The Messy and the Beautiful

Oh … so I left this for a while again. And I really shouldn’t be writing this now because I have all sorts of reading/writing/thinking I should be engaged in to advance the likelihood of graduating. But I needed a break. And this was rolling around in my cabeza so much that I cannot concentrate on anything else.

A number of people have asked me how I’m ‘enjoying’ grad school. Most of the people who ask me are friends I knew from college, or people I know who attended college and have advanced degrees. So, why do they use the word ‘enjoy’ to ask me about my work? Is it because they really don’t want to know what fresh hell I have subjected myself to? How I find myself up at 2:00 am at least once a week and a few days later wake up at 3:00 am and can’t get to sleep because I’ve just processes something so important I need to write it down immediately. Then, I start thinking about all the ways that one brilliant thought is linked to the eight different concepts I’ve been wrestling with for the past month (or two months … or more) and four hours later I realize that my vision has become blurry and I can barely walk from lack of breathing and sustenance (water .. toast).

It’s really not pretty at all. Yes, I do take an occasional break to visit with friends or family that come to visit. I took a whole Friday eve./Saturday off in October to enjoy all of my college friends who returned for our 30th reunion homecoming weekend. I’ve had a glass of wine on occasion. I’ve even watched TV some, but I have little ‘free time’ as most 50-somethings do on weekends, in evenings, and Sunday afternoons. And I still pay the bills (for both houses), grocery shop, wash dishes, clean the tub (occasionally). I talk with family on the phone regularly, and catch up with others on social media when I need a few minutes to unplug.

But learning is tedious work. And working with people you don’t know very well is stressful. And having to adhere to others’ schedules and expectations is exasperating, difficult, and even soul-crushing at times. I tend to not care about grades: I’m in this for the experience and the mind-expanding that happens with real learning.

I hope it all pays off.  But it is messy … and beautiful.

We are not the Center of the Universe

I know it is difficult to imagine, but indulge me for five minutes, can you?

Humans are not the center of the universe. We are not the pinnacle of life. In fact, from the perspective of many other species – and even from some other human populations – humans are the center of all their travails.

National Geographic’s EarthPulse website for more.

night view from the skyAbout ten years ago I was flying home from the west coast and happened to go over two of the busiest highways in our country. As I watched the traffic flow I saw the lights on the cars in an abstract way and realized how much the flow of traffic looked like a visualization I had seen of bacteria moving from one location in an organism to another. And it occurred to me that we – humans – are nothing but a blight on the natural world we exist within. Let’s face it, the things we make, use and find valuable are generally not useful to any other life form on the planet.

Instead of thinking about how the world can bend to our needs, what if we assumed our role (individually and collectively) as PART of the natural world, as Native American cultures have done for centuries? How would our interactions with other species change (evolve) and how would we benefit in ways we have not stopped to imagine?  Would we think ourselves significant enough to ‘control’ or ‘manage’ other species, or would we instead learn to live within the bounds of our role in the ecosystem

Our refuse/trash/waste infests oceans, shorelines, wetlands, swamps, rivers, creeks, tributaries. I, have never visited a body of water that does not have the mark of humans evident, regardless of how remote the location.

Can we find ways to reduce our mark on the earth both individually and collectively? Would it really require a significant sacrifice for most of us? I’m willing to say no it would not.

And, if we do take the time to reduce our impact (not just our footprint), what do we stand to gain? I think is that we actually re-gain our humanity and our place within the world instead of sticking out like a sore thumb.

AFF Childrens garden wildflower patch 2015
Wildflowers in Accokeek, MD (2015) © K Culbertson

Back at It: Same Story, Different Setting

I am back in school full-time, finally.  I imagined this would happen 25 years ago, and I intended for graduate school to be a means toward a career where I could make my mark on humanity.

This is much different.

The goal is still the same, but the context is ‘refreshed’. I suppose my course, to date, exemplifies the phrase “life is what happens when you’re making other plans.” I am a connector, a dreamer, a manager of both ideas and implementation: an engineer, of sorts. I am marrying both my skills and experiences with my thinking, and dreaming, about how humans could learn more, do more good and be happier (content, fulfilled) at an earlier age* if only we – the adults around them – could put aside our sense of the world as it exists and just imagine.

(*maybe not struggle with a mid-life crisis after years chasing a dream constructed from illusory ambitions/wants/needs.)

Just imagine if learning didn’t have so many constraints …

  • what would the world be like if a two year-old who could read wasn’t considered an anomaly, and a child who doesn’t read until age 7 or 8 wasn’t considered delayed.
  • how much more could a dyslexic child learn early in life if we considered their gift to be an extra-ability instead of a disability
  • what could children from impoverished backgrounds actually accomplish if they had caring knowledgeable adults focused on their personal success
  • what could students who are not ‘academically successful’ accomplish if there were real options for them to take the time they needed to learn deeply; to succeed based on goals set for them personally, not rely upon standard measures; to engage in their communities to apply their knowledge and passion in a genuinely connected way, and to learn from the experts in the field rather than from a text or other passive resource?
  • what is the upper limit of accomplishment for any child before they attain adulthood?

How would the world be different:

  • if a child wanted to stop and learn something deeply and had the time, space, environment and support to do so
  • if mathematics learning were not fraught with phobias, misconception (on the part of adults) and ‘other’-ness?
  • if teaching were valued as a commodity and not as a public good
  • if learning took the form of an individualized program of study that traversed many different environments, topics, questions, projects, required multiple mentors/teachers
  • if youth knew who they were and what their interests were before they applied to college, and if the measure of their potential didn’t rely upon a standardized test, a canned essay, a set of extracurricular activities that scored well.
  • if every child succeeded and no child was left behind for real.

These are the questions, ideas, curiosities that swirl around in my head as I return to the role of full-time learner, social/educational engineer and dreamer of a future unburdened of the past.

Visit my VT Blog – not a whole lot there at the moment …

300 Days

I started writing this last fall … I haven’t followed through with the 300 Days challenge (perhaps it was a tad too challenging?) but I like this piece, so I’m posting it.

Fall is not a typical time to resolve to do things differently. It is much more a reflective, passive time to cull the unnecessary and non-essential and settle into winter’s dormancy. But I’m not one to do things just the way they ‘should’ be done, and I feel, in a strange way that this might be just the right time to renew my resolution to write almost every day and share those writings with others.

Every day I find inspiration to write in a number of instances, events and encounters.  For instance today I was inspired by a conversation about holding back, an inability to find ‘regular’ tea bags at the worst grocery store in the US, and an acupuncture treatment that has left me cold (in a good way) the rest of the day.

I could spend all day every day just writing.  I suspect that puts me on the path to writing as a vocation. Or, at least as a hard-core hobby.  But, can I do it for at least 300 of the next 365 days?  How do I get all this stuff out of my head and down on ‘paper’ (such as it is these days).  And how do I decide what is worthy of writing and what is not?

Raising Capable Children – It may be easier than it looks

A new parent I know, who is remarkably intelligent, sensitive, and accomplished posted a brief comment (‘Thoughts?’) with this New York Times Op Ed linked from this past Sunday:

How to Raise a Creative Child. Step One: Back Off

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Photo credit:   Brian Chippendale (NYT)

I feel compelled to respond thoughtfully and carefully because I remember being in her shoes and having no idea what to believe or think about how to do my very best for my child without crossing the imaginary line of parenting extremism. I remember feeling like I could cross it on a fairly regular basis, and I was often stuck between fear of not doing enough and doing too much. Motherhood is a deeply humbling experience at times, as it should be.

My husband and I are at the point in our lives that we can bask in the fact that we have raised two incredible children to adulthood.  They are remarkable individuals – very different from one another in temperament and passions; and very similar to both my husband and me in ways that are spectacular and maddening, simultaneously and alternately.  They have been exceedingly emotionally and intellectually gifted all of their lives (and identified early in elementary school), musically talented, outgoing and personable, compassionate and convicted.  That sounds like a lot of bragging, but I have documented evidence from others to support these descriptions.  All shared to establish a level of experience for my opinions below.

I have major problems with the overall sentiments of any mass-media publication geared toward parents that starts with “How To…” It is a ploy to engage readers, but for new parents, it can be deceiving. In this case, I believe Adam Grant has what I would consider to be an appropriate mix of personal and professional experience to write such a piece.  I have read his work before and heard him speak about his views, and I largely agree with his perspective.  But his tone in this article, and his assertions, in certain cases, rub me the wrong way both intellectually and as a mother.

The first error in analysis I see in this piece is his jumping to conclusions that ‘only a fraction of’ Science Talent Search winners make a remarkable contribution in their field as adults.  I actually think that Grant misread, or misstated the conclusions drawn by the Ed Week’s Inside School Research Blog post he cites.  It is ridiculous to think that the only way these highly accomplished kids could become leaders or even notable in their chosen field as adults is to be members of the National Academies of Science.  I would like to assert that any kid that makes it to the Science Talent Search finals by the end of their high school years has actually achieved more than most adults do, in terms of public notoriety for their life’s work.  And even though it isn’t stated this way, it’s ridiculous to measure anyone’s success by external criteria without first measuring how significant an accomplishment it is to the individual.   There are all sorts of factors involved with who is accepted into the National Academies – including an individual wanting to become a member.  So, I do not accept this facile observation as having merit, and I further assert that it contradicts what Grant points out later in his piece as being a  characteristic identified as a positive influence on children: having opportunity and resources freely available to pursue one’s interests and passions.

There are numerous leaps in logic throughout the editorial, but I could spend all day on those and not focus on the better advice and insight.

One of the first things I learned as a brand-new parent was that I knew little to nothing about parenting, but I was willing to try almost anything that aligned with my values and vision.  I did not want to control my children’s future, but I wanted to offer them opportunities to learn, and experiences to explore the world around them in ways that I valued both as an adult and did reflecting upon my own childhood.  I often say that I was the product of ‘benign neglect’ frequently being left on my own to create and explore throughout my youth.  My parents spent very little time pushing me to do particular things, following or helping me or even attending events, games, concerts.   And I believe it had a great deal to do with how comfortable I am being on my own, create my own opportunities and explore both my passions and best personal qualities, and to not dwell on the things I don’t do so well.

So, the first point I agree with Grant on is this:

Creativity may be hard to nurture, but it’s easy to thwart. By limiting rules, parents encouraged their children to think for themselves. They tended to “place emphasis on moral values, rather than on specific rules,” the Harvard psychologist Teresa Amabile reports.

“Emphasis was placed on the development of one’s own ethical code.”

Yes, parents encouraged their children to pursue excellence and success — but they also encouraged them to find “joy in work.” Their children had freedom to sort out their own values and discover their own interests.  And that set them up to flourish as creative adults.

As a parent, I frequently deferred to my children to choose what they wanted to do, where they wanted to play  and who they wanted to be with.  At home, I did very little to guide their time, but we provided as many resources as we could manage: books, art supplies, a sand box, swingset with a fort, a yard full of wildlife, plants, trees, a playroom with toys, boxes, books, dress-up clothes, a wall mirror, access to kitchen cabinets full of pots, pans and plastic containers.  We went to parks frequently, and if there were things they wanted to see or experience, I was inclined to modify my plans or make a detour so we could (my son loved watching construction site activity and my daughter loved the library, so we often went several times a week). I also sought out other parents who believed in this ’90’s version of ‘free range’ parenting and our kids spent a great deal of time creating and playing together.  As for rules, ours were very much focused on moral values: how to treat others, ask for what you want or need, make good choices.

I have found that my own children, as well as my students, made their best decisions when I guide their process with questions and discussion instead of asserting my adult authority with statements like “because I said so…” There are times when I have said something like “trust me, I am sure this will work out.”  But that is less about me urging them to do something the same way I did or want them to act, and assuring them that I have been in a similar position and have lived through and learned from the experience.  And an unexpected result: I found tremendous gratification in being able to discuss and guide the decisions they made, and to live with their mistakes as being genuine and made with the best intentions.

And that is something I think that Grant does not touch on in his piece directly.  Children need to have numerous and regular opportunities to fail. Heck, I believe adults need to as well.  Because it is the risk-takers, the non-conformists that move the needle on all sorts of changes in the world. It is how ‘innovation’ is defined. And in fact, Adam Grant wrote a book about exactly that!

In my experiences, I have seen what happens when a child lives under a rigid system of rules and expectations, and I agree that it often results in children

striv(ing) to earn the approval of their parents and the admiration of their teachers. But as they perform in Carnegie Hall and become chess champions, something unexpected happens: Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new.

(emphasis added)

I added the italics to pause for a moment on another conclusory error.  Practice does not necessarily make perfect, and can indeed create humans that are fearful of ‘stepping outside of the box.’ Practice does make permanent whatever learning has taken place.  If a child is left to practice a task, skill or talent without the nurturing and knowledge of a skilled and compassionate teacher, the result very well may be that the child develops poor habits, unaware of of his/her capability and incapable of making judgments independent of external approval or admiration.

Grant then refers to Malcom Gladwell’s theory of 10,000 hours (required to master a skill or practice) and then asserts that practice can result in “entrenched” behaviors and attitudes.  And while that may be true, those results are often manifested in a stagnant or restrictive environment.  I don’t believe that any research exists that disqualifies practice as a necessity to achieving mastery in most endeavors.  What research does point out about the motivations and accomplishments of gifted children is that if they do not learn how to learn, and fail, and re-learn (practice), they are likely to become disinterested, develop negative attitudes and be reluctant to take risks. (Davidson Institute republished article from 2E Newsletter)

In fact, practice – if undertaken in an appropriate manner, with informed supervision or feedback – often results in performance that is deemed genius in our culture.  Yo Yo Ma is one of my favorite examples of this.  He is clearly a masterful cellist often referred to as a genius.  He practices up to seven hours a day and has almost his entire life.  Albert Einstein, considered to be ‘unteachable’ and possibly mentally retarded when he was a child often wrote about the countless hours he spent in adulthood just thinking about things he knew, going over them in his mind and making connections as he learned more and more until he was able to articulate his theories and ideas.  I doubt that everything was perfectly laid out in his mind.  I suspect, that like the rest of us, Einstein had to formulate his ideas, test/evaluate them, recognize the shortcomings or errors, correct them, add to his understanding and re-formulate as he thought.

This brings me to one particular conclusion Grant draws that I agree with him on, in isolation:

In science, winning a Nobel Prize is less about being a single-minded genius and more about being interested in many things.

Which leads me back to my original proposition: exposing children to many different experiences, opportunities, cultures, ideas and positive values gives them the greatest opportunity to develop their own values, motivation, creativity, passions and accomplishments.  And while you may not “program” or “engineer” your child’s creativity and passions, you will have opened the doors and windows, and possibly even built a bridge or two to them developing their own.

I think I know why Grant wrote his article in the style he did.  Helicopter parents, Tiger Moms, Lombardi Dads are the ones we see in the news, on the ballfields, at the recitals behaving poorly, manipulating their children’s thoughts, actions and even outcomes, and making their high expectations known publicly.  I get it.  They’re out there and they’re the proverbial ‘squeaky wheel.’  But for most of us parents, it doesn’t really apply wholly to how we think or what we do to raise our children.  We love them, nurture their interests and passions, help them find teachers/mentors who can encourage them as well, and be proud of them.  And they turn out to be good people.

This is Water

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A tribute to American writer David Foster Wallace and his unique ability to put a fine point on the life we live unintentionally.

I am learning that winter is a time to rest, take stock of what is important and essential, recharge and prepare for the work of the true energetic year ahead … beginning with spring. I am learning that it is not a time to make resolutions, to challenge oneself unnecessarily or make dramatic and impetuous changes. It can be a time to connect and re-connect with the people and ideas that fuel one’s inner fire: the drive to ‘make shit happen,’ but it can also be a time to turn inward, be quiet and absorb the peace present in the natural world.

So, in the spirit of reflection and re-positioning, I re-read David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College Commencement Speech (2005) in which he uses the parable of two young fish discovering what water is to describe the value of education. I first heard this parable in a sermon given by Mary Katherine Morne at UUCF several years ago and was captivated by the allusions she depicted.  Then I read the text, and re-read it, and read it again.  And every time I read it I am increasingly impressed with Wallace’s ability to place a very fine point on the significance of a liberal education, in the broadest sense.  I am also energized, challenged and uplifted by his words and insight.  It does something for me that I have never felt or found anywhere else: it is a promise as much of a charge, and is a glimpse at the power of human intellect, if given the opportunity to experience the reality of one’s existence fully – both the Yin and Yang, so to speak – and make wholly conscious choices.

Hopefully it will challenge you, too.

Here are excerpts that I think help to define the essence of Wallace’s sentiments.  But read the entire essay.

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

So let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about ‘teaching you how to think.’ If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I’m going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I’d ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious.

He goes on to tell another compelling parable about two men: one a religious man and the other an antheist – definitely worth the read, but I’m not going to include it here.  Here is a link to the speech: take the time to read it.

. . .

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about ‘the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.’

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense.

And then he proceeds to tell a story about the reality of being an adult and what ‘day in, day out’ means to adults who have lived long enough to understand it.  That story has been memorialized in its own video you can watch here.

If that wasn’t real enough, he breaks it down even further.  [And by now no one in the audience is chuckling.]

[T]he so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and [unintelligible — sounds like “displayal”]. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t just dismiss it as just some fingerwagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

“This is water.”
“This is water.”

 

Every time I read this essay/speech I come away with another perspective, and often a deeper understanding, of what Wallace was trying to get across to the Kenyon graduates that day, and what he wrestled with each day of his life.

We all have a personal responsibility to ourselves to be the very best person we can be in the world we live in each and every day.  We must live in that awareness and be humble in our efforts, but stand out and up to and for those who live around us in a way that will nourish our souls.

That’s my conclusion this time.  I’m eager to see how it changes (or is refined) next time I read it (next winter).

David Foster Wallace died in 2008.  In 2009, a book titled This is Water was published posthumously to memorialize his commencement speech (and to make a few people some money, I suppose)

Happy Accidents #224 – Freeze Dried Parsley

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Isn’t this dried parsley lovely? 

I had been growing it in a pot all last summer and it re-generated in the great heat spell we had early in December.  By Christmas week (after 4+ days of rain) it was healthy and fragrant.

I left a nice little clump in the pot upon the first freeze warning to satisfy my curiosity as to whether it would wilt or be edible after thawing.  Much to my delight, the next morning it was still a rich green, but definitely frozen.  I plucked it off easily at the base of the stem – without handling the leaves and brought it inside to dry with my other herbs. 

And this is the result!  It warmed up within a couple of hours, but there was no moisture left in the leaves.  The stems were still a little plump.  The pic above is from this morning – two days later.  Fresh-looking, but completely dry and ready to use.

Yay for happy outcomes when experimenting with nature!

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In this pic is a little sprig I just pulled a minute ago for comparison.

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And this is the pot where it grew.  Nothing special.

A Wintery Brunch

I’ve been up for hours … had a healthy Zone-based snack around 7:00, but now I’m really hungry!

And this turned out to be just the right combo of fresh, colorful and flavorful to hit the spot and give me a multi-sensory boost for the day.

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Eggs – fresh from my Dear Friends Deb and Gene. (nothing better): they are enhanced with a sprinkle of Italian cheeses (parm. and romano blend) and a touch of feta (TJ’s).

Mild Italian sausage (1 link) quartered and sauteed with 1/2 shallot
** The sausage is what got me thinking about what to make. We were travelling in RI before Christmas and found Tom’s Market in Warren. They had the most delicious, well-seasoned and low-fat content sausage I have ever encountered. So, on the way out of town we stopped to get some more. And, it’s a ridiculously low price per lb. – like, under $2/. **

The last of a bag of mixed field greens from Trader Joe’s (also get cheeses and eggs there, and a bunch of other stuff) tossed with a homemade balsamic vinaigrette (also made with TJ’s olive oil)

A slice of whole grain bread (Arnold Health Nut in case you need to know) with a schmear of cream cheese and rapberry preserves.

Green & cold care tea mix from Laura’s Herban Avenues store – both are winter staples in my house (along with Calm, Chai and Cleanse).

Oh:  and  I grabbed a nectarine at the end (not shown).

Viola!  No need to eat again until 5-ish.

Brussel Sprouts are *In*

I keep wanting to jump into blogging about food I make and eat, if only to memorialize some of the best creations. Well, today is the day!

I can’t keep this super simple and delicious side dish to myself.  It is inspired by a similar dish we had recently at Caboose Brewing Co. – crispy brussel sprouts.

Roasted Brussel sprouts with balsamic vinegar & olive oil, pine nuts & dried cranberries

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All it is:

12-15 fresh brussel sprouts
1-2 tbsp. olive oil
1/2 tsp. Fresh ground sea salt (just give the grinder a couple of turns; don’t worry about measuring)
1-2 tbsp. Balsamic vinegar (again, use to your own taste).
I had a 50/50 mix left over from another dish earlier this week.

*************** ****************
After sprouts are cooked

3 tbsp. toasted pine nuts
3-4 tbsp. dried cranberries

*************** ****************

I roasted the brussel sprouts in a cast iron skillet for about 15 min. at 425°. I flipped them around as I removed them from the oven, then tossed them with a little more oil and vinegar, a handful of toasted pine nuts (also remnants from another meal) and a handful of dried cranberries (16 oz. bag bought at Safeway – found with other dried fruit)
Tossed one more time to coat the pine nuts and cranberries with the oil & vinegar and let them sit for about 5 minutes before munching on them.      *** I didn’t do it with this batch, but goat cheese or feta is an awesome addition to this dish.

Here’s what the sprouts looked like in the pan before roasting

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Mangia y divertiti!

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