy my curiosity about this so called wild man. I found there a copy of score of the Pathetique Sonata but I didn't have enough money to buy it, so I secretly went back every day for the next week and copied it down. The style was so unusual and I became so excited by it that in my admiration I forgot to tell my teacher when I played it for him. When I did he warned me about such strange stuff until I had learned the correct, approved pieces and based my style upon established methods. I ignored him of course and seized upon Beethoven's piano works as they appeared in the stores, and found in them a solace and delight such as no composer before him had afforded me.'"


Short response to your questions re: genius. Can't resist a few quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

"A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam that flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his own thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a sort of alienated majesty."

"Universities are of course hostile to geniuses, which seeing and using ways of their own, discredit the routine: as churches and monasteries persecute youthful saints."

"Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat: up again, old heart!-it seems to say,-there is victory yet for all justice; and the true romance which the world exists to realize, will be the transformation of genius into practical power."

And my favorite: "To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men--that is genius."

Giving some thought to this last, I think it is the key for making connections with other, for understanding that we are all one, there is no gap. For someone to be a genius in any endeavor, they must be able to form a bond of recognition and connection with my heart, and not alienate it. A work of genius is something that gives me the feeling that "I wish I'd thought of that... or written that... or created that..." It's something that brings me a new understanding that changes my life in a significant way.

See what you're making me do??? Obsessive as I am, I think I'll go hunt up quotes on genius like I did on art. And I still haven't finished answering your questions! What larks...

La, la, la,


RC replies:

Thanks. Regarding your points--Read Emerson's "The American Scholar" if you want a mind-expanding experience. It's what got me into grad. school. Why I went. To try--hope against hope, high and more high--to become THAT. And read a chapter in an Emerson biography about his congregation's response to his "Divinity School Address" if you want to learn more about how bureaucracies regard people like him. As he said somewhere else: "To be great is to be misunderstood."

While you're at it, read: "Circles," "The Poet," "Self-Reliance," "The Transcendentalist," "Experience," and "Fate." Those essays changed my life. I read them in my early twenties and they made me what I am today. I'm no Emerson for sure, but the ideals he stood for still echo in my heart.

Dear RC,

Here are more quotes I came up with on genius. The greats have much to teach about their perspective on life. I feel as though they're a real and vital part of the ongoing Mailbag discussion. I hope your readers are enjoying them half as much as I am. All great food for the soul.


On Genius

(Quotations from Bartlett’s, Columbia, and Simpson’s books of quotations)

“A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and portals of discovery.” – James Joyce

“There are no wrong notes.” – Art Tatum

“Accept your genius and say what you think.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex and more violent. It takes a touch of genius, and a lot of courage, to move in the opposite direction.” – Albert Einstein

“Less is more.” – M. van der Rohe

“All that is required of genius is loving the truth.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“Genius – To know without having learned; to draw just conclusions from unknown premises; to discern the soul of things.” – Ambrose Bierce

“Genius means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way.” – William James

“Man as an individual is a genius. But men in the mass form a Headless Monster, a great brutish idiot that goes where prodded.” – Sir Charles Spencer”Charlie” Chaplin

“There was never a genius without a tincture of madness.” – Aristotle

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“Genius means the transcendent capacity of taking trouble.” – Thomas Carlyle

“Since when was genius found respectable?” – Elizabeth Barrett Browning

“Genius does what it must, talent does what it can.” – Edward Robert, Earl of Lytton

“We hold that the most wonderful and splendid proof of genius is a great poem produced in a civilized age.” – Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay

“Doing easily what others find difficult is talent; doing what is impossible for talent is genius.” – Henri Frederic Amiel

“Genius is talent provided with ideals. Genius starves while talent wears purple and fine linen. The man of genius of today will in fifty years’ time be in most cases no more than a man of talent.” – Somerset Maugham

“Genius is present in every age, but the men carrying it within them remain benumbed unless extraordinary events occur to heat up and melt the mass so that it flows forth.” – Denis Diderot

“Genius ... is the capacity to see ten things where the ordinary man sees one, and where the man of talent sees two or three, plus the ability to register that multiple perception in the material of his art.” – Ezra Pound

“A genius can never expect to have a good time anywhere, if he is a genuine article, but America is about the last place in which life will be endurable at all for an inspired writer of any kind.” – Samuel Butler

“The especial genius of women I believe to be electrical in movement, intuitive in function, spiritual in tendency.” – Margaret Fuller

“A man of genius has a right to any mode of expression.” – Ezra Pound

*In a future age of vision and genius, nothing will be obscene.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

“What is genius?—To will both a lofty goal and the means to achieving it.” - Friedrich Nietzsche

“What is genius-but the power of not being confined by the identity you were born with?” – Elizabeth Barrett Browning

“Talent shuffles the deck. Genius plays a whole new game.” - Mason Cooley

“The secret of genius is to detect every fiction as fiction and not to shy from speaking truths that all men acknowledge but are afraid to pronounce in mixed company.– Ralph Waldo Emerson

“We owe to genius always the same debt, of lifting the curtain from the common, and showing us that divinities are sitting disguised in the seeming gang of gypsies and peddlers.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Talent may frolic and juggle; genius makes real and gives to the world.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“We are as much informed of a writer’s genius by what he selects as by what he originates. We read the quotation with his eyes, and find a new and fervent sense; as a passage from one of the poets, well recited, borrows new interest from the rendering. As the journals say,”the italics are ours.”” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Freedom is the only law which genius knows.” – James Russell Lowell

“But don’t despise error. When touched by genius, when led by chance, the most superior truth can come into being from even the most foolish error. The important inventions which have been brought about in every realm of science from false hypotheses number in the hundreds, indeed in the thousands.” – Stefan Zweig

“I shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope that it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“You may try but you can never imagine what it is to have a man's form of genius in you, and to suffer the slavery of being a girl.” – George Eliot

“As in digging for precious metals in the mines, much earthy rubbish has first to be troublesomely handled and thrown out; so, in digging in one’s soul for the fine gold of genius, much dullness and common-place is first brought to light.” – Herman Melville



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© Text Copyright 2006 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.