Balance

Today is the Spring Equinox, the day when the sun shares its light with us for exactly half the 24 hours of the day.  From here on out, the sun will rise earlier and set later, giving us more and more — and warmer and warmer —daylight.

Earlier peoples paid a lot more attention to these things than we do, out of necessity.  We are a pattern-making species, and once our brains kicked in, it probably didn’t take long for us to notice the lengthening and shortening of days and the fact that the sun rose and set further and further north or south every day.  I know I would want to create some sort of system to mark those turning points.  Maybe stone pillars in the ground.  Something like that.

Anyway, I like to mark the solstices and the equinoxes with observances in the labyrinth because what’s the point of having an alien landing strip in your back yard if you’re not going to go all hippie-woo in it?

Given that I am an Existential Mystic, I reserve the solstices for actually meaningful observations.  The winter solstice is the Annual Meeting of the Lichtenbergian Society; it is the one of the two high holy days of Lichtenbergianism.[1]  The summer solstice is whatever I choose to make it, but is generally a fire pit kind of night of reflection.

The equinoxes, on the other hand, I don’t mind having a party: friends, spouses, cocktails, funky music on the sound system, laughter, conversation, good times.  If someone wants to walk the labyrinth or ring a bell or two, great; otherwise, let’s chill.

Today, though, I am doing something I’ve never done before: I am holding the labyrinth open for meditation from noon until midnight.  No party, no bar, no loud music.  No loud conversation.  Just me and my kilt and the fire.  I’ll read, I’ll write.  I’ll clean, I’ll tidy.  I’ll walk.  I’ll have my phone, but otherwise I’m offline.

Ceremonies?  Rituals?  Nothing specific, just whatever comes to mind.

What am I looking for?  I don’t know that I’m looking for anything, but I’ll be paying attention to the quiet, to the music, to the space, to gratitude, to balance.

If you’re reading this, and you would like a period of quiet reflection, the gate will be open at noon.  Bring whatever woo you like.

(If you’re in the mood for a party, check back with me in September for the fall equinox.)

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[1] The other is July 1, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s birthday.

Coloring books. Yes, coloring books.

Here, go read this.  I’ll wait.

tl;dr: a very long, quite well-written piece by a Christian author warning us about mandala coloring books being spiritually dangerous.

Okay, woo alert.  Since I am an Existential Mystic, my tendency is not to grant woo an independent reality, so perhaps it’s a little unfair for me to pick apart the writings of a Spiritual.  But the far ends of any scale are fascinating, so let’s dive right in.

Sure, click here if you want to risk your IMMORTAL SOUL!!!

One of the issues I have with die-hard Spirituals is that their belief in the reality of their particular woo is so absolute that it extends to all the other woo as well.  In this case, we have a carefully reasoned blogpost that provides proof of the dangers of simply filling in random spaces on a piece of paper: if you color a mandala, it will automatically open the door to your soul/mind/body and let demonic forces in.

Evangelical believers, particularly, are prone to this kind of thing.  Their understanding of God is that of a “personal God,” which does not mean (as most of them think it does) a God who is “mine”; rather it means a God who is “a person,” i.e., independently existing as an individual outside our reality.  The same applies for the idea of a “personal Satan” or “personal demons.”

This belief, coupled with some vague biblical literalism,1 leads them to the understanding that not only do God and Satan have a real existence, but so do witches and demons and all those “other gods” whom generally our evangelical friends ridicule as nonexistent “false gods” but who really exist not really yes really.

In the same vein, they understand transactional magick to be real and effective: that’s the basis of their belief in intercessory3 prayer. They easily transfer that belief to pentagrams, Ouija boards, Dungeons & Dragons, yoga, and yes, mandala coloring books—just touching one of these things is enough to unleash the hounds of hell whether or not you believe they’re “real.”  Just joking around at a sleepover with “Bloody Mary” or taking a hot yoga class will press the On button on the remote control, and, well, you’ve seen enough horror movies to know what happens next.

Here’s the interesting part: the only proof they ever have is their own belief in the reality of belief systems that otherwise they will tell you are not real.  It never occurs to them to say, “Hm, those other people are trying make sense of the Infinite, too—I wonder how similar their approach is to mine.  Maybe I could get further in my own faith if I paid attention to theirs.”

Nope.  Instead, because their Tao is the only Tao—they can NAME IT AND EVERYTHING, KENNETH—all those other paths to the Infinite have to be wrong.  Demonic.

Coloring mandalas.  You may think there are 64 colors, but as we all know, there’s only one real Flesh.

Here endeth the lesson.

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1 I say “vague” literalism, because no one reads the Bible literally literally.  No one.  They may believe it’s Adam & Eve2, not Adam & Steve, or that Noah took a gazillion pairs of animals on the ark (including diplodoci), but quiz them about owning slaves or sleeping with the maid or stoning a bride who everyone knows has been living with her new husband for two years, and their literal understanding rapidly evolves into something more metaphoric/historical/pragmatic.

2 NSFW LINK!

3 Or imprecatory.

Magickal Thinking

***A MUST SHARE***

A young man working in the army was constantly humiliated because he believed in God. One day the captain wanted to humiliate him before the troops. He called the young man and said: – Young man come here, take the key and go and park the Jeep in front. the young man replied: – I cannot drive! The captain said: – Well then ask for assistance of your God! Show us that He exist! The young man takes the key and walked to the vehicle and begins to pray…… …He parks the jeep at the place PERFECTLY well as the captain wanted. The young man came out of the jeep and saw them all crying. They all said together: – We want to serve your God! The young soldier was astonished, and asked what was going on? The CAPTAIN crying opened the hood of the jeep by showing the young man that the car had no engine. Then the boy said: See? This is the God I serve, THE GOD OF IMPOSSIBLE, the God who gives life to what does not exist. You may think there are things still impossible BUT WITH GOD EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE. To the person reading this, I pray the Lord work A SUPER MIRACLE in your life today In Jesus Name I Pray.. Write ‘Amen’ to claim this prayer

This was posted, with a photo of a soldier crying, on Facebook by someone I would have thought to be a little more sophisticated in their faith.

First of all, why can’t these people write in English?  I know, I know, they probably aren’t native speakers, but even so—why would an educated person repost it?  If your goal is to witness to the heathen, why would you undermine the message with ignorant delivery?

Secondly, I am always amused at the straw men cum aggressive persecution complex these people have.  If this is from somewhere out there in the world and not the U.S., then perhaps captains make a habit of singling out Christian soldiers, but in our army, quite the reverse is true. Again, why would you post something that flies in the face of documented reality?

Finally, speaking of reality, really??  This author breaks the Spiritual Mystic end of the REMS Scale, just busts right on past the boundaries of the behavior the scale is meant to assess.  We have to assume that the author (at least the original source) created a parable and was not reporting on an actual event, i.e., that they knew and understood that the event could never have happened1, but the bottom line is that the story is put out there for people to believe that it could have happened, such is the magickal power of THE GOD OF IMPOSSIBLE.

Feh. I’m all for woo, but sweet Cthulhu I like mine on the sane side.  If I ever decided to evangelize for my particular Misunderstanding2, I would not use what amounts to the text of scam emails to convince people to join me in my compound. It might make my claims seem… incredible.

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1 “How you know? You weren’t there!”  Honey, please.

2 My standard response to any religious discussion is, “I completely misunderstand God differently than you completely misunderstand God.”  Clearly, in this case, I really don’t misunderstand God anywhere in the neighborhood of either the original author or those who repost it on Facebook.

Happy birthday, St. Augustine, you %&^$#

Warning: this is an ill-thought-out post.

Today, according to the Writer’s Almanac, is the birthday of St. Augustine, he who wrote The Confessions to demonstrate his point that all of us are infected with sin, and whose ideas about “original sin” (i.e., because Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, we have all inherited their “sinful nature”) became official Church doctrine.

Well.

“Watch that hand, buster!”

Of all the insidious kinds of woo on the market, I have to rank this one the worst.  Even when I was a small child, the story of Adam and Eve didn’t make sense.  First of all, what was wrong with gaining knowledge?  Was it not pounded into our heads that was the reason we went to school, to gain knowledge—that was supposed to be a good thing, right?  And here was God telling us don’t eat that fruit.

And why?  Reasons unclear, except that the Lord God Jehovah and his angelic gang seemed a wee bit petty about their privilege.

Then there was the inheritability of sin.  Somehow there was this little bead of BAD STUFF that was embedded in our souls, passed down from parent to child, and God hated us for it.  Sure, the adults in the room tried to soften that by saying it made God sad that we had this thing that we couldn’t help and was his fault in the first place, but the book is pretty clear: he was pissed.  He cursed the man and the woman, and threw them out of his special garden.

And why?  Did it actually solve anything?  Did it make them any less knowledgeable about good and evil?  Did it cleanse the Lord God’s creation of all the ickiness?  Quite the reverse: mankind rapidly spread over the earth like cockroaches, blundering their way through encounter after encounter with Jehovah and always coming out on the short end of the deal.

(Have you ever noticed that?  In other mythologies, there’s someone who’s able to outwit the gods.  Not Jehovah, man—the only person who came even close was Abraham when he tried to bargain the Lord God down to sparing Sodom if he found ten virtuous men there, and we know how that ended.  I’m thinking Jehovah was kind of dickish even in that, because if he’s omniscient he already knew there were not ten good men there. (For one thing, according to St. Augustine, no one’s good anyway.))

Then there was the crowd that tried to make it all about Free Will, and that it was our fault for disobeying God.  God gave us this Free Will, and we failed the test by exercising it.  All of us.  Forever.  Dick move, Jehovah.

And if there were ever a phrase to pitch a boy headlong into the morass of sinful thoughts, it would have to be “And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.” [Genesis 2:25]  Woo boy!  Nekkid grown-ups!  I somehow knew that there must be something really cool about being naked—it was fun and felt good, for one thing.  For another, just like God told Adam not to eat that fruit because reasons, grown-ups didn’t want you to be naked.  Because reasons.

Of course, the prohibition failed in its prime directive, to keep me innocent of that knowledge of good and evil.  There were so many paintings of the couple available in art books that if the goal were to keep me ignorant of the human body, it was a complete failure.  I could not help noticing, though, that these portraits were missing some crucial information that I really wanted to know: down there.  I know I am not alone when I say I spent half the time gazing at Renaissance art mentally moving fig leaves.

Anyway, the puzzlement for me was that God seemed to be completely okay with nudity, but then for some unexplained—and inexplicable—reason changed his mind.  He plopped the two down in Eden, buck nekkid, and didn’t flip the switch that it was “shameful.”  What was up with that?  So many questions.  Suffice it to say that I have spent a lot of time since exploring my options.

In the end, I have come to view Augustine’s personal shame as one of the worst intellectual pogroms in Western culture, just a Scholastic meme to convince humans that they were separate from the divine.  It has never done humankind any good that I can see, so happy birthday, Augustine—good riddance.

Better.

The REMS Scale: So what?

As the title says, so what? We have a perfectly serviceable model for placing ourselves in a matrix to define our approach and response to woo. So what?

When I proposed the idea, we joked that we could create one of those Buzzfeed quizzes that would ask you 20 questions and place you on the matrix:

That kind of thing. And then you get your results:

Honestly, I can’t see any difference it would make in anyone’s life to have their self-knowledge confirmed, any more than it does to know that one is in fact a Slytherin or that one really ought to be living in Oslo. For one thing, and let me make this clear, the REMS scale is descriptive, not prescriptive. No end of the scale is pathological, so there’s nothing to “fix” in anyone who finds themselves to be a Spiritual Mystic.

Instead, we could use it l like we use the Myers-Briggs or the True Colors instruments: not only as self-knowledge but as a tool for understanding our interactions with others. Just as those of us who are “green” have learned not to rely on “reds” for planning and execution but instead to use their energy as a motor for the project, knowing that one’s significant other is at the opposite end of the quadrant would be helpful in understanding that no, they do not want to join you in the couples crystal workshop.

And that’s OK.

But but but, I can hear you sputter—mainly because my brain is doing the same thing—surely it’s important for them to understand that woo is/isn’t (pick one) real!

So let’s talk about real woo.

Recently an alert reader sent me this article to read and asked if perhaps this indicated that woo is in fact measurable, objectively provable. I replied that I thought that the experiment wasn’t measuring woo, it was measuring physiological responses. If it had tried to measure enlightenment, that would have been wootastic.

I said that at the risk of falling into the No True Scotsman fallacy, I thought that if it can be measured, it’s not woo.

In other words, the Woo that can be named is not the Woo.1

I think that another strength of the REMS scale is that it frees us from the discussion of whether the woo is real—some people are inclined to grant woo an external reality, others are disinclined. Whether we’re talking past life regressions, or chakra balancing, or shamanic journeys, or the One True God, the REMS scale just sorts people into their approach and response to that.

Just as in the True Colors model, each of our types has its strengths and weaknesses, and perhaps with more discussion, observation, and thought we could develop a more complete picture of those. But, just as in the True Colors model, we have to disabuse ourselves of the notion that our type is the One True Type and those others need converting.

Discuss.2

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1 I am particularly proud of that formulation.

2 In discussion, tell me whether you think we’re done here. I always feel I have left something on the table when I write these things. But what?

The REMS Scale: The Four Types

Now we have our two axes:

the REMS Scale

The EXISTENTIAL <—> SPIRITUAL axis defines the individual’s inclination to grant woo an independent reality, the approach to woo. The REALIST <—> MYSTIC scale defines the individual’s willingness to experience or interpret an event as woo, or the response to woo.

You might suppose that all Realists would be Existential and all Mystics would be Spiritual, but that is—oddly—not the case. Although we will first examine the two obvious combinations, my four subjects actually represent the four possible combinations of the two axes.

Let us suppose that our four subjects, having gone to the wellspring of American New Age Woo, Sedona, AZ, have decided to pop in to the Center for the New Age and see what kind of woo they can experience.1 The CNA offers a rather complete range of woo: besides the store full of crystals, candles, occult objects, books, and tarot decks, they have a large staff of trained specialists who can give you tarot readings, crystal work, aura readings, past life regressions, chakra balancing, and other psychic guidance.

At the main counter, you can flip through a notebook with the vitae of the psychics on duty and book your session there. Given our two scales of approach and response, we can expect different reactions to the situation.

The Existential Realist

The Existential Realist neither thinks woo is real nor is willing to acknowledge that he has experienced any such thing. In the CNA, he may browse the shelves and may even find a book that interests him, but the crystals are just pretty rocks and the candles smell.

If he’s an asshole, he may openly disparage the shop and its denizens. If he’s nicer than that, he may decline to book a session or evade the topic altogether. If he decides to enter into the spirit of the thing, he will politely endure the ministrations of the chakra balancer, but he will feel nothing and will chalk it all up to being a good sport.

The Spiritual Mystic

The Spiritual Mystic, on the other hand, feels acutely the spiritual nature of the place. In fact, he may be overwhelmed by it, or react negatively to this particular location’s vibe and seek his woo experience some place more simpatico.

If he decides to book a session, he will select a practitioner exactly as the staff has instructed—by using his intuition—poring over each page to see if he feels a connection with the man or woman in the picture. He will listen earnestly to advice from the staff about which service would be best to meet his psychic needs.

Once in the session, he will feel the energy of the room, the practitioner, and the process. The energy will inform his experience, and he will come away from the session feeling very different than when he went in.

The Existential Mystic

Here’s where our model flies in the face of logic but is actually a useful descriptive tool: The Existential Mystic does not think there is anything out there that is worth the name of woo. He can pick up any number of quartz crystals without feeling a single tingle.

However, if in his chakra balancing he sees specific images or feels a warmth/coldness/whatever in one of the chakras, then he is more than willing to acknowledge that he cannot—or does not need to—explain it away. He evaluates it as ineffable and includes it in his spiritual makeup.

The Spiritual Realist

This one is even odder than the Existential Mystic. The Spiritual Realist does believe in God/auras/the Force, but is apt to deny any manifestation of it unless presented with overwhelming evidence.

At the CNA, he glosses over all the items for sale as being irrelevant trinkets, but he does take the time to choose a psychic and book a session. He represses giggles during the chakra balancing, but then turns around and books an additional reading from the psychic, which he finds both impressively accurate and helpful. (He nonetheless inquires about the man’s credentials.) After the reading, he may feel the need to buy a crystal or two.

tl;dr

Faced with woo:

  • The Spiritual Mystic says, “I feel it; my [choose one] chakra needs opening.”
  • The Spiritual Realist says, “I believe in [choose a woo], but I doubt this is it.”
  • The Existential Mystic says, “Honey please, but that one I felt.”
  • The Existential Realist says, “Bah! Humbug!”

Next: So what?

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1 Although the four subjects are real people, I am fictionalizing their responses to the experience. I do not presume to know the originals’ innermost thoughts, nor do I claim that how I portray their responses is in any way an accurate representation of them. To further muddy the waters, I am portraying all four subjects as male.

The REMS Scale: The Response to Woo

Yesterday I proposed a scale to delineate a person’s approach to woo, i.e., their willingness to grant the woo in question an independent reality, howsoever they defined it: New Age energy, the Force, mana, God. It’s important to realize that this mindset (Existential <—> Spiritual) is the subject’s “resting state,” in the absence of any particular woo encounter.

But after woo is encountered, what is the subject’s response? What is his willingness to experience or interpret an event as woo?

Before we define the scale, the question arises: can a person who is more Existential than not actually experience woo? I think they can, and I don’t think we can say it’s any less “real woo” even if we take into account that bane of social researchers, suggestibility.1 As I said in yesterday’s post, we should not discount an inner reality just because it cannot be measured by calipers.2

Response to woo: the Realist

The Realist’s response to an encounter with woo is, in a nutshell, “Bah! Humbug!”  (For those who may not have ever thought about what this phrase actually means, humbug is quackery or bullshit.)

The Realist may be completely gobsmacked by a tarot reading or prayer session, but he is apt to put it all down to physiology or coincidence or, of course, suggestibility. He takes a good hard look at Marley’s face and sees that it is, after all, just a door knocker.

Once again, this is not meant to be derogatory, merely descriptive of one possible response to woo. Given the elastic reality of woo, it’s only smart to think that the disturbance in the Force which you felt may be an undigested bit of beef or a fragment of underdone potato.3

Response to woo: the Mystic

On the other end of the response axis is the Mystic.

The Mystic will emerge from an encounter convinced that he has encountered woo of some sort: his chakras are now balanced, the crystal has opened his Third Eye, God has spoken to him. Again, the question of “real woo” need not concern us at this point, only that the Mystic has interpreted his experience as woo.

The Response Axis

Now we have our second axis:

This scale is even more slippery than the Approach axis, because people definitely have different expectations and tolerances for all the various woos of the world. The same person who offers to pray for your illness may scoff at Reiki. Someone who loves a good tarot reading may look askance at a good smudging (although to be sure that is less likely than the first scenario). Those who speak in tongues do not practice Feng Shui.

As S. Elizabeth Bird found in her study of tabloid newspapers, people will often believe one kind of woo while rejecting all the others. (In For Enquiring Minds, for example, those who read The Weekly World News at all seriously were apt to do so for one topic. The Elvis believers thought the aliens were bogus, and vice versa.)

But even if we need to apply the scale on a case-by-case basis, it still allows us a descriptive, and I hope useful, framework.

Next: The four types

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1 Thanks to Marc Honea for keeping this concept in the forefront of my mind.

2 I’ll take up the issue of “real woo” in another post.

3 Yes, I know that by using Ebenezer Scrooge as my exemplar makes it look as if I’m disparaging our Realists as merely unconverted Mystics, but I am not.

The REMS Scale: The Approach to Woo

Yesterday we looked—vaguely—at what we meant by the woo experience: that feeling that there is an “energy” other than/bigger than/inclusive of us, manifesting itself in things like chakras, crystals, auras, magick, and religion.  Today I want to look at the first of the two axes of the REMS scale, that of approach.

Approach to the woo experience: the Spiritual

By approach, I mean the individual’s inclination to grant woo an independent reality. On the far end we have those who have their horoscopes cast and consult with their psychic adviser on a regular basis. They sleep with crystals under their pillow. They post photos of a beautiful sunset on Facebook and give God the credit. They never step on a crack so as to avoid breaking their mother’s back.

These are our Spiritual members.

It is important to me to make clear that I am not denigrating those who are on the Spiritual end of the approach axis. On the contrary, their spirits are open to the unknown, to the infinite, and I do not believe that is without value. When I equate chakra balancers with the devout of any religion, it is merely to observe that both are willing to grant an external reality to their respective woos, an external reality that cannot be measured by any scientific instrument. Yes, it is faith.

Approach to the woo experience: the Existential

On the other end of the approach axis, therefore, we find the Existential members. These people do not “believe” in anything that cannot be measured. They are the coiners of the term “woo” to deride the other end of the axis. They are disinclined to grant any external reality to the woo experience: all of your woo is inside your head.  Existence precedes essence.

And let me say here, again, that this is a perfectly cromulent way to approach woo. I would caution the Existentials among us, though, that denying woo an external reality does not necessarily mean denying it an inner reality. It’s all in your head? That is a kind of reality after all, and a wise Existential learns to accommodate that idea.  (But that is more for the discussion on Response.)

The Approach Axis

So now we have one of our two axes:

Like most axes of this nature, most people would not find themselves on the absolute end of either side of the scale. If we consider it in purely religious terms, people will range from atheist through agnostic to devout.

This, by the way, provides us with the E and the S in our REMS Scale.

Next: Response to woo

The REMS Scale: The Woo Experience

At long last, the long-awaited explication of my world-changing examination of the Woo Experience, which, for lack of a catchier name, we shall call the Lyles REMS Scale.

The Woo Experience

First of all, we need to define what we mean by the Woo Experience, and for that there is no better place than the Skeptic’s Dictionary: “concerned with emotions, mysticism, or spiritualism; other than rational or scientific; mysterious; new agey.” This and other fine sites are more likely to use the term woo-woo, but for our purposes one woo is enough.

The issue arose during our recent trip to Arizona, to Sedona specifically, where we sought out the Woo Experience via visits to vortexes1, aura readings, chakra balancing, and crystals. Each of these—and there was more—involves some kind of mystical “energy” that is detectable only by those who are attuned to it. Certainly no scientific instruments have ever been able to verify its existence.

And yet…

Here’s where the interesting part lies. There are very few among us who have not felt as if there might be some kind of validity to the woo2. Call it auras, call it The Force, call it Magick, call it the Void, call it God—or the Goddess—but nearly every one of us can confess to having felt something like it at some point.

So what are we to make of this universal experience that has absolutely no scientific validation?

It began to interest me that in our small group there seemed to be different approaches and different responses to the woo, and I began to think more seriously about the proposition.

The Persons Involved

For this discussion, I choose to rename the four participants Subjects 1-4. (Full disclosure: I am Subject 3.) The entire vacation to Arizona was initiated by Subject 4’s desire to go experience the “thin places” in Sedona, i.e., the vortexes. Even as the trip expanded to include the Grand Canyon and points in between, we all came to agree that if we were going to Sedona, we would seek out and immerse ourselves in the woo. Just go with it, experience it, and withhold evaluation until we were done with it.

Because what’s the fun of having your chakras balanced if you’re not going to give it the benefit of the doubt? Let’s face it, if the whole thing was just a placebo, then you’d get no benefit if you didn’t commit to it. And if it were real, you wouldn’t want to short-circuit it by resisting it.

Benefits?

The wooists make all kinds of outrageous claims for their woo that bring universal scorn and condemnation upon them, and rightfully so when those claims involve medical issues and large bank transfers.

But for the true believers—and those of us just looking for fun or interest—what is the appeal? I think most if not all of it is because we humans desire order. We see patterns where there are none. We want resolution.

Are we at some level unhappy? (Spoiler alert: yes, because we are human.) Shouldn’t there be some way to fix that? (Emphasis on should.) Isn’t there something, after all, bigger than us, of which we are a part? (…)

And so we seek to identify causes outside ourselves that can help us gain peace, comfort, and unity. Woo, I believe, is one of the ways in which we do that: crystals, magick, god.

Next: The Approach to woo

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1 N.B.: not vortices, so stop your kibbitzing

2 …which I will now stop capitalizing