Is Excellence a Choice?

What is Excellence?

What is the best you can be?

The answer to that question depends on what you are attempting to do. Each of us has a repertoire of tasks and work that has been practiced and honed to a fine quality.

That level of performance qualifies as “excellence.” Any work or performance that is your best, deserves that label.

How does a person reach the standard of excellence?

Is it your usual choice to be and do your best?

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Everyone starts off, in every human endeavor, as an amateur. Amateur work is identifiable as a beginner’s effort by those who have worked to advance to a higher level of performance. And that’s the path to achieving excellence.

Work to achieve a higher level of performance. Practice, study, compare your effort with the work of a professional.

But, not for the purpose of discouragement. Rather, for the purpose of discovery. What additional, beyond what you have achieved, has the professional discovered how to do? And, perhaps more importantly, what is the next step in achievement that you must do in order to advance toward the level of professional?

My last article revealed the “Puzzle Strategy” for solving problems. It’s a Puzzle listed 7 Steps to take in mastering a problem.

This strategy can be applied to the task of achieving excellence in many of life’s arenas.

This Puzzle Strategy is not intended as a once-and-done exercise, or as something that will produce discernible results in a day of practice. My wife (my Proofreader) commented that this looks like a semester of class work. In reality, it’s more like a lifetime of effort.

So, let’s get started… Download the PDF of this article and use it as a Study and Practice Guide.

Let’s suppose that you want to become a writer of excellent material.

What is the first step to take?

Step 1

Label the goal: I will become a writer of excellent material.

Find writing that is recognized as Excellent. There are numerous authors who qualify at this level.

Make it your work to read and study the writings of several authors in several different genres.

This may take weeks to accomplish. But don’t rush. Take the time to understand excellent writing when you read it.

Step 2

Study the parts of the puzzle: words, sentences, paragraphs, transitions, essays…

During your reading and study you will likely discover some work that especially appeals to you, words and sentences that resonate with your emotions and intelligence.

Step 3

Break these passages and paragraphs into their parts. Study how the words fit together to create images and concepts.

Move the words and phrases around to see if they can fit into other shapes and patterns.

Apply the emotions and ideas to your unique set of life experiences.

Write the material in your own words. This practice will be invaluable to your writing career.

Step 4

Identify the edges.

Pay attention to the number of sentences used by the original/professional author. Notice the lengths of the sentences and paragraphs. Notice the subjects and verbs of each sentence. Each has probably been chosen with care to assist in the crafting of the intellectual and emotional response that you had to the writing. Notice the placement of the subjects and predicates, of modifiers: adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases.

Repeat Steps 1 – 4 several times before going on.

Step 5

Work on the smaller groups of the puzzle.

Develop your understanding of the sentences by working on each sentence separately.

Move the parts around… put the subject in a different part of the sentence. Repeat moving the parts around with the verbs, and the modifiers.

Change the words to ones that you would commonly use. Notice what that does to the tone, the emotion, the overall meaning.

BTW, if the ideas of subject, predicate, verb, modifiers… are uncomfortable for you, you probably ought to start with the basics of writing until these labels are thoroughly understood. Try teaching them to an 8-year old to see if you really understand.

Step 6

Now work on the groups of sentences that form paragraphs.

Change the order of the sentences within the paragraph. Take each sentence out, one-at-a-time, to see what happens, how the meaning is changed or destroyed.

Practice writing paragraphs to state a simple idea or experience. Use paragraphs of different lengths.

Finally, outline an original essay or short work that supports the author’s ideas, but using your experiences and understanding. (‘Outline’ doesn’t have to look like your high school English teacher demanded. Just create a plan using words and phrases. Then put the plan in a particular sequence to guide your writing.)

Use the main idea from Step 4 to re-write the material so that it says something new… perhaps the exact opposite of the original author’s concept.

Step 7

Repeat with a new author or piece of writing. Then repeat again.

If you have a friend who is not intimidating to you, from whom you can listen to instructive criticism without getting your feelings hurt. enlist that person’s help.

Or enroll in a community college writing course.

Your Voice

As you work through this sequence you will likely discover a voice that you like for your writing. Practice that voice. Hone it so that it is automatic for you. Practice it with different genres of writing.

Participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).

Excellence, Your Choice

Excellence is not about being better than others. Excellence has been defined as ‘doing more than you thought you could.’

Perhaps, as in “I never dreamed I could write like that.”

Or reading something that you wrote and feeling the emotion rise in you in response to the words, phrases, ideas that came from your mind.

Excellence is always the result of choice. You choose to do your best, or you choose not to. Not choosing is still a choice.

I put my best into each task that I attempt. That’s excellence, for me. Yet, I expect to do better on the next iteration of the task.

Writing, for me, is an outlet. My ideas, my emotions, my memories flow onto the page and are left there as a legacy for my family and friends. Even if no one else reads them, I have written and published to the world words that no one else could put together like I did.

Writing for an Audience

Writing for others to read is not as easy as writing for only yourself. Your audience cannot pick up on a memory or inference that is activated when you read a line or phrase. So, what makes sense to you may be a puzzle for others.

Proofreader

Find someone who will proofread what you have written and offer insight into what an audience might experience when reading your writing. You might need to have a written agreement with your proofreader, stating that you will not be offended, hurt, or intimidated by the reader’s suggestions.

It’s your choice.

The photo at the top of this article was colored by my grandson when he was 5 years old. I think he did excellent work.

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Respond to the ideas presented in this article. Agree? Disagree?

How would you write this article?

What steps would you share with others?

Leave your response in the Comments box.

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Comment or email me eldon @ eldonroberts.com

Thank you for reading.

I look forward to hearing from you.

The Art of Reflection

Katie had an irrepressible sense of humor. It was quick and pointed. She never hesitated to speak up in class or out, when she saw an opportunity to make the other kids laugh with her wit.

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It was a combined classroom with students in grades 5 through 8. The old style of school.

I was in my fourth year of teaching, my second in this particular school. I had recruited diligently to increase enrollment. A family had enrolled their three children; all three were in my room. Katie was one of the youngest in the room.

The students were in four different Spelling groups. On test day I would give all four tests at the same time, one word from each list in rotation. It had occurred to me that I was repeating too many times because students were not focused. In an effort to improve their listening skills I had decided that I would limit the number of repetitions for all teacher presentations. I made the announcement:

“Beginning right now,” I entoned, “I will be giving instruction one time, and will not repeat it.”

Katie’s voice rose into the stillness of the classroom as I looked from one face to another. “What?” she asked, without the hint of a smile.

“Beginning right now…” I began, and the classroom erupted in student laughter. I am not slow witted myself, so a few seconds after their laughter filled the room, my laughter joined in. I walked over to Katie’s desk, and held out my hand. She took it, and I hugged her as I continued to laugh. She had qualified to become one of my best friends.

The whole family befriended me that year. I see her mother regularly at church, and we smile and reminisce.

Beginning Reflection

I cannot remember a time when I did not reflect on what had happened to me during the day. I know now to call that Reflection.

Even as a child I remember going over the day’s events, like a review of the day. Perhaps it is related to my personality. I am a private person, an Introvert. I’d rather think than talk.

Reflecting allows me to make sense of the day. If something good happens, I analyze the event and the things that led up to it. Maybe I could make something good happen again – on purpose.

If something bad happens, I analyze to see what part I played in causing the event, or making it worse. Maybe I could recognize the indicators leading up to it, and prevent something bad from happening again.

For much of my childhood I walked to school and back home. The afternoon walk afforded me a perfect time to reflect on the day in the classroom.

As a Teacher

Later, when I became a teacher, I continued the practice of reflecting on my work. At the end of the day I would walk around the classroom, stop at each desk and think about my interactions with that child during the day. I would think about the student’s approach and response to the lessons taught that day.

This would help me to identify what I needed to re-teach the next day, what changes I needed to make in my approach to that student to increase the liklihood of the student understanding the lesson or concept.

I always arrived in my classroom early – at least an hour early. First, I would again walk around the classroom, stop at each desk, and pray for that child. And pray for me to have skill and wisdom to meet the needs of that student.

On the ride home I would again re-play the day to identify changes that I needed to make and to rejoice in the victories experienced by students.

When I arrived home I had all the work-day problems neatly catalogued and stored. So, I could be the family man, the husband, the father, with no clutter to interfere with helping with cooking and playing with the kids.

Better Me

I was (am) a Better Teacher through the use of Reflection professionally and personally.

I endeavored to instill the practice of Reflection in my students. Each day, about 20 minutes before the closing bell, each student took out a spiral-bound notebook with “Today I Learned…” written on the front cover. The assignment was to write three things that he or she had learned that day due to instruction or reading. This required Reflection on the school day.

At 10 minutes before the end of the school day, each student read what had been written, out loud, to the class, round robin.

When the students climbed in their ride home and the parent asked, “What did you learn in school today?” they were ready with specifics. Good PR, but good strategy for spaced repetition, which assists in long-term recall.

I could see that these efforts produced results. They became Better Students as they learned how to reflect. Report card grades and test scores attested to the changes.

Benefits

There are at least 7 benefits to be realized from the Practice of Reflection.

  1. You are able to identify those good and successful things that you achieved.
  2. You are able to identify the interactions or behaviors that you need to do better, or at least differently (on your own, without someone else pointing them out. Self-criticism is easier to take than external criticism.)
  3. Once identified, you can plan for repeating the successes and changing the unfortunate misses.
  4. You can create plans for correcting, apologizing, making up for errors and bad behavior,.
  5. You can make plans for permanent changes and replacement of bad habits that show up in your review.
  6. You get to see yourself as others might see you. Reflecting objectively like this might take some practice over time.
  7. You also have the opportunity to see others with whom you interacted in a new light. You might discover that you misinterpreted, misjudged.

A reflection in a mirror is about your looks.
Reflection in your mind is about your behavior.

Be a Better You, not just in looks, but in behavior. Implement the practice of Reflection. Reap the Benefits listed above.

  • I almost always combine Reflection with Imagination exercises. More on that practice in another post.
    Reflection should not be confused with Meditation.

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What experiences with Reflection have you had. Share with me how you use it.

If you haven’t done it regularly before, does it sound like something you might try?

Write to me using the Comment box online at www.EldonRoberts.com . Or email me. I will respond.

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Comment or email me eldon @ eldonroberts.com

Thank you for reading.

Friends, Emotions, & Writing

I didn’t learn how to make friends when I was a child. We moved a lot when I was growing up. I lived in 10 different homes by the time I was ten.

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My sister was my best friend. She was about a year older than I, but people often thought we were twins.

Her name was Edith. We shared the same initials: RER. She was born with cystic fibrosis. That was a death sentence back 70 years ago.

I learned how to play dolls, how to sew so we could make doll clothes together, how to embroider, how to do the things that she enjoyed and could do.

I taught her how to climb trees. I showed her how a friend treats a friend. But, I think she did most of the teaching.

I was her protector. She developed arthritis early on. Being bumped or touched the wrong way would cause her great pain.

Our school was in an old Southern home with a high crawl space, about 4 feet high. The porch in the front was high. One day an older student decided to play King of the Mountain with the porch as his mountain. Edith was on the porch, watching. I was occupied on the ground in front of the porch.

Suddenly, he saw Edith and grabbed her to throw her off the porch. His roughness hurt her and she began crying. When I saw what was happening, I ran to the steps and leaped up them. Friends later told me I was yelling like a wild man.

The “king” apparently heard me, released Edith, and headed for the steps to escape. I was on the steps. He didn’t escape. It’s the only fight I was ever in. I won.

The principal looked sternly at me and admonished me about fighting. Then, with a smile, sent me back to class.

Edith lived to be 21 years old. She enrolled in the local Junior College, had boyfriends, even a couple marriage proposals. She lived gracefully. But she knew that her time was limited.

My first real friend, other than my sister, was a girlfriend. Go figure.

Poetry

I began writing poetry when I was 11. The first poem was in response to an assignment at school. The teacher wanted to have a bulletin board about pets. It was to be a cooperative effort: he had the idea and his students would make the contents.

I wrote a poem about my dog, Brownie. I didn’t keep a copy of it. An eleven-year-old isn’t thinking about legacy.

“My dog has fleas, they bite her,
She scratches day and night…”

Those are the first lines. But I can’t remember the rest.

My father could, and often did, recite poems that he had written when he was younger. The Roberts family has a legacy of writers, going back to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I like to think I’m keeping the legacy alive.

Where is this going?

I wrote a lot of poems to my girlfriends. Love poems. Moon poems.

As the lyrics to a ‘60s song go, “Breaking up is hard to do…” So some of my poems are sad. Almost morbid. Lost love is never happy.

I remember riding home on my little Vespa motor scooter from Edith’s funeral. I didn’t cry outwardly, but inside I was screaming.

I wrote a few poems about grief and how lousy life is. I have included some in my books, A Gathering of Poetry. There are two volumes, but only Volume I is published at this time. Volume II will be published soon.

Reasons I Write

Writing has been for me a release. For my emotions, my dreams, my secret life, I write. Sometimes I think my writing is my friend. Perhaps that’s why all writers write.

Reason #1
I write to focus my emotions. When I can see the words on paper that express my emotional state, I am able to accept the emotions and move on with life.

Reason #2
I write to organize my thoughts. With the words on paper, even though they may be jumbled and disorganized, I can copy, cut, paste – organize, without forgetting or misplacing important information.

Friends
I can trust my friends to read my writing without judgment, with compassion, because they know the real me.

That gives me the confidence I need to share my writing with a broader audience – even with people I don’t know. An audience validates the emotions and ideas that are expressed in the writing.

My sister had a true friend. Her name was Linda Holland. Later, when I came to my senses, I married her.

Share

Why do you write? Why do you read what others have written? How do you deal with your emotions? Do you have some safe people with whom you can share your emotions?

Write to me and share your thoughts and observations about writing and friends – or about loss. Use the Comments box below or email me. I will respond.

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Comment or email me eldon @ eldonroberts.com

Thank you for reading.

How Not to be Fooled

A new boy entered the 8th grade at the school I attended. He was older than I and was apparently worthy of imitation. I made friends and began hanging around him at recess and lunch.

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His worldly wisdom shocked me, but that made the attraction stronger. He would say things out of ear-shot of the teacher that I would never have dared to even think, much less say out loud. Leonard became my leader.

One day at lunch time Leonard suggested that we sneak off campus and walk over to an abandoned park that was near the school, about half a mile away. There were some houses on the way, but we avoided being seen. The park area was overgrown with brush and trees, but there was a usable path around the dark, murky pond.

We walked around for a while, then realized that it was almost time for afternoon class to start. We took off running. We didn’t want to create a reason for the teacher to question where we had been.

As we ran, I tripped on an oak tree root that was partially above ground. I sprawled head first into the jumble of roots and leaves and dirt.

In amazement I heard the word, “Damn!” come out of my mouth. I had heard Leonard say the word often, in response to all kinds of things.

I had never said it, or even thought it, before.

I was mortified. I was ashamed. I was repentant. That was the last time that I hung around Leonard. The principal made that decision easier, by expelling Leonard soon after our off-campus experience.

I had been fooled by Leonard. He appeared to be someone special that would make a good friend.

Being fooled is not pleasant. It can result in being confused, embarrassed, angry. We often make a resolution after being fooled, “I’ll never let that happen again!” Since my tumble, I have never made a friend of anyone who looked or acted like Leonard. Friendship is based on trust, and I couldn’t trust that type again.

Facebook is based on the premise that you make “Friends” with people and share with them.

But, Facebook is replete with people whose self-esteem and fame are tied to fooling people with fake news and fake warnings. Unfortunately, it seems that many people view their fame as more important than honesty. A Like-Farm post that garners hundreds and thousands of hits and shares boosts their personal value in their eyes and in the eyes of others who seek fame at all costs.

We have all been made fools by Sharing a fake, untrue post. I have. And I didn’t enjoy the experience.

Avoid being fooled

It takes very little time to move the cursor and click the mouse on Share.

It takes more time to determine whether or not a post is true and accurate. Here are 5 Steps you can quite quickly take to reduce the chances that you’ll be a fool again.

1. Realize and Accept the Fact: Facebook is not a legitimate information and news source.

Yes, it is used by legitimate news agencies for sharing news and information. But its openness to everyone makes it much like the Old West…

Be skeptical and suspicious of all posts from sources and people you don’t personally know. The old adage is perhaps still wise: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. Pay attention to some posts that you know are fake and learn some of the indicators of fake news.

Some websites to investigate regarding fake news websites:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fake_news_websites
www.fakenewswatch.com/
www.hoax-slayer.net/four-quick-ways-to-spot-fake-news-stories/

2. Ask: How does this news or information compare with what you already know to be true?

You have experienced the real world and have a wealth of knowledge with which to compare new information. Take a few moments to think through what you have read and seen as you ask the question How does this measure up with my knowledge and experience?

3. Ask: Is it reasonable? Is the presentation, graphic, and information absurd or extreme? Does it seem reasonable?

True information is usually reasonable. If what you read prompts you to think, This is ridiculous! Or This can’t be true! then pass on it, rather than pass it on. Resist the urge to Share.

4. Ask: What emotion is targeted by the author? Does it tend to make you fearful or suspicious?

Many scam posts are designed to create fear in you, so that you react without really thinking. If you are fearful, you want to warn your friends to be careful. First, you be careful. Move on without acting from fear. Unless you need to dial 9-1-1 for an immediate danger, move on without sharing.

5. Ask: What is the source or authority for the information?

It is possible to discover exactly where a page or post originated. I’m not going to teach that lesson here and now. But check the URL (the web address) that is listed with the post. Scammers like to stay close to a legitimate address, but have to make some change. It may not be obvious until you’ve practiced a while. Check out the sites I’ve listed under number 1 above.

Learn about scam sites, because it’s more than just sharing a Facebook post.

Scammers are trying to get your personal and financial information so they can get your money. Caution! If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is false.

If you are an appointed scout with the mission to warn others of all possible impending dooms, become familiar with websites whose mission is to inform readers of scams and fake news.

www.snopes.com
www.factcheck.org
www.fakenewswatch.com

Satire and Hollywood

Some websites are focused on satire, which warps real news and information to poke fun and ridicule at people and organizations. Many late-night TV programs are hosted by show people whose only claim to fame is their ability to ridicule people, events, and ideas in ways that make people laugh.

We should not assume that those performers have inside information that is valuable or specially insightful to help us make decisions about the real world.

Remember, the commercials in which non-actors are responding to an experience or product have the screen warning: Real people; not actors. Think about the implications of that warning the next time a Hollywood character tries to tell you how to vote or think. (Now I’ve gone to meddling in politics.)

And some websites are focused on alternative news which presumes that everything is part of a global conspiracy and nothing except their viewpoint is true. Those sites and people cannot be trusted. There are conspiracies.

The biggest conspiracy in the universe involves Satan. He attempts to keep us occupied with insignificant things so that we don’t have time to pay attention to God’s Word.

Share

What has your experience with Facebook and news been? How do you identify and avoid the fake news posts? Share with me what you have learned. Write your experience and send it through email or in the Comments box below.

**By the way, the featured image is upside down. You probably didn’t notice before. I manipulated it to make a point: it’s easy to be fooled.

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Comment or email me eldon @ eldonroberts.com

Thank you for reading.

What’s Music Got to Do with It?

I was 8 years old. I had been sent to Maine to live with my Aunt and Uncle on the farm.

Uncle Ben played the violin. He described it as “fiddled.” He had never had lessons, but somehow he had acquired a violin. In true Roberts fashion, he taught himself to fiddle.

About once each week Uncle Ben would take the violin down from on top of the upright piano and play some old hymns. As far as I know, no one in the household played the piano. I don’t know how or why they had a piano.

But the violin spoke to me. I determined right then that I would own a violin and learn to play it. It would make my life better.

When my parents moved to Maine, I moved back in with them. They rented a large farm house about 5 miles from Uncle Ben’s farm. In what could be deemed a miracle, the furnished house included a piano. And some lesson books were in the bench.

I had a plan: I would show my commitment to the violin by teaching myself to play the piano first.

Christmas approached

I wrote my letter to Santa and gave it to Mom to mail. There was one item on my list to Santa: Violin.

Christmas morning I was the first one up. I searched under the tree for my violin. Jeans. Socks. Underwear. Flannel shirt. My anticipation mounted. There were few presents left. Which one was a violin?

Mom handed me a square, thin, light present, wrapped in bright, Christmas-red paper. She smiled and said, “We know you wanted a violin. This is the best we could do.”

It was either a very small, skinny violin, or Santa had failed to get my letter.

It was a record. An LP, for those who remember the history of recorded music. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major. It was the best they could do. Yet, I was devastated. I stopped playing “The Old Oaken Bucket” on the piano. What was the use? And where was the challenge in playing the concerto on the record player?

I soon had the concerto memorized. I could whistle right along with the record.

I learned much later what listening to the music did for my brain. Granted, it wasn’t as much as I would have benefited by actually playing the violin. But I had brain gain from the experience.

You might think that was the end of the violin requests, but you’d be wrong. For years I begged for a violin.

After the record, I received a ukulele, a mandolin, a guitar, an autoharp, and a 5-string banjo.

I learned to play each one. But I still coveted a violin.

Finally, when I was about 30, Uncle Ben found a violin at an estate sale. He bought it for $3.00 with the plan that it was for me. The next Summer when we visited the farm, he brought it out and told me the story of finding it.

“You can have it for $30.00,” he said. Ever the Yankee, he couldn’t help himself. I bought it from him.

I now have two full-size violins plus two youth-size violins that my grandson has used for his violin lessons. He’s a natural, and loves the violin.

Music enhances life.

I have learned a lot more about the influence music has on brain development. Listening to the “right kind” of music has a positive developmental influence on children – and even adults who take lessons later in life.

Learning music makes it easier for students to master other subjects as well as improving skills that are used in other disciplines.

Benefits can be measured in five areas: Language development, higher IQ, increased cognitive abilities, improved spatial-temporal skills, and higher test scores.

Infancy is the ideal time to begin the process of acquiring the many benefits from music. But it is important to take advantage of the opportunities available through music instruction, no matter what age your child is – or you are. Music can make life better.

We talked, read, sang, and played classical music for our youngest grandson before he was born. That has continued to this day. He is taking piano and violin lessons. At his last violin recital, he played with the teenagers due to his advanced skills. (He is 8 years old.)

But what about you and/or your children and grandchildren? You may not be able to begin lessons at age 5. Benefits are still available for you to harvest. Begin now. Grandparents can give the gift of music to their grandchildren.

Classical music is available free on the radio (NPR Radio) and on the TV (again, PBS). There are many resources that bring music directly to you. Pandora.com has a free option and can be placed on your phone or tablet. You establish stations and build your lists. Other apps are available.

The most common objection that I have heard about beginning to listen to classical music is “But. I don’t like it!” Want to enhance your life?

Here’s a truth bomb.

You like the kind of music that is familiar to you. What you heard as a child or from your friends is familiar. So you like it. Solution: get familiar with other styles of music by listening to it. Once you know the tune, you’ll begin to appreciate (like) classical tunes.

I tested this theory in my classroom – actually several of my classrooms. I questioned the kids (usually middle school to high school students), about their preferences and practices with music. I then introduced them to classical numbers.

I would play the same composition every day for a while. It was only a few days into the program when several students began humming along. Over the course of a couple months it was not unusual to have students request that I play classical music during their writing sessions and math work.

Music takes a direct route to our emotions and electrical processes. Rather than letting our emotions or temperaments determine how we interact with our world, we can choose to override those influences and use music to change our emotions and brain processes.

Some styles of music are detrimental. Not only are the rhythms disturbing to the body systems, but the lyrics are counter to a wholesome lifestyle.

God gave humans the gift of music. Satan has corrupted that gift. We have to be careful which type of music we fill our minds and lives with. Music is powerful and has ‘everything’ to do with life.

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Let me know what you have experienced with music. Tell me your response to what I have written. Be sure to follow the links that are in the article. It’s not just my opinion.

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Thank you for reading.