What I did on my summer vacation…

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panareaWhen we arrived in Catania two weeks ago, my mother and I wound our way through the airport to the car rental counter and waited for an hour. This is the part of travel no one talks about – we Instagram the beach and our exotic breakfast, not the rental car line. I was anxious to leave the airport and head to our apartment on the water, but we needed the Fiat 500 to make our trek around the island. I sat on my suitcase and made small first cafe talk with the other English speakers in line. My mother brought me espresso in a tiny plastic cup and I changed my leggings for a skirt. I could already feel the Sicilian sun – the pulse of heat pushing up from Catania’s concrete jungle. It was both intensely foreign and achingly familiar.

Eventually, I drove our pint sized car through the city on faith and vague memories (the rental car agent looked at me like I was crazy when I asked for a map) and we parked on Capo Mulini’s lungomare. My mother recognized the apartment from the Google earth photos. The home is small – just two bedrooms and a living room, but guests live on the balcony. We didn’t spend a lot of time inside, but we ate picnic lunches and sipped our near constant espresso on the patio overlooking the Mediterranean.Capo mulini We watched Capo Mulini’s harbor full of boats and swimmers. We watched our Sicilian neighbors lower baskets down to the fruit vendor’s three-wheeled truck and hoist fresh produce back up to the third floor. We watched kayaks and paddle boats circle the Cyclops rocks; locals say the towering volcanic lumps were thrown at Odysseus on his legendary journey home from war.

We ended our trip with two days on an isolated island north of Sicily. Panarea feels like a secret paradise – there are no cars on the island and visitors arrive by hydrofoil. Electricity and running water came to Panarea in the 1980’s and now there are several hotels and wonderful restaurants. Most people spend just a few hours on the island, but we stayed two nights. We returned to a familiar hotel and shopped in the same overpriced boutiques we’d found nearly a decade ago. But mostly we sat on the sun warmed rocks and jumped into the clear sea. water

For me returning to Sicily is ideal respite: I know my way around (mostly), I can speak the language (poorly), and I love the water (completely). But the island still offers the alternative perspective that most travelers seek. I can move around with ease because it is familiar, but the place is foreign enough to shift my gaze, to remind me of the vast space in the world. Time is languid – maybe because of the heat or maybe because Sicilian conversation is dramatic and intense and takes a while. We rested well. We measured our days by the sun instead of the clock; we ate when we were hungry and lingered over our wine. We watched people and counted our blessings.

panarea sjIn the end it wasn’t the picture perfect, Intstagram-able moments that made my vacation great. It was the in-between moments: the first espresso in the rental car line, the hugs and tears from my dear Sicilian friends, the wine and the fresh picked peach on our Capo Mulini balcony, Panarea’s jumping rock. It was the smell and feel of the ocean as only a mountain dweller can experience the water: in stark relief. And the perspective that travel promises necessitates returning home. It is so good for my soul to go, but it is so great to be home.

 

What Works

 

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We are currently bombarded by information about our educational system, whether it’s the need for early childhood education or the appalling completion rates at our community colleges. Everyone from education experts to politicians weighs in on what the solutions might be. Community colleges place a great deal of emphasis on “assessment,” which means measuring how our students are doing. Too often the tools we use for assessment are blunt instruments that do not really look at the important skills and knowledge that our students are gaining or not gaining.

I recently learned about a program started in 1986 by Dr. Rae Fleming Dinneen called Climb Wyoming. Dr. Dinneen developed this program to provide job training for single mothers in Wyoming to help them move out of poverty and into jobs and careers that will allow these women to support their families. The success rate of this program in almost 40 years is remarkable. Ninety-five percent of the women who participate graduate from the 12 week program and remain in their new jobs or in better jobs two years beyond graduation. The women in this program become welders, CNA’s, office managers, warehouse technicians and long distance truck drivers.

What Climb Wyoming has done is taken what we know works in education and applied it. Climb Wyoming does not need “assessments” to tell if what they are doing is working. They see it every day as these young mothers gain job skills, gain relationship skills, gain money skills and gain parenting skills.

What Climb Wyoming does besides pairing women with jobs and job training programs is to facilitate close connections between the women who enroll. Each group that enters together develops a community that supports its members as they meet every week. No participant feels like she is alone, something most of these women felt deeply when they were unemployed or marginally employed. Beyond the immediate connection within each group, Climb Wyoming graduates stay in touch with each other so that those bonds that develop during the training period remain. Climb Wyoming’s staff plays the parts of counselor, cheerleader, older sister, helping each woman over the rough spots, placing each woman in a job training program that will suit her. The staff also teaches resume writing, office etiquette, and gives parenting advice, sometimes something as simple as helping a young mother see that it is important to read aloud to her children.

Research supports all of this work. We know that students learn better if they are in a small, congenial group. They learn better if they have specific goals. They learn better if they have close relationships with their teachers (or in this case the Climb Wyoming leaders). We know students learn better when they can see the result of their learning. We do not need artificial assessments to understand these things.

I suggest that educators look to programs like Climb Wyoming for the answers to some of our educational problems. We need to move to smaller classes that meet more frequently so that students develop relationships with each other. We need to have instructors who are available for students not just for their academic work but for conversations about their students’ lives, about the barriers that might be in the way of a student’s achievement. We need to keep in touch with our students after they have finished our courses, checking in to remind students that people continue to care about them.

In the end, education is about relationships as much as it is about subject matter. Students learn if they care about each other, if their instructor cares about them and if, together they care about the material.

Climb Wyoming takes education’s best practices and puts them to work. I encourage everyone to look at this remarkable program. www.climbwyoming.org.

 

Jane

 

Living to Writing…well…Later…

Truck w/ kayaks

The pickup & kayaks ready to go…

A couple of weeks ago, Jane wrote about how Revision is the “Heart of Writing.” And that is true, but to get to revision, you first have to begin.

Starting is the hardest part of writing…actually, it’s the hardest part of any project. I am supposed to have a draft of a 250-page book completed by the end of the year. When I proposed this project, I anticipated having 42 pages of polished writing completed each month starting June 1st. That’s 10,500 words. Assuming I need to at least double that to have 42 pages of polished writing completed, that’s 21,000 words a month, equal to 700 words a day. However, if I don’t write every day, that’s 1050 words a day, M-F. I can usually write that in a few hours, so 1050 words a day is doable…mathematically, anyway.

The problem comes when I actually sit down to write.

I check email.

I check Facebook.

I check Twitter.

I watch the birds outside.

Three hours later, I still have a blank screen or a few bad sentences.

I know what I want to write about. I have some writing completed in the forms of journals and short articles. And I could start there, but as I read them and consider using them, the writing seems flat and uninspired.

I tell my students all the time that starting is the most difficult part. I tell them to just sit and write: “Put it on the page. Even if you’re writing “I don’t know what to write” until finally some thoughts come to mind and you write them down.” Once those ideas are out, they can be organized and manipulated into art…or at least communication to the public.

So, I’ve tried that.

But then the river beckons me.

My dogs want to go for a hike.

My viola needs to be practiced.

Perhaps procrastination is the human condition even if it isn’t good for us. I wonder what the biological reason is for it…is it coded in our DNA? Or perhaps it is learned.

Perhaps it is simply summer and I’m having too much fun kayaking, biking, hiking, and camping.

I want to write, but the subject of surviving cancer is hard to write about. It’s hard to think about. I don’t want to remember sitting for hours at The Welch Cancer Center while poison dripped into my veins. I don’t want to remember the tingling throughout my body as the “red devil” took residence into my cells and tissue. I don’t want to remember the days I cried at my desk wondering how I was ever going to survive.

But I have to remember. I have to make sense of it all. I need to pause and consider the lessons I’ve learned and consider how my story can hep others.

And I’ll get there.

Eventually.

But right now, it’s the start of the July 4th weekend, and I have to go camping.

~ K

This is what the inside of my head looks like right now…

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I hate packing so I Google-crastinate. I ask the interwebs what to pack. I bug my husband and bribe my friends to help. I love to travel, but I hate to prepare and so my brain looks like this:

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But I eventually get it done with some amount of efficiency and make my way to the airport:

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Today I return to my other home : Catania, Sicily. My mother is my fearless and like-minded companion:

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Our travel goals center on caloric intake and sunshine exposure. We walk quickly, eat slowly, and sit reluctantly. Today will be a very long travel day: we do not arrive in Italy until Saturday afternoon. We are ready for an adventure!

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Mr. Silverstein has it right. Stay tuned for updates and photos of food and fashion Sicilian style: Andiamo!

- Sarah

 

Revision is the Heart of Writing

 

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A couple of weeks ago I attended two workshops at the Wyoming Writers Conference here in Sheridan, Wyoming. Mark Spragg, author of Where Rivers Change Directions, An Unfinished Life and Fruit of Stone, among others, presented a workshop on “The Final Edits,” but what he talked about was really more than that. He is an author who refines and refines his work before anyone else sees it, and he spoke to the importance of deleting our favorite sentences, our favorite words and our most artful metaphors. Like Anne Sexton said, “kill your darlings.”

My daughter-in –law, also a writer, attended these workshops with me, and after the conference I gave her what I consider to be the second draft of a novel that didn’t seem to be going anywhere.  The first draft of the story had come in a rush of obsession, where the characters themselves led me on their quest, let me into their hearts and minds.  However, that was the first draft. I did a round of edits, but not real revisions. For example, I realized that this story, which takes place mostly in the outdoors, had no birds in it, so I went back and inserted birds in appropriate places. Not a major change, but one that did make the setting richer.  Through a somewhat unusual process, I submitted this draft to an agent who began circulating the story. Editors sent back comments like “the stakes aren’t high enough.” And a year ago, I began taking the story apart again. I changed from a first- person narrative to a third-person omniscient one, but the plot stayed essentially the same. I got about half way through the story on this draft, and while I was happy with some it, other parts felt draggy.

Then yesterday, my daughter-in-law sent me her thoughts on the draft, and I began to really understand what those “stakes aren’t high enough” comments meant.  Part of it is thinking about, and writing about not just what is happening externally to characters, but what is happening inside them.  What is it that makes them tick, and what is it that drives them, and how to they change in the process?

I am completely rethinking this book. The summer will not be long enough to complete it, but I see now that the most interesting parts of the story are the parts that I sort of took for granted in the first drafts, and that those are the parts that I have to examine more closely. I  think that I didn’t understand who the main character really is, nor did I see why.  I now see that there’s a much richer and more interesting book hiding in there, and that I just have to find it.

Once again, I am relearning that revision is the heart of writing. That first draft is fun. It’s a kind of adventure in its way, and it’s the place where new writers stop, but it’s never the “true” story, (or at least rarely). It’s the starting place, but that first draft is never the end

 

Jane

Broken Clocks, Barbeques, and Three-day Weekends

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cody at grandpa's plot

Cody on Memorial Day in Wyoming

I’ve moved a broken clock around the world. My husband and I bought it in a small town near our then home in Italy. Caltagirone is a hilly village covered in hand painted ceramics. Every flat surface is decorated with traditional blue and yellow swirling patterns – the twelve inch ceramic clock seemed like an appropriate memento of our time overseas. It hung in my Sicilian kitchen for years, counting the slow, sunny days, the military deployments, the new friends – all of our time. When we returned to the states, Cody emptied the kitchen boxes and unwrapped the clock, but he couldn’t make it work. He propped it on the kitchen counter and promised to fix it later.

I moved to Sicily almost exactly fourteen years ago: Memorial Day weekend 2000. In just 18 months of marriage, I’d already lived on three military bases, but Sicily was our first real duty station. My husband flew helicopter training missions all over Europe and the Middle East and eventually he flew real missions as a part of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. I learned to be a military wife and an English teacher. We also built some of the strongest friendships of our entire lives.

Americans began observing Memorial Day almost 150 years ago. In 1868 it was called “Decoration Day” as former Union soldiers and families gathered to put flowers on veterans’ graves (I’m happy to report that both Union and Confederate graves were honored). Sometime that first year, it was unofficially decided that May 30th would be a good time to hold “Decoration Day” because flowers would be in bloom throughout the States. Around the turn of the century the holiday had become so popular that the Army and the Navy attempted to standardize “proper observance.” It wasn’t until 1971 that Congress officially declared “Memorial Day” a national holiday. And in 2000 Congress created the “National Moment of Remembrance” which is observed at three in the afternoon (local time) across the country every year as a way to “help put the memorial back in Memorial Day.

When we returned to the states on Memorial Day weekend 2003, we were happy to be home, ready for our next adventure. But we were also heart sick about leaving our community of friends in Italy. Just weeks after we moved into our Maryland apartment, our phone ran unexpectedly. A friend had heard news about a helicopter crash in Sicily. The media had reported the crash and a fire, but they hadn’t named the crew, or listed the causalities. We rushed to Cody’s office to call the squadron in Italy but we wouldn’t hear details until the next day. It took us hours to fall asleep that night. We knew our friends were in trouble; we whispered prayers and cried in frustration.

We attended only one of the four memorial services held that July, but we mourned for all of our friends: Kevin A. Bianchi, Peter Ober, Brian P. Gibson, and Samuel Cox. We watched children cry and uniformed men sob. We hugged our friends and promised not to forget. I felt an odd mix of anguish, isolation, and fear. I felt guilt and relief and I questioned my ability to help my friends grieve and recover. We were so far away – in so many ways.

When we got home from the burial in New Jersey Cody picked up the silent Sicilian clock and pushed the hands around until it read four-thirty. He hung it back in our new kitchen and sat down to look at it. I waited for him to explain. Eventually, Cody told me the story. Pete Ober was often the squadron clown. On slow days he’d reset the office clocks to read 4:30 pm – quitting time. It might have fooled his senior shipmates, except that Pete moved the hands after morning coffee break at 10 am. We’ve hung the broken clock in all of our kitchens. It’s still set to 4:30.flowers for grandpa

This Memorial Day we took our kids to visit their great-grandfather’s grave here in Wyoming. Grandpa was a World War II and a Korean War vet. We helped Cody’s grandmother leave flowers and tidy up the plot. The kids knew Grandpa Guy and they know about his service. We talk often about the military and our time away from the mountain west, but it feels most important to tell them about our friends Pete and Kevin. We’ve taken them to Arlington and shown them pictures of our friends. When they ask about the broken clock we tell the story again. We want them to remember more than the three day weekend and the barbeques.

- Sarah

 

The Red Wheel Barrow… once again

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The Red Wheelbarrow

William Carlos Williams

so much depends upon

a red wheel barrow

glazed with rain water

beside the white chickens.

 

I have taught this poem many, many times and have always told students that it’s easy to read too much into it, that it is an image, a little snap shot and not much else. I do believe that is true, but that doesn’t explain the “so much depends” of the poem, not really. I have also always said that the most important word in the poem is “glazed” but I didn’t really think about why “glazed” is so important until recently.. until, to be exact, I was lying in bed in a dingy motel room in Casper, Wyoming, trying to go to sleep. I sometimes recite poetry to myself as a way of drifting off, but as I recited the Williams, I began to think about what, really have been inadequate analyses. ( I would like to insert here , that too often student do want to find the “deeper” or “hidden meaning” as if poetry is some sort of arcane code that requires “special knowledge” to decode. I always work to dissuade them of this notion, that the meaning of the poem is on the page, in the specific words, and that all a student needs to do is read carefully and thoughtfully.)

But now, as I was thinking, in the drifting moments before sleep, I thought again about why “glazed” is so important. First of all, it creates the glassy sheen on the wheelbarrow. “Slick” would not have done as well to create that window-like glassiness. However, “glazed” does something else. When we think about the word, it immediately brings to mind what potters do to pots. They glaze them, by covering them with substances that turn hard and “glassy,” creating a permanent finish on the pot. We have shards of glazed pots from ancient civilizations, and potters today are using techniques very similar to the ones used centuries ago.

Thus, Williams, with the use of this lovely verb, makes the red wheel barrow into something permanent and ageless, something that connects people of the twentieth century to people from ancient times. Not only is this connection made through the word “glazed” but it is reinforced by the implement itself, which is a lowly, and low tech tool used by farmers and gardeners throughout history.

Finally, Williams contrasts the glazed wheel barrow with the white chickens, also a part of human agriculture for millennia. These creatures are ephemeral, new chickens are hatched, adult chickens are eaten but the generic “chicken” connects humans throughout history.

So, now, we come back to the “So much depends upon,” that apparently cryptic statement at the beginning of the poem. If the chickens and the glazed wheel barrow take on the weight of millennia, (with Williams’ very light and imagistic touch), then civilization depends on these things, the simple tools, the animals that provide us with food. Indeed, much does depend on them. Yes, “glazed” is the most important word in this poem because without it, we wouldn’t understand the first stanza beyond except in the simplest way.

I find it interesting that it took a moment before drifting off to sleep to see this, and I am reminded again of Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” Williams is telling us an enormous truth, but he is also telling it slant.

 

Jane

 

 

Confessions of a Reluctant Sports Parent

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Trope –> noun \ˈtrōp\ : a common or overused theme or device : cliche <the usual horror movie tropes>
Soccer Mom –> noun : a mother usually from the middle class who brings her children to soccer games and similar activities

luca swimmingMy mother told me this would happen.
When I married my husband she warned me: “Your kids will grow up in a gymnasium.” It wasn’t an insult to my athletic husband or a judgment about my inherent and persistent klutziness – it was just an observation. I married a jock. Cody has coached basketball for 14 years. He has coached junior-high Navy brats, pee-wee three-on-three teams, college freshman, and most recently high school girls. He loves athletics and will chase a ball anywhere. When our first son was born he kept a stuffed basketball in the crib and hung fuzzy soccer balls across the car seat. When I suggested that we buy our six-week-old books instead of a regulation sized football, Cody said, “I guess he can throw books too.”
Watching our kids play team sports seems to be the predominate pastime for thirty something moms. In Wyoming, we drive hundreds of miles in the snow and rain (because spring doesn’t arrive here until at least June), unfold our umbrella chairs in the wind and huddle with our coffee under blankets and beanies while the kids chase each other around a field that looks suspiciously like the one we just left behind. We’re assured that our lives are “not on hold” while our kids play; we’re “making precious memories” and “learning about ourselves.” I’m not sure what I’m learning beyond the fact that sports parents are crazy and ten-year olds are easily placated with cheap plastic trophies and orange slices. I often wonder if my boys would have just as much fun with a free movie pass and unlimited access to ice cream and caffeinated beverages.
Most of my friends don’t seem as challenged by the soccer mom trope – they have this part of parenting down. They have soccer wagons (for all of those chairs) and basketball team shirts. They seem to understand most of the rules and they know exactly what to shout across the court when their kiddo scores. They take stats and snap photos with something other than their ancient smart phone. I, on the other hand, just Googled “soccer mom trope.”frank soccer
Team sports don’t always make sense to me. I am a runner and a backpacker; I like sports where I can only hurt myself. I prefer to hideout in the mountains rather than at center field with a baseball glove. But last week at a tournament in central Wyoming, Frank scored a hat trick (I had to Google that too: three goals in one game). He raced down the field to his friends who hugged and high-fived him. His coaches jumped on the sidelines and threw their fists in the air. Cody and I shook our heads in disbelief and shouted our encouragement. After the game one of the coaches stopped us on our way to the car. I expected to hear about the U10 team’s winning day; I was ready to bite my tongue. Instead, I heard about my child’s big heart. The coach told us about watching Frank repeatedly pass the ball to a teammate who hasn’t scored before. He told us that our son was leading his team, having fun, and – incidentally – learning to play soccer.
As we drove away from the field, my boys bickered in the backseat and Frank tallied his season’s goals – no signs of the big heart I’d just been so proud to hear about. I bristled and turned to look at him. He was dirty – grass stains covered his yellow jersey and orange Gatorade circled his mouth. But he was happy and tired. He’d spent the last hour running and playing with his friends. He smiled at me and drank his chocolate milk.

I think most parents know that team sports are about more than winning and losing, but it seems we only hear about the craziness of over scheduled kids and over involved parents. I’m learning to have fun on the sidelines, learning to see my kids differently. I am watching them grow into the strong, competitive, big-hearted athletes: just like their father. My mom was right. Again.

- Sarah

 

Cloudy Day

Susan Bemus

Photo by Karen Williams Flores

The wind is banging at the window…wanting to get in. It always sounds so angry.

My dog is afraid of the wind. She hovers close to me on days like today, not content unless her flank is touching my leg. As I fix my hair for work, she sighs and leans into me, finding comfort in my sturdiness and warmth.

The wind jostles something on the roof and a metal ting reverberates through the attic and the bathroom walls. Nikko’s ears go back and she looks at me with pleading eyes; “make it stop,” I imagine her thinking.

I stoop and hug her close while stroking her ears. I tell her it’s just the wind, but she knows. That’s why she’s afraid: something unseen is rattling the walls and making noises she’s not used to. Something she doesn’t understand has changed her world and all she knows to do is seek comfort.

She acts this way during thunderstorms and fireworks, too. In fact, July is a terrifying month for poor Nikko with children lighting firecrackers in our alley and the empty hill next to our lot. She hears a snap and runs to my side with her ears back and her tail tucked underneath her.

We purchased a “Thunder Shirt” to try to help. A Thunder Shirt is a piece of cloth that gets wrapped around the dog’s midsection and secured with Velcro. It calms her slightly, but she still seeks our comfort and won’t let me out of her sight. She would be happier in my lap, but a 70-pound dog on my lap does not make it easy to write or breathe.

No matter what I do, I can’t make the wind stop. I can’t make Nikko understand that the wind won’t hurt her. All I can do is comfort her and let her know I’m here.

It’s that way with grief, too. It grips us, holds us hostage, and all we want is comfort. Cancer has claimed another life…a life I knew…a life I loved. Something I don’t understand has changed my world and all I can do is seek comfort with those I love. They can’t do much. They can’t make the hurt go away, and they can’t explain why, but they can hold me, and through their love give me strength.

Love those around you. Hold them. Tell them how much you care.

Good bye, Susan. You gave joy and love to those around you. Heaven is a little brighter now.

~ K

The Truth about Community College

 

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I have been teaching at a community college since the mid-1980’s, and I have watched a lot of students come and go, graduate and drop out; however, community colleges have become a major focus of education discussions since the advent of the “Complete College America” campaign. While I certainly agree that students are better off if they finish college rather than starting and not finishing, but it’s critical to think about why students come to college and why they should.

Community colleges are, generally, hybrid institutions, providing both the first two years of a four-year education and skill -based, technical certificates and degrees, including but not limited to welding, nursing, dental hygiene or culinary arts. This dual role often creates a certain kind of tension in these colleges, a tension that is often healthy, but also sometimes difficult.

Many of the students coming to community college are first generation college students. They come from families where their parents have encouraged them to go to college, but who have little idea what that means except that their children will get better jobs with a degree, and it is statistically true that those with degrees do better than those that do not .

However, the picture is more complicated than that and we are doing our students a disservice if we do not squarely face the truth that for many fields a two-year degree is worthless. A two-year degree in English, Psychology, History or Economics, for example, will not get someone a job in those fields. These fields require not only a BA but more than likely a Ph.D. Our students, in general, are naïve about how much education they will need to succeed in these fields. In general, this kind of education is out of reach for our students because of cost, but also because they have no experience making long term plans that this kind of education requires. I talked with a student recently who wanted to complete a two-year degree in English. She works as a cake decorator at Wal-Mart. A two-year degree in English will insure that she continues to be a cake decorator. If she wants the two year degree because she enjoys English classes, that is fine, but she should be under no illusion that she will get an English job. Her degree will be for her own pleasure, but that really is all.

On the other hand, if a student thinks that she will get a useful degree in two years, she needs to think about a technical degree. Even here, however, it may well take more than two years. For example, an Associate Degree in Nursing usually requires two years of prerequisites before beginning the two-year nursing degree.

A few days ago, I asked some of my students why they were in college. One of them said that her parents had told her and her sister to go to college because the parents had not done so. I asked her if she had a goal for her education. She told me she did not. I told her that she might as well be working at McDonalds if she had no idea why she was in school. (This is a student who has missed more than two weeks of class. She is clearly not invested in education.) Coming to college without any sense of why one is there is a waste of the student’s time and money and a waste of teachers’ time.

Community college is not a magic ticket to success. All degrees are not created equal. We need to stop pushing college to all students. We need to demonstrate to prospective college students that they need to plan beyond the abstraction of “I am going to college”. Parents with no college education need to be helped to understand that their children will not do well in college unless they have some understanding of what college means and doesn’t mean.   There may well be students for whom working at McDonalds is a better choice.

Jane

 

 

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