The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

History Lesson

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So writing sucks lately.  It happens, though not usually to me during the summer.  What do you do?  Sulk.  Pout.  Stomp your feet.  Those don’t necessarily help, but you can do them.  You can also read some stuff and think about it.  Or exercise.  That always helps.  Watch some movies and think about them.  The Young Adult author S.A. Bodeen visited my Creative Writing class last spring and delivered unto us some of the frank realities of writing.  Not just that it’s hard AF most of the time, but that it is essentially frustrating.  If you can’t deal with that, you prolly can’t write.  If you aren’t experiencing it, then you prolly aren’t writing very well.  In other words, once you start writing and work on becoming a writer, you’re fucked.  Suck it up and deal with it.  Fortunately, I’m also a teacher, and most people know that there is very little frustration in teaching.  So at least I have an out there.

Still, sometimes shit happens.  Sometimes you’re on your writing date and something happens directly outside the window of the restaurant where you’re working on your words that day, and you’re paying attention and you write down some of what you saw.  And then you revisit it and see what comes up.  That happened a couple of weeks ago, and I decided to post it here so at least I feel like I’m doing something.

History Lesson

the black girl is standing back
while her white friends
giggle and shriek
running their hands
over a dog’s shiny brown coat

his tongue is lolling out
the corner of his mouth
tail thwacking each leg
in the small crowd

he’s really nice
the owner tells her
it’s okay, I used to be
scared of dogs, too

used to be Bloodhounds
howled as they closed in
German Shepherds snarled
as they ripped flesh

the black girl is trembling
here on this sidewalk
a generational imprint
from this great nation
this is a gut punch

 

 

 

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Written by seeker70

July 10, 2019 at 4:48 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Ten Years Gone pt.3

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(…continued from yesterday)

So I’m ten years post-program and am still striving to fulfill the mission statement I had to declare when I applied to NU.  Mine was pretty straight-forward: To be the best writer I can be. I’m happy with my results thus far, slow-coming as they can be.  The past two years have especially been very rewarding and motivational enough to keep me writing, and I think that’s in large part because I’ve stopped avoiding doing submissions.  That’s far from the last piece to the puzzle, but it has been an important piece I’ve dealt with. I think, too, that something I read last year in the book Art & Fear tells the whole story.  Writing (or any type of artmaking) isn’t some divine gift that some people are blessed with.  Any form of art is a set of skills that can be learned. The art belongs to those who refuse to give up.  I’m a stubborn son of a bitch if nothing else, so I guess as long as I stick to that, I’ll keep writing and growing as a writer.  Besides which if I didn’t, I’m not sure how I’d spend so much of my spare time.

Finally, I can’t let off of this without some sort of list of the best writing wisdom I’ve read or otherwise learned and created through the years.  Here’s a few thoughts:

  1. Have fun while you’re writing (this from Ray Bradbury).  If it’s not fun to write about, why are you writing it? Exception:  If it’s building meaning and understanding of your life and environs.  It wasn’t too fun to write about the attempted suicide I linked to earlier, but it sure as hell helped me understand my teaching life better, even if it was uncomfortable getting there.
  2.  Brevity, brevity, brevity.  Keep it short, for Pete’s sake.  You can take care of soooo much overwording by using lively verbs and dialogue between characters.
  3.  Always keep a journal on or near you.  Write down your ideas. Write down interesting pieces of language you hear.  Exception: NONE. EVER.
  4.  Read your writing out loud.  All of it. This from John McPhee.  Keep reading and rewriting it until you can read it aloud with ease and fluency.  Reading aloud is a lot more difficult than reading silently, so if you make the difficult part easy, the easier part is going to be a breeze and people will enjoy reading your writing.
  5.  When you’re writing prose, be it fiction or nonfiction, everything comes back to these three elements:  Plot, character, and language. This is not something I learned at NU or through my own writing, but something I heard at a reading in Iowa City.  Plot, character, and language are the three legs every story stands on. Use fresh, lively, authentic language—it will do more for your story than most anything else.
  6.  Know the importance of forward momentum in your plots.  Nobody cares about your flashbacks and back stories. They’re usually boring.  Practice writing stories with plots that are entirely forward momentum. No background.  No digressions. Action moves forward, and only action is interesting. Dialogue is action.  You can use dialogue to keep the action moving forward. After you get good at this, you’ll learn where to put flashbacks and background and how to make it as short as possible.  Still, you can do a helluva lot of good writing through complete forward momentum. Watch TV shows and movies and keep an eye out for how the writers construct their plots. It’s easy in-servicing for your writing life!
  7.  Don’t give up.  Piss on the world if people don’t like your writing.  Write what you like. Get good enough at it, and you’ll emerge as a writer.  But Don’t. Give. Up.
  8.  Poetry.  Every day.  Get on an email service that drops a poem in your inbox each day.  If you don’t like the poem, shitcan it. If you do like it, rewrite it and pick up on the elements of craft the poet is using.  Then write a poem that uses those elements. Poetry is the loftiest ambition. Once you “get it,” you get everything else about writing.  And you’ll use those poetic elements in your writing to make it more impactful.

Written by seeker70

June 25, 2019 at 9:27 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Ten Years Gone pt.2

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(…continued from yesterday)

While all this was going on, I was starting to teach creative writing at my school.  And I wasn’t too good at it. I was teaching a bunch of gimmicks and intentionally steering the course towards CNF because that was what I knew.  I had a decent hand with poetry, too, but not a strong enough grasp on writing at all to make the meaningful and for me to teach it the best I could.  That had to change.

What needed to happen was that I had to shore up my poetry skills and learn how fiction worked.  The poetry part wasn’t so hard. I have always been in the habit of transcribing poems since my first class at NU, and have been blessed with some great coworkers who knew poetry and liked to discuss it.  Those things helped build my skills. But I also had to write about 300 really shitty poems (I actually rounded that number down). But I love to write. So that wasn’t so bad. I figured everything I did took me a step closer to being a better writer and teacher of writing, so I went for it.

Fiction started to emerge once I started to understand that there was virtually no difference between it and CNF with the notable exception of the intentional use of symbolism (I like to say that CNF makes opportunistic use of it).  I wrote the curriculum for Creative Writing II at my school, and purposefully included a unit on writing flash fiction. By doing so, I forced myself under deadline to learn some things about writing fiction so I could teach my students in at least a halfway decent manner.  If I were to write that same curriculum now, I would never have my students write flash fiction because it’s too damn hard for young writers in the throws of learning the fundamentals of writing. But flash was where I cut my teeth on fiction, and thank god I made such a strong effort to consistently develop my poetry skills because they sure as hell tie into my fiction writing.  My first fiction piece was published in 2010, and looking back now I realize I have been writing flash fiction pretty much since then.

To be clear, I write what comes to mind in the form it calls for.  If it’s poetry, it’s mostly going to be to develop my writing skills.  If it’s flash or other short fiction, I’m writing to get published. If it’s creative non-fiction… well, it’s not.  Funny how my degree was in CNF, but CNF is pretty much the last thing I write. A notable exception came along last winter, so CNF is not exactly a triceratops in my writing life—more like a coelacanth

Back to this notion that I didn’t learn to write at Northwestern.  I don’t say that out of spite. I can’t. I love NU too much and have far too much respect for my former professors.  Plus, as I said, I wasn’t in the right place just then to focus on my writing. So my only recourse was to keep writing and develop myself as I went along.  A true MFA from the School of Hardknocks ensued. Teaching, and being the best teacher I can be, certainly motivated me, too. I didn’t want to continually teach the same old gimmick-ridden Creative Writing class to cycles of students who thought that puppy dogs and rainbows were all you needed to be a writer, and you could magically shit gold bricks the second you walked in the classroom.  I was also motivated by an old article in The Onion: Masters in Writing Fails to Create Master of Writing.  You might need only read the headline to get the gist of it, but there’s a dark truth behind the humor which goes back to my claim about the proliferation of MFA writing programs.  I never wanted to face friends and family ten years down the line who would ask, “What ever happened to that writing degree you spent all that time and money on?” Plus, I love to claim to my students that writing isn’t just something I teach:  It’s something I live. So I’ve had to write on. And on. And on.

How did I continue to write and “in-service” myself?  A steady writing diet of The Paris Review, The New Yorker, and The Writer’s Almanac, plus long stays at several writing workshops during my summer vacations have helped.  Sponsoring and editing my school’s literary journal has helped, too, along with working with a fine poet when time has permitted.  And writing, writing, writing. Especially with my students when I give them time to write. I like to joke with my students that every time I learn something new about writing, Creative Writing class gets more difficult.  That’s the trend. I learn it and practice it, then I bring it to my students and make it part of the curriculum. I guess it’s not really a joke so much as a warning. The result has been that I’ve helped my students become better writers at ages 16 or 17 or 18 than I was at age 30.  That, and I’ve turned a number of them off of creative writing because they realized how damn hard it is—you can’t just show up and shit Tiffany cufflinks (believe me, it is HAF to convince a number of high school students that). But I won’t back down from that. Rigor is a stone-cold reality of the writing life, and perhaps the most important aspect of pedagogy.  As far as teaching creative writing goes, make it difficult, but make damn sure you can help students get there.

(…continued tomorrow…)

Written by seeker70

June 24, 2019 at 9:20 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Ten Years Gone pt.1

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I’m ten years gone from Northwestern.  June, 2009, marked the end of a literal decade in grad school, which was about 6 years longer than expected.  I was sour on higher education in 2003 when I graduated University of Illinois-Chicago and left behind the asininity of their School of Education; despite the drudgery, I had still keyed into the joys of writing while slogging through the research papers.  I thought that joy might transfer into other genres since I had also been active with journaling and casual writing for about four years at that time. Turns out I was right, and a change from the south loop to Evanston made a huge difference in how much I enjoyed my studies.

The opportunity to go to NU came through a perfect storm of circumstances.  On my side of the equation, I was unmarried with no dependents, had a decent amount of savings and no debt, and was rising in my interest and ability as a writer.  So I had the time, the funds, and the interest. NU had established their grad-level writing program a few years prior, and that might have been the biggest factor in how I got in—they were still young and growing and needed to populate the thing.  Bam! I got in after working on my submission portfolio for about 3 months. I think back on that portfolio and doubt I would gain acceptance now since the program has grown in reputation.  But I’d say the same thing about the school where I teach: They’d never hire me now if I showed up how I was in 1995.

So happenstance favored me, but that was probably the last time so much in my writing life hinged on luck.  Spoiler alert: Everything since then has come by way of plain refusing to give up.

A long-standing writing controversy is whether or not an MFA in Creative Writing matters (and to be clear, I do not possess an MFA, but an MA in Creative Writing because NU didn’t offer an MFA at the time).  I’m of two minds about this issue. MFA programs are almost as common and as easy to access as karaoke machines, with similar results:  The craft in question suffers because so many people get the idea that they are pretty good at something that requires a helluva lot of work and discipline.

Still, MFA programs matter (what matters most is what you do after the program, which I’ll get into later).  For me, the program most notably helped me understand what writing was.  I was exposed to so many different types of writing and was under so much pressure to read and make sense of it that I quickly came to appreciate what writing was and could be.  A person working independently and with no heat under their seat would be hard-pressed to find all the different things we read and experienced. Given our druthers, I think most of us would prefer to read our same-old, same-old and maybe spice it up with some friendly recommendations.  What that accomplishes, though, is keeping us in a bubble where our growth is contained and ultimately curtailed. I was in the Creative Non-fiction cohort, and damned if I would have known anything about where to find quality and varied CNF if it hadn’t been forced on me. The only reason I chose CNF in the first place was because it was the only thing anywhere near where my abilities were as a writer.  I could halfway poem a poem if you poemed me to do it, and I had no clue about how fiction worked, so I forked over my cash for one ticket on the CNF express, please.

As for learning how to write…  meh. I don’t think I learned that so much in grad school.  I merely showed the potential for that with my submission portfolio.  Given a stronger literature and writing background, perhaps that would have happened more for me, but I was where I was and moved forward from that point.  Others were in more favorable positions due to better literary and writing experiences prior to the program, yet there we all were moving forward at our own pace.  This isn’t to say that I didn’t have my successes. I did, albeit ones that came late in my stay in the program. I can’t even use the plural here because I only had one piece that got picked up while I was still in the program.  That came after I figured out that I was doing too much navel-gazing and that nobody gives a fiddler’s fart about what happened to me as I came of age or in my teaching career; at least, they weren’t interested in it in the parlance I used in my prose and how I structured the plot.  As soon as I started writing less (or not at all) about myself, I started to emerge as a writer. That scored me a respectable debut in Dislocate with a literary journalism piece about Mensa that was inspired by my nephew, but that was it.  Nothing else came to me until a year after I graduated and scored with an investigation into the legacy of Earl Weaver.  It’s still the piece I’m most proud of and that has had the most lasting impact on my career.  The way that came about was… strange. And it’s a lesson I won’t ever forget. I was poking around on the internet sitting in  my classroom after school one day and thinking about some funny videos my brother and I had watched, and the idea struck me. I always loved to research anyhow, loved my topic, and had a huge amount of energy and confidence after having just completed my thesis.  I spent the summer cranking the piece out in what was a laborious, self-directed process heavily guided by mere intuition of a raw, emerging writer. Once I finished it, had no place to send it. I stumbled on SABR a year later, thankfully, and scored my second (but most significant) publication.

(continued tomorrow…)

Written by seeker70

June 23, 2019 at 9:19 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Thanks, Ray

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I got another story published.  Dare I say this is becoming routine?  I might dare if I might dare fate and the muse, so out of respect to them I won’t dare to say this whole thing is becoming routine.  But I am glad to say it is feeling routine, and I have Rumble Fish Quarterly to thank for this one.  They accepted my story “The Return” and published it two weeks ago (page 18 if you’re peeping it just now).  There’s a greater entity at work here, though, greater than fate and the muse and the kind publisher: Raymond Carver.

This is all about imitation.  It’s something I preach to my students, and even enforce it by way of transcribing poems and passages from prose readings.  I doubt at their age they get as much out of it as I have since I stopped fighting my professors about it and really tried it; still, I impress with them that imitation is the road to your writing identity.  It works this way throughout the arts. You create your voice by channeling the voices that influenced you. Carver is but one of those voices for me. There’s Chekhov (who influenced Carver). There’s O. Henry. Thomas McGuane.  John McPhee. Jack Ridl. Kay Ryan. This idea of imitation is not a hard sell for adults, but it is for my students. I end up asking them if you’re on the football team, tell me their favorite player. Do you try to play like him? If you’re constantly watching NBA videos on YouTube, do you try to play like Kevin Durant?  Sure you do. Michael Jordan? I hope not because I can’t stand MJ. So they are familiar with the concept, but something disconnects with them when I not only encourage them to do it but mandate it.

So I was in full imitation mode as I drafted “The Return,” and it felt so smooth and natural that I never bothered to turn it off.  I did, however, have to find variations and add my own seasoning so editors who looked at it wouldn’t shrug it off as another in what I’m sure is an endless flow of Carver stories they receive.

The first and most obvious “borrowing” was from Carver’s story “Kindling.”  I read it years ago when I was starting out as a writer, and it left an impression on me.  The idea of a character having to accomplish something rang a note of empathy in my head. In the story, Myers is on the mend from drinking and a lost relationship and sets to the task of chopping a load of wood for a couple who is leasing him a room.  The idea of what doing something physical and earthy represents for a distressed character, what it does for the person emotionally and the confidence it gives him to move on with life, is something I think we can all identify with. The symbolism is natural and easy to grasp, yet profound.  It’s accessible to all ranges of intelligence, making the story appealing to a broad range of readers. For “The Return,” I have Sam in a similar circumstance with drinking and a broken (but not lost) relationship. If somehow he can get his yard together, he’s got a puncher’s chance at getting his life and his wife back.  But this doesn’t come together until the end when the narrator who is watching and eventually helping Sam finally connects the dots with what is happening next door to his own life and relationship, which isn’t as troubled as Sam’s but is on the decline.

I went back and reread “Kindling” last week after I was notified of publication, and found it lacking in ways (what do I know, anyhow?  it earned a sixth O. Henry Award for Carver, albeit posthumously).  There’s a third-person omniscient narrator, which is unusual for a short story, and frankly a good deal of needless material like scenes that don’t need to happen and relatively meaningless description.  Despite all that, the major symbolic action worked for me and made its way into my toolbox.

A solid piece of symbolic action, though, didn’t feel like it would be enough to carry the story.  I needed a direct redemption. I needed Sam to win at the end, but even that wasn’t going to be enough.  In fact, it felt early on that the mere fact of Sam winning was going to be cliche (it’s worth saying that it’s okay to write in cliches.  Moving through typical models of writing while you practice is valuable, but I’m also at the point of not wanting to call so much of my writing practice).  Since my mind was already on Carver, I thought more and more about one of his best known stories: Cathedral.  I’ve had a few encounters with it through the years, and the redemption the narrator experiences has always stuck with me.  In fact, the narrator is pretty much an ass until he has his moment. That was Ronnie for me. He’s standoffish with Sam and struggles to put the pieces together with what has happened next door, preferring instead to sink into himself in his garage and behind his fence.  He even isolates himself from his wife. Even when he realizes what has happened next door, he still operates mostly on his gut feeling rather than eloquent internal psychology. Ronnie isn’t much capable of eloquent internal psychology, but the reader is when they put together the pieces as he reports them.  The reader doesn’t need Ronnie to connect all the dots for him, and in fact is drawn deeper into the story when they make their own inferences.

The end result was the psychologically deepest story I’ve written. I was satisfied with it, but self-satisfaction is a false litmus test when you’re interested in getting something published.  The rejections started rolling in, and I started to have doubts about the story being too Carverish. I was also worried about overusing symbolism. For chrissake, what was I thinking? The lawn, the gin bottle, the fence, the gate, the water sealant…  how many symbols could I jam into a single story? This doubt and these frustrations are pretty much what writing is about. If you can’t manage them, you can’t write. I made it through this time, so I guess I might as well keep at it. It’s a crazy thing, writing.

Written by seeker70

May 29, 2019 at 10:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Winning Season

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The Cubs are 1-6, and I’m already calling this a winning season—the reason being that we’re on the right path for the franchise to fire Joe Maddon, and I’m all in favor of that for the Cubs to move forward.  Very little has changed since I last railed on the Cubs, and it’s easy to see at this point that that which didn’t work last season is not only going to not work this season, but is going to be a resounding failure.

Still fits.

Let’s talk tactics.  The most damning aspect here is these dolts are still without an everyday leadoff hitter.  What we have is leadoff platoon with a likely candidate to be an everyday leadoff guy–Albert Almora.  He hit .286 last year over 152 games.  So, rather idiotically, the Cubs alternate him with a 37-yr old who should be little more than trade bait at this point.  But instead, Joe Maddon keeps getting to play mad scientist and switch lineups on the daily, and he keeps around a guy that did real well for him during the World Series run in ’16.  How long until he pulls the Rizzo-at-leadoff stunt?  Gimmicks don’t win titles, Joe.  They might win individual games at critical points in the season and pull you out of slumps, but that’s about it.

This is not to say that Almora is the solution.  I don’t know that he is.  The real solution is having an everyday leadoff hitter, which the Northsiders haven’t had since Dexter Fowler took I-55 to St. Louis two years ago.  Somehow Joe has Theo Epstein convinced that the platoon approach is going to work.  But I’m not sure what pressure is on the organization to address the most critical issues that face the team.  The Cubs ran for 108 years on the fumes of nostalgia, and the games are still going to be sold out on the daily.

There are greater concerns than leadoff hitter, though.  There are matters of the integrity of the franchise, and that’s where the baseball gods are again throwing down lightning bolts.  How far will they allow the Cubs to go now that they are inclined to shelter domestic abusers?  The situation is so profound in the #metoo era that it’s perfectly reasonable to think that Larry Baer’s confrontation with his wife was actually a public audition for a position in the Cubs’ front office.

The racist and Islamophobic communications of Tom Ricketts also figure into how I’m viewing the Cubs these days.  Another Ricketts is overseeing fundraising for the re-election of the current PO(tu)S, and I’m left wondering how long a blue-collar city in a blue state will tolerate these right-wing and extreme positions.  I’m already tired of the bullshit, but I don’t speak for the city.  At what point do all these concerns overpower the strength of the nostalgia that has gripped generations of Cubs fans and result in a revolt that forces changes in how the organization is run?

You might be asking, too, why I’m even concerned about it.  That’s a good question.  I have a dual-citizenship in baseball, and my “other” team is 7-1 and scored thirteen runs last night against the tail-chasing Cubs.  All of this is telling me I need to spend my baseball money this summer north of the border rather than on the north side.

Written by seeker70

April 6, 2019 at 10:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Jackass Stubborn

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Parhelion Literary Magazine published my essay “Never Enough” two weeks ago.  It’s nice to return to writing creative non-fiction worthy of publication (back in the day I actually studied CNF as my focus at Northwestern).  To be clear, I’m not lamenting my lack of CNF publications—more like I’ve been wondering when I would write something “true” again. Alas, the muse of truth and writing shat upon me about a year ago and I found my way through, eventually.  I guess it was a matter of waiting patiently while I was busy writing a shitton of other stuff, mostly flash fiction for a few venues and endlessly practicing poetry.

1642523

The muse could have taken a gentler shit and I wouldn’t have complained, but maybe it needed to be weighty and delivered with some velocity to get me to explore some undiscovered country.  Still, the emotional toll of the piece made writing it a real slog at times, especially after the eleventh draft and 8th month of shaping and the fourth rejection.  

That’s right:  Rejection. Four of them before I withdrew it from every other publication I submitted to, and three more even after I wrote v12, resubmitted it, and before PLM picked it up.

The problem all along was that the piece lacked emotional resonance.  To portray the facts of the attempted suicide I witnessed, I settled on a straightforward narrative in past tense.  Writing that was difficult enough across 1800 words, but it also caused the piece to lie flat and two-dimensional on the page.  Past tense hinted that the situation was resolved, varnished, and sanitized. But even months after it happened, I wasn’t feeling varnished and sanitized about what happened.  So how do I communicate that in my writing?  I needed something to distinguish my narrative, and I needed to be honest about where I was in my head with what happened, regardless of how uncomfortable that was.

Thankfully, I’ve taught a creative writing class for the last thirteen years.  And thankfully, too, I sometimes listen to myself when I endlessly harp to my students about some things.  One of those things is how poets use the shape and structure of their poem to convey meaning beyond the words.  A simple example of this the poem “Raking Leaves” by Brian Fanelli. We take a good look at this little gem and talk about all the ways we feel the action and low-grade exertion of actually raking leaves.

There is something soothing about the scrape of a rake,
the rhythmic process of pulling dead leaves,
bending to pick them up, dumping them
in curbside lawn bags,
something soothing about the way the sun
warms your hair one of these last
seventy-degree days as you labor past
soreness in your arms, until you forget
emails to send, reports to file,
take-home work you left at the office,
until you forget the splendid mums will shrivel,
the tree that sheds now will wear nothing soon,
and you will curse the cold.

I constantly harp to my students, too, that what they learn writing and studying poetry should translate to their other writing.  So how does shape and structure translate to a different genre?  By fragmenting the narration.  Once I broke my past-tense narrative into discrete episodes, some as short as a few sentences, something broke loose in my thinking.  I started to feel on the page the emotional dissonance I experienced as the suicide episode unfolded.  I think, too, that perhaps I didn’t have a grasp on  how the whole incident affected me even a few months after as I was still writing the first version.  If I didn’t know the extent of it, how was I going to convey any solid meaning to the reader?  Changing the narration to present tense helped give it a documentary hand-held camera feel and keep the story happening right now with little or no hope of wrapping it up and putting a neat bow on it.  I already had a solid symbolic ending I caught by paying attention to the ordinary things happening around me as I processed the issue, and the present-tense narration really helped emphasize it.

What counts the most, though, beyond these elements of craft that worked pretty well, beyond finding meaning in what happened, was reclaiming “Never Enough” from the endless void of rejected and unpublished writing that I all too often contribute to.  I’ve never reached into the void before and snatched a piece back.  Hell, I never had the experience before where the remedies donged like a bell in my head while I was teaching and encouraged me to reach into the void.  But I’m nothing if not stubborn, and I wasn’t willing to let the story go until I had another say in the matter.  If only I could find a way for my students to be so stubborn about something that doesn’t involve their behavior choices or their phones.  Maybe I could get them to run Cross Country.  They’re still at that age, and doing that is definitely what made me so damn stubborn.

Written by seeker70

February 16, 2019 at 4:31 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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