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Being Foreign, or Why I Don’t Understand Mexico Part II

By Robert Blakslee

queretaro-una-de-las-mejores-ciudades-gde

I’ve been living in Mexico for quite some time now. Life is good; my city is safe, rent is cheap, I like the food and it’s cheap too. But always and forever, in ways both obvious and subtle, I’m a foreigner, an eternal visitor. The only time I’ve been taken for a Mexican, to my knowledge, I was at a bar. It was very loud, so the girl mustn’t have heard my accent very clearly, and when I mentioned something about being an American (‘gringo’), she said something to the tune of, “Huh, you’re American? I thought you were just super ‘fresa’.” ‘Fresa’ literally means strawberry in Spanish, but in Mexico it means something like preppy, spoiled, and out of touch with reality. At the time I didn’t know this and thought she was saying I was very red.

But to be honest, as a foreigner I do often feel spoiled and out of touch with reality. As a native English speaker finding work is very easy and entering and exiting the country is a breeze, circumstances in stark contrast with those of many Mexicans. Most people are patient and speak slowly to me, which I sometimes hate, but is honestly a huge help. In a word, I often feel that I’m catered to. Which can be nice. But that being the case, there is a whole world that is unavailable to me, a world that hasn’t completely learned to accommodate me, nor I it.

My experience of Mexico has been by and large the experience of a dinner guest. For the dinner guest, you put out the special china, clean the house before he arrives, cook for dinner what rumor has it he likes to eat. You smile at him, laugh at his jokes. Maybe you find it off-putting that he didn’t take his shoes off at the door, but you let it slide, you think that maybe at his house they keep their shoes on, that he didn’t know any better. If you were sure he were coming back another day, you would have told him, but for one dinner it’s not worth the trouble. Not always, but with most moderately polite people, this is my life. Complicated further by the fact that my Spanish is not quite 100%, shall we say.

The idea I want to get across is that things are done differently in Mexico, and that I’m not always privy to, or not always made privy to, the fact of exactly how differently. Looked at from the other side, people sometimes find it hard to see why I don’t do something the right way, as though I were showing off my foreignness when I accidentally do something rude, or silly, or jarring.

In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger’s humble attempt to define ‘Being,’ he stumbles upon a concept that he calls “Being-ahead-of-itself,” which he describes as essential to the human way of ‘Being.’ “‘Being-ahead-of itself,’” writes Heidegger, “does not signify anything like an isolated tendency in a worldless ‘subject’, but characterizes Being-in-the-world” (Heidegger, 236). ‘Being-ahead-of-itself’ is a kind of anticipation. Our thoughts and actions anticipate the future. Of course they influence and shape that future, but also they are enacted with a certain vision of the future already in mind. Not in any kind of fortune-telling, premonitory way, but in the sense that our thoughts and actions exist within a certain framework, or network, of possibilities and expectations. We act and react within this framework. What Heidegger means when he tells us that ‘being-ahead-of-itself’ is not an isolated tendency is that, rather, it is a shared tendency, founded on what each of us in a society can reasonably expect in our daily interactions with the world of other people and objects that surrounds us. ‘Being-ahead-of-itself’ is what tells me that I might want to open the door when I hear someone knocking on it. Or, given a different set of circumstances, that I might not want to open it.

To illustrate with a small example. I enter a party in, say, Chicago. I walk in, and there are about thirty people there, already separated into small groups, chatting. I walk up to the host, say hello and ask him where I can put my jacket. I put my jacket where he tells me to, walk to the kitchen, pour myself a drink, find the people I know best and want to spend time with, and start talking with them. This is a routine. I know, and know that I might expect only a small margin of error, that this is how my night will begin. I can expect the host will answer me and take my jacket, I anticipate that there will be drinks in the kitchen, and I know, more or less, where my friends will be. I perform each action without thinking about it, because I know where everything is, how everyone will respond, and what I aim to get out of the evening. It is a well-rehearsed act. Anyone who behaves otherwise, outside of these norms and expectations, will have behaved badly.Image

Now, I enter a similar situation in Mexico. I go up to the host and ask him where I can put my jacket. “Wherever you want,” he tells me, “this is your house!” But it’s not my house and now I don’t know what to do with my jacket. I say thank you, and carry my jacket on my arm. I walk to the kitchen to get a drink. Luckily, the drinks are there, I pour myself one, and go find my friends. “Did you just walk into the kitchen and get a drink?” my friend asks me. “Yes, why?” I say. “Whose cup did you use?” “Someone gave me one,” I reply. It turns out that a) I should have brought my own cups, and b) I should have known the person’s name who gave me one, because I should have hugged and kissed and introduced myself to all thirty guests upon entering. I’ve behaved badly. I’ve shirked my responsibility as a participant in the cooperative network of expectations that would have allowed this party to run smoothly. My anticipations, my ability to ‘be-ahead-of-myself,’ didn’t match up with those of everyone else in the room.

The Heidegger quote that I cited earlier continues, “To Being-in-the-world, however, belongs the fact that it has been delivered over to itself – that it has in each case already been thrown into a world” (Heidegger, 236). ‘Being-in-the-world,’ of which ‘being-ahead-of-itself’ is a crucial element, is this capacity to behave well, to act and to react is such a way that everyone involved achieves, more or less, what they want to or expect to achieve. I can’t pretend to know precisely what Heidegger means when he says “delivered over to itself,” but I imagine that it has to do with this idea of the fulfillment of expectations, the idea that we live in the world, and in the ways, that we more or less expect to live in.

This isn’t an idea that could be turned into sentiment of the ‘we live the world we dream’ sort. When Heidegger writes, “that it has in each case already been thrown into a world,” he means something like the following. That ‘being-ahead-of-itself’ is not something that an individual, alone, can manage to do. Anticipation of the sort described is something that is societal, something that we are born and raised into. It is something that shapes us as much as we shape it. We are thrown into a world, a way of being, a set of possibilities, that we perpetuate rather than create. Coherent, mutually comprehensible activity exists because of the participation of a large number of people in a network of shared norms. We can act in certain ways because we know the world will react correspondingly, and vice versa.

Although there are some norms that are different here, although expectations vary and I’m not always able to anticipate what comes next and react appropriately, Mexico is not Mars, nor am I a Martian. Although ‘things’ vary between cultures, societies, and countries, in this world, interconnected as it is, these differences do not make these cultures, societies, or countries completely exclusive of one another. We rarely enter a foreign situation entirely uninformed, or completely alien. Before coming to Mexico, I had heard quite a bit about the country. I knew to expect to eat tacos, I knew to expect to hear people speaking Spanish, I knew to avoid involvement with major drug cartels, which exist in Mexico, etc. Likewise, Mexicans know to expect certain things from Americans. Americans are loud, Americans are careless, Americans have money, and Americans think that everything belongs to them. Thus, Mexico had a role in my psyche, as well as I, as an American, had a role in Mexico’s.

My opening example involved being confused for a Mexican, even a super fresa Mexican. What that means is being acted upon, or reacted towards, or expected to behave as though you know what you’re doing, as though you are a competent part of a community. This is as opposed to being treated as a foreigner, in which case the expectation is that you will not understand. In the first case, I’m acknowledged as a responsible person, and whenever I fail to behave properly, in the sense of acting or reacting appropriately, that failure reflects solely on me. In the second case, my failure reflects on me as a representative of a different category of person, as person that might not be completely responsible, that might not know better. Here, the burden is on me to understand that failure, demonstrate that I understand it, and then make the choice to continue to behave out of order, or to try and get in line. This type of understanding will not just come about. Like in my party example, you have to trust someone and they have to trust you enough for you both to put all your cards on the table. You have to say, “I don’t understand, but I want to. I want you to show me what people expect me to do, and explain to me why they expect me to do it.” And even still you won’t always understand, you’ll fumble. But you’ll be headed in the right direction, and you’ll already have loosed yourself from the set of expectations that exists for the careless, never-wrong American.

I described myself as often feeling out of touch with reality here. What I meant was, out of touch with the reality of this place. That is because, to use Heidegger’s phrase, this is not the world that I had already been thrown into. It is different world, not completely unrelated, but different enough to make me lose my footing. I am a person that has already been ‘thrown,’ in Heidegger’s sense of the word, and I don’t think I could be thrown twice. I came to Mexico with fully formed ideas and expectations, as a person capable of ‘being-ahead-of-myself’ according to those ideas and expectations. I don’t think that this means that I can’t understand better the different ideas and expectations that will allow to ‘be-ahead-of-myself” here. I think it means that doing so will require colossal effort, major self-examination, and very patient friends and teachers. It will also mean keeping in mind the kinds of expectations people will have of me as an American, and acting in such a way as to either to reinforce or break down those expectations, according to my considered judgment.

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47 comments on “Being Foreign, or Why I Don’t Understand Mexico Part II

  1. Pingback: Being Foreign, or Why I Don’t Understand Mexico Part II | Peaceful City Life

  2. nerithenomad
    June 25, 2014

    I do get this feeling often, having moved to a few countries with very different cultures from my home country. i liked your explanation with the dinner party. 🙂 am putting down ‘being and time’ on my to-read list!

    • rblakslee
      July 1, 2014

      Glad I’m not the only one! Good luck with Heidegger, I hope you’ll still agree with my ‘interpretation’ once you’ve read him!

  3. El Zarquito
    June 25, 2014

    Looks like we’ve been thrown into the same city and now I’ve accidentally stumbled upon your blog. I enjoyed your article as a nice intellectual sleight of hand, but could not help wondering how a Mexican would respond to these existential musings. Inquire about the girl? the bar? the drink? Whatever it may be, I am sure they’d find a fun way of standing Heidegger on his head and letting the air out. So, what cantina was it?

    • rblakslee
      July 1, 2014

      Very good point – Heidegger doesn’t make for great introductory bar chat. But I hope my examples provided a good point-of-entry to the philosophy, and that the philosophy shed some sort of light on the mechanics of cross-cultural awkwardness.

  4. Karl Drobnic
    June 25, 2014

    That’s a very good way of explaining what happens when trying to navigate an unfamiliar culture. I find that being a good listener in these situations is one way to gain some ground on the situation, but as you point out, finding an informant who will level with you is the surest way to make some progress. You’re spot on regarding that.

    • rblakslee
      July 1, 2014

      Thanks! I think it’s the same way with most anything – when you want to learn, the best way to start is by really listening to someone who knows, and asking relevant questions.

  5. awtytravels
    June 25, 2014

    Quite possibly one of the best way of explaining culture shock, or the problems we find when relating to another culture. I live in a country which isn’t my own and I’ve found myself in many situations as the one you referred to; over time I developed what I think is a pretty good way of behaving in these situations, i.e. let a native precede you and then follow into his steps. Works quite well and it has managed to make me understand, but not really master, the complext behaviour of Britons in a pub/bar/house party.

    • rblakslee
      July 1, 2014

      Thanks for your comment! The idea of ‘mastering the behavior’ is really interesting to me – I wonder if I’d ever be comfortable enough in Spanish where I’d stop considering myself foreign, and be un-self-consciousness at a Mexican party in the same way that I can sometimes be at an American party.

  6. maiakjackson
    June 25, 2014

    My family and I are permanent travelers and are getting ready for Ecuador after a year living in the Yucatan. I can definitely relate to “It turns out that a) I should have brought my own cups, and b) I should have known the person’s name who gave me one, because I should have hugged and kissed and introduced myself to all thirty guests upon entering.” The first time I found out about the kissing and hugging bit was at a party, and I quickly had to adapt to that custom! (That doesn’t mean it didn’t take me a week to perfect the perfect cheek-not-lips technique.) At another party I found myself subject to having to “introduce myself to all guests upon entering”. I spent most of the night walking around kissing Juan’s and JuanJo’s and Juan Junior’s. All the while I could only hope my lipstick hadn’t left my lips for Juan’s cousin Jose’s cheek.

    Although my family slipped into the culture and routine of southern Mexico seamlessly, no matter what I do, I will always be a gringa. However, we fell in love with Mexico and the genuine culture so focused on serving others, instead of the opposite that I find in the States. It became more of a focus on the fact that we were accepted into everyday life by the locals, instead of focusing on how we may have felt in tricky situations. I wish you luck and saludos on your journeys, and keep on working on that Spanish!(:

    • rblakslee
      July 1, 2014

      Mexico is wonderful, and enormous and various! I’m glad to hear you love it too. And you’re so right about the hugging and kissing. I had to adapt quickly, but it was tough. I’m a New Englander – in my family the usual greeting is the head-nod of acknowledgment.

  7. broadsideblog
    June 26, 2014

    I lived in Mexico briefly as a teenager in Cuernavaca. I’ve been living in the U.S. for 25 years from my native Canada. I like it, clearly, but there are still many things that feel very odd indeed — I have never said the Pledge of Allegiance and am always shocked that a public meeting starts with that.

    • rblakslee
      July 1, 2014

      At the university where I worked, once a month they have ‘honores a la bandera,’ where, as the flag is unfurled, everyone sings the very lengthy national anthem accompanied by bugles and drums. I never knew how to act!

  8. Isabel
    June 26, 2014

    As a mexican, I can say that I’ve also been guilty to treat foreigners as a dinner guest hehe. But in our defense, I think it’s also a HUGE part of the mexican culture to be like that, even if they are not foreigners we always treat guests like guests forever. For example, with really close family members we will be like that & to best friends EVEN more. We just like to make people feel really comfortable ALWAYS. I know sometimes it feels really overwhelming, I sometimes feel like that even though I have lived there my whole life. They are just trying to be helpful. If you are really close to someone just explain them the cultural shock you’re feeling. They will understand 🙂

    • rblakslee
      July 1, 2014

      Thanks for the advice! And it’s definitely not always a bad thing to be a guest. I could never complain about Mexican hospitality!

  9. anthonyvenable110
    June 26, 2014

    Reblogged this on anthonyvenable110 and commented:
    This gave me a lot to think about. Although i have never been outside the US I do plan to travel outside the country at some point do this was very interesting to.me.

    • rblakslee
      July 1, 2014

      I hope you get the chance to travel! It allows you a different perspective, and makes you realize the importance of things you’d grown too accustomed to to notice.

      • anthonyvenable110
        July 1, 2014

        Thanks. I love different cultures.

  10. syaifulanwartjro
    June 27, 2014

    my inspirizing

    • rblakslee
      July 1, 2014

      Thanks!

  11. davkengfun2014
    June 27, 2014

    Reblogged this on davkengfun's Blog.

    • rblakslee
      July 1, 2014

      Thanks!

  12. chelsearaehodge
    June 27, 2014

    I’m currently on an extended stay in Greece. I’ve found myself thinking things similar to what you described. I know how I would act in the states, how my actions would be received, whats right and whats wrong, and even if I do the wrong thing how others will take it. Im able to judge my own actions and make choices accordingly. Here in Andros I don’t want to be rude. I want to make all the right choices, to show respect for the people in my new community. Do I have to get a “frappe” when my companions do? Or is narro (water) acceptable if that’s truly all I want. Must I let the men pay when I go out? Or can I pay without being rude, to show them one my independence, two that I dont want to take advantage of them, and three that im not interested in them. Do I have to accept the offer for cookies, cheese, and coffee when I go to someones home? Or can I turn it down because im full. The list goes on. I appreciate your post! I can’t imagine what it would be like actually living in a new country with different customs.

    • rblakslee
      July 1, 2014

      I think that living somewhere else, it’s important to be open to learning how things are done there. You’ll come to embrace new values, and have old ones reinforced. In the process though, it can be tough to find a balance between being willing to try new things and asserting yourself. Sometimes it can be tough to recognize the small stuff as the small stuff, so as not to sweat it, and the big stuff as the big stuff. And all I can say is good luck, enjoy Greece!

  13. jacie94
    June 28, 2014

    Interesting way of looking at things! I’m a Mexican born and raised in the U.S, and 3 years ago I moved to Mexico. Of course my mom spoke spanish to me my whole life and I speak it just as fluently as I do english, but even being Mexican and knowing all about how the culture here works, I was treated differently here at first just because I was raised in the U.S. Everybody thought I HAD to be a huge slut, for example. But hey, it gets better! I love Mexico! Being a part of both of these cultures is awesome.

    • rblakslee
      July 1, 2014

      For me, language barrier has definitely been the biggest obstacle, but I get a little better every day! You’re definitely right, though, things get better. You learn how things work, you make friends and you find your place. I’m glad you’re having a great time in Mexico, I am too!

  14. theburningheart
    June 29, 2014

    It is understandable to be somewhat awkward in a foreign country, and there is no need for Heidegger to understand that.

    Unless your behavior is totally outrageous, or there is something odd about you like you got a second nose, or you went naked, you got little to worry about committing a faux pas in Mexico, most diners, or party events in Mexico, are very informal and little structured so you are in no danger of offending, or making a fool of yourself, unless you try really hard.

    On arrival you sort of expect to say hello to everybody, and be friendly when introduced, but you are not obliged to hung up with people you may not feel incline to, and that depends also on the number of guests, few people you will have to be more attentive, a lot of people no one will be offended if you miss them
    unless you know them well but prefer to ignore them.

    Bottom line nobody will be watching over your shoulder, unless you give them a good reason like getting too drunk, insulting people, or picking out a fight.

    By the way, do not wear a jacket unless the weather requires it, or it’s a very formal event were it’s expected from you to wear it through the event, in truth few people outside of Mexico city wears one, so most Mexican houses lack facilities or a designated place where to hung up your jacket.

    My advice, relax, chill out, and have fun.

    • rblakslee
      July 1, 2014

      You’re right – party etiquette is not so different here, and the gaffs I made were not outrageous. They were small, but the devil is in the details, as they say. As far as the jacket goes, I live in the Bajío in Mexico and it gets cold! The biggest mistake I made when I moved to Mexico was not bringing winter clothes!

  15. hbrownsell
    June 30, 2014

    I’m moving to Mexico in August, and am so excited to have come across this page.

    • rblakslee
      July 1, 2014

      You’ll have a wonderful time. I don’t know anything about you or your Spanish, but my advice would be to brush up on your modismos mexicanos.

  16. liapettersen
    June 30, 2014

    I’m Mexican and had never heard of a party where I should bring my own cup but, hey, maybe it has to do with the whom and not the where.

    I see what you mean when you say you’ll always be treated as a guest. I work at a company in which one has to speak English all day and since I don’t look Mexican -due to my Norweigian background- and sound native even to gringos, I get the ever friendly treatment you talk about. However, gotta say that I’ve gotten that same treatment in Canada and the US so I don’t think it’s a Mexico thing… it’s a “she’s foreign and will not really be our friend” thing in every culture.

    When I got sick of that, I decided to relax and enjoy plus, when I stopped comparing, I made great friends in the US. Though Canada is trickier as they even make a difference with their own people when it comes to French or English!

    So keep on having fun, gringo, as it’s always worth it in the end! 🙂

    • rblakslee
      July 1, 2014

      I’m sure you’re right about the cups – I never meant to imply that in Mexico guests are not supplied with cups! And I’m glad to hear that your experience in the US and Canada has been similar in some ways to mine. I had hoped to be pointing out some generalities about what it’s like to be foreign in a foreign country through my particular experience here. And I think you’re completely right about relaxing and enjoying, and even more right about avoiding comparisons of the ‘better/worse’ variety. For me, relaxing and enjoying came with an adjustment period, and with learning that lesson.

  17. amlakyaran
    June 30, 2014

    very nice post… thanks

    • rblakslee
      July 1, 2014

      Thanks!

  18. ninagrandiose
    July 1, 2014

    As someone who has been living off and on in Mexico (and India) for decades, I find the Mexican people to be extremely accepting, forgiving and fun loving. They are not analyzing your behavior to the degree that you describe. Accepting that we can never be locals is part of our role. Personally, I love that middle ground, It is privileged yet full of immense possibilities to observe and be observed and have a unique experience. Enjoy it!

  19. logatfer
    July 1, 2014

    I can relate a lot to these situations!!

  20. appslotus
    July 1, 2014

    Reblogged this on Apps Lotus's Blog.

  21. mihipte
    July 2, 2014

    …Does Part 1 exist?

  22. Sara Aguirre
    July 3, 2014

    “I enter a similar situation in Mexico. I go up to the host and ask him where I can put my jacket. “Wherever you want,” he tells me, “this is your house!” But it’s not my house and now I don’t know what to do with my jacket”. I couldn’t help but to laugh!!
    This is too funny, and in a way ‘cute’. I’ve had many situations like that here in the states, even with friends hailing from other southern-american countries. It’s part of the experience. What I had most trouble was NOT kissing on the cheeks!! People thought it was actually quite weird and invasive of their space 😦 Now, I just shake hands, I don’t care who it is–I don’t like it, shaking hands makes me feel like a machine. And then when I meet people who speak Spanish and do not introduce myself with a kiss but with a handshake, this happens: ‘What’s wrong? We are both latinos/hispanics/mexicans?” And then, I said embarrassed: “Yeah, I forgot” (as in: I forgot you are OK with me giving a kiss); and proceed to give them a kiss on the cheek. I can’t help it but feel as if I’ve stripped from myself and identity.

  23. Mad Nettie
    July 4, 2014

    Ah, best to be treated like a guest..because to be familia is to help in the kitchen and do you really want that? 🙂

    I believe that american customs of taking a bottle or flowers is always good manners in the mexican cultura tambien.

    Taking a cup..hmmm, is this often or one particular group that is economicaly disadvantaged?

    your jacket: well, not everyone is organized to plan the best room to stack or hold them. that happens in America, too, btw.

    no need to kiss the whole world. just shake hands, and introduce yourself: “pedro galante; mucho gusto.” esp at formal affairs.

    kissing is more appropriate amongst the singles scene at a casual party or between family members.

    formal parties have different protocol from family get togethers…just like americanos.

    You’ll get plenty of respect with good manners, pleasant nature and a charitable disposition wherever you go. Class and upbringing of your hosts not necessarily a determinant of those with best manners.

    Te deseo buenos tiempos, amigo.

  24. peninda
    July 7, 2014

    I too am a New Englander and I have been living in Mexico for a bit more than 43 years. I am fluent in Spanish and I taught the language at a large university in the American Midwest, where I only lasted two years, but that was eons ago. So many bored undergraduates who think they already have the world by the balls. So I came to this country and had myself an unending party until something like senility reared its ugly head. But they tell me that happens even in the best of families. But I still enjoy life … just in a lower (but not minor) key.
    Like most Americans, you take life with too much seriousness. Loosen up, Man, and flow with the tide. Forget the social mistakes you make and dedicate that energy (the energy you expend worrying about such things) to learning the language. Or to learning French or Turkish, neither of which will be of any help to you in Mexico, but as a philosophically minded adventurer you surely know that not all the knowledge we acquire has to be helpful … or practical.

  25. Karys
    July 9, 2014

    Wow, this is exactly how I’m feeling as a volunteer in a foreign country. Thanks for translating my thoughts into words! I find that I too often feel “out of touch with reality” here, but I suppose it’s all a part of the experience.

  26. daniromero201
    July 17, 2014

    When I go back to Mexico I feel home even thought I was born in N.J. Respect is very IMPORTANT in Mexico especially to elders. My parents were both born in Mexico and this cause me to go visit my relatives. It’s a beautiful country, with great stories. Next week I’m heading to Cancun, Mexico , for vacation, with my girlfriend . Will upload pictures to give you a glimpse of that part of Life @ https://hopeonearthblog.wordpress.com . By the way its my 2nd day of blogging.

  27. Shen.Hart
    July 29, 2014

    I’m English and moved to Prague a year ago. It’s a huge shift and it’s not always pleasant. The culture is incredibly insular, they do not like outsiders and they make that very clear. Once you manage to get them talking then they are often friendly and polite. That being said, it’s far from easy and I do come up against a lot of walls.

    I think as an immigrant, no matter the country, we’ll always be outside of the little bubble.

  28. degelitos
    August 16, 2014

    I guess I’m lucky that I come from a Mexican community in the US, but there are definitely still major cultural differences in real Mexico as opposed to the Chicano US. Just take it all in and immerse yourself to your best ability, as you really get a deeper understanding of Spanish, I’m sure you’ll be able to feel more connected. You are lucky to be experiencing this. I’m planning on going to Mexico soon as well, I’m sure there are things that will take me a while to really adjust to. After living in Spain and France I feel like I will approach Mexico with an open mind. One thing I have learned from living abroad is that you need to maintain relationships with others who have had similar experiences. I know I feel like an outsider in the US now.

    Que aproveches y disfrutes! Hay un post en mi blog que creo que te interesaria que se llama The varieties of a language “The right way to speak”
    http://culturalrollercoaster.wordpress.com/2014/03/13/varieties-of-a-language-and-the-right-way-to-speak/
    Te invito a leerlo.

    Buena Suerte!

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This entry was posted on June 20, 2014 by in Philosophy, Robert Blakslee, Theory, Thought and tagged , .
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