The Greatest Thing the Army Ever Taught Me

In the late summer of 1984, I arrived at Ft McClellan, Alabama for basic training with the United States Army.  It was the farthest I had ever traveled from my home in Pembroke, Massachusetts.  My first stop on post was the “Reception Station.” 

In those days, the Army would welcome the new recruits by temporarily billeting us in a barracks and almost gently easing us into the initial Army experience.  You would spend about 3 or 4 days getting acclimated at the Reception Station, living in an open barracks with about 70 other recruits, drawing your initial uniforms, and in general, having some sergeants explain tell you over and over again that once you left the reception station and reported to your actual Training Company, life would change dramatically.

Living in those barracks for those few days, I kept asking myself, “what exactly am I doing here?”  It was tough to feel settled or sure of yourself sharing quarters with so many strangers. 

Growing up in Pembroke, a middle class (at the time anyhow) town about 35 minutes South of Boston, I always had always felt like I fit in to my community.  For the most part, our town was made up of people who shared the same values and the same experiences.   Pembroke was a homogenous town, and I liked that about Pembroke.

My first morning at the Reception Station, I went into the bathroom to shave, not because I needed to shave at that age, but because the sergeants had told us to shave.  As I stood at the sink, I overheard a conversation the likes of which I’d never heard in my life. 

Behind me and to the left a young black man was holding court, telling stories to a group of recruits.  The stories were filled with some of the vilest expletives you can imagine and centered on fighting, stabbings, and what I could only describe as gang activity. 

I got a good look at the man telling the stories.  He looked incredibly angry.  He was regaling his audience with a story of how a rival gang had taken his jacket and shoes one night and left him to walk home in stocking feet.  “I’m talking about Newark!  In %^#$ February!”  The guys laughed and called him crazy. 

I couldn’t have agreed more.  This story-teller did seem crazy.  I decided that day that this was a person I would intentionally avoid.  There was no sense getting caught up with a guy like that.

The day finally came when we left the reception station and boarded a bus to the other side of the post.  That is what we recruits had been told was the real basic training.  We called it the “other side” as if we were about to cross over some threshold into another hellish world.  We had that about right.

As I boarded the bus with two duffle bags and a nauseous stomach, I noticed the Newark Story Teller was seated in the second seat.  I took my place in the fifth row and began to mentally prepare for our real welcome.  Despite my fear of the drill sergeants who were waiting on the “other side,” I focused my prayer on Newark, “God, please don’t let the kid from Newark be in my platoon.”

After a short bus trip, we rolled slowly to a stop and I saw what appeared to be 15 – 20 of the largest people I had ever seen.  The Drill Sergeants were waiting, wearing their distinctive round brown hats, glaring with disgust at the bus.  Finally one of the behemoths climbed aboard and said very calmly, “You have exactly 60 seconds to get off this bus and 30 of them are gone.  Now move!” 

What followed was some of the toughest hours of my life, standing in the Alabama sun, incapable of doing anything right.  The Drill Sergeants swarmed.  They were everywhere at once.  I didn’t look at a soul.  I just responded to commands and did push-ups, a lot of push-ups. 

We were shuffled from station to station to get dog tags, I.D. cards, and training manuals.  There always seemed to be some kind of emergency that a drill sergeant was yelling about.  Finally, after getting measured and weighed, I was told by a drill sergeant, “Cheetham.  You’re fourth platoon – up stairs turn right, look for your name on a bunk.  Move!”

I scrambled up the stairs fumbling with two ridiculously heavy duffle bags, sweat pouring down my back.  “I don’t think this day could get much worse” I thought as I entered the barracks.  I walked down the row of bunks and looked for my name.  I found it on the eighth set of bunks on the right; the top bunk read:  CHEETHAM, C.   I looked at the bottom bunk:  WILCOX, B.

“I guess Wilcox is still getting his tail kicked downstairs” I said quietly as I dropped my gear.   Some of the others in the room were engaged in hushed conversations.  After about three hours of initial Army Training, I sat down on the floor, closed my eyes, and rested my head on my hands.  I was actually starting to doze, when I heard someone drop two duffles on the lower bunk.

Wilcox, B. had arrived.

It was the kid from Newark.

It’s hard to describe how I felt at that moment.  Aside from questioning the efficacy of my prayers, I quickly moved on to “this is not going to work out so well.”  Wilcox, B. barely acknowledged my presence and we stumbled around until lights out.  I lay awake on my bunk, and wondered which was worse:  The Drill Sergeants who were no doubt resting in preparation for day 2 of training, or having Wilcox, B. on the bunk below mine? 

Morning came early and we all hustled to dress, shave, and make our beds.     Many of the privates were working together on their racks – but not me and Wilcox, B.  Instead we ignored each other. When we finished our sloppy effort at tucking sheets and blankets  we were universally panned by the Drill Sergeants.  We paid dearly for that.

Over time, a strange thing happened with me and the kid from Newark.  We started to work together and look out for one another.  I found out that the B. stood for Bobby, but that he preferred to be called “Cool Bobby.”  I also found out that Cool Bobby was actually not as angry as he first seemed.  In fact, he was a happy, funny kid who liked the same movies and sports that I did.

As training progressed, Cool Bobby and I would spend our days training and helping one another to succeed.  I’d help him assemble and disassemble an M-60 machine gun one day and the next he was helping me over a wall on the obstacle course.

I learned an awful lot about Wilcox during those eight weeks of basic training and the eight weeks of Military Police School that followed.  His Dad was a Baptist preacher who had died when Bobby was only 14 years old.   Cool Bobby told me the story of how he had come home from school to find his father dead in the kitchen.  I also learned that Wilcox didn’t really swear all that much, he loved his mother,  and that he genuinely cared about everyone in our platoon. 

Cool Bobby was not a gang member at all.  He was just a kid who grew up in a very tough town – Newark, New Jersey.  In fact, as I got to really know Wilcox, there were times I thought he wouldn’t, and maybe couldn’t, hurt a fly.  All I remember now is that he would laugh and make fun of my Boston accent.  “JFK Cheetham” is what he would call me.

In 16 weeks, the United States Army performed a miracle.  They took a white kid from a small town in Massachusetts, a town that was almost exclusively white at the time; and they teamed me with a black kid from Newark, New Jersey.  The two of us couldn’t have been more different when we started.  I know I didn’t initially trust Wilcox, and I don’t think he trusted me either.

The Army put us through a very difficult training program that was designed to test our wills.  The training was often grueling, sometimes unfair, and occasionally ridiculous.  Yet, that training did something that I don’t think any other program could do – namely, it got two teenagers from different places and races to become great friends.  We battled the Drill Sergeants together.  We battled the Army together.  We battled Alpha Company together (because we knew: a Bravo Bulldog Leads the Way).

When we finished Military Police School I was slated to go home to Massachusetts and join my National Guard Company and start college.  Cool Bobby was off to Hawaii.  As Wilcox got ready to board his bus we embraced and said our good byes.  I will never forget that last conversation.

“Cheetham, man.  I gotta tell you something.  You are the first white person I’ve ever had for a friend,” Wilcox said with tears in his eyes.

“Cool Bobby.  I think you are one of the greatest guys I’ve ever met.  One of the best friends I’ll ever have.”

We smiled shook hands and Wilcox got on his bus.

I never saw Wilcox again.  I think we may have exchanged letters once, but in that pre-internet era, it was easy to lose touch.  I could tell stories about Bobby D. Wilcox for hours, still to this day.  Hardly a week goes by where I don’t at least think about our exploits at Ft McLellan, Alabama.

The Army taught me a great lesson back in 1984 and I am forever grateful for that lesson.  It’s a simple lesson really.  When people are willing to sacrifice their own selfishness, when they commit to a team, to a vision, and to a goal they can achieve great things; but even more important than achieving the great things is the relationships that people can forge when they put aside differences.  In life, where you came from as an individual matters so little, when compared with where you go together as a team.

I can’t think of any organization on this planet that better understands that truth, than the United States Military.  Only the military can take people from sprawling incoherent diversity and forge purposeful unity.  Throughout our time together no one ever said “Cheetham and Wilcox, put aside your differences and work together.”  They didn’t have to say that.  Rather, it was the very essence and culture of the military that created our friendship.

It’s the greatest thing the Army ever taught me.

-CJ Cheetham

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Credentialism – It’s Ruining Your Team

America is a land founded on merit.  The idea is simple – you get what you earn.  Maybe you were born with incredible athletic or intellectual talent, but you are painfully lazy.  Guess what?  A less naturally gifted individual with a strong work ethic is going to make the team, take your job, and probably marry your girlfriend too.

Merit. 

It has been the central organizing principle of excellent organizations in the private sector and in the military.  Yet, despite the obvious value of making personnel decisions based solely on actual performance relevant to the next job, merit is under assault in the organization I work in – the United States Air Force – and I suspect it is under assault in your organization too. 

Everything in Life is About Next

At one point in my career, I taught Air Force ROTC at the University of Virginia.  For those who don’t know, UVa is an outstanding university consistently ranked near the very top nationally in terms of public universities, usually coming in at #2 just behind UC-Berkeley.  In other words, the quality of students at UVa is high; the quality of professors is high; and the school offers opportunities and resources you just can’t get at lesser schools. Meaning, if you graduate from UVa, you are going to have some nice credentials. 

My students at UVa knew this and rightfully took pride in their institution.  They certainly knew that a sheepskin from UVa was worth more than my diploma from the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.  Furthermore, students would measure their academic performance against their peers.  It would amuse me to listen to them debate who had the tougher academic major or more impressive GPA.  So I made it a point to tell this to all of my graduating seniors:

Listen, after you graduate and you are commissioned as an officer in the United States Air Force, no one will ever ask you what your GPA is again; no one is going to care if you majored in electrical engineering or political science.  All that matters in the real world is performance.  Some of you sitting in this room have a 3.75 GPA in chemical engineering and when you get on active duty you are going to be shocked by what happens to you.  You are going to be at your first assignment and some other lieutenant who had a 2.37 GPA from Northwest-Southern State University is going to run circles around you.  He is going to be better prepared, get the best assignments, and the commander is going to make him, not you, the go-to guy.  Do you know why?  Because, the truth is everything in life is about “next.”  No one cares how good a student you were at UVa.  The day you graduate start focusing on next.  It comes down to merit.”

And I think that story used to be true – but something has changed.

Credentialism – an Inaccurate Tool Used by Lazy Leaders

Credentialism is destroying the Air Force.  Simply put, credentialism is the tendency of senior leaders to over-value subordinates’ resumes.  If someone has been to the right school or the right training, that diploma is more highly valued than actual job performance.  Senior leaders choose resumes over actual performance because senior leaders think it is easier and because they haven’t taken the time to know the people they are actually selecting.  In other words, senior leaders are incredibly lazy when selecting who should be promoted or offered the best jobs.

Let me give you a practical and actual example.  I have worked for and with multiple leaders in the Air Force and more often than not, these senior leaders have developed elaborate spread sheets to measure their subordinates’ performance and ability to command.  What is on these spreadsheets?  Things like:

–          How was he/she commissioned (Academy?  ROTC? OTS?)

–          Did they earn Distinguished Graduate at commissioning?

–          Did they attend Squadron Officer School? ( a school for Captains)

–          Have they been to special training?  (Things like Weapons School)

–          Have they won awards?  How many?

You get the idea. 

Some senior leaders will have between 15 – 20 categories on their spreadsheet, covering 15 years of material.  The more squares you are able to fill…well isn’t it obvious?  The more squares you fill, the more qualified you are to promote into a more important leadership job.  In this credentialism system, the more squares you fill the better leader you are.  At no time in this process does the senior leader doing the hiring pause to think:  exactly what does someone’s performance as a cadet at the Air Force Academy have to do with that same person’s ability to be a squadron commander as a Lt. Colonel some 14 – 16 years later?

In other words, just as our aforementioned college seniors liked to compare GPAs and academic majors because they didn’t know what else to do, our Colonels and Generals have decided to adopt credentialism because they don’t know what else to do.

I’ve actually heard senior leaders say things like “well yes, that Major has done an outstanding job and is a great leader in his current job – but he doesn’t have the pedigree” (re: squares filled). 

The Negative Effects of Credentialism

Credentialism if left unchecked will destroy your organization, or your business, or any team.  If you are a senior leader who has decided to rely on resumes rather than recent performance and leadership potential, you are creating multiple negative effects in your organization.

1.  It creates the always annoying, square-filling subordinate

This first creation is a natural outcome of credentialism.   Namely, subordinates will pick up very quickly on the Boss’s criteria.  If they see that they have squares to fill, they will do it.  I have seen first-hand the career gymnastics some officers in the Air Force engage in.  They desperately spend all their time filling the squares.  So when they go to training, it isn’t to learn, but to be recognized as a distinguished graduate.  Why?  Because the Boss has distinguished graduate on his spread sheet, so I will earn an award even if I have the worst interpersonal relationships of anyone attending the course.  What if the Boss has a school that is on his spread sheet?  The square-filling subordinate will break his neck getting there.  Specialized training? Staff Jobs? Advanced degrees?  Whatever is on the spread sheet, come hell or high water, the square-filling subordinate will be there. 

I know what some are thinking:  “Jeez, Cheetham! What is wrong with doing what your Boss asks of you?” 

Let me cut to the chase.  The square-filling subordinate is spending all his time focused UPWARD.  He is brown-nosing.  He is spending more time filling squares and building resumes than actually leading in his current job.  He learns early on to fill the squares and never mind with actually leading, or learning to team with peers in order to succeed.  For these people, everything is about them.  This is not the trait to promote in your organization.

2.  It Leads to Picking the Wrong People to Lead.  

When you are using the wrong criteria to choose your leader, you are always going to pick the wrong person.

Sports offers wonderful leadership illustrations and it is certainly true here.  Let’s compare two NFL Linebackers.  The first linebacker was not a great college player.  He played 4 seasons in the NFL, barely made the football team each season and spent most of his time on the bench or covering kickoffs.  After retiring at the age of 28 he went on to toil for 7 years as an assistant coach for teams that never won championships, until an NFL team took a chance on him and hired him as a head coach.

The second linebacker was a star in college.  He was the rookie defensive player of the year in his first season.  He was selected to the Pro Bowl 10 times, won a Super Bowl, and was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame.  He coached briefly as an assistant for a little over 2 years.  When his team fired the head coach, this former star player was promoted early to head coach.

The first is Bill Cowher who went on to become one of the great coaches in NFL history.  The second is Mike Singletary, one of the greatest players and worst coaches in NFL history. 

Singletary had all the credentials; all-pro, cool nick-name (Iron Mike), a Super Bowl ring while playing on a Bears team that had one of the best defenses in the history of the sport.  What did Cowher have?  Not much.  A bubble-player who barely made teams, didn’t play much and then 7 years grinding as an assistant coach.  He didn’t have much at all on paper.

In a resume or spread sheet show down – Mike Singletary would be hired over Bill Cowher every time.  Sorry Bill, according to my spreadsheet, as a linebacker you had no pro bowl appearances, no super bowl victories and you don’t even have a cool nickname; we are hiring Singletary. 

What a tragedy.

3. It discourages great/late performers

Ask anyone you meet if they changed very much between the age of 22 and 34.  Is there anyone who would answer “no I haven’t changed at all?” Only an insane person would remain unchanged during those 12 years.  Yet, we have Colonels and Generals who create spreadsheets that measure how qualified someone who is 34 years old is to lead using analysis of their performance in training at age 22!  (And that training report was written by someone no one has ever heard of)

All that kind of system does is discourage great/late performers.  It demoralizes the people who keep getting better through hard work and merit.  Why would you set up a system that would prevent your organization’s Bill Cowher from being discovered?

How bizarre is it that we have a system that considers not what a Major is doing today, but rather what he did as a cadet in college 12 years ago?   

The ultimate message for late/great performers – those who started slow but learned through actual experience (not school) and actual leadership (not staff) and actual trial by fire (not brown-nosing a general officer) – the message to these critically important people is:  “abandon hope, your squares are a mess.” 

A Return to Merit

It is time for a return to a merit-based system of promotion and a merit-based system for choosing leaders.  If two officers are in similar jobs and the one with the “great resume” is not performing better than the one with the degree from Northwest Southern State – have some integrity and select the second officer for the leadership job.

If you have officers who have resumes full of schools, and classes, special assignments in the White House, special training, or as an Aide to a General, just remember one thing:  while that officer was running around desperately filling squares on your spreadsheet in order to impress you, he wasn’t leading.  He was too busy chasing your squares.  The fact remains that you cannot teach experience at a school.  Leaders are built through actually leading.  Square-filling is a lot of things but leading is not one of those things.

Senior leader, instead of breaking out your spread sheet, why not try something revolutionary.  Why not actually measure an individual’s potential on observed performance rather than an ancient paper trail that you were not there to record?

-CJ Cheetham

52 Songs for 52 Weeks: Week 1 – More Than This by Peter Gabriel

Week 1 – More Than This by Peter Gabriel

http://youtu.be/7YnTKhyWRfk

Gabriel is certainly a genius but after his wildly popular albums in the 1980s some of his very best work was recorded and escaped notice.  It is certainly true of his outstanding album, UP recorded in 1995.  Dealing extensively with the  subjects of birth, life and (mostly) death, Gabriel put together one of his finest efforts.  

“More Than This” is an incredible song that has Gabriel in fine voice, telling the listener that there is much more to life than our physical surroundings – that life is just as much about those things that are unseen as those that are seen. 

Like all Gabriel songs the lyrics are quotable:

Nothing fades as fast as the future;  Nothing clings like the past

and

Like words, together we can make some sense.

Add in incredible musicians including David Rhodes on guitar and the legendary Tony Levin on bass – and you have more than enough reason to add More Than This to your music library. 

CJ Cheeetham

52 songs for 52 weeks will get your music collection up to par.  If you want to have a better music collection – check in each week .  Add a song a week and in one year’s time your music collection will be the envy of all your friends.

Are You a Leader?

Are you a Leader?

Leaders have followers

Walk into any bookstore and stroll over to the business/management section.  There you will see an absolute flood of titles on leadership.   For about $21.95 you can pick up a book of secrets – literally revealing leaders’ habits, their in-boxes, their priorities, what they sweat and don’t sweat.  As a genre, leadership study is booming and there is apparently no end in sight.

As an officer in the United States Air Force, I’ve been in the leadership business for almost 18 years.  Furthermore, our organization values leadership (or at least claims to) as much as any organization on earth.  What I’ve come to realize during my career is that even the military, so dependent and so reverent toward leaders and leadership, has a dark secret:  there are precious few actual leaders working in today’s military.  I suspect the same is true for the private sector.

As you mull over that shocking claim, perhaps this is a good time to go back to the beginning.  Lost in all the books, seminar discussions, college courses, and management training sessions on leadership is one crucial question.  It is the question that is rarely considered, but I am going to ask it.

Are you a leader?

If you are an office manager, coach, CEO, military officer, school department head, etc. – I’m sure you have already reflexively answered with a resounding yes.  However, I’m about to tell you that there is a very good chance that your answer is not correct.  The fact is, the vast majority of people who think they are leaders are not actually leaders.  They labor under this false belief because they do not correctly define “leader.”

Three Critical Errors in Defining “Leader”

1. The Positional Error

People will often point to their position as ipso facto proof that they are a leader.  “I am a General, for Heaven’s sake.  I have thousands of troops who work for me!  How could I not be a leader?”  The same is true in business, a CEO of a multi-million dollar company not a leader?  Impossible!  The Dean of a college with all those administrators and professors answering to her, are you telling me that she isn’t a leader? 

Yes, that is exactly what I am telling you, none of these people are leaders by virtue of their position.  A position is not a leader.  A position within a hierarchy is simply the structure created to allow for leadership to happen.  However, you are kidding yourself if you think your title is leading anyone.  It isn’t leading a single person. 

2. The Legal Error

Another mistake people make when defining leaders is the legal error.  The legal error occurs when people mistake legal responsibilities of subordinates with loyalty.  For example, in the military a Captain is legally bound to do what the Colonel tells him to do.  If the Captain fails to follow orders, he faces discipline.    Likewise, the CEO or Sales Manager who has the power to hire and fire can also leverage a legal relationship to compel subordinates to follow orders.  A mid-level manager who fears she will lose her job if she opposes the CEO is legally compelled to follow her CEO/leader.  

If you are relying on legalism to “lead” your subordinates, I have news for you.  You are not a leader.  You are simply a legally enshrined bully.  Don’t get me wrong, there may come a time when anyone must be legitimately directive with a subordinate.  However, if you are on a day-to-day basis defining your leadership by saying “get on board” or “because I said so” and if you are spring-loaded to wag your finger at a subordinate and tell them to “stop pushing back.” If you regularly threaten their job – you are simply not a leader; and you are not leading.  Your subordinates despise you and your organization is more than likely a complete mess.

3. The Patronage Error:   

Another leadership fallacy that people cling to involves patronage.  The fact of the matter is that some people fancy themselves leaders because they have surrounded themselves with sycophants and toadies.  Time and again, I have seen leaders who have a small cadre of butt-smoochers following them all over creation.  Of course, the senior person will point to this cadre as proof positive that they are leaders.  After all they have a handful of people who will do anything to make them happy. 

There is a sad truth surrounding these leaders.  Namely, the sole motivation from the sycophants is personal advancement.  As long as the “leader” can provide promotions, bonuses, and prestige – these subordinates will do whatever the leader asks of them. 

However, like the other errors, this is not indicative of real leadership.  This is really a system of bribery and deceit that ultimately creates so much internal rivalry in an organization that morale is destroyed.  Only the senior person and a small handful of close servants are happy.  The senior because he has a handful of toadies; and the toadies themselves are happy because their boss can provide largesse and “good deals” based on brown-nosing rather than talent (or lack of talent).  This is a system that disintegrates in the face of adversity, because there are no real relationships.

So, what is a leader?

Over my military career, I’ve heard myriad definitions for leader.  Things like “a leader gets people to do what they would normally not do on their own.”  There are plenty of definitions out there – look them up yourself.  However, over the last few years, I have come to realize that the definition for leader is much simpler.  Until we understand this most basic definition of leader, we will never truly improve our leadership and our leaders.

The definition of “Leader” is as follows:  A LEADER HAS FOLLOWERS.

Pretty deep, huh?  Stick with me for a little bit here. 

A genuine follower is not motivated by fear or awe.  A genuine follower is not thinking “well if I don’t do what the boss says I’ll be fired or I will be disciplined.”   A genuine follower is not selfishly motivated by the prospect of “good deals” in a patronage relationship with his boss.

A genuine follower is someone who trusts his boss.  This follower has bought into the leader’s vision for the organization.  He wants to be part of the leader’s team because the leader has developed a relationship with the subordinates based on mutual respect, high standards, consistent values, merit, and most of all fairness. 

So, I ask again, are you a leader?

Before you answer this time, stop and ask yourself – do I have any genuine followers? 

There’s an easy test you can do tomorrow morning.  General, walk into your staff meeting and announce that you have a lousy opportunity that involves risk, danger, and very little career advancement for your staff officers.  Then ask for volunteers to leave with you in the morning.  If you get no volunteers, I have bad news for you – despite your high rank, you have no followers.  You are not a leader.

CEO, tomorrow when you get you managers together – tell them you need some of them to go with you to a new start-up company that offers poor benefits, a lousy location, hard work, and only the promise of potential glory down the road.  If no one signs up by the end of the day, bad news – you are not a leader.

The bottom line is this – leadership is about relationships between people; flesh and blood people with real needs, aspirations, ideas and fears.  A leader recognizes this and spends the vast majority of his time developing relationships with his people.  Why?  Because a leader needs followers – and that comes only through a real relationship.  The leader and follower exist for each other; they are committed to the success of both people.

I’ve often thought what would happen if I took my own challenge?  If I addressed my entire squadron tomorrow, simply saying, “listen folks – I have received a very dangerous mission to a location I cannot reveal to you.  This is an important mission but I can’t guarantee it will be fun.  All I can guarantee is that I need you to come with me.  So, I am looking for volunteers.”  I’d like to think that I’d get some volunteers, because I have worked hard to develop relationships with my subordinates, to turn subordinates into followers, and to then lead those followers with sincere mutual respect.  I’m pretty confident I have followers and that I’d have volunteers.

What about you?  Honestly, do you have any followers?  Don’t tell me about your rank, your title, your position – none of that really matters.  Don’t tell me how you command fear and awe because of the legalism that you cling to.

A leader has followers – how about you, what do you have?

– CJ Cheetham

Copyright © 2012 cjcheetham

Welcome to cjcheetham.com

Hi everybody – I’ve thought about an outlet for my ideas and writing for a long time.  Additionally, I’ve had lots of friends encourage me to start a commentary website.

So here it is!  We’ll see how it works out.  Thanks for checking in.

Regards,

Chris

Thoughts on Everything