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Writing Cutlines. Fact-checking and Unanswered Questions. Writing cutlines. As the saying goes, pictures can say a thousand words. But, unfortunately, they won’t write a cutline for you. And you can’t highlight the photo on your screen and hit the “c” key and get a cutline either.

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Writing cutlines l.jpg

Writing Cutlines

Fact-checking and

Unanswered Questions


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Writing cutlines

As the saying goes, pictures can say a thousand

words. But, unfortunately, they won’t write a cutline

for you. And you can’t highlight the photo on your

screen and hit the “c” key and get a cutline either.

Of those thousand or so words, you are likely going to use

fewer than 100 for your cutline. So which ones do you

choose?

First of all, when it comes to getting information for

a cutline, the most important person in the

equation is probably …


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Little ol’

YOU

Especially if you are the only journalist at the scene or event. You just might have to put on your reporter hat.


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Know the basics

What if you had to write a short story based on the

information you gathered at an assignment – could you do

it? You have to remember to at least get the basic

information. What are those basic questions?

Who What

When Where

Why How

** Some of my colleagues ask that you include your phone

number with your cutlines in case a question comes up.


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DECIDING WHAT ELEMENTS

The Who

  • The celebrity / notoriety factor is a definite reader hook. Use titles or other identifiers with names when the subject is not well-known (may be a slight gray area and somewhat subjective).

  • The “who” is essential for attribution. The Chronicle is not saying the man was arrested in the killing; police are.

  • Make sure the identifier is appropriate to the story. Ex-Marine (no!), Vietnam veteran, black principal,


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DECIDING WHAT ELEMENTS

The What

  • The “what happened” is often the most critical element.

  • In a sports story, the “what” is often the score.

  • The “what” can also reflect conflict, and conflict makes for an excellent device.


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DECIDING WHAT ELEMENTS

The When

  • The time element is an absolute must.

  • Using “today” is OK, but AP prefers you use the day of the week rather than “yesterday” and “tomorrow.”

  • The time element could become a focal point -- a few years ago, the U.S. Senate gave themselves a pay raise just before adjourning at midnight. The action was too late for East Coast news outlets, which gave the action a somewhat sinister appearance.

    The Where

  • Gives the reader a sense of place, and provides a level of significance.

  • What happens in our backyards generally gets more attention than what happens in Timbuktu.


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DECIDING WHAT ELEMENTS

The Why

  • It could be the most compelling element, but often is unknown at the outset.

  • Why a plane crashed or why someone was murdered could supersede the other questions.

  • Why was the apartment fire able to spread to 40 apartments?

    The How

  • Can be related to why

  • Often speaks to the process involved in what happened

  • The “how” details could be the most compelling element. How did Karla Faye Tucker and Clara Harris kill their lovers?


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MORE ELEMENTS

Some other angles to include or at least consider …


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MORE ELEMENTS

What’s next-- Where the action goes from here could be the most critical or interesting element. Where does the court case or legislation go from here? What happened to those involved in the car crash or the apartment fire?

So what-- Tell the readers why this matters to them, why should they care. Give them some perspective. What’s going on here besides what’s going on here? Is there a local angle? What makes this a Page 1 photo?

How many -- How many folks are affected or how many times something has occurred may be a key element. Is this a “first”? Is this the 12th murder in a particular area. Also, there’s the “Heinecke rule” – five dead here supersedes 50 dead in Bangladesh.


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Writing cutlines

Responding to an Associated Press Management Editors survey, one editor wrote: “Photo captions are some of the most important text we write every day. Standards of clarity, good writing, accuracy and completeness are – if anything – higher than for body text. Desk chiefs should give the highest priority to writing photo captions.”

We all know that body text (some people call them stories) go through several layers of editing before getting on a page. Yet at many shops – including the Chronicle – staff cutlines, an important form of display type, don’t receive a similar level of vetting. They often go from the photographer’s computer straight to the copydesk.


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Writing cutlines

So you have to remember your role as a photojournalist –

you are both reporter and photographer. Even if you have a

reporter accompanying you on an assignment, you

shouldn’t depend on that person getting all of the

necessary information or getting it right. Your photo

captures a moment, while the reporter’s story will likely

take a broader approach. Your words will often have to

bridge that gap.

Who knows, you might even have to write the story, just as

Howard Castleberry did when he made Page 1 with a story

about Oilers GM Ladd Herzeg mooning a wedding party.


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Writing cutlines

Why are good cutlines so important? There are the obvious

answers, such as upholding the credibility of the paper,

maintaining your own personal credibility, avoiding legal

and ethical problems, providing clarity and context or

perhaps adding a dash of creativity to this sea of gray we

swim in each day.

It’s also important to note that photos are the primary way

readers enter a page – whether color or B&W, according to

eye-tracking research.


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Eye-Trak results

On a color page, 49 percent of

readers entered the page through

the dominant photograph.

On a black and white page, 35 percent of readers entered the page through the dominant photo.


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What makes a good cutline?

  • Accuracy: You have to get the information right, particularly the names of the people in the photograph. Get a business card or get them to write their names for you. Go to PublicData.com. Try a Google search. Count the number of folks in your photo and make sure you have a like number of names in your cutline. Check the crop to make sure some of the folks identified in your cutline didn’t get cropped out of the photo.

    Here are some examples where rampant brain-

    fartism struck …



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This cutline had several problems. As submitted:

Bernaard Rychlick, mayor of Caldwell, samples a kolache outside the

Kolache Capitol Bake Shop Thursday, Aug. 30, 2007, in Caldwell. The

Kolache Festival is held in Caldwell on Sat. Sept. 8, 2007. Rychlick,

who has Checkoslovakian roots, says its a weekend where everyone

can be "Check for a day."

The mayor’s name is Bernard Rychlik and someone needed to run

spell-Czech on “Checkoslovakian” and “Check for a day.” Should

also be it’s not its. Why is spelling important? Often editors will cut and

paste your cutline into the coding.



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Alek Jeremy Babineaux, 7, is

comforted by his father, Marine Sgt.

Nicholas Sauer Medlicott, left, and

grandmother, Juyne Sauer, right,

during funeral for her son Lance

Cpl. Matthew Sauer Medlicott , 22,

at Houston National Cemetery

Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2007, in Houston.

Nicholas said his son Alek is

wearing the Marine uniform to

honor Matthew, who is Nicholas'

brother and Alek's uncle. Lance

Cpl. Matthew Sauer Medlicott, of the

1st Battalion, 1st Marine Division,

Charlie Co. 1st Platoon was killed in

action in Saqlawiyah, Iraq.

This is actually a pretty good cutline.

There is a ton of information here.

Unfortunately, the age of the

deceased was incorrect (story and

PublicData.com show he was 21.)


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Look ma … no ma

The cropping tool has been known to make whole families disappear.


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The cutline writer said this guy

was carrying a Texas flag. It’s not

– it’s the flag for the nation of

Chile. FYI, the Texas flag is

shown at right.


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This cutline has a couple of problems. Is she from Houston

or Galena Park (not park)? And it’s hard to tell how “pretty

in pink” she is in a black-and-white photo. Does Strasburg

need explaining?


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The cutline says this is a photo of the cafeteria, but the books on the shelves and cart indicate it’s the library instead. Also, it’s Lone Star State, not state.


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What makes a good cutline books on the shelves and cart indicate it’s the library instead. Also, it’s Lone Star

  • Explains fully: Don’t make the reader guess at who’s who or what is going on. Provide the necessary explanation. The cutline writer may need to provide context, convey how one frame fits into an entire event. You might have to explain conflict; don’t just say protesters gather in front of city hall without giving the reason for the protest. You might need to give the outcome of event or situation – did the runner score on the close play at the plate or not? You might have to ask yourself: what details / angle made this a Page 1 picture (in addition to its composition etc.)? What detail kicks it up a notch, like Emeril would do. Don’t forget to provide the necessary directional clues to aid identification.


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This photo was selected as the main photo for a Chronicle Page 1A. Although the names of the two soldiers were CQ’ed (checked), the soldier on the left is missing his first name and the soldier on the right is missing his rank. The relationship of the pair to the dead soldier was not given. The photographer was forced to call Fort Hood on a Friday night to get the information.


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At least we know it was firm … Page 1A. Although the names of the two soldiers were CQ’ed (checked), the soldier on the left is missing his first name and the soldier on the right is missing his rank. The relationship of the pair to the dead soldier was not given. The photographer was forced to call Fort Hood on a Friday night to get the information.


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And what was the horse’s name? Page 1A. Although the names of the two soldiers were CQ’ed (checked), the soldier on the left is missing his first name and the soldier on the right is missing his rank. The relationship of the pair to the dead soldier was not given. The photographer was forced to call Fort Hood on a Friday night to get the information.

The names appear to be correct, but who is who The reader will likely assume the names are given left to right, but is that always a correct assumption? You know what happens when you assume.

Identification clues don’t always have to be directional – you can say Mary Smith, wearing the red dress … or John Jones, on the drums … etc.


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Cutline info: Page 1A. Although the names of the two soldiers were CQ’ed (checked), the soldier on the left is missing his first name and the soldier on the right is missing his rank. The relationship of the pair to the dead soldier was not given. The photographer was forced to call Fort Hood on a Friday night to get the information. Members of the Fort Hood Honor Guard carry the casket of Army Pfc. William L. Edwards as his parents Mary Kay (SP 2nd from right) and Bill Edwards (right) look on, Edwards was killed in Iraq on Saturday by a sniper while on foot patrol, at Easterwood Airport Friday, Aug. 17, 2007, in College Station.


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The cutline as it ran, added Page 1A. Although the names of the two soldiers were CQ’ed (checked), the soldier on the left is missing his first name and the soldier on the right is missing his rank. The relationship of the pair to the dead soldier was not given. The photographer was forced to call Fort Hood on a Friday night to get the information.information in yellow

A fallen son comes home

Members of a Fort Hood honor guard carry the casket of Army Pfc. William L. Edwards to a hearse Friday in College Station, under the gaze of dignitaries and his parents, Bill and Mary Kay Edwards, right. The 2002 graduate of Stratford High School (localizes) was killed Aug. 11 by a sniper in Baghdad (tells which war) during a deadly ambush that claimed four other U.S. soldiers. He was 23.


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1. Page 1A. Although the names of the two soldiers were CQ’ed (checked), the soldier on the left is missing his first name and the soldier on the right is missing his rank. The relationship of the pair to the dead soldier was not given. The photographer was forced to call Fort Hood on a Friday night to get the information.

2.

These were the cutlines on these two photos …

1. Bryan Cannon leads the dragon race as Elliott Lapin, 13 brings up the end with the help of Andrew Koenig during the Camp Periwinkle Olympic Day at Camp For All in Burton, TX. August 1, 2007 

2. Bryan Cannon leads the dragon race as Elliott Lapin, 13, behind tree, brings up the rear with the help of Andrew Koenig during Olympic Day at Burton's Camp For All on Tuesday.

Notice a similarity? And, do you see the words “cancer patients” anywhere?

How should we identify Elliot? Do we say “in wheelchair”?


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The cutlines that ran: Page 1A. Although the names of the two soldiers were CQ’ed (checked), the soldier on the left is missing his first name and the soldier on the right is missing his rank. The relationship of the pair to the dead soldier was not given. The photographer was forced to call Fort Hood on a Friday night to get the information.

1. DRAGON RACING: Bryan Cannon leads the dragon race as Elliott Lapin, 13, behind tree, brings up the rear with the help of Andrew Koenig during Olympic Day at Burton's Camp For All on Tuesday;

2. SIDELINE SUPPORT: Members of competing teams lead cheers at the start of Camp Periwinkle Olympic Day at Camp For All in Burton.


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The blurb that ran with the two-photo package: Page 1A. Although the names of the two soldiers were CQ’ed (checked), the soldier on the left is missing his first name and the soldier on the right is missing his rank. The relationship of the pair to the dead soldier was not given. The photographer was forced to call Fort Hood on a Friday night to get the information.

PATIENTS from the Texas Children's Cancer Center and their siblings

competed in Camp Periwinkle's Olympic Day, held Tuesday at Camp

For All in Burton. The weeklong camp, founded in 1983, offers a variety

of activities to children of ages 7-15 with cancer and blood disorders.

A copy editor had to find the info about cancer patients on the Internet.

Note that Camp For All becomes Camp Periwinkle for this week. There

was also additional information in the Chron archives – stories on

Camp Periwinkle or its counselors ran on 7-12-07 and 4-5-07.


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As turned in: Page 1A. Although the names of the two soldiers were CQ’ed (checked), the soldier on the left is missing his first name and the soldier on the right is missing his rank. The relationship of the pair to the dead soldier was not given. The photographer was forced to call Fort Hood on a Friday night to get the information. Ganiha fled from Telafar nearly two years ago due to escalating violence. She now lives on the outskirts of Erbil with her 10 children, who are unable to access education.

What ran: AWAY FROM HOME: One woman fled from an Iraqi city two years ago to settle on the outskirts of Irbil, also in Iraq. Her 10 children are unable to access education. According to a United Nations official, between 25,000 and 50,000 Iraqis flee their homes for other parts of Iraq each month.

The original was problematic in several ways; upon fact-checking, there were multiple spellings of Telafar found, so the work-around was to delete the reference. AP prefers Irbil to Erbil. More importantly, a stronger tie to the refugee story was needed (is it a story about her or was it a story about the refugee problem in Iraq? The latter.)


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Cutline info: Page 1A. Although the names of the two soldiers were CQ’ed (checked), the soldier on the left is missing his first name and the soldier on the right is missing his rank. The relationship of the pair to the dead soldier was not given. The photographer was forced to call Fort Hood on a Friday night to get the information. Isaac Rosario, (cq-left) a veterinarian technician at the Houston SPCA, talks with Elizabeth Grabowski, (cq) as she and her daughters (Sequoyah Grabowski, cq, 6, center; and Sierra House cq, 9, far right) drop off two kittens Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2007. The SPCA has instituted a new policy that requires pet owners who give their animals up to participate in a 15-minute counseling session to learn if the animal is a candidate for adoption or will be euthanized.


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The cutline as it ran, added Page 1A. Although the names of the two soldiers were CQ’ed (checked), the soldier on the left is missing his first name and the soldier on the right is missing his rank. The relationship of the pair to the dead soldier was not given. The photographer was forced to call Fort Hood on a Friday night to get the information.information in yellow

Reality check at the SPCA

Isaac Rosario of the Houston SPCA talks with Elizabeth Grabowski as she and her daughters -- Sequoyah, 6, and Sierra, 9, right -- drop off two kittens Wednesday. The SPCA's new policy requires those bringing in animals to receive a mandatory consultation. Before the client leaves, they will learn if the animal is a candidate for adoption or needs euthanasia. The cats Grabowski brought in were eligible to be adopted (lets the reader know the fate of these kittys).

Actually, there was a lot of detail in the original cutline, but we felt cat lovers needed some reassurance. Would this photo have stayed on Page 1 if it was learned the kittens were going to be euthanized?


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Roger Bornstein (cq), center, is escorted through Hobby Airport by Star Wars characters as he arrives from California with Luke Skywalker's original Jedi Lightsaber Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2007, in Houston. To celebrate the space saga's 30th anniversary, lightsaber prop is scheduled to fly aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in October. The lightsaber will be put on display at Space Center Houston through Labor Day and then be sent to be put aboard Discovery.

Lots of info, but anyone know who Roger Bornstein is? What ran:

Star Wars characters escort Roger Bornstein of Space Center Houston as he arrives Tuesday at Hobby Airport from California. (A second photo, a detail shot, revealed what was in the briefcase – a Star Wars lightsaber.)


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One line cutlines can sometimes suffice, especially on large horizontal photos. But not only does this cutline state the obvious, it gives no indication what it is supposed to show – is this a “holiday crush at the airport” story, a parents flying with kids story or what?


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What makes a good cutline? large horizontal photos. But not only does this cutline state the obvious, it gives no indication what it is supposed to show – is this a “holiday crush at the airport” story, a parents flying with kids story or what?

  • Avoid libel: People can be libeled in a cutline or a photo just as they can in a story or headline. The Texas Supreme Court has come up with its own version of libel per quod (the Sylvester Turner case) where journalists can be held liable if the give the impression that the subject has done something defamatory.


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This is a photo of some day laborers waiting for working. A similar photo ran years ago in the Conroe Courier with a story about illegal immigrants, and the cutline labeling the men as illegal immigrants. Any problem there?

Also some years ago, the Chronicle ran a Page 1 photo of some women who worked for an oil firm to accompany a story called “Sex in the Oil Patch” on companies that obtain contracts by using their female employees to … well, you figure it out. The women in the photo claimed they didn’t do such things. Any problem there?


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What makes a good cutline? similar photo ran years ago in the Conroe Courier with a story about illegal immigrants, and the cutline labeling the men as illegal immigrants. Any problem there?

  • Achieve the proper tone between photo and caption. Watch for taste problems: It is just as jarring to read a tragic story and see a smiling face in an accompanying photo as it is to read a caption that is out of tone with the photo. Don’t try to be light and bright in the caption unless it is warranted. In other words, don’t invite a clown to a funeral unless it’s the clown’s funeral.


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Hare today, similar photo ran years ago in the Conroe Courier with a story about illegal immigrants, and the cutline labeling the men as illegal immigrants. Any problem there?gone tomorrow


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This cutline is not bad ( similar photo ran years ago in the Conroe Courier with a story about illegal immigrants, and the cutline labeling the men as illegal immigrants. Any problem there?although pagua should not be

capped and if you don’t know what a pagua is, you won’t find

out here), but obviously some care had to be taken with the

phrasing to achieve a, ahem, fruitful cutline.


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What makes a good cutline? similar photo ran years ago in the Conroe Courier with a story about illegal immigrants, and the cutline labeling the men as illegal immigrants. Any problem there?

  • Avoid duplication: This is more my job than yours, but it’s an issue that could come up in a photo page you design. Don’t parrot the headline or the lead to a story. All cutlines and other display type should stand on their own. This can get tricky since the Chron’s style call for lead-in heads with each picture and there are just so many ways to describe flooding or hot weather.

  • Avoid editorializing: Be careful with those adjectives and modifiers. Are the protester’s eyes blazing defiance or fear? Was it really a dramatic rescue? Is it a routine traffic stop if someone is killed? While we want to be punchy in our writing, often it’s better to let the reader decide what adjective applies best. As an alternative, consider using a quote from someone.


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What makes a good cutline? similar photo ran years ago in the Conroe Courier with a story about illegal immigrants, and the cutline labeling the men as illegal immigrants. Any problem there?

  • Avoid ambiguity: Explain unusual objects or activities; don’t leave the reader guessing. For example, is the pope laughing or crying? Usually captions should identify anyone whose face is clearly recognizable and who appears to be part of the main action. However, note that it’s kind of silly to write “President Bush, left, signs the legislation …” However, not long ago, several members of the news copydesk confessed that they did not recognize Roger Clemens or Andy Pettitte and thought that a directional guide was needed. Face recognition can be a subjective thing.


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This is a photo I use on the final exam in my editing class. The wire service cutline provides the usual details: name, place, time element, what she’s doing, etc. and explains that the vehicle in the background belongs to this woman’s aunt. It amazes me each semester how many students will focus the cutline on the foreground and miss the element that makes this photo worth publishing.


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What makes The wire service cutline provides the usual details: name, place, time element, what she’s doing, etc. and explains that the vehicle in the background belongs to this woman’s aunt. It amazes me each semester how many students will focus the cutline on the foreground and miss the element that makes this photo worth publishing. a good cutline?

  • Be complete, but don’t write too long: If the depth of the cutline matches or exceeds the photo, then perhaps it should be turned into a story.


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In the end … The wire service cutline provides the usual details: name, place, time element, what she’s doing, etc. and explains that the vehicle in the background belongs to this woman’s aunt. It amazes me each semester how many students will focus the cutline on the foreground and miss the element that makes this photo worth publishing.

Getting words and visuals to work together effectively takes

teamwork – from the photo staff, the originating desks and

the various copydesks. We all have common enemies –

time, deadlines, staffing issues, equipment difficulties, work

pressures, etc. But we all have the common goal of

wanting to put out a good product. Daily. All parts of the

team have to work together. In football, the offense and

defense can be great, but you can still lose if the special

teams let you down. DON’T LET YOUR TEAMMATES

DOWN!

If you do, you could wind up having to explain it to a jury of

your peers …


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Remember, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there – and sometimes it seems like you are the one wearing Milkbone underwear! As the immortal Billy Clyde Puckett said, "Well, nobody said it wan't gon' be semi-tough."


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