Not All Single Mothers Are Alike … or All Really Single

May 5, 2016

Mother’s Day weekend seems a good time for another post on single mothers — a topic that consistently brings more Googlers to my blog than almost any other.

I’m taking a different approach than I did in the past because much of what one finds in public sources is muddled — and so the solution wrong-headed.

We see right-wing conservatives still promoting marriage as a key to ending poverty. And not only them. The center-left Brookings Institution joined with the center-right American Enterprise Institute to produce an anti-poverty plan. It too endorses promoting marriage.

Both the muddle and the marriage promotion stem in part from the same source — a conflation of single motherhood with unplanned out-of-wedlock births. They also reflect some incontrovertible data and some controversial studies linking single-parent families to bad outcomes for kids.

The data come from the Census Bureau. Year after year, it reports far higher percents of single-mother families in poverty than married couples with minor-age children in the same financial straits.

The assumption then is that single mothers and their children would be better off if married. Which leads to the further assumption that single mothers became mothers without first marrying — and did so accidentally. Neither reflects the realities of our society — perhaps even less than in the past.

We’ve got research now, for example, that flips cause and effect. Kathryn Edin, who actually lived in poor communities and got to know women there, found that they would have chosen marriage if they’d found a suitable spouse — specifically, a reliable, clean-living, nonviolent breadwinner. Severe shortage, as Edin explains.

The women had children anyway because they wanted them and saw no point in delaying motherhood, feeling they’d be poor no matter what. Children, in fact, satisfied a felt need for meaning in life.

I want, however, to focus on the second pair of assumptions. As my title suggests, not all single mothers are alike. That is, they’re not all single and mothers for the same reasons. And, as it also suggests, they’re not all single — at least, from their point of view.

First off, single mothers include those who got divorced or became widows and didn’t remarry. Many, but far from all live in poverty — because they’re not getting much, if anything by way of child support, in the former cases, or Social Security benefits for their children, in the latter.

Some would be no better off if they still had a husband in the house. Nor would their children. We still see the term “deadbeat dads” used to refer to absent fathers who choose not to pay child support.

But live-in husbands can be deadbeats too. Guys who could, but don’t work or even try to. Guys who do work, but use what they earn to buy alcohol, drugs, fancy clothes for themselves, etc. So the home is rife with stress and anger — violence too perhaps. The children suffer. The mom opts for peace and control of the cash flow.

Then we’ve got mothers who aren’t legally married, but live with a partner in a relationship that’s for all intents and purposes a marriage, though with the advantages our laws confer on spouses.

We’ve got more so-called cohabiting couples now than even a generation ago. This, it seems, is at least in part because young adults no longer view marriage as a “cornerstone,” but as a “capstone” — something to postpone until they’re sure they’re ready and “have all their ducks lined up.”

But they’re not delaying parenthood. The share of births to cohabiting mothers increased from 6% in the early 1980s to 25% in 2009-13, according to the National Center for Family & Marriage Research.

It distinguishes these mothers from single mothers, but they’re officially single nonetheless. They’re different, the Center for American Progress says, because cohabitation is typically “a transitional stage” — either a prelude to a first marriage or an interlude before a second.

That may be more than case now than it was only a few years ago because same-sex couples can now legally marry. Still, we need to recognize lesbians in long-standing domestic relationships who chose to become mothers.

They’re not the only single women who became mothers by choice. As you may have read, the teen birthrate is dropping. At the same time, the out-of-wedlock birthrate among women 35 and older has risen.

We know anecdotally that some wanted to have children for quite awhile and figured that marriage just wasn’t in the cards — or that it wasn’t what they wanted before their biological clock ticked further past their prime childbearing years.

So, for them, a sort of planned parenthood we don’t ordinarily think of when we hear the term — thanks to the wonders of medical technology.

Other women in their mid-thirties become single mothers in a different way. A dear friend of mine, for example, wanted to raise a child, saw no prospect of marriage and discovered she was infertile.

So she adopted a baby left with an agency by a mother who couldn’t care for him, confident that she had the financial and personal resources, including a close-knit family to give him a secure, loving childhood.

Another single woman I know — the successful head of her own professional services firm — recently a adopted a baby for similar reasons. They’re not the only single women who’ve made this choice — some, in fact, when considerably older.

Our country does a lousy job of supporting mothers — and to that extent, a lousy job of supporting children in any sort of family. An especially lousy job of supporting single mothers and their children, as their unusually high poverty rates indicate.

Single mothers, unlike their married counterparts, still get a bad rap for having failed to exercise personal responsibility, driving up safety-net costs, crime and other social ills.

I’d rather celebrate them in all their variety. Better, I think, than conceding Mother’s Day to Hallmark, Teleflora and the perfume and candy purveyors.


What’s Wrong With Me and My Life?

December 29, 2015

I’ve pretty well given up on New Year’s resolutions because I found myself vowing to do — or stop doing — the same things year after year. Still, I can’t altogether shake the hopes of improving myself that surface as we ring in the new.

Thankfully, I’ve no need to engage in deep self-scrutiny or seek out a self-help program. My inbox receives an overwhelming (literally) amount of spam.* I see major themes in the messages — most pointing to things wrong with me and my life and offering quick fixes.

My Sex Life. I’m impotent, according to the spammers — or at least, unable to maintain an erection. I’m constantly offered opportunities to buy Viagra at a discount. Several similar products also. I’m invited to buy something else that will actually enlarge my penis. “Power in your pants!”

On the other hand, maybe I’m just bored. No problem. I can meet some “cheating wives” in my local area. Or I can get a “mistress for Christmas.” The Russian girls who used to write me seem to have given up.

But I’m invited to “CONNECT … with charming Mrs. Celestia Betterton” — obviously a classy British type. “Click bellow [stet],” she says, to view her private photos.

My Health. My body is riddled with health problems, judging from the spam. High blood sugar level, high cholesterol level too, ringing in the ears, dimming vision and more. I’m especially sensitive about my loss of brain function and expanding waistline.

Fortunately, there are remedies for these, as well as all the other conditions. And if I don’t altogether trust them, I can get a great deal on burial insurance.

My Finances. My investment portfolio is apparently too conservative. I get opportunities to buy some bargain-basement stock that’s about to take off, usually at least one a day.

But she who hesitates, as conservative investors do, loses. So I’m not going to get in on “the largest economic opportunity of the 21st century,” which I could have owned “a piece” of for only about 21 cents.

The real solution, as I learn from another spammer, is to “reprogram … [my] mind and stick the enter Wealth Code into … [my] brain.” Presto, the Millionaire Mindset — “the secret of becoming wealthy.”

My Career Path. My earning power isn’t what it could be either. I should increase it by taking an online doctoral degree. “Invest in your future,” the spammers urge.

Or I could effortlessly learn a new language in a mere 10 days. All I need is a CD to activate some “wired part” of my brain — assuming, of course, that the part isn’t one of those that’s degenerating.

There’s a remedy for that, however. No less a leading light than Pope Francis has increased his brain power by taking some pills. “I use these to keep my intelligence about 150,” he reportedly says.

On the other hand, maybe my professional life is in good shape, since I’ve been chosen for inclusion in a Global Who’s Who.

Things Beyond My Control. We’re well advised to accept the things we cannot change. There are surely many of those, but several I’d never have heard of without the benefits of spam.

For example, there’s a “massive war on U.S. soil” — or soon will be. I could sign up for a new home security system or buy a flag. Steady spam streams for both. But they seem pretty futile defenses in the face of the war.

More insidious because clearly underway is a “secret conspiracy between the U.S. government and some food producers — so shocking that Fox News wouldn’t report it.” But since word has leaked out, the President could face impeachment. “This could be the one that finally brings him down.”

Grant me the serenity to accept these terrifying threats — and the lack of curiosity to click.

And grant us all faith that the violence, suffering and social injustices we witness are within our collective control, though not swiftly banished with a click.

* The spam-flooded email box is for an account I no longer use, but check to make sure I don’t miss any must-read messages. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether these are among them.


Homelessness Causes More Deaths Than We Know, But We Know There Could Be Fewer

December 17, 2015

Tonight will be the longest night of the year. Here in the District of Columbia and in other communities across the country people will gather to share memories of homeless people who died during the year.

The National Coalition for the Homeless and partners invented National Homeless Memorial Day many years ago to focus attention on homeless people who died on the streets or the equivalent — and to strengthen our collective commitment to ending homelessness.

We don’t know how many homeless people died unnecessarily since last December. And we’ll never know how many future Memorial Days should commemorate, let alone who they were.

Knowing what we do know, we can guess that some froze to death in remote fields or abandoned shacks or died because they were so weakened by lack of food or untreated illness or injuries. Some perhaps died in fires they started to keep themselves warm and then couldn’t control.

Even in metro areas, homelessness is rarely, if ever the official cause of death. The same conditions I’ve just cited would be the causes, not homelessness itself.

This is also true for the fatal acts of violence that NCH periodically reports as a subset of hate crimes against homeless people.

The results of the acts — death from blood loss and injuries caused by a beating, for example — would be the cause, not homelessness, though that made the victims singularly vulnerable and even targets chosen for no other reason.

So the District’s evening memorial ceremony will include a reading of at least 41 names, most of people who died on the streets. But this doesn’t mean they were the only homeless people who died — and wouldn’t have if they’d had a safe place to stay.

Quite a damper on the holiday mood, I realize — and somewhat inconsistent with the commemorative nature of the rituals. So let’s look at the flip side.

We know that fewer homeless people would needlessly die if they could bed down in a shelter — and would go to a shelter rather than sleep on a park bench, under a bridge or some other “place not meant for human habitation.”

And we know that many won’t go because they object to the unsanitary and unsafe conditions in the shelters they could get into. Homeless individuals in the District have voiced additional griefs, as perhaps those elsewhere have as well.

Yet even in the best of cases, shelters are a makeshift sort of answer to problems indicated by the mortality rate of homeless people, i.e., the number who die within some predetermined period of time.

It’s four to nine times the rate for housed people, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. As one might expect, it cites health-related causes, e.g., exposure to infectious diseases, chronic illnesses, “poor mental health.” But it acknowledges violence too.

The obvious answer for most homeless people is simply housing at a rent they can afford. No more exposure to tuberculosis, for example, or to gun violence and random beatings than any of the rest of us risk when we venture out.

But for some, the better answer is permanent supportive housing — and more particularly PSH based on the Housing First model.

Housing First is the best answer for chronically homeless people, i.e., those who’ve been homeless for a long time or recurrently and have a disability (or disabilities). That, at any rate, is what both such research as we have and other evidence tell us.

As its name suggests, Housing First provides chronically homeless people with a safe, stable place of their own without requiring them to prove they deserve it — by successfully completing a substance abuse program, for example, or by agreeing to participate in one.

They are, however, offered services to overcome disabling substance abuse problems, as well as other services that can help them become healthier — and, in some cases, ultimately able to join (or rejoin) the workforce.

Not all Housing First participants can, however, become so financially self-sufficient as to afford rent at market rates. Many need long-term subsidized housing, though not an ongoing, intensive battery of supportive services.

This seems the case with a formerly homeless homeless advocate in the District who’s familiar to those of us who attend meetings, hearings and the like.

He often says that Housing First saved his life. Living on the streets, as he was, he couldn’t control his diabetic condition or other chronic illnesses in part because he had no safe, cool place to store his medications.

Even if he had, the pressures and chaos of street living — the need to somehow get enough food for the day and lug his belongings from one place to another — may have made it all but impossible for him to follow his medication schedule or resist the addiction to alcohol that led to his homelessness.

In short, he could have been one of the homeless people memorialized. Instead, he’s an active member of the People for Fairness Coalition, which has spearheaded a follow-on to this evening’s vigil.

PFFC members and others will march to the plaza across from the building that houses the Mayor’s executive office the the DC Council tomorrow morning. They will call on policymakers to, among other things, end chronic homelessness before 2018, as the local Interagency Council on Homelessness envisions.

The need is surely there. Last January’s one-night count identified 1,593 chronically homeless single individuals who had, at best, beds in shelters or temporary housing.

The current budget will fund PSH for 363 more such individuals, as well as 11o families with at least one chronically homeless member. So The Way Home, as the local Housing First campaign is called, has a long way to go.

But we see progress here, which is more than can be said for many communities, including a goodly number where homeless people die neglected and one one even takes account of them.

 


Dysfunction, the Debt Ceiling and Other Derelictions of Duty

October 15, 2015

It’s hard for someone of my political proclivities not to relish the manifest dysfunctions in the Republican party. But they also make me very anxious.

Like many of you, I suppose, I’m sick to death of reading what Trump said about immigrants, Carson about Muslims, Bush about voting rights and folks who line up for “free stuff,” etc. I nevertheless relish the thought of the voters they’re alienating.

Yet I can’t help worrying that the Republican nominee might win because the alienated voters are so alienated from our political process that they won’t go to the polls. Can hardly bear to think who that might be.

More immediately, it’s the warring factions in the House Republican majority that make me anxious. It’s one thing for the ultra-right to insist on yet another vote to repeal Obamacare. But to take such uncompromising stances that they drive out a very conservative speaker — and stymie the effort to replace him — is, to me, downright scary.

Because we can’t have laws unless the House passes them. And we urgently need some.

The most urgent is a bill that raises the ceiling on the amount of debt the federal government can incur. Without it, the government will default on debts it’s already incurred, i.e., interest and/or principal it owes on bonds it’s issued.

Either that or it will have to drastically and immediately cut spending, which will mean default of a different sort.

State and local governments won’t receive funds they’ve rightly counted on for a wide variety of programs and services. Contractors won’t get paid for goods they’ve supplied or work they’ve performed — and thus may not have the funds to pay their employees and subcontractors.

Seniors and younger people with severe disabilities won’t get their Social Security benefits. Healthcare services they’ve received as Medicare beneficiaries won’t get reimbursed. Nor will doctors, hospitals and other healthcare providers who’ve treated people covered by Medicaid.

Veterans will get stiffed too. Likewise the 45.5 million or so people who depend on SNAP (food stamp) benefits to stave off hunger.

Not all these suspended payments may be needed to keep the debt below the current ceiling. But it’s unclear whether the Treasury Department can pick and choose. A Credit Suisse newsletter issued when we’d hit the debt ceiling two years ago suggested it couldn’t.

And even if it could, how could the administration responsibly decide who should get paid and who not?

One way or the other, everyday people would suffer harms — and in more ways than the foregoing indicates. Investors would, of course, decide that Treasury bonds weren’t a safe harbor for their money. So they’d require a higher interest rate on new bonds.

That would produce a ripple effect on other interests rates. Businesses might then pull back on borrowing for investments that create jobs.

Anybody who can’t pay cash on the barrel head — to replace a defunct car, for example, or buy a house — would face a more costly loan.

Lots of people who carry credit card debt would have to pay higher interest rates because charges are often linked to what banks charge on corporate loans.

Well, this may be apocalyptic thinking. The House will have a speaker because Boehner’s said he’ll stay on till his caucus chooses someone else. And he can readily get a bipartisan debt ceiling bill passed by allowing a vote when a majority of his own party won’t get on board.

So could his successor, if Republicans find one who suits enough of them well enough — and who agrees to accept the job — before the early November drop-dead date on the debt ceiling.

Whether s/he would breach the so-called Hastert rule, however, is an open question. The Freedom Caucus — the immediate source of the disarray — reportedly won’t vote for speaker who doesn’t pledge to abide by it. This and many other things.

Say, as I think we can, that House Republicans don’t plunge us into a genuine debt crisis. We’ll just move on to the next — the mid-December expiration of the continuing resolution that’s the reason we haven’t already had a government shutdown.

Look for another cliffhanger, as the hard-line right-wingers, plus some other members who’ve got particular axes to grind refuse to vote for a budget the Senate can pass — and the President will sign.

Wiser heads may again prevail, since Republicans got blamed for the last shutdown. But one never knows. And one surely doesn’t know what sort of deal Republican Congressional leaders and the White House will broker to either avert a shutdown or end it.

What we can, I think, know is that the uncompromising stances we’re witnessing bode fill for policies and programs that significantly affect poor and near-poor people — both those that shield them from utter destitution and those that give them a fair shot at more secure, fulfilling lives.

So much neglected business on both fronts. Overdue reforms to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, for example. A fix to prevent major upcoming cuts to benefits for severely-disabled former workers and their dependents. Fixes to prevent later cuts to Social Security retirement benefits.

A replacement for No Child Left Behind that preserves the focus on equal educational opportunity, but without the unintended incentives to “teach to the test” — and test overmuch. The approaching end of the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Well, I could go on, but I think the point is made. All these issues — and others awaiting action — are complex. And people of good will have different views on what our federal policies should be. Nothing new about this, except the specifics.

What does seem new to me is the evident lack of interest in policymaking among the radically right-wing members of the House — those whom New York Times columnist Gail Collins referred to as “rabid ferrets” when we were last on the verge of falling over a “fiscal cliff.”

John Nichols at The Nation argues, as his headline says, that “[t]he Republican party has become not only anti-government, but anti-governing.” I wouldn’t paint the party with such a broad brush, but believe it’s true for an influential number of members in the House.

And that makes me very anxious indeed.

UPDATE: When I published this post, the drop-dead date for the debt limit increase was November 5. Later that morning, the Treasury Secretary informed Congressional leaders that the date now is no later than November 3.


What About Diapers?

August 10, 2015

Friend and fierce homeless family advocate Diane Nilan responded to my recent post on child nutrition programs with a question. Did the low-income mothers it focused on say anything about diapers?

I’d meant to write about diaper costs several years ago, when a widely-reported study of low-income mothers found that about 30% didn’t always have enough diapers to put a fresh one on as often as needed.

Just never got to the issue. But I have now.

All new mothers face a choice, at least in theory. Should they use cloth diapers or the disposable kind? Most poor and near-poor women don’t actually have this choice, however.

A service to keep them supplied with clean cloth diapers is out of the question, of course. They’re unlikely to live in a building with washers and dryers in the basement — let alone in their own apartment.

But taking dirty diapers to a laundromat is often out of the question too. Even if the owner allows them in the washers, as many don’t, the mother has to get them there.

A story that went viral tells of a mother who was ordered off a bus because her baby’s newly-soiled diaper smelled. What if she had a whole sackful that needed washing?

Logistics issues aside, most childcare centers require parents to supply disposable diapers for their infants and toddlers, the National Diaper Bank Network reports.

Seems to me likely that many home-based childcare providers do as well, since they’d otherwise have to send dirty diapers to a laundry or store them in some sanitary way for each parent to retrieve.

Parents who work need child care for their kids, including those not yet toilet trained. Even if the provider accepted cloth diapers, they could be hard-pressed for the time to wash, dry and fold them.

Disposable diapers also seem a necessity for parents — mostly mothers — enrolled in a Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, since they generally must spend an average of 20-30 hours a week on whatever work activities they’ve been assigned.

TANF parents usually get childcare subsidies. But there’s no subsidy for the diapers. And SNAP (food stamp) and WIC benefits can be used only for foods and beverages.

So a bit of back-of-the-envelope math….

A mother with an infant and a two-year-old can get, at most, about $438 a month in cash assistance from the District of Columbia’s TANF program.

She’ll need roughly 14 disposable diapers a day — or about 426 a month. This is a conservative estimate, based on what I’ve found in various online forums.

The cheapest option is buying the diapers in bulk at a big box store. But here again, we may have logistics problems. A cash flow problem too, since the mother is highly unlikely to have the wherewithal for economies of scale.

So more likely, she’ll have to pick up a box or two at a time from a nearby corner store — or if she’s lucky, a full-service grocery store or one of the expanded chain drugstores.

The cheapest disposable diapers at the grocery store nearest me cost $13.74 a box. More diapers per box for the infant than the toddler, as seems generally the case. The nearby drugstore charges more.

So we’ll assume the mothers buys from the grocery store — and has a car at her disposal or a friend to drive her because she won’t be able to carry the bargain-sized boxes home or to the nearest bus stop.

Her total diaper bill then is roughly $65 a month — nearly 15% of her TANF benefit, which must also cover everything, except the family’s food, if she can stretch her SNAP and WIC benefits enough to last the whole month.

Unimaginable to me how her remaining $373 could pay for even the needs that pop immediately to mind, e.g., clothes, especially for the rapidly-growing kids, laundry, soap and other personal care items, transportation and at least some portion of the rent, plus utilities and cleaning supplies, assuming the family’s not homeless. A big assumption.

Four years ago, bills were introduced in the House and Senate that would have allowed states to use funds from the Child Care and Development Block Grant to supply providers with diapers for children whose care the block grant subsidized.

The bills went nowhere. Nor should we expect them to, now that CCDBG has been reauthorized. We shouldn’t mourn them, I think, well-meaning as they were.

Fewer children received CCDBG-subsidized child care in 2013 than in any year since 1997. One can only suppose there would have been even fewer if states had used some of their funds for diapers.

So what’s a poor mother to do? Her best bet it seems is to get free diapers supplied by a local diaper bank. The national network includes nearly 250 of them, including one in the District, which also serves nearby communities in Maryland and Virginia.

The DC bank buys diapers, using donated funds. It also accepts diaper donations, purchased online or collected via diaper drives. Additional diapers come from the national network and from Huggies. The bank then distributes them to nonprofits that provide other services to poor and near-poor families.

So our TANF mother may not have to pay for diapers after all — or at least, not for all the diapers she needs to keep her children clean, dry and cared for by others while she tries to prepare and/or look for work that will pay enough to make diaper costs no worry.

Yet diaper needs far exceed supplies, even in communities with substantial banks. Fine as they are, the banks are no substitute for stronger safety net benefits. After all, it’s not only diapers that poor parents can’t afford.

 

 

 

 


Why I’m Not Writing About the Elections

November 5, 2014

I tired of the topic many weeks ago. I bet many of you did too. And we’ll be even more tired before Monday morning quarterbacking is over. If only the Democrats had done this or that. There’s nothing they could have done that would have changed the outcomes. It’s all Obama’s fault. No, it isn’t. Etc.

I’m in a state of acute denial. I tell myself it won’t be all that bad. Not altogether believing myself. After all, my brother Tom and his family will be represented in the Senate by someone who touted her experience as a pig castrator.

But then another two years of the status quo would hardly have been anything to look forward to. Republicans would still have controlled the agenda in the House. They’d still have had enough votes in the Senate to block most anything they objected to — or thought would serve their political ends in 2016.

I see no point in adding to the plethora of prognostications — some more dire than others. And they’re old hat by now anyway. Columnists, bloggers and organizations of a progressive persuasion have been forecasting dreadful things in order to scare us to the polls — well, not us who live in the District of Columbia, but everyone else to the left of the right.

And the truth of the matter is we simply don’t know what Republicans will do — even assuming, as we shouldn’t, that the leaders can control their most radical Tea Party types. We don’t know what Obama will do either.

I can’t wrap up the state and local elections in a blog post. They’re extremely important, but the results are all over the map — figuratively, as well as literally.

So far as the District’s elections are concerned, we can be pretty sure we won’t see any dramatic changes. Beyond that, we truly don’t know. Mayor-elect Bowser kept her plans as vague as possible, which was, for the most part, very vague indeed.

I felt I had to say something about the elections, however, because I’d otherwise seem to be ignoring the elephant in the room. (Sorry ’bout that.) So I’ve acknowledged them without really saying anything.

And those of you who’ve had your fill of the elections can take comfort in knowing I don’t intend to say anything more, though I suppose they’ll worm their way into posts sooner or later.

That said, I’d welcome comments from any of you who’d like to opine or just plain vent about what happened yesterday.

 


Will You Take a Look At Once More Right Here Frequently?

August 26, 2013

Time was when virtually all spam comments on my blog were automatically filtered out. The relative few that slipped through were obvious product-promotion messages.

No longer. For some months now, I’ve been getting comments that praise the blog and/or ask how to start one. Momentarily gratifying, but then I see that the name in the commenter line links to a marketing site.

Some of these “comments” read as if the writer isn’t fluent in English. This is also true for many comments that have no discernible relation to the blog — let alone the post they’re attached to.

So I got curious. Turns out the spammers are using thesaurus programs so that the messages they blast out aren’t identical. This lets them get through spam filters.

So the links sit on a lot of web pages, which gives them a bump in Google rankings. Bigger bump, I understand, if they’ posted on pages with popular keywords, i.e., search terms that will tend to increase the number of page views.

But, as everyone knows, words a thesaurus gives as synonyms aren’t all interchangeable.

Hence messages that read like very bad translations — often so bad I can’t back into what the thesaurus program started with. Yes, this is something I waste a bit of time on.

Well, you won’t find these comments on my blog because I blow them away. But I’m going to share a few for your amusement — all unedited, except for length.

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Now back to serious stuff.


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