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So here’s a thing.

A few weeks ago James Humberstone, the composer I’m working with on the ‘Homesong’ song-cycle, sent me what he humbly described as a cheeky out-take of music. I loved it, so much so that I offered to write some words, perhaps about my thoughts on the current marriage-equality debates that’s going on in Australia. James immediately sent back a text: ‘Yes, let’s do it!’

The next day I wrote some words down on a scrap of paper and then put them on Twitter to see how people might respond. Thankfully, folk responded positively. James then set the words to music, asked Sydney-based vocalist Katie Salisbury to work up a melody, and then the song was mixed and mastered by Jordan Thomas Mitchell in LA. Last but not least, Tina Costessi from Red Gadget Films in Canberra created a wonderfully positive – and emotionally powerful – video.

Click on the above image to have a look and listen.

Why did we do this? Because all people, regardless of their sexuality, deserve to be recognised by the law, to move through the world with dignity, and to feel included. And because much of the political campaign is negative, destructive, and, in many cases, dishonest.

Plus we had a great deal of fun.

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If I could I would say to Mr Shelton,

‘When I was 17 and at an Anglican school

I had 50 cortisone injections in my face

and a year-long course of Roaccutane

(a drug that’s known to lead to suicide)

because I was riddled with acne.

 

At the age of 48 my face remains scarred

(like a burns victim, I sometimes joke)

and every morning I look at myself and

remember the staggering weight of those days

when I knew that all I wanted – and needed –

was to fall in love with boys.

 

Do you see now, Lyle, do you see?’

Millie ‘Tubs Malone’ Featherstone: the best place in the house.

It was always going to be a challenging day, and by challenging I mean gutwrenching – after seventeen years of good living, Millie was to draw her final breath.

Being a black Labrador, she had been a most loyal and intelligent companion. At dawn every morning, I would hear the clip-cop of her paws on the floorboards as she came to say hello to me in bed. We walked together every day.

She loved going in the car, which was something I appreciated because living in regional New South Wales means I travel a lot; she would stand on the backseat and rest her head on my shoulder as I drove, as if she was pretending to be a pirate’s parrot. At the end of every day, she would sit beside me on the couch as I watched the news on TV or listened to music.

In her last two years, however, Millie had been suffering from arthritis, especially in her back legs. Despite excellent veterinary treatment, her daily walks had gone from ten-kilometre adventures up and down hills to a ten-minute stroll to the nearest street corner and back. A heat-wave had also knocked her around, to the point that she was panting all day.

One morning, on one of her strolls, she developed a bad limp; as I carried her home in my arms I knew the time had come.

*

Keep reading at the Sydney Morning Herald, where the story was published on 26 June 2017. It was commissioned by the Tuggeranong Arts Centre in relation to the 2017 Empire Global Art Award. Correction to the attribution: I am a resident of the Southern Tablelands in New South Wales (not ‘the southern highlands’).

Gates 2 PC

1.

It’s always the same, and it’s not until the end that it makes sense.

2.

At 4pm the slipping on of holey sneakers and the wearing of beanie and gloves; an old blue-striped hooded top too. Glasses on face, ready to go.

3.

Out the back door, down the side of the house (ducking to miss the overhead rose), out the first gate and then the picket-fenced second. Footsteps on cracked footpaths, arms swinging for rhythm, legs keeping up.

4.

Turn right into Addison and the rising begins, past the church with the imploring billboard, though it’s hard to ignore the peace of the high-peaked rectory opposite the workers cottages with nothing in the front gardens except twigs and dogshit, me eyeing off the twigs because I’m in the market for kindling.

5.

A bend in the road where the school oval forms a corner, the dependable runnel of water entering the drain and culvert. Wild plum trees like weeds. Two Herefords in their ag-class paddock, steer and calf, mother and daughter, or mother and son. The Lanyon-esque house opposite, all chimneys and verandahs, like a set of a TV drama. (What drama behind the walls?) On the same side but further up the local Liberal’s mansion tucked away beneath a thickness of pines, the whine of a chainsaw preparing wood for the hearth and then, oh, a glass of sherry. ‘Sherry, dear?’ ‘Yes dear, sherry.’ In my boyhood I would have admired their fine slate roof and the sherry, but not anymore.

6.

Turn away to the patch of scrappy bush, pine cones out of reach beneath the pine trees on the other side of the fence. The footie oval, or it might be for cricket, roos grouped on the sidelines, a hop here and a hop there, before head down to snack on the winter grass. Now my legs and arms have found their flow and there’s good breath and air in my lungs. Up we go some more. The small, axe-murderish farm with its darkly curtained windows and the goats that run up to the fence. One time, as I charged by, the farmer waved and called out hello, and I waved and said hello back and thought, so he’s probably not an axe-murderer after all. And on and on, past the new houses that are being built on sold-off paddocks, black Labradors running from one side of their unfinished yard to the other, thinking of my own black Labrador who is too old to come with me these days.

7.

Turn left and up I go even further, past PLEASANT RIDGE, no railings on the stairs or on the top landing despite the house, a red-brick 70s shocker, being two-storeys high – how old the occupants are, which always (sometimes) makes me worry. The horse paddock on the other side of the road, the horse I call Melody or Max; sometimes he – or she – whinnies, but I just keep walking, the ground becoming rockier, and steeper, my ankles training.

8.

And then, at last, the road tips over to flatness and I can feel my heart pounding. I draw in the crisply clean air; I smell the waft of the single sheep in the sloping paddock. I look over the animal to the wind-turbines on the ridge far away in the last of the light. I stop at the gate, grip the cold metal with two hands, let my breathing – and everything else, everything that I’ve brought with me but have left along the road, like invisible breadcrumbs – settling and settling some more. Breathing: it’s all about breathing; to have come all this way (47 years) to reach that conclusion. ‘Mr Sheep, it’s me again. I was here yesterday but now I’m back. What’s going on for you?’ Silence. And stillness. That other thing I’ve learnt: there’s breathing and there’s silence and stillness. Which is why I’ve come to the edge of town. Everything is now in place, even me, in my gloves and beanie and sneakers. ‘See you tomorrow, Mr Sheep.’

9.

Cross the road and make sure to walk beside the piece of bush, the smooth white trunks of young eucalypts, the scent that’s sometimes heady. VOLUNTEERS ARE REHABILITATING THIS AREA – DO NOT LITTER. As if I would. Looking north to the new suburbs, the suburbs that are already lighting up for another evening of Netflix and nachos, soft folds of paddocks to the north where the end of the day is making hollows, before the damp comes, then the frost. I shudder and burrow into the hoodie that I’ve pulled up and tightened.

10.

It’s always the same, and it’s not until the end that it makes sense: breathe out, ease in. I am empty.

 

Despite having them in my life for 30 years, more or less, I don’t really know what they are. They flit about like a type of butterfly that may or may not exist.

I can remember being in the Fifth or Sixth Form of the rather well-healed Anglican school I attended on Sydney’s North Shore, my English teacher, Mr Cowdroy, leading us through the reading of a short story, the author of which I regrettably can’t recall. I loved the conciseness of the story – that life could be created and explored and examined in so few pages – and the sense of compression, the cleverness of the ending, which made me want to start reading the story all over again. It also made me want to keep writing, for by that time I had been writing for some years, albeit for school assessment.

One of the lingering collections.

One of the lingering collections.

Fast forward to my twenties, when I realised that doing little more than hanging out with mates at the pub was not good and deep living and would most likely lead to misery, I began writing stories again, but only because I wanted to. I also read stories, mainly in anthologies. Collections that resonated were Risks (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1996; edited by Brenda Walker) and the Faber Book of Gay Short Fiction (Faber and Faber, 1991; edited by Edmund White). I also enjoyed Fishing in the Sloe-Black River by Colum McCann (Phoenix House, 1994) and that other Irish chap who did quite well in the form, James Joyce with his Dubliners. I’d go on to discover the short works of Tolstoy and Chekhov, and contemporary writers such as Peter Carey, Annie Proulx, David Malouf, Marion Halligan, John Clanchy, Tim Winton, Nam Le, and Alice Munro. I subscribed to and read Australian literary journals, including Meanjin, Overland, Island, Tirra Lirra, and Wet Ink.

Over the years that followed I began having my own stories published, at first in relatively minor journals now gathering dust in the National Library of Australia’s vast vaults, before some of my stories were ‘accepted’ (for that appeared to be the termed used) in the journals mentioned above. It was, of course, all very thrilling. To see my name in an edition of Meanjin (2: 2000) alongside writers such as Merlinda Bobis, Thomas Shapcott, Dorothy Hewett, Arnold Zable, and Dorothy Porter. Eventually my published stories were collected in two humble volumes, Homelife (1999) and Joy (2000). The Australia Book Review (no. 224 Sept 2000) described the latter as ‘beautifully poised, warm, lush, humane, with lots of surprises and shocks.’ Which made my heart sing, and still does. I say all this not to brag but to suggest that slowly but surely I have been taking steps; I have, I think, been making progress.

What makes a writer's heart sing.

What makes a writer’s heart sing.

Soon I gathered the confidence to write longer works, including three published novellas and a novel, but rarely does a year go by when I don’t write – and try to have published – short stories. Perhaps part of the attraction is being able to take a break from convoluted, complicated works and spend a week crafting a little tale. But I’m not sure if that’s true and/or wise. Short stories can be just as complex as longer works, if not more so, and they can be just as difficult to write, if not more so. It is common for fiction writers to say that short stories are closer to poetry than prose, in that they are suggestions more than full explorations. In the best fiction, regardless of length, words need to be deployed artfully so life can rise from the page. But perhaps in a short story, as in a poem, each word has to do some impressive – and exhaustive – heavy lifting, often (hopefully) with spectacular results.

Sometimes with spectacular results. My filing cabinet and PC hard-drive are littered with rubbish work.

Recently, to be frank, I’ve been doubting the worth of the short story as a viable form. Australian literary journals do continue to publish them, although, depending on the journal, it could be said that only writers are reading them. On the whole mainstream publishers turn up their noses at collections of stories, claiming readers want a more immersive experience; and some writers who have excelled at the form have simply given up, claiming there is no point when ‘it’s just too hard to find a readership’. So, if the readership is limited, why do it? Isn’t it like, say, insisting on painting miniature portraits, the sort that galleries won’t touch with a barge-pole? But, but, but: every so often single-author collections, such as Nam Le’s The Boat (Penguin, 2008) and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil (Hachette, 2014), make a big public splash.

What am I trying to say? The short story is a surprising and tenacious beast.

A similarly surprising and tenacious beast is the Review of Australian Fiction, which publishes – electronically – two stories every two weeks and often takes the opportunity to publish works that print journals consider ‘too long’ (over 4,000 words); a worthy venture to say the least, considering also that individual issues cost only $2.99. It’s an honour to be published in the Review a second time, especially as I’ve been paired with Marion Halligan, whose collection Shooting the Fox (Allen & Unwin, 2011) was choc-full of literary magic. My story, ‘The Blue Bottle’, has been emerging for many years – decades you could say – because it uses an event from my twenties as a place for jumping off (no, it’s not set in a pub). On the page the story is nothing more or less than fiction, but there must have been something in the original event that had stayed with me and I’d wanted to turn it over with words and sentences and characters and plot. As is so common (predictable?) in my work, the narrative involves an old house and landscape and music and friendship and intimacy and longing and glimpses – glimpses – of love. But I won’t go on.

All I really wanted to tell you is this: ‘The Blue Bottle’ exists, it is here.

Miraculously.

'Very few historians become novelists. It's a risk. You risk reputation and ego' - Peter Stanley (Image source: Fairfax Media)

‘Very few historians become novelists. You risk reputation and ego’ – Peter Stanley (Image source: Fairfax Media)

Think outside the square. Push the envelope. Go beyond your comfort zone. These are the clichés that are trotted out with monotonous regularity, as though every single one of us isn’t brave enough, we’re all just lazy sods. Then again, we’re also told to be cautious of those who dare to be outspoken, don’t get too close to the people who rock the boat; at all costs we should avoid those who are courageous enough to try turning truth on its head.

Then there’s historian Peter Stanley. Who seems to not care about any of this – he just wants to get on with the job of illuminating history.

Surely if there’s anyone who is qualified to illuminate history it’s Professor Peter Stanley. For twenty-seven years he was a historian with the Australian War Memorial, and after a brief stint at the National Museum of Australia he now works out of the University of New South Wales’ Australian Defence Force Academy campus. Stanley is the author of over twenty-five non-fiction works (he admits to having lost track), including the potentially blasphemous Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny, Murder, and the Australian Imperial Force, which was jointly awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for history in 2011. As if he doesn’t have enough to do, he is also the president of Honest History, a relatively new ACT-based organisation that aims to debunk the mythmaking that often occurs in Australian military history, particularly when it’s in the hands of politicians.

If anyone deserves the title of being one of the nation’s most prominent military historians it is Peter Stanley. But is he a towering, intimidating force?

Not in the slightest.

We meet in his north Canberra house, which doesn’t seem to have had much done to it since it was built in the 1960s. Two small fluffy dogs appear behind the flyscreen door, before Stanley appears as well – he looks like he’s no more significant than a suburban tax accountant. (If you’ve seen him during one of his many television appearances, he can be fiery almost to the point of discomfort.) After asking the dogs to behave – they do – the historian leads me through to the kitchen, where he gets together tea and biscuits. We take our places in a small, unassuming loungeroom. There’s a view into a semi-neglected, semi-loved backyard that’s so peaceful it’s hard to imagine that there are any problems in the world.

We’re here to discuss the recent publication of The Cunning Man, which is Peter Stanley’s first novel for adults. (He is the author of a novella for young adults, Simpson’s Donkey, which tells the famous ANZAC story from the animal’s perspective – it’s a memorable yarn.) This latest work is set in 1845 and explores the world of the European soldiers who created Britain’s Indian Empire. Sergeant Major Nelson Mansergh, Bengal Horse Artillery, is given the job of searching the Punjaub for a conspiracy among the company’s European soldiers. There’s a sub-plot of love and, needless to say, the story culminates in battle.

Why the move to long-form fiction?

*

Keep reading over at the Canberra Times, which published this piece on 28 November 2014. Thanks to Sally Pryor.

THE WILD ONES - 6pm 3 Dec 2014 - updated

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘This ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular’ – Toni Morrison

‘This ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular’ – Toni Morrison

1.

I want to be there when it comes.

2.

To be precise, I want to be there in the moments before it comes. I want to be a witness, but also a willing participant, engaged and alive. Breathless.

3.

It’s about darkness, the house a subterranean cave. My eyes are open, but there’s very little to see. It’s about the near-perfect quiet. It’s no good when, for whatever reason (an exhausting social event, a rough night’s sleep), I wake too late and the house is already filled with light and noise. No, that’s not right. I want to be walking around my home, going from room to room, opening curtains and blinds to the black and the stillness and the quiet.

4.

Toni Morrison knows about this. In her Paris Review interview, the novelist recounts how a colleague told her about her writing routine. ‘Recently I was talking to a writer who described something she did whenever she moved to her writing table. I don’t remember exactly what the gesture was – there is something on her desk that she touches before she hits the computer keyboard – but we began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write. I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark – it must be dark – and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come. And she said, Well, that’s a ritual.’

5.

How morning – the break of dawn – does that: it enables us. Allows, facilitates, permits, makes possible. We enter the day, and the day enters us. We don’t know how the day will unravel, not really. We can hope, we can have expectations; there will be things we want and need – food, companionship, success, acknowledgment, reward. Or we might let the day simply (or not so simply at all) unravel. We’ll see what happens.

6.

Artists – all kinds of artists – are good at seeing what happens. In fact, they are the best at it. They see what happens, understand what happens; more importantly, they know what happens. And what happened – past tense. And what might happen – the vital future. What might happen to our lives? What might happen to our relationships? What might happen to our places, to our environment? Our environment: the natural and the ‘man’ made: are we screwing it over, are we losing our way, are we not listening, are we not seeing the signs? These are good questions. These are the questions good artists ask.

7.

Ben Okri writes, ‘The artist should never lose the spirit of play. It is curious how sometimes the biggest tasks are best approached tangentially, with a smile in the soul. Much has been written about the seriousness with which important work has to be undertaken. I believe that seriousness and rigour are invaluable, and hard work indispensable – but I want to speak a little for the mysterious and humble might of a playful creative spirit. Playfulness lightens all terrifying endeavours. It humanises them, and brings them within the realm of childhood. The playfulness becomes absorbing, engrossing, all-consuming, serious even. The spirit warms. Memory burns brightly. The fires of intelligence blaze away, and self-consciousness evaporates. Then – wonderfully – the soul finds the sea; and the usually divided selves function, luminously, as one.’

'The secret content of our lives is terrifying' - Ben Okri

‘The secret content of our lives is terrifying’ – Ben Okri

8.

Oh isn’t that astonishing: ‘the mysterious and humble might of a playful creative spirit’. I can see that here, I can feel it, I can hear it. Laughing, warbling magpies, singing for the morning, or for each other, or just because they can. Ripe soft fruit in the grass: red and green and orange and yellow. Fresh lawn like blades or spikes. ‘The importance of precious ground.’ A fat black chook, comb upright and ready – very generously, she’s keeping our tea warm. ‘Wake up! Who’s for tennis?’ Seashells like spoons – cutlery for a picnic? Begging bowls for everyone, or they could be new ways to hold better ideas. Broken maps for buried treasure, except the map might be the treasure itself. Shadows casting both inwards and outwards – the miracle of this and that and more. A confluence of roadways: ‘Mirrors and memories, all tied together.’ A dead parrot; or it’s sheltering from the storm. ‘Barking up the wrong tree: LOVE AND PEACE, NO WAR.’ A rolling, patterned meadow; microscopic skin. Eggs like eyes; eyes like eggs (‘a world within’). A dark gift. Rejuvenation. ‘These plates have no instructions.’

9.

Toni Morrison has more to say. ‘I realised that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular … Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage with this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me.’

I suspect you know what Morrison means.

10.

Ben Okri has more to say about this as well. ‘The reality of what we are doing to one another is explosive. The secret content of our lives is terrifying. There is so much to scream about. There are great polluting lies and monsters running around in the seabed of our century. The river within us has become more frozen than ever before. We need much more than Kafka’s proverbial axe to crack the ice and make the frozen blood of humanity flow again. Something is needed to wake us from the frightening depths of our moral sleep.’

I suspect you know what Okri means too.

11.

My eyes are now open; they have been opened for me. I can see differently. I feel new, renewed. I feel deeper, bigger, better, brighter. My breathing is strong, powerful, potent. There are images – ideals, realities, opportunities – that I will carry with me for days, years, decades, until the end. The light is magnificent. It’s almost blinding.

12.

I want to take this art work with both hands. I want to hold it, embrace it, kiss it. I want it like I’ve never known before.

13.

I am awake.

*

Acknowledgment
This creative essay was commissioned by Craft ACT: Craft and Design Centre as a response to the 2014 Accredited Professional Members show, called ‘Awaken’.

References
Philip Gourevitch (ed.), The Paris Review Interviews Vol. II (New York: Picador, 2007) 358 Ben Okri, A Way of Being Free (London: Phoenix House, 1997) 22, 52

Note
Section 8 of this essay includes quotes from artist statements by Judi Elliott, Morgan James, Nikki Main, Luna Ryan and Nancy Tingey.

I can remember the exact moment.

I can remember exactly where I was: in the car, on the Hume, just outside Marulan, heading south. And what I told myself: You have to get your act together, take this seriously, make every effort. Get. A. Damn. Website.

The kick up the pants? I was coming home from a month-long residency at Bundanon, Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s gift to the Australian people – I’d worked my bum off, a productive time, but I’d also connected with a bunch of extremely committed artists, many of whom spoke about the need to have a digital platform. I didn’t even have the internet on at home. Within months I got connected to the internet, had a website built and got this blog going (which recently took over the role of being the actual website). Yes, my online adventures began on the Hume Highway that morning back in 2009. But the world has moved on, I’ve moved on, nothing’s the same.

Which means I can now make a declaration: this is my 300th post for UTCOAFITD (which clearly is the most ridiculous acronym in the history of humankind). And this will be my final weekly post.

AsleepI really have been doing this on a weekly basis from the beginning, because I read some advice somewhere or other that blog posts should be regular and frequent. On a handful of occasions I’ve done a cheeky mid-week post, but on the whole I’ve kept to my commitment. And there’s been something about that commitment: spending days thinking about what I’ll post, whether it be something that had been published elsewhere (Canberra Times, BMA Magazine) or something written for the purpose. There have been times – many times – when I haven’t known what I’d write until the pen was being put to pad, which sometimes resulted in no words at all, so I resorted to shonky visual…things.

I doubt that I’ve ever known what I’ve been doing, other than, perhaps, writing a journal that other people might read – here’s a depository of writing, one amongst a gazillion other depositories of writing. Of course, the most rewarding part has been connecting with other writers, bloggers and thinkers, some of whom I now consider friends, despite living hundreds if not thousands of kilometres away and never having met in person. This must be the best part of the digital era, surely.

What happens now?

I’m not going to call it quits, but from now on posts will be on an ad hoc basis only – perhaps on average they’ll be every month, but no longer will there be any hard and fast rules. Why? Because I’m exhausted, I’m over-committed; in the larger scheme of things, my brain is really quite small, it can only take on so much, which really isn’t that much at all. I need to prioritise. I want to spend as much time as possible reading fiction and writing fiction. I want to go on great, long, dreamy adventures; I want to be moved, confronted, changed. I’m forty-five – it’s time to start learning about how this planet works, and, I think, the best way to do that is through immersing myself in fiction.

So, fond blog, happy 300th post. Sincere thanks to everyone who’s read and commented – I’ve appreciated our conversations very much.

Here’s to new adventures.

I almost threw it across the room.

In fact, I almost threw a lot of things across the room. First it was the mobile: textie after textie after textie; coffee meetings, deadlines. And then the landline: family dramas. Before the laptop: Facebook updates and private messages, Twitter feeds (I’m responsible for three) and more private messages. I had images of me boiling the mobile in the saucepan and snapping the laptop in half on my thigh. I had a fantasy of giving up everything and raising chooks for a living – bliss.

No doubt I’m not a natural fit for social media. (The only machine in my house that I truly adore is my record player.) No doubt I’m not really a natural fit for communication of any kind. Which can’t be true: I’m a writer with two decades of experience and I’ve been paid for the majority of my output. If a day goes by when some kind of story isn’t on the make – a short story, a novella, a novel, a review, an artist profile, a column – it’s a very bad day indeed. I have things to say, or in my little brain I think I have things to say. I want to move people, I want to be memorable. With writing at least. In real life I’m more than happy to be the guy leaning against the brick wall listening to Burial EPs on a ten-year-old MP3 player while adjusting the leather-plat buttons on his faded green, knitted cardigan.

I want to notice more of this.

I want to notice more of this.

So, is all this reliance on technologically-assisted communication really that necessary? Is social media essential? It must be. Everyday we see someone crossing the road while glued to their phone, scrolling, hoping, as a gang of sulphur-crested cockatoos bang around above. We’ve looked in the rear-view mirror to see a driver checking Instagram. For normal people, all this might be okay. (Not so okay, obviously, if you’re responsible for keeping a vehicle on the road.) The thing is, if art is an act of communication – we have a point, we want that point to be heard, we want to rearrange things so better lives are possible – aren’t we diluting our powers by communicating twenty-four-seven?

What if we shove a lid on it? What if we post nothing for weeks even, months? What if we invest all our frustrations at the world – our anger, our disappointment, our deep sadness, despair perhaps – into our work? But you’re probably thinking, is it so bad that I want to share on Facebook my view that our little country is going down like the devil wearing velvet trousers? Do I really have to refrain from gushing at my best-friend’s pic of his bright red Stratocaster? Please, please, please can’t I just send a tweet to say that I’ve burnt the rice while listening to the latest Kylie album? Seriously, is any of this really so wrong?

Yes, communicating absolute bollocks all the time might be wrong.

If we want to make art.

*

First published in BMA Magazine on 23 May 2014.

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