This Essay Was Written In 1999 Do You Think Prose Definition

Professor Celia A. Easton
Department of English State University of New York College at Geneseo 

Read a successful essay on Thucydides written by a student in my Fall 1999 section of Humanities 220.

Conventions of Writing Papers in Humanities

The first thought any writer should give to a paper is not "What am I going to say?" but "Who is my audience?"  You can think of the audience of your Humanities paper as an informed and intelligent fellow student.  Ultimately, of course, most essays are evaluated by a professor, but that professor is not a bored or sneering reader looking for a single interpretation.  The professor is interested in the same work that you are writing about, probably knows a good deal about it, and wants to be persuaded by a claim that you make about your topic.  You are writing to someone who knows the work at least as well as you do, so do not fill up your paper with plot summary.  Your job is to remind your audience of passages in the text that provide evidence for the argument you want to create about your topic.

Organization.  All college essays need an introduction, a body, and a conclusion.  In your Humanities paper, the essay's introduction invites your reader into your analysis and provides a thesis that describes the direction of your argument.  The essay's body is composed of a series of close, interpretive readings of passages from the Humanities text that support the assertion of your thesis.  The essay's conclusion thoughtfully reflects on what you have presented in the paper.  It does not simply repeat your thesis.

1.  START:

Introductory pitfalls.  The following are errors that inexperienced writers make when writing introductory paragraphs.

Praising the bard.  Frightened at the blank five or ten pages they have yet to fill, some students rely on a warm-up sentence that goes something like this: "The great Renaissance poet and playwright, William Shakespeare, masterfully wrote his famous play, Hamlet, just as the sixteenth century drew to a close."  Rarely do opening lines like this have anything to do with the thesis of the paper, and they should be edited out in the final draft.  Your professor and your fellow students are doubtless aware of Shakespeare's (or Locke's or Woolf's) well-received reputation and have no need for information extraneous to your topic.  Only include such phrases if they startlingly contrast commonly received ideas.  E.g., "Many have praised Shakespeare as the greatest of poets writing in English, but he is far surpassed by the exquisite wit and expression of the stand-up comedian Andrew Dice Clay."  Be prepared, of course, to defend your extraordinary claims.

Lab talk.  The noun "essay" is derived from a French verb that means "to try" or "to attempt."  When you write an essay, you are yourself using a literary form.  An essay is an extended work of prose composed to explore or examine an idea.  It is not a scientific proof, and the rhetoric of the laboratory has no place in your Humanities essay.  In poorly written essays, such "lab talk" shows up in a sentence like this: "In this paper I will prove that Gulliver maintains his ironic role through the end of the fourth book of Swift's Gulliver's Travels"  You may, indeed, follow a scientific route in crafting an inductive argument, one that gathers examples and draws conclusions by examining them together.  But inductive arguments, as any scientist will tell you, are never exhaustive.  Claims of proof about an object of interpretation will not lend your paper any authority.  You gain authority through the originality, thoroughness, and intelligence of your analysis.

Therapy thesis.  Most people have had the experience of being personally moved by a literary work.  Harry Mulisch's novel, The Assault, or James Baldwin's novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain, might parallel a self-discovery experience you have had.  Reading a poem like Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night" might force you to face your love and grief for a parent or relative who has died.  The cathartic power of art has been appreciated since the days of the early Greeks, and an emotional response to a work of literature is a legitimate response.  When Odysseus bows his head to hide the tears he sheds in listening to the singing of the poet in the court of the Phaiakians, however, he is not writing a Humanities essay.  The fact that a poem or a play touched a raw nerve is great.  But not every response we have to a text is an appropriate response for a college essay.  You need not deny your feelings in your essay; you simply need to take care that they  do not assume the place of analysis.  Make sure you discuss the primary source, rather than simply focusing on what it reminds you of in your life.

Good Starts. It is as impossible to prescribe a formula for the opening line of a Humanities essay as it is to tell a philosopher, historian, or novelist what the first line of her work should be.  If you believe that your purpose is simply to satisfy an assignment that scarcely interests you, feel free to start your essay with a sentence that will allow your reader to share your boredom.  But if your object is to attract the interest of your reader, craft a sentence about your topic that introduces it in a dignified, yet unexpected, manner.  An essay's topic is the narrowed down idea you have decided to discuss as it relates to the text you are considering.  E.g., you might choose to write about scatological references in Gulliver's Travels.  Somewhere within your first paragraph you want to include a sentence or two that describes your thesis.  A thesis is your assertion about your topic, a statement that indicates to your reader what the direction of the argument in your essay will be.  Just as you want to avoid hubristic claims of "proof" in your thesis, you should also avoid shy qualifications.  There is no need to muffle your thoughts with phrases like, "I believe that" or "In my opinion."  Your reader assumes that everything you write that you do not attribute to another author is your opinion.

2.  GO

In the body.  Whether your essay is three pages or twenty, you want to use your space to make a case for your thesis.  While you may be required to bring in extra-textual information that has a bearing on your argument, your essay will be most successful if you pay very close attention to the primary work.

Writing analysis.  "To analyze" means to pull something apart to carefully examine the pieces.  When you analyze a treatise, a satire, a novel, or a document, you select lines or passages to INTERPRET and make a claim about the whole work.  Sometimes you analyze the author's mode of expression: Why is this choppy? clear? tongue-in-cheek? replete with biblical references?  Sometimes you interpret the objects the author has written about: Is size important?  Does Locke know anything about native Americans? Is an exploding stove symbolic of psychological repression? Is a cigar just a cigar?  Sometimes you explain the patterns of imagery and metaphors the author has created: Why is Gulliver obsessed with his excrement?  Why does Fake Ploeg start a sanitation company?  What does it mean to go "to the lighthouse"?  All of your analytical passages combine to support your essay's thesis.

Creating your own organization.  It is not necessary to imitate the chronology of the work you are analyzing.  Since both you and your reader have completed a reading of the text you are discussing, you can draw upon examples from all sections of that text in whatever order best suits your argument.

Limiting Description.  When writing about a treatise, a satire, a novel, a document, etc., remember that your reader already knows the plot or substance of the text.  Concentrate on how the author expresses what happens.  You can refer to events and ideas without describing them as though they were completely new to your reader.  E.g., rather than telling your reader, "Jefferson argues for the American colonies to break away from the domination of Britain," you can say, "Jefferson's argument that the American colonies break away from the domination of Britain combines inductive reasoning with an emotional rhetorical appeal."  From there you would provide textual examples, and comment upon each one you select.

Using Secondary Sources.  Secondary sources  include textbooks, encyclopedias, dictionaries, books on a subject, journal articles, AND introductions and notes included with a primary source.  Cliffs Notes and other "study guides" are unacceptable secondary sources for a college-level Humanities paper.  The works assigned for this course, except for the optional history text, are all considered "primary sources" for the purposes of the essays you write.

When you are required to incorporate secondary sources into your essay, you must make sure that you are not simply writing a report.  Your essay is still governed by your thesis.  Never let a secondary source dominate your essay.  It offers supplementary information to your interpretation of the primary text.  ALL information that you derive from a secondary source must be noted.  Please use the parenthetical documentation style that appears below.

Using quotations.  Here is an oxymoron on the use of quotations: sparse bounty.  It is hard to claim that you are interested in the way an author expresses himself if you fail to demonstrate that expression in your essay.  On the other hand, you want to make sure that the passages you quote, whether in a primary or secondary source, need to be quoted.  Quote only passages that would lose their effectiveness if they were paraphrased.  Never use a quotation to substitute for your own prose.  Your prose must control your essay.  This is particularly important when you draw upon secondary critical sources.  Unless you are going to analyze a long passage of criticism, you should paraphrase what the author has to say.  ALWAYS INCLUDE A TAG LINE ON ANY QUOTATION YOU INCLUDE IN THIS ESSAY.  For example, a minimal tag line might be

 In The Second Treatise of Government, John Locke claims, " . . . ."

Is this clear?  Handbook writers call quotations without tag lines "dropped quotations."  A quotation should never appear in the prose of your essay without some of your words attached to it.  Don't just borrow someone's else's words because they sound good (even if you provide a citation).  Writing is hard work.  Do it.

Plagiarism.  When you use secondary sources, and when you refer to the primary work, you must be sure to cite your source properly or you may be guilty of plagiarism.  You will find formats for citing sources at the end of this document.  Whether you intend to cheat or not, if your paper does the following, you will--at the very least--receive a failing grade for your essay (usually a zero).  The College defines plagiarism this way: "(1) Direct quotation without appropriate punctuation and citation of source; (2) Paraphrase of expression or thought without proper attribution; (3) Dependence upon a source for a plan, organization or argument without appropriate citation."  Other forms of cheating, such as representing someone else's work as your own, will be punished in consultation with the Dean of the College.

There are also positive reasons to cite sources.  Your reader will certainly want to know the context of your quotation or paraphrase.  If a secondary work sounds interesting, your reader may want to know where to find it.  Finally, it is important to distinguish another writer's ideas from your own so that you get credit for the original thinking you have done.

3.  STOP

Weak conclusions.  The following are inappropriate ways to conclude a Humanities essay:

Sudden stop.  One way to avoid the task of reflecting upon what you have just written is to omit your conclusion and simply end your paper with your last example.  Both you and your reader will find this unsatisfying, however.  A conclusion makes you responsible for what you have claimed.  Think of it as the opportunity to assert something about your topic that you could not have asserted before you presented your examples.  Most writers find that they have made discoveries about their topic in the process of writing their essays.  This is why an essay takes at least two drafts.  Instead of an abrupt stop, indicate the kind of discovery your interpretative examples have made possible.

Apology.  Some writers do not like such responsibility.  Insecure writers may end their papers with sentences such as these:
"I really do not know what to make of this."
"I ran out of time and I could not draw this together."
"I was very upset while I was writing this and I hope you will take that into consideration while you are grading it."
"I'm sorry this isn't any better than it is.  I didn't budget my time well."
Don't apologize.  If your paper is indeed as dreadful as your apology suggests, your whining only underscores its inadequacies.  If your paper is actually not all that bad, an apology could undermine the favorable impression you have made.  Apologetic lines have nothing to do with your argument, so they do not belong in your essay.  Do yourself a favor, as well, and keep them off post-it notes and index cards attached to your essay.  Apologize to yourself if you are unhappy with your performance, and take responsibility for the work you hand in.

As a famous writer once said. It is tempting to end your paper with a quotation.  Weary after five or ten pages of your own prose, you turn to a pithy, artistic phrase to stop the show.  Again, you may be neglecting your responsibility here if you try to let someone draw your conclusion for you.  Take the time to reflect on what you have written and explain those reflections to your reader.  Use a quotation to complement??not to substitute for??your thoughts.

As I've just said.  Any writer can be proud of completing five or ten pages of thoughtful, well executed prose.  Writing is time-consuming, hard work.  Remember, however, that it will not take your reader nearly as long to read your work as it took you to write it, and most readers can remember what they have just read in a brief essay.  In a college essay, if you weigh down your conclusion with a repetition of what you have just said, you risk insulting your reader's intelligence.  Use the key words you have focused on in the course of the essay to trigger your reader's memory.  In some science writing, a conclusion does conventionally repeat what has been stated in the body.  Remember to distinguish Humanities essays from science essays.

Good endings.  Put your pen down.  Take your fingers off the keyboard.  Think about why you care about this topic.  Without looking at the words you have written, but fully informed by the examples you have provided in the body of the essay, write a draft of a concluding paragraph.  Start a few sentences this way: "This approach to this novel is important because _______."  "I now understand ______ about this topic, because _______."  "After spending time with this philosopher I can see that he ________."  When you compose your final draft of this concluding paragraph, edit out these phrases and keep the assertions in the blanks.  The draft sentence, "After spending time with this philosopher I can see that he is not really religious but he includes many biblical quotations in his essay to make himself sound more credible" BECOMES in a final edited version, "John Locke infuses the Second Treatise with biblical quotations to gain rhetorical credibility rather than to demonstrate religious faith."   You remind your reader of your discussion, and you conclude with a well-founded claim.  Expand in a few more thoughtful sentences, and you have your conclusion.

Format.  The following examples of documentation style follow the MLA Handbook.  Always check with your professors to find out what documentation style they prefer.

Paper set up: (For Professor Easton's students) Use a typewriter or printer with a clear black ribbon/ink, etc.  If you use chemically treated paper, turn in a photocopy rather than the original.  If you have trouble controlling the margins of your printer, use scissors and tape, then turn in a photocopy rather than the original.  The papers I receive should have:

  • approximately one inch margins on all sides
  • page numbers in the upper right hand corner of each page (you may do this by hand; do not number page one)
  • your name, the course number, your professor's name, and the date typed in the upper right hand corner of the first page of your paper (no cover sheet).
  • one staple or paper clip to hold the pages together (no report covers)
  • a final page (which should be numbered but does not count in your total pages) headed with the title "Works Cited."  Do not put that phrase in quotation marks.  List all books you have cited, even if there is only one book in your list.
  • no footnotes or endnotes, unless they are explanatory (all citations will be parenthetically noted in your text).
  • Center the title of your paper at the top of the first page of your essay (beneath your name, etc.).

    Here is an example of a parenthetical citation for a primary source:

    Fielding satirizes the hypocritical intellectualism of the clergy through the utterances of Parson Barnabas in Joseph Andrews.  Pushed for an explanation of spiritual requirements by Joseph, who believes he will die shortly, Barnabas defines by tautology: "Joseph desired to know what [Christian] forgiveness was.  'That is,' answered Barnabas, 'to forgive them as -- as -- it is to forgive them as -- in short, it is to forgive them as a Christian'" (Fielding, 49).  Exhausted by his physical condition, Joseph abandons his spiritual quest. Fielding implies that Barnabas' healthy parishioners are regularly exhausted by their spiritual leader's obfuscated doctrine.
    After the quotation, paraphrase or use of another author's idea, write a parenthetical citation using the author's last name and the page number(s).  Do not say "page" or "p."  If you have mentioned the author in your sentence, you can simply supply the number, like this: (49).  In this example, the essay writer includes a quotation that contains a quotation, and indicates this with double and single quotation marks.  The quotation comes from page 49 of Fielding's novel.  Quotation marks are placed at the beginning and end of the quotation, but the period follows the parentheses.  The bracketed word, "Christian," does not appear in Fielding's sentence (the word "that" appears, instead), but "Christian" is implied by a portion of the text not quoted, and the bracketed word clarifies the quotation for the reader.  The reader can turn to the "Works Cited" page and find this listing:

    Fielding, Henry.  Joseph Andrews.  Ed. Martin C. Battestin.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961.

    Here are some other sample bibliographic entries for a "Works Cited" page.

    Mulisch, Harry.  The Assault.  Trans. Claire Nicolas White.  New York:

    Pantheon, 1985.
    Locke, John.  Second Treatise of Government.  Ed. Richard Cox.  Arlington
    Heights: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1982.
    Swift, Jonathan.  Gulliver's Travels.  Ed. Louis A. Landa.  Boston: Houghton
    Mifflin, 1960.
    For an article that appears in a journal with continuous paging throughout a single year:

    McLuhan, Marshall.  "Pound, Eliot, and the Rhetoric of The Waste Land."  New

    Literary History 10 (1979): 557-580.
     The second and subsequent lines of a bibliographic entry are indented one tab space to highlight the last name of the author in the first line.  Note that the writer does not include either "vol." or "pp."  The format of the entry indicates to the reader that the volume is 10 and the article is found on pages 557-580.

    For a book by more than one author:

    Anderson, Bonnie S., and Judith P. Zinnser.  A History of Their Own: Women

    in Europe from Prehistory to the Present.  Vol. 1.  New York: Harper

    and Row, 1989.  2 vols.

    Here, the writer indicates that only the first volume of a two volume work has been used.  "New York" here refers to the city, not the state.

    Do not number bibliographic entries.  Always use a hanging indent and alphabetize by authors' last names.  If no author is available, alphabetize by the first word of the title.

    Go to:  Geneseo English Department Homepage
               Professor Easton's Homepage

    Prospective students often ask me what a sample week in my AP courses looks like. The reality is that both my AP Lang and AP Lit courses evolve over the course of the year. During December and January, for example, AP Lang work revolves around the Peace Essay Competition, as students hone their research, argumentation, and writing skills by working on their contest entry. At other times, students work on more creative or interactive assignments, and at other times, we're deep in the trenches of test preparation. However, what follows is about as "average" as a week in AP Lang gets, so I hope it can give you a sense for how my courses function.

    In both of my courses, I send out a "Weekly Update" every Sunday, which includes a schedule for the upcoming two weeks. These Weekly Updates list all of the assignments due during the next two weeks, and I only rarely change assignments once they've been sent out. Aside from the Morning Messages, students can work ahead as much as they'd like once I've sent out the Weekly Update, and I always accommodate students with special time constraints or travel plans. 


    As you can see, I build a lot of interaction into each week's syllabus-- I feel students learn a great deal about writing by comment on each other's work (and receiving feedback from each other), and I love the discussions that evolve from our discussion question posts. Since posting this Weekly Update in the fall, my class and I developed an even more natural way to conduct discussions. Now, while discussion question interactions do not happen live, students respond directly to each other's ideas and deepen our collective analysis of their readings with each post. I'll have to post a sample of these interactions in a later showcase!

    I take advantage of the fact that I live seven hours ahead of my students and post a "Morning Message" on the course website each morning before they wake up. Usually these messages involve a quick task to complete, and sometimes I use them to direct students to outside readings. The feel of each message varies, but I find they're a great way to provide direct instruction and deepen students' thinking about classwork. Past students have told me that they miss waking up to a Morning Message once my class has ended!

    Here are two sample Morning Messages that I posted during the week I share above. 


    The Monday Morning Message:


    Good morning!

    Up until this week, your readings in Language of Composition have focused on general instruction. You've studied argument, rhetorical analysis, and synthesis (not coincidentally, also the three kinds of essays you'll face on the exam). This week, though, we start a new kind of unit: themed readings about the same general topic. These units will lead us to deeply engage with ideas, not just with the mechanics of writing, and I can't wait to get started. I personally find the first topic fascinating: education.

    When I was in graduate school, I read a book by Neil Postman called The End of Education (a pun; "end" can mean "purpose"). It essentially asked, what's the point of public education? Why should you learn about the quadratic formula, Shakespeare, or the war of 1812 when few of these topics are likely to be relevant to your job some day? Why should the government pay so much for public education-- what's in it for society?

    Here's how Wikipedia describes Postman's view of public school's purpose:

    Postman begins by emphasizing the difference between education and schooling:

    "To the young, schooling seems relentless, but we know it is not. What is relentless is our education, which, for good or ill, gives us no rest. That is why poverty is a great educator. Having no boundaries and refusing to be ignored, it mostly teaches hopelessness. But not always. Politics is also a great educator. Mostly, it teaches, I am afraid, cynicism. But not always. Television is a great educator as well. Mostly it teaches consumerism. But not always." (pg. ix.)

    Postman believes that schools' primary social function is to create a common culture among citizens through the communication of unifying purpose-giving narratives rather than to simply initiate children into the economy.

    “The idea of public education depends absolutely on the existence of shared narratives and the exclusion of narratives that lead to alienation and divisiveness. What makes public schools public is not so much that the schools have common goals but that the students have common gods. The reason for this is that public education does not serve a public. It creates a public.” (pg. 17)

    Furthermore, he feels American education has drifted away from its founding narratives of Democracy and Individual rights, replaced by the narratives of economic utility and the belief in technology as the measure of humanity's progress. Postman believes that the school system's current narratives at best, fail to sufficiently inspire and, all too often, fail to communicate anything at all. Chief among the failing gods is Economic Utility, the view of school's highest purpose as preparation for the workplace.

    "The preparation for making a living... is well served by any decent education." (pg. 32, 33) “Here it is necessary to say that no reasonable argument can be made against educating the young to be consumers or to think about the kinds of employment that might interest them. But when these are elevated to the status of a metaphysical imperative, we are being told that we have reached the end of our wits—even worse, the limit of our wisdom.” (pg. 35,36)

    In other words, Postman sees "schooling" as something separate from learning-- "schooling" is an institution, with its own goals.  The point of public schools used to be to prepare students to participate in a democracy; now the "narrative" of public schools is to prepare students for the workplace or to use technology, two "ends" that he sees as pretty lacking.

    Before I read Postman's book, I never thought of "education" as being anything separate from "learning." As fellow homeschoolers, I bet some of you think the same way. When I taught in a conventional school, on the other hand, I realized just how many of the goals of "teaching" have little to do with academic learning-- students are supposed to learn to share, to write neatly, to follow directions, to respect their classmates, uplift the downtrodden, form value judgments, etc.  I taught in a Jewish day school, so it had its own particular goals: to produce graduates who would live Jewish lives, avoid intermarriage, support Israel, and serve as Jewish leaders in their synagogues and the Jewish community at large. The goals of public school are a bit harder to define, but they are there. As ridiculous as I always found the "what about socialization" question, socialization--induction into American society as well-adjusted citizens--IS a primary goal of school. (Whether it succeeds at this goal is another question.) Homeschooling can be seen as a threat to the creation of these armies of school graduates who have been prepared to be productive, well-rounded members of society.

    I truly look forward eavesdropping on your discussions in this unit-- particularly because you aren't its standard audience. (One discussion question suggests that students interview homeschoolers about their experiences!) Incidentally, the AP exam writers love to ask questions about school because they think these questions are accessible to students, so your readings and discussions in this unit are great preparation for turning your (possible) lack of knowledge about conventional education into a strength, since it gives you a unique critical perspective.

    Today, let me ask you: what is the goal of your home education? (Have you ever asked your parents this question? What do they say?) Are you a threat to the goals of public education? Is the goal of your education the same as the goal of conventional school? Do you think your education is succeeding in reaching its goals?

    I hope you enjoy our discussions this unit!

    Mrs. Inspektor



    The Wednesday Morning Message:


    Ralph Waldo Emerson. Source:

    Good morning!

    Thank you for your thoughts yesterday about Helen Keller's memoir. I'm inclined to agree that it should be cut, though I don't think I've found the perfect replacement yet. (Perhaps no replacement is necessary.) I'm now interested to see how you react to Rodriguez!

    Your reading by Emerson, today, highlights the fact that not all 19th-century writing is flowery. While it can be tough to get into the flow of Emerson's words at first, once I do, I'm struck by his simple, concrete word choices. Consider these lines from paragraph 8:

    The child is as hot to learn as the mother is to impart. There is mutual delight.  The joy of our childhood in hearing beautiful stories from some skillful aunt who loves to tell them, must be repeated in youth. The boy wishes to learn to skate; to coast, to catch a fish in the brook, to hit a mark with a snowball or a stone; and a boy a little older is just as well pleased to teach him these sciences.

    Out of 82 words, fully 67 are just one syllable long. I used far more polysyllabic words in the paragraph above the quote; it takes great care to use such strong and simple diction. Emerson's imagery is concrete and vivid. If I told you to get specific, in my comments on your literacy narrative, THIS is what I meant. Consider this paragraph instead, which has the same general meaning, but none of the power or energy:

    Children, in general, are highly desirous of knowledge, and their mothers are naturally inclined to bestow instruction upon them. They find this relationship to be mutually beneficial and satisfactory. Children also tend to enjoy the recounting of fairy tales or other such narratives, and this pleasure tends not to decrease with time. Children have natural desire to acquire physical skills, and they can also be called upon to instruct younger children in the development of said skills.

     Emerson takes complex abstract ideas and makes them concrete, rooting them in verbs and images. I especially love the choice of "hot" to describe a child's desire to learn; it makes the concept of "desire" concrete, making the child's hunger for knowledge seem primal and emotional. It's also striking that Emerson uses "sciences" to refer to physical skills such as learning to skate, catch fish, or throw snowballs; in doing so, he elevates normal childhood play to the level of academic study, implying that we can also rely on children to seek (and teach) intellectual knowledge, too.

    (By the way, the paragraph from Emerson also shows that the rules of punctuation have changed. Emerson's writing style is worth emulating; his use of semicolons isn't!)

    In response to today's message, please take a few lines from Emerson's essay and "translate" them either into contemporary language or flowery, general prose-- whichever strikes you are more fun or useful. (Preserve as much of the line's original meaning as you can.) Then, explain what is effective about Emerson's original phrasing. Make the first few words of the lines you "translate"  the subject line of your reply. (My subject line could be "The child is as hot to learn as...") A reply to today's message is mandatory.

    I hope you enjoy today's reading! Don't forget to use marginalia or other close reading strategies to interest yourself in the text as you read. You may need to read this essay more than once. If you start to have emotional reactions to Emerson's ideas and start to get a sense for the personality behind his words, you're probably understanding the text.

    Mrs. Inspektor



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