Stephen W. Browne | Rants and Raves

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ohm (The Greek letter omega is used in electrical engineering as the symbol for electrical resistance.)

I discovered author Steven Pressfield when I was living in Warsaw, Poland and just starting out as a professional writer.

The book was “Gates of Fire” about the battle at the Hot Gates, called Thermopylae in Greek. I bought it because I’ve always been fascinated by the last stand of the 300.

(Actually closer to 7,000 at the beginning of the defense of the pass. At the end the remnant of Leonidas’ guard stood with 700 citizen soldiers of the small city of Thespia who refused to leave when he sent the bulk of the Greek force away after getting news the path around the pass had been betrayed to the Persians.)

When I opened the book I knew right away I had a work of literary genius on my hands. I have since read more of Pressfield’s books, but none has quite hit me like that one.

Although I must say, after seeing the movie made from “The Legend of Bagger Vance” I marvel that he could grip my attention with a work about golf – a sport I am not merely uninterested in, but one I have an active dislike of.

Every book you enjoy is a wonderful gift from someone you may never meet. But the greatest gift Pressfield has given me is the concept of Resistance. He writes about Resistance often on his blog, and in his books such as “The War of Art.”

Resistance is a writer’s constant companion.

Resistance wakes up with me when I first check my email, get my children up and send them off to school

Resistance has breakfast and coffee with me while I think about what I’m going to write today.

Resistance gives me an overwhelming desire to do housework when I’m stuck on a sentence.

Resistance whispers in my ear that I can’t finish a book-length work and nobody will be interested anyway.

Resistance says tomorrow is always a better day to start.

Resistance asks wasn’t it better when you had a flesh-and-blood boss to tell you to write? Wasn’t it better when you wrote for an audience you knew was there every day?

I have known Resistance for a long time. She has been with me all my life, and will never leave me.

But though I often give in, I know I must never give up.

Pressfield showed how to defeat Resistance in the most masterful way – write about it.

Now back to work.

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It’s a riot!

“Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God Save the King!”
– The Riot Act, in force August, 1715

It seems like old times to this child of the ‘60s. Ferguson, Missouri, population 21,000 is burning. A curfew has been declared and as of this writing the Missouri National Guard has been called out to do the job a highly militarized police force, and the Missouri State Police couldn’t handle.

The immediate cause was the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a city police officer. Circumstances are still under investigation but a depressing series of revelations all seem to point in the general direction of exonerating the officer.

Would it were otherwise! Why oh why can’t he be a sadistic psycho bigot who somehow slipped through the screening process? Then we could arrest him and after a decent interval and the motions of a trial have him hanged, drawn and quartered in the city square.

If in fact it turns out the officer was assaulted by a huge man with a long rap sheet for offenses including theft and assault with grievous bodily injury then the officer will be exonerated. After which he’ll be hounded to his death with further trials for violating the civil rights of the deceased and endless wrongful death lawsuits. That is if he’s not murdered in his home whose location the media conveniently found and reported.

And of course, following the verdict there’ll be more riots.

In the course of the riots police will stand by while the businesses that make Ferguson an even marginally viable community are looted and destroyed.

Unless more business owners stand at the entrance to their property with guns and say, “Not here you don’t.”

And what if one of them has to shoot, and yet another “good boy who’d been in some trouble but was turning his life around” gets killed?

Al Sharpton may just have to move to Ferguson.

The fact is, the riot could have been stopped on day one. Draw up a line of armed men in the street where the mob is assembled and “read them the Riot Act,” i.e. command them in no uncertain terms to disperse, give them a stated time to do so, then back up the threat with deadly force.

Follow up by arresting the Revs. Sharpton, Jackson and New Black Panther Minister-of-Whatever and charge them with inciting to riot.

Of course we can’t do that.

The brutal reality is it would be career suicide, and very possibly real suicide for anyone who gave such an order. And perhaps this is a good thing. With all the surplus military equipment being handed out like party favors to local police forces this might start to look like the easy option whenever a crowd got out of hand.

What can we do? Isn’t there some way to address those fabled “root causes” of riots?

Here’s the root cause we’re all too polite to talk about. Rioting, looting and destroying property are fun.

Does any other explanation make sense? Does destroying the source of jobs and livelihood do anything to address poverty, unemployment and injustice?

What they’ll do is try to contain the damage as much as is possible with the tepid levels of force they can use and wait until the mob has had all the fun it can stand, for now.

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My son got his name on 9/11

It seems 9/11 is one generations defining memory, as in “Where were you when you heard about…?”

For my generation it was the assassination of President Kennedy. (Seventh grade home room.)

For my parents generation it was Pearl Harbor.

But 9/11 for me will always be the day my son got his name.

Actually his name had been kicking around for a while. I was living in Poland then and his mother wanted “Jerzy” for an uncle she liked. I suggested “Jerzy Waszyngton” – that’s George Washington in Polish, as a joke.

We were by the way, living not far from “Rondo Jerzego Waszyngtona” at the time. That’s the George Washington traffic circle which has a bust of Washington nearby.

Then one day, a few weeks before our son was due to arrive my then-sister-in-law called up and said, “Turn on CNN right now.”

We turned the TV on and saw the first tower smoking.

I said, “It could be an accident, this once happened to the Empire State Building.”

(On July 25, 1945 to be exact. A B-25 Mitchell bomber hit it.)

Then we saw the second plane hit the other tower.

“It’s terrorism,” I said.

That’s when it was no longer a joke for me. I vowed that my son would be named for a man of rigid honor and inflexible purpose who led his country through its greatest crises.

The tragic irony of it all was, not long before I had lectured at the Ethnographic Museum of Belgrade in Serbia on “Weapons Technology and Culture.” In my presentation I pointed out that an airplane with a pilot willing to die is a cruise missile.

It gave me no pleasure at all to be proven right.

At any rate, that’s how my son got his name. We had a fair amount of difficulty getting his name registered because many European countries have laws about what you can name your children.

I told that story here.

Note: This is cross-posted on my professional blog at the Marshall Independent.

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Danger from the Sky

Note: This is my weekly op-ed column.

Last week the world learned of a meteor that exploded over the Ural mountains on Friday, shattering windows over a 2,000,000 square foot area and injuring roughly 200 children and 1,000 adults.

The meteor broke up in the atmosphere creating damage through the shock wave, but at least one piece fell to earth and broke through the ice of a local lake.

It could have been worse. In the Tunguska event of June 30, 1908, a meteor exploding in the air over Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia, knocked down an estimated 80 million trees over an 830 square mile area. If it had hit anywhere but out in the Siberian boonies, it would have been a Hiroshima-level event.

To give you an idea of the difference, the energy from Friday’s event has been compared to a nuclear explosions measured in kilotons of TNT. The Tunguska event is measured in megatons.

Estimates of the size of the Tunguska meteor vary, but it was probably on the order of 330 feet.

If that hasn’t disturbed your sleep yet, on Friday asteroid 2012 DA14 flew by the earth within 17,150 miles. That’s within the orbit of the moon, in fact closer than the orbit of some communications satellites.

Estimates of the size of 2012 DA14 vary between 130 and 160 feet, and most accounts just call it “football field” sized. You could call it half a Tunguska.

Now what’s really scary is, the two events are not related. Astronomers say the two objects were going in different directions, the fact they happened the same day is, “just a coincidence.”

Let that sink in for a moment. Purely by chance we had one hit and one near-miss on the same day.

A bit of background, highly simplified. The solar system used to have a lot more sky junk zipping around. Much of it has been hooverd up by great Jupiter, but quite a lot of it has impacted the inner planets over time.

The surface of the other major rocky bodies: the moon, Mars, and Mercury are pitted with craters like a very bad case of acne.

Venus and the earth have thick atmospheres that are highly erosive, so evidence of past strikes is worn away over time. Yet even on earth there remains evidence of past giant impacts.

The extinction-level event that wiped out the dinosaurs, and an estimated 90 percent of the species living on earth at the time is now generally accepted to have been a meteor strike.

The Manson Crater in Iowa, now buried under glacial till, is evidence of the ancient impact of an asteroid more than a mile across. It was once a prime candidate for the dinosaur extinction event, until proven to be too old.

Meteor Crater in Arizona is 4,000 in diameter and 570 feet deep, after 50,000 of erosion.

Getting nearer historical times, about 14,000 years ago a meteorite (when one actually hits the ground it’s called a meteorite) hit northern Canada and caused a mini-ice age.

And about 5,000 years ago one landed in the Indian Ocean, causing a tsunami thought by some to be the origin of the Great Flood legends.

However, these are very rare. Thousands of meteors hit the earth every day, most ranging in size from a grain of sand to a basketball. They are the ones which burn up in the atmosphere, creating the glorious “shooting stars.”

Occasionally, on the order of once a week, a meteor the size of a car will hit the earth, about once a month one the size of a house. Recently one of those exploded over Indonesia, causing some panic but no damage.

There are a couple of things we ought to take into consideration. One is that there are far more densely populated areas around the world than ever before. A Tunguska-sized event in just the right place, or another Indian Ocean event would have far more disastrous consequences today than at any time in the past.

Another is, “rare” does not mean “never will happen.” Wait long enough and it’ll happen again.

For the first time in history we’re able to keep track of sky junk that passes close enough to give cause for alarm, and we’re getting better at it every day. Forewarned is forearmed as they say. Given enough warning we have the capability to smack an asteroid out of the way.

As often happens, a profound observation was recently expressed as a joke going around.

“That asteroid was God’s way of asking, ‘How’s that space program going?’”

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What I learned from garbage

Note: My weekly column.

During the recent cold snap I wrote a story for my newspaper about workingmen who have to be out in the weather, no matter how cold it gets.

I interviewed a sanitation company worker driving a rear-end loader.

Of course I had to tell him that in my youth I’d spent a total of six years working for a city sanitation department in Oklahoma. And of course just because he was going back out into the bitter cold, I had to rib him about it.

“Yeah, I was a garbageman back when it was a real man’s job, back when we carried the garbage on our backs!” I said. “We didn’t have a robot to do the work.”

He good-naturedly offered to let me come along on his route and pull the dumpsters around.

I became a garbageman after I’d dropped out of college and found myself in an economic downturn with little work experience, no higher education, and no vocational skills. I actually stuck with it for a few years before I went back to college and got my bachelors degree in anthropology.

I then worked a few more years in the refuse rangers before transferring to the sewage treatment plant, which actually taught me useful skills, and had shifts flexible enough for me to attend graduate school part time.

At one time I despaired of the years I’d spent on the job. Till an old gentleman who’d been a successful businessman in many different fields told me, “They’ll be the most valuable years you’ve ever spent.”

Well, perhaps he was right. I’ve lately thought about some of the things I learned on that job, and while I might wish it hadn’t taken quite so many years, I really don’t see how I’d have learned them any other way.

In no particular order, some of them are:

You’d be amazed at the things American’s throw away. Utensils, working appliances, clothes and shoes, unopened bottles of liquor… What a wealthy country we are in material things we can afford to be so casual about discarding!

Market forces rule. If there is a job that has to be done, and they can’t find people to do it, they’ll raise the wages until they find people who’ll do it, and they won’t look too closely at your background either.

We found this out in the heat wave of 1980, when for months the temperature never got below 100 degrees day or night, and often got as high as 114.

We couldn’t keep men. Guys would sign on in the morning and disappear at lunchtime. We were running two-man crews instead of the usual three and putting in hours of overtime every day.

We finally banded together and told our supervisors that we’d come in, work our eight hours, but we weren’t putting in anymore overtime. We just couldn’t maintain it physically anymore. The city responded by raising our wages to make them attractive enough for people to stay on the job.

They also found a way to collaborate with the union (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) to make life for the shop steward who’d organized the job action miserable enough to convince him to find work elsewhere. For the union rep who’d helped settle the situation, they created an easy make-work position of “foreman.”

I found that it really does take all kinds. I worked with guys with masters degrees, illiterates, cons from the local medium-security prison on work release, men who later went to prison for heinous crimes, devoted family men, hell raisers who regularly came to work from the drunk tank of the county jail.

I learned that though you may think there is a job a chimpanzee could do, somebody will find a way to screw up.

And I learned there are some jobs that just have to be done No matter the weather, no matter the burden, no matter what. They never end, there’s no point you can stop and say, “That’s it, we’re finished.”

They are the essential unglamorous jobs that hold civilization together. Nobody pats you on the back for doing them, but they’d miss you pretty quick if you were gone.

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The Spirit of Play

Note: This is one of my self-syndicated columns.

“It is a juvenile notion that a society needs a lofty purpose and a shining vision to achieve much. Both in the marketplace and on the battlefield men who set their hearts on toys have often displayed unequal initiative and drive. And one must be ignorant of the creative process to look for a close correspondence between motive and achievement in the world of thought and imagination.”
Eric Hoffer

Last Saturday I had the weekend rotation at the newspaper and covered a Polish festival in Ivanhoe and the Benton-Fremont Days in Hole-in-the-Mountain Park near Lake Benton.

The nice thing about the newspaper business for a reporter with a family is, when covering fairs, festivals, and events such as these I can take my children along. I’m a single father with a boy, 10, and a girl, 6. If I had any other job with an irregular schedule like this, I’d be in baby-sitter crisis mode almost constantly.

Covering Polish festivals in America is always kind of amusing for me. I almost always find I’m the only person who speaks Polish there, and I’m not Polish!

My children had fun though, and caused some comment with their Polish first names. My son found some boys his own age displaying their collection of Bionicle kits and my daughter wore herself out on the inflatable bounce houses.

There was a street full of classic cars, trucks, restored small engines, and the usual tables of miscellanea for sale.

When we headed to Benton-Fremont for photos my little girl was asleep n the back seat and my boy ravenously hungry.

Fortunately there was a pioneer with a tent restaurant serving beer cheese soup in a bread bowl. Kids loved it, (my son was excited by the idea of his first beer) and now I have to get the recipe.

Not far away was a couple with a genuine restored chuck wagon making lemon meringue pie.

All along one side of the campsite were men and women demonstrating the ancient art of flint knapping, to the banging of Indian drums and black powder rifles.

I only regret I missed a Civil War recreation group meeting in Pipestone that weekend.

In summer a reporter for a rural paper always covers a lot of these kinds of events. Historical recreation groups, local festivals, and lots of old technology restoration hobbyists.

Two weeks ago I covered an old-time threshing festival in Hanley Falls, featuring restored, fully-functional antique tractors and farm machinery. Before summer is over I’ll cover at least a few more local festivals.

Some reporters might consider this kind of assignment part of the routine-but-unexciting part of the newspaper biz that fills in the time between accidents, scandals, and elections. But to me it speaks of America in ways nothing else does.

The reason I love taking my kids to these is, they see people making their own entertainment rather than sitting in their living room with the screen, waiting for the entertainment to come to them.

They see how history is preserved outside of museums and galleries by amateurs who have make themselves experts in one particular historical subject that fascinates them. They see people with otherwise unremarkable lives doing remarkable things. They are exposed to some of the incredible reservoir of talent in the people of this country.

And they experience the fun, the joy, the sheer exuberance of life in this country that shines through even in the worst of times.

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Note: My personal blog is on indefinite hiatus, however I am cross-posting from my newspaper blog at The Marshall Independent.

In Turkey people are struggling in the aftermath of Sunday’s earthquake that measured 7.2 on the Richter scale. So far 523 are reported dead, with 185 rescued alive from the rubble of collapsed buildings, totals that will undoubtedly rise as more bodies are recovered. Hopefully at least some of the trapped victims are still alive.

The suffering is increased by the cold weather as thousands were rendered homeless by the destruction.

It could have been worse.

When I heard the news I remembered an article in the summer issue of City Journal by Claire Berlinski, an American journalist who lives in Turkey. The title of the article is, “One Million Dead in 30 Seconds.”

Berlinski points out that well, earthquakes happen. We know pretty much where they are most likely to happen too. And we know they’ll happen again, in California, Japan, Turkey, western South America, etc.

But the consequences of the earthquakes are different. The January 2010, earthquake in Haiti killed a quarter of a million people and destroyed nearly 100,000 buildings.

However, a month later the city of Concepcion, Chile experienced an earthquake 100 times bigger, measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale. A quake so powerful it actually shortened the length of the day by 1.26 microseconds, moved the earth on its axis 8 centimeters, and moved the city itself three yards west.

The death toll was a mere 521 and the city was still standing after it was over.

Note that in the recent earthquake in Japan, the death toll was extremely low compared to the Haitian earthquake, and most of the damage to buildings was done by the tsunami. One could point out the different consequences of the earthquakes that are almost routine in California as well.

The lesson is, earthquakes generally don’t kill people directly, people are killed when the buildings they are in collapse on them. The difference in the death tolls and damage between Chile, Japan, and California versus Turkey and Haiti is, we know how to make buildings that don’t fall down when the ground shakes.

Berlinski said the difference lies in a number of things: building codes and their enforcement, tort law defining liability of building owners, the degree of corruption in the local construction industry, and simple dissemination of information. Things like posted notices on what to do in an earthquake. Just letting people know not to light a cigarette where gas lines are likely to be ruptured would save a lot of grief.

We’re used to thinking of earthquakes as something we really can’t do anything about, but as Berlinski makes clear, there is a lot we can do.

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Note: My personal blog is on indefinite hiatus, however I am cross-posting articles from my newspaper blot at The Marshall Independent and reviews I do for the print-only TV Guide.

The ScyFy series Warehouse 13 has just ended its third successful season with a cliffhanger.

Stay tuned for season 4 which premiers in 2012. Arrrrrrrrrrrrrgh!

For those of you who don’t know the Secret History of the U.S. and the world in general, Warehouse 13 is a secret installation in South Dakota where the government stores supernatural artifacts which are too dangerous to leave lying around. Warehouse 1 was Alexander the Great’s, Warehouse 2 was the Great Library of Alexandria, Warehouse 12 was in Great Britain at the height of the empire… you get the picture. The Warehouse is always located in the dominant world power, and it is always eventually destroyed in a disaster as Warehouse 13 appears to have been in the cliffhanger ending.

The trope of the secret government warehouse is not new, but it’s done brilliantly here. (Remember where the Ark of the Covenant wound up in “Indiana Jones”?) Also brilliant is an ensemble cast of warehouse agents, a pretty boardinghouse landlady who is more than she seems, the powerful and mysterious Mrs. Frederic who is older than she appears, and in the background the Council of Regents.

Field agents Pete and Myka were recruited from the Secret Service after saving the life of the president. Here they use the trope of the guy who’s intuitive and kind of flighty, and the lady agent who’s tough as nails by-the-book, but soft and emotional at the core. Not to mention drop dead gorgeous. It’s been done many times, badly. But it works here.

Backing them up in the warehouse is Artie, who knows everything there is to know about artifacts, objects which are imbued with magical qualities, sometimes harmless, more often dangerous, and occasionally actively malign.

Aiding Artie is new agent Allison, a sassy, irreverent post-teen who’s a genius computer hacker.

Together they hunt down artifacts and store them in the warehouse.

Opposing them are a cast of villains, including some ex-warehouse agents who want certain artifacts for their own nefarious purposes. Behind the light-hearted entertainment is a sometimes serious meditation on the fact that power corrupts, and the watchmen must themselves be watched carefully.

And what are artifacts?

Artifacts are objects imbued with certain powers, and sometimes personalities. Run Marilyn Monroe’s hairbrush through your hair and it turns platinum blonde. Harmless enough. But look into Lizzie Borden’s compact mirror and you could become possessed of an overwhelming desire to murder the ones you love.

The series was put together from a bunch of ideas we’ve all seen before, but never seem to get tired of: the secret history, the government warehouse of legendary artifacts, the ancient conspiracies for good – and evil.

What it gives us for an hour each week is the delicious thrill of being in on a secret few other know, of knowing there are good guys behind the scenes keeping us safe from unimaginable danger, and of course the tension of wanting to shout at the screen, “Pete, just kiss her!”

Will Pete finally kiss Myka? Is the warehouse finally destroyed for good? Will the series return as Warehouse 14?

We’ll have to wait until 2012 to find out. Arrrrrrrgh!

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Bulwer-Lytton, in honor of prolix prose

Note: My personal blog is on indefinite hiatus, but I am cross-posting from my newspaper blog at the Marshall Independent.

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

So opens the novel “Paul Clifford” written by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton and published in 1830.

I understand the rest of it is pretty bad too. Bulwer-Lytton rose a bit further out of literary obscurity with his novel, “The Last Days of Pompei,” Which has actually been made into a movie no less than three times, in 1913, 1935, and 1959. He is also known among historians of mysticism and utopian literature for his novel “Vril: the Power of the Coming Race,” (1871.)

He also contributed more substantially to English literature by coining the phrases “the great unwashed”, “pursuit of the almighty dollar”, and “the pen is mightier than the sword”, but alas his contribution here is largely unknown and unheralded.

But Bulwer-Lytton has been remembered and memorialized each year, in a contest started in 1982 by Professor Scott E. Rice of the English Department at San Jose State University. The contest entrants strive to “to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.” It is not necessary to write the rest of the novel.

This year the 29th Grand Prize winner was Sue Fondrie, an associate professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. She evidently likes to use puns and word play in her instruction. I wonder if there ought to be an amateur/professional rule?

Her entry set a record for the shortest B-L Contest winner, coming in at only 26 words.

“Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.”

The runner-up Rodney Reed submitted an entry of more typical length. “As I stood among the ransacked ruin that had been my home, surveying the aftermath of the senseless horrors and atrocities that had been perpetrated on my family and everything I hold dear, I swore to myself that no matter where I had to go, no matter what I had to do or endure, I would find the man who did this . . . and when I did, when I did, oh, there would be words.”

And since the inception of the contest specific categories have been added. Jack Barry won the Adventure category for this entry. “From the limbs of ancient live oaks moccasins hung like fat black sausages — which are sometimes called boudin noir, black pudding or blood pudding, though why anyone would refer to a sausage as pudding is hard to understand and it is even more difficult to divine why a person would knowingly eat something made from dried blood in the first place — but be that as it may, our tale is of voodoo and foul murder, not disgusting food.”

Mark Wisnevski won the Crime category with, “Wearily approaching the murder scene of Jeannie and Quentin Rose and needing to determine if this was the handiwork of the Scented Strangler–who had a twisted affinity for spraying his victims with his signature raspberry cologne–or that of a copycat, burnt-out insomniac detective Sonny Kirkland was sure of one thing: he’d have to stop and smell the Roses.”

Terri Daniel for Fantasy. “Within the smoking ruins of Keister Castle, Princess Gwendolyn stared in horror at the limp form of the loyal Centaur who died defending her very honor; “You may force me to wed,” she cried at the leering and victorious Goblin King, “but you’ll never be half the man he was.”

John Doble, Historical Fiction. “Napoleon’s ship tossed and turned as the emperor, listening while his generals squabbled as they always did, splashed the tepid waters in his bathtub.”

Though I have to say I personally prefer Andrea Rossi the runner-up in this category. “The executioner sneered as the young queen ascended the stairs to the guillotine; in the old days, he thought, at least there was some buildup, a little time on the rack or some disemboweling, but nowadays everyone wants instant gratification.”

Mike Pederson for Purple Prose. “As his small boat scudded before a brisk breeze under a sapphire sky dappled with cerulean clouds with indigo bases, through cobalt seas that deepened to navy nearer the boat and faded to azure at the horizon, Ian was at a loss as to why he felt blue.”

And there are categories for Science Fiction, Romance, Vile Puns, plus many Dishonorable Mentions in each category.

(I can’t find the original right now, but a great entrant in the Romance category went something like, “Oh yes, yes! she cried, her bosom heaving like a college freshman on dollar-a-beer night.”)

One of these days, I’m going to enter that contest, “he said as he mused on his own thwarted literary talent while he labored unsung in the gardens of journalism…” you get the drift.

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“There is no coming to consciousness without pain.”
– Carl Jung

My blog is on indefinite hiatus for personal reasons. In the meantime I will be cross-posting from my newspaper blog at the Marshall Independent.

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