Reading, Writing and Memory

Read more books than blogs“Memory,” he read the headline as he settled into the armchair, resting his elbows on the wide arms to expand the National Post paper to its fullest, “declines much slower in people who read, write throughout life.”

Ah. Interesting. He peered closer.

“Reading books, writing letters and working on crossword puzzles throughout life may help preserve the brain’s memory faculties and fend off Alzheimer’s disease and early-onset dementia, according to a recent U.S. study published in the the journal Neurology.”

Hmmm. Well, of course. We knew that, he chuffed to himself. Coming from a family of avid readers who lived long lives, and remained pin-sharp into their final years, you notice these things. His mother, for example, well into her 90s, could still remember clearly events from her youth. Names, faces, no problem recalling them.

She learned to use a computer only a few years ago. Had her own laptop, on wireless, no less. Used a cell phone, too and sent text messages to grandchildren, snapped photos for family. Sharp old lady, no flies on her.

Of course, she was still reading voraciously even today, although perhaps not as much as when she was younger. Fewer choices of books, in a nursing home. Too dependent on donations and leftovers. Castoffs, many of them, yard sale titles with bent corners and cracked spines. But still reading. Doggedly reading what was at hand.

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Notes for a Spring Evening

Collingwood sunsetLate spring, Saturday night, sitting here surrounded by the trees and garden in full bloom, everything lush and full of life, my view from the front porch of verdant trees and garden, everything so very green. Peaceful. Relaxing. Would that this evening could go on forever.

Glass of Sledgehammer Zinfandel to round off the evening, a couple of books to read on the table beside me, the dog and two cats outside with us. Doesn’t get much better than this. Well maybe if we had opened a bottle of Cardinal Zin… which we both think is a better wine. But we’ll make do.

Books beside me include Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens, and The History of Hell by Alice Turner. The former for entertainment (after seeing the BBC series, I had to read the book, which is equally entertaining but richer), the latter to complement my studies of the mythologies of the afterlife. This is research for a novel I’ve been working on the past year or so. Well, longer, but seriously for only a year. It’s about… well, that’s another post. When I’m closer to completion. Only about 30,000 words so far.

Fiction isn’t my forte, but I am trying. I’ve tinkered with a couple of pieces, including a few chapters of a humorous novel about small town politics (chapter one was published on this blog some time ago – I’ll get around to posting chapter 2 soon…)

Writing fiction is as much a learning experience as anything else. But even in that it’s worth doing. Learn every day or you die, as my friend Stan used to say.

I had two books of nonfiction published last year, a third submitted to the publisher earlier this year, and a fourth in the works for later this summer. And I produced a rewrite of Machiavelli’s classic, The Prince, but no publisher found. Yet.

My real passion is to be able to write good fiction. I have tinkered with it – even written whole novels of 100,000 or more words. Scifi and fantasy mostly, and some mysteries. But they’re not very good. It’s a craft I need to work at, more. But not tonight.

Tonight is for enjoying a beautiful mid-spring evening with my wife, who happens to be my best friend. And contemplating how good it is to be alive and in Collingwood on such a night.

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Musing on Melville’s Poetry

Herman MelvilleI came across a poem last night that I had not read in the past (always a pleasant thing to discover something new in one of your books)*. It is by Herman Melville, an author I associate with novels and short stories rather than poetry. Yet he was surprisingly prolific as a poet, mostly in his later life.

Poem Hunter lists 93 of his poems on its site (on PDF here). He wrote many more, it seems – many of them naval or related to the sea, others about the Civil War – and the collected works can be found at the University of Virginia.

Here’s the poem that pleasantly surprised me by its complexity and modernity, given its 1888 publication. It’s called The Maldive Shark:

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw,
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril’s abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat —
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.

It’s hard, reading that, to remember Melville was a contemporary of Walt Whitman and that both of them published rather morally-laden socially instructive books of poetry about the Civil War almost simultaneously (Whitman’s Drum Taps in 1865, Melville’s Battle Pieces in 1866).

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Little Dorrit: BBC Drama

Little Dorrit BBCWe just finished watching the 14-part BBC series of Little Dorrit. As usual with most BBC series, it was superbly cast, acted, paced and filmed. Each episode was a mere 30 minutes, and almost every one of them ended in a cliffhanger fashion that made you want to watch just one more.

You might not think of Charles Dickens that way, but much of what he wrote was for serial publication: in weekly or monthly magazines. To keep his audience hooked – and buying the magazines – he wrote cliffhangers. Not perhaps as gripping as, say, episodes of TV’s show 24, but his audience kept coming back for more.

Little Dorrit ran in 19 monthly issues, between December, 1855 and June, 1857.

Watching the series also made me want to read the book – I have read other of Dickens’ works, but not this one. Now, after watching, I can’t imagine why not. It’s a great story. I pulled it off my shelf and stared it this week.

Little Dorrit is both a social commentary and a complicated story. It has – as other Dickens’ novels have – a large cast of characters, often eccentric to the point of caricature. Mr. Barnacle of the Circumlocution Office, for example. His readers loved the characters, loved the caricatures, and understood the reality they thinly veiled.

Modern novels – your James Patterson, Dan Brown, Tom Clancy or Patricia Cornwell for example – are structured differently. The basic idea of a lot of popular fiction is to hit the readers over the head with a strong first page and drag them into the novel and the action right from the earliest lines.

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The Pulp Renaissance

Burroughs novelIn the late 1950s, I came across a copy (1912; an original edition, I believe) of Edgar Rice Burrough’s first published novel, Tarzan, The Ape Man, on my parent’s bookshelf in the basement. A forgotten book, one my father had likely brought with him from England when he immigrated here in 1947, something from his own boyhood. It sat beside old volumes of the Boy’s Own Annual and other English books. Of course I had to open it and read it.

From the very start, I was fascinated by it, by the adventure, by the sheer fantasy of it all. It was, as I recall more than 50 years later, the first ‘adult’ novel I ever read.* It was also the only such book on the shelf – among the various textbooks, Agatha Christie mysteries, and a few odds end ends. Only Tarzan, among them, held my attention.

In the early 1960s, I discovered science fiction. I used to wait in the local library for my father to pick me up after work (my mother was in hospital for a couple of years), and the library was a safe, welcoming place, albeit the Bendale branch was small. I was precocious and bored; and the children’s section was too small to contain my restless intelligence. I soon graduated from the children’s section to adult books in my impatience. I read voraciously.

Top of the list of fiction I read then were novels by writers like Andre Norton, Ben Bova, Chad Oliver, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, Theodore Sturgeon, L. Sprague de Camp, Robert Heinlein, John Wyndham, James Blish, John W. Campbell, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson, Philip K. Dick, Frank Herbert, Lester del Rey, Jack Vance, Brian W. Aldiss and many others. By the time I reached my teens I had read hundreds of scifi and fantasy novels. A lot of ‘space opera’ among them.**

About the same time, in the early half of the 1960s, paperback publishers like Bantam and Ace started reprinting the pulp stories of the pre-war years. While some kids collected baseball and hockey cards, I collected paperback book series.

Soon all of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs were available in print, and I bought every one, building a library of his works (which I still have, mostly complete, although I may be missing a few of his western titles). I avidly read his Barsoom and Pellucidar series, finding them far more entertaining than the many Tarzan novels (which I collected and read, anyway). Given that the first Barsoom novel was written in 1912, it certainly has had staying power.

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In 1923, William Carlos Williams wrote one of the most profound poems in the English language: The Red Wheelbarrow. It reads like a Japanese Zen haiku:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Wikipedia tells us that the poem’s title is not its original, but rather one applied by its readers. The poem was first published in anthology titled Spring and All. The poem itself was simply titled “XXII,” indicating its place in the collection.

Referring to the poem as “The Red Wheelbarrow” has been frowned upon by some critics, including Neil Easterbrook, who said that such reference gives the text “a specifically different frame” than that which Williams originally intended. The poem is removed from its place in the anthology and thus takes on a different meaning.

This I think is overly critical. The name isn’t the poem. It’s simply a mnemonic to help us remember.

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Enter Christopher Marlowe – Again

Back in the late 1990s, I wrote an essay about the “controversy” over who actually wrote the works of Shakespeare. I wrote, then,

Not everyone agrees that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. The challenge to his authorship isn’t new: for the last three centuries it’s been the most popular whodunit of literature: trying to uncover the true identity of the author of the world’s greatest dramas and comedies. I can’t think of another author of note in the world who is considered not to have written the works under which his or her name is penned. Even Shakespeare’s many contemporaries are considered the author of the works under their names – Jonson, Marlowe, Fletcher, for example. But not Bill the Bard.

I don’t think of it as a controversy as much as a conspiracy theory, since, like UFOs and chemtrails, it doesn’t get any significant traction in academia. The dating of a particular play, or even if it belongs in the canon, may be controversial, but not conspiratorial.

However, it’s one of the oldest conspiracy theories, at least in the literary world (Atlantis, the Noachian flood, and Freemasonry may be older, but not literary). And I have to admit to still enjoying reading about it. This old conspiracy still has legs. Plus, it has generated serious, intellectual and scholarly debate for centuries.* It’s even become a meme, thanks to the internet.

History PlayA couple of years ago, in my endless search for books on the Bard, I picked up History Play, by Rodney Bolt (Perennial, New York, USA, 2005). I only started to read it last week. Bolt revives an old idea: that Christopher Marlowe, contemporary playwright, was the actual author of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare.

Like that of the contemporary favourite among literary conspiracy theorists, Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, Marlowe’s life presents a significant challenge to explain in terms of the theory: Marlowe was murdered in 1593.

That’s twenty years before the last known works by Shakespeare were penned (Henry VIII, and Two Noble Kinsmen). de Vere, at least, died in 1604, more than a decade after Marlowe, so his supporters have a shorter time to cover.

The “solutions” for this rather uncomfortable historical fact are either that the person in question didn’t really die, but rather went into hiding and continued to write, or that he (or she in the case of those who attribute the plays to Elizabeth I) wrote them all before, and they were released sporadically after that death.

For Marlowe, it was even more inconvenient to “die” at age 29. Considering he was in university until 1587, that doesn’t leave a lot of time to write the 36-plus plays and numerous poems attributed to Shakespeare. Unless, of course, we was really alive all this time, as Bolt suggests.

Bolt overcomes this significant problem in grand fashion: Marlowe faked his own death and fled to the continent with a copy of Hollinshead’s Chronicles in his chest (Chronicles was, of course, one of Shakespeare’s prime sources). The book is full of Elizabethan spy stories – if nothing else it’s wildly entertaining.

Marlowe has been presented as the actual author of the Bard’s works since at least 1819 (this article dates it to 1895). While it’s accepted that Marlowe influenced Shakespeare, his death usually involves some rather fantastic explanation to make him stand up among the other conspirators.

The argument is generally that a “lout” like William Shakespeare had neither the education nor experience to write about such a wide range of topics as he did. Only a nobleman like de Vere and Bacon had that background. Marlowe, despite being raised in a middle-class background similar to Shakespeare’s (Marlowe\s father was a cobbler) had better tutelage and Cambridge schooling. As it says on***

1) It is highly unlikely that Shakespeare’s works could have been composed by the person to whom they are traditionally assigned.

2) The qualifications necessary for the true author of these works are more adequately realized in the person of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, than in the many other candidates proposed in the last two hundred years.

So how did Shakespeare’s name get put on them? The real, noble authors would lose face if they were identified as the authors, so they used a minor actor as their mouthpiece.** Wikipedia notes:

Reasons proposed for the use of “Shakespeare” as a pseudonym vary, usually depending upon the social status of the candidate. Aristocrats such as Derby and Oxford supposedly used pseudonyms because of a prevailing “stigma of print”, a social convention that putatively restricted their literary works to private and courtly audiences—as opposed to commercial endeavours—at the risk of social disgrace if violated. In the case of commoners, the reason was to avoid prosecution by the authorities: Bacon to avoid the consequences of advocating a more republican form of government, and Marlowe to avoid imprisonment or worse after faking his death and fleeing the country.

Savage ChickensThat argument, however, doesn’t hold a lot of water since many nobles in the Elizabethan era wrote plays and poems openly, including de Vere.

It all hinges on how you perceive talent and genius. There’s a certain snobbishness in believing that one needs noble birth and university degrees to have the talent to be creative and artistic. Yet every notion we have of genius says that it belongs to individuals regardless of background, upbringing and formal education.

The argument against Shakespeare as the author overlooks simple plagiarism, too. Shakespeare’s sources are well known, and it’s clear that he lifted many of his plots, characters and settings from the works of others, even some of the dialogue. His genius lay in how he assembled them into his plays.

In Shakespeare, Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom writes:

You cannot reduce Shakespeare to any single power, of all his myriad gifts, and assert that he matters most because of that one glory. yet all his endowments issue from his extraordinary intelligence, which for comprehensiveness is unmatched, and not just among the greatest writers. The true Bardolatry stems from this recognition.

Personally, I find all of the arguments against Shakespeare flimsy and contrived.  Most of the arguments in favour of alternative authors depend on a lot of circumstantial evidence,  “what-if” suppositions, and interpretations of internal “evidence” in the plays.****

The conspiracy looks for answers in the shadows and ignores those in common sight. And simply because 400-plus-year-old records are incomplete or were kept in ways different from our practices today doesn’t mean anything is wrong.

But back to Bolt. His tale is fascinating reading, and he makes it clear his belief in Marlowe’s authorship is absolute. Quotes from the plays are identified as Marlowe’s work from the first pages. Yet Bolt pulls back in his afterword and teases us by saying it is all the “purest conjecture.” Despite this, and despite the trips along what is clearly leaps of intellectual faith, what Bolt offers is entertaining and well researched, and in the end a rewarding read.

If only all conspiracy theories were so much fun to read.


* In his book, Contested Will, James Shapiro identifies at least 50 persons have been put forward as potential authors of the Shakespearean canon, since the notion of alternate authorship was first raised, in 1785. Wikipedia includes other dates for doubters.

** I’ve heard similar conspiracies about local blogs.

*** The site also boasts an “honor role” of skeptics who doubted Shakespeare as the author. However, simply because others believe in it, does not make it true, regardless of the perceived eminence of the skeptic. Just because some doctors smoke does not make the practice healthy or sanitary, no matter how good they are as surgeons. I cannot see any names of literary scholars or historians on the list, but there are a lot of actors.

**** I’m seldom convinced by interpretations by critics, historians and scholars that try to tell me what the author intended, thought, believed, or felt. Only the author can do that. Interpretations too often assume that what is written is not what was meant.

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The Consolation of Literature

For Boethius, it was the Consolation of Philosophy*. For me, it’s literature. Not to write about it so much as to read it. Consolation from the act of reading.

And read about literature. Sometimes literature is made more meaningful, brought into sharper focus by analysis and deconstruction. I started reading Shakespeare’s Shakespeare: How the Plays Were Made (John C Meagher, Continuum, New York, 2000) last night. He opens by saying:

There are as many legitimate ways of reading Shakespeare’s plays as there are of having a conversation, making a meal, or rearing children.

I suppose we assign meaning to whatever we read – the Bard and everyone else – according to our circumstances and moods. I might read Othello now with a different eye than when I read it a few years ago. I might perceive Iago as a more real, more cunning and more malicious villain today than I did then. Iago – who at one point swears by Janus, the two-faced god – tells Roderigo:

For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.

Announcing himself to be a deceiver. Later in Act One, Iago contemptuously says of Othello:

The Moor is of a free and open nature,
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by the nose
As asses are.
I have’t. It is engender’d. Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.

Such villainy, such deception. But of course, without Iago, there would be no drama. We want drama in literature, if not always in life.

Similarly, in The Tempest, which I recently restarted, Caliban seems a darker, more monstrous figure than he did when I first opened the play. Prospero mutters quietly about,

…that foul conspiracy
Of the beast Caliban and his confederates…

Although there is some redemption to be had, towards the end of the play. There often is redemption in literature. It cleans things up, closes the circle, completes the cycle. But life isn’t like literature – more’s the pity. Redemption does not always pour oil on our troubled waters in life.

Meaning, of course, derives from context, and separate quotes cannot convey that properly. Everyone’s understanding is different, so we read into things what we want to see. Intent and meaning may not be parallel paths. The fullness of the play carries the real meaning, not simply lines drawn at random.

Over the weekend, I read these lines in Goethe’s masterpiece, Faust (part one). Faust himself speaks:

Ah, happy he who can still hope to rise,
Emerging from this sea of fear and doubt!
What no man knows, alone could make us wise;
And what we know, we could well do without.

They seem deeper, richer than I recall them from my first reading. A few pages further, Mephistopheles comments to the audience after the deal with Faust has been signed:

So, knowledge and fair reason you’ll despise,
The highest powers by which you mortals rise.
The Prince of Lies it is that edifies you,
With all the flash of magic he supplies you

Ah, that crafty Prince of Lies. The opposer who leads humankind astray. Satan, if you believe in that sort of thing. Me, I see it as a metaphor for more human manifestation, something archetypal: Coyote, Loki, and Trickster. Br’er Rabbit with evil intent. Or is it Br’er Fox? Either way, a deceiver also creates drama in literature.

Is what we read really what the author intended, or is what comes through the veil of our own circumstances the truer meaning? Literature as the psyche’s mirror? Is it more valid to read Shakespeare, indeed any playwright, novelist or poet, looking for your own intent rather than the author’s?

Meager seems to think so. He says we can never really see the author’s true intent, no matter how we strive to find it:

…a search for the author’s intention is not a proper way to read a text…

I think Harold Bloom might disagree somewhat with him. In his book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (Riverside, New York, 1998), Bloom wrote:

…no other writer, before or since Shakespeare, has accomplished so well the virtual miracle of creating utterly different yet self-consistent voices for his more than one hundred major characters and many hundreds of highly distinctive minor personages. The more one reads and ponders the plays of Shakespeare,the more one realizes that the accurate stance toward them is one of awe… They abide beyond the end of the mind’s reach; we cannot catch up to them. Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us…

Which suggests to me that he means our own contextual understanding, the through-the-personal-lens view, is limited, and we must search for the greater, even universal, meaning in the author’s intent. Look for the intrinsic, not the extrinsic.

Of course, trying to understand Shakespeare at any reasonable level of comprehension depends on having some grasp of the author’s own background, his education, his cultural, political and social influences, and his language. What I read into, say, Julius Caesar’s comment,

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

Or Casca’s description to Brutus of Caesar being lauded by the crowd:

Why, there was a crown offered him: and being
offered him, he put it by with the back of his hand,
thus; and then the people fell a-shouting.

…is filtered through my own experience. My derived meaning may not be even close to Shakespeare’s intent. Shakespeare’s references might be not to historical (Roman) times, or even to the general human condition, but to characters or events at Elizabeth’s contemporary court. It could be a veiled comment on politics of his day.

Reading Shakespeare is always like that: layered. Yet four hundred years later we can still find resonance in his writing. Which is why I still pick him up and read him with awe.

Whether what I read in those words reflects the author’s intent or is merely a mirror to my own imagination I can’t say.

All I know for sure that, opening the pages of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Chaucer, Cervantes, Austen or any of a number of works by great writers, gives me respite from the daily turmoil. Consolation and reflection.


* From Wikipedia:

Consolation of Philosophy was written during a one-year imprisonment Boethius served while awaiting trial … for the crime of treason … This experience inspired the text, which reflects on how evil can exist in a world governed by God (the problem of theodicy), and how happiness can be attainable amidst fickle fortune, while also considering the nature of happiness and God. It has been described as “by far the most interesting example of prison literature the world has ever seen.”



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To sleep, perchance to dream

Simon's CatAye, there’s the rub. To sleep in, one weekend morning, when there are no pressures for meetings, work, deadlines. To roll away from the soft light that filters through the blinds and enjoy that delicious moment of closing your eyes and drifting back into a dream. Covers pulled up, the street quiet outside the widow, the furnace gently wheezing its warm air into the room; nothing is better in the world.

But of course, there are others with different ideas. The real masters of the house brook no laziness, have no interest in our needs, in how much wine we drank the night before, how late we stayed up reading, how tough and demanding the week was. They have their schedule and we are slaves to it.

Sophie wants to be walked and fed. She nuzzles the covers, pushing at them with her nose, insistent. I reach out a hand, get a half-hearted pat, hoping it will appease her, then pull my arm back in. No, not sufficient. Her nose pokes under the covers, wet and cold on the flesh of my arm.

Abby, the little black cat, who spends the night curled into the crook of my knees, is on a dresser, standing on her back legs, frantically pawing at herself in the mirror. The irksome pat-pat-pat of her tiny pads like an annoying drum solo in the otherwise quiet room.

Diego, the orange tom, managed to walk into the bedroom with a thumping gait when at all other times he is as silent and lithe as a tiger on the hunt. He jumps onto the bed like a sack of cement, and begins howling. He walks on and over sleeping bodies, ignoring our ineffective shrugs to move him off.

Up onto the bedside cabinets he travels, flicking pens, glasses and bookmarks onto the floor with a callous swipe of his large paws. Clink and clatter on the floor as they fall. When that fails to get attention, he returns, hunches over the sleeper, and boldly taps my face with a paw – its claws not quite retracted.

Sensing a change, perhaps in that rhythmic shift in our breathing from sleep to awake, the other two cats come into the bedroom. Tippy chases a toy mouse around, sounding remarkably like a stampeding herd of wildebeest.

Cleo paws at a lower dresser drawer, one she can open if she works at it, and starts dragging socks onto the floor so she can create a nest space to rest in. This attracts the others and there’s a brief scuffle. She and Diego exchange slapping blows of irritation. They sound like prizefighters slapping a speed bag. A few hisses like a steam train starting its journey, then they part to return to their primary goal of getting us up.

Sophie paces restlessly, the click of her toenails as loud as a tapdancer’s cleats. She moves from my side to Susan’s, then back.

A toy finds its way to the top of the stairs, and is launched down them, crashing and banging until it hits the floor below, somehow transformed from a tiny plush mouse into a grandfather clock as it tumbles. A cat races loudly after, in pursuit.

Diego walks across the headboard, balancing on the wood, miaowing loudly like an army drill sergeant waking his troops. Sometimes a foot slips and stumps down heavily on a pillow, beside a weary head. Or on it. Back and forth, back and forth.

Whatever possessed us to invite so many animals into our home? Slaves to punishment, I suppose.

I open an eye. 6:44. I watch the clock until the little digital readout says 6:45, knowing that any more time in bed is impossible. “Tea?” murmurs a sleepy Susan.

“Yes,” I agree, and throw off the covers and sit up. Sophie dances happily. The cats skitter out of the room and are almost downstairs by the time I’ve got to my feet. Behind me, Susan slips on a bathrobe to joins me in the morning feeding ritual.

Perhaps I can grab a nap – a catnap? – later in the day and enjoy that sweet bliss of sleep for a few more minutes.


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10,000 words too many

Scribble, scribbleBeen working the last two-and-a-half months on my latest book for Municipal World. A bit of a challenge, actually – trying to combine marketing, branding, advertising, public relations and communications topics into one coherent yet succinct package has been difficult. There are so many things to say, so many areas to cover, that brevity often escapes me (there are those that say it’s always that way with me…).

I’ve been reading about three dozen books on the topics, and an unknown (but very high) number of websites and white papers on the same subjects. I have almost 2GB of PDF files printed from or downloaded from the Net related to the various topics in the book.

Whatever royalties I get from this book will have to go back to paying for the other books I bought from Amazon and Abebooks. And I still have a half-dozen titles in my cart I hoped to get next week… they’ll join all those other books piled around my computer with little sticky notes like colourful tongues, marking pages with quotes I want to add or ideas I want to ponder (and include). I am glad Susan is a tolerant, loving person, who puts up with my habits and obsessions.

There have been some really interesting areas of research – too many, actually; some very distracting – the psychology of persuasion, the changing nature of PR and public affairs, the historical development of media relations in the last century, ethics in marketing, lobbyists… but most of all, the new emphasis on storytelling as a vehicle for content. That has really caught my attention (so much so that I also got an audio course on storytelling from The Great Courses to listen to as I walk my dog…)

Not to mention the books and reports about metrics, demographics, psychographics, design and video. Books from the earliest of Bernays’ writing (1923) to recent marketing gurus and professors (2012) clutter my floor, my tabletop, and bedside. If nothing more, my bibliography is comprehensive!

Altogether too much time spend reading and not enough in writing and editing. I tend to do that – get engrossed in the topic and absorb it through as many sources as I can. Well, I eventually got my book into rough shape – 50,000 words of it by mid week. Took 2-3,000 out Friday, relentlessly hacking away the excess. Probably do that many again this weekend.

As a result, I’ll still be about 10,000 words over the expected limit. If a typical 8.5 x 11 page of writing has 500 words, that’s 20 pages too many. Sigh. How and what to cut? Big decision the next week, because the first draft is due by month end.

My knowledge of the business of PR and marketing has gone from modest but practical to broad and philosophical, bolstered by come intriguing science about human psychology and what motivates consumers. Lots of new insight into social media and how it has changed PR, too.

Wonder how much of it I will be able to actually use. Not much before my next book has to get started (my fourth book for MW is due this summer), I expect.

Actually I’ll probably take a short break between books to declutter my workspace, and maybe get back to reading a few off-topic books I’ve been holding off in order to cram for this work. Maybe I can donate a few of the read books to the library. And just maybe I can put some more time into a novel I started on last year. And of course, there’s always this blog… and my stories….but I do love to write….

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Librivox coverHe was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. That has to rank among the best opening lines in a novel, up there with Dickens’ “It was the best of times…” opening in A Tale of Two Cities. This line, however, is from Rafael Sabatini’s 1921 novel, Scaramouche.

Yesterday, I was rummaging through my rather messy and erratic book collection, poking among books stacked upon books, and in piles on the floor, looking for a copy of Albert and the Lion that I wrote about recently. I didn’t find it, but I did find my copy of Scaramouche, a book I thought I had lost a few years back.*

What a delight it is to find a book you thought you had lost! I immediately pulled it out of the pile and took it to bed with me to read. Finished the first three chapters last night, before I picked up another book.

Mine is an old edition; a little rough, with lightly yellowed pages. No foxing, though, and the binding is fragile but still intact. My copy was published by the Canadian publisher, McClelland and Stewart, in 1923; the second Canadian edition – this one has six illustrations; photographs actually: stills from a silent film of the same name, also shot in 1923. I found out today, as I wrote this, that the film has been restored and is available from TCM.

There was also a 1952 film of the novel, starring Stewart Granger and Janet Leigh. The silent film follows the novel better, however.

The novel is subtitled “A Romance of the French Revolution,” and it’s a swashbuckling, sprawling tale of love, friendship, intrigue, politics, swordfighting – all the elements that Hollywood loves. Sabatini also wrote, among others, Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, both also swashbucklers and both made into movies. It’s along the lines of the books by the Baroness Orczy – the Scarlet Pimpernel and similar titles – written only a few years earlier – but with more politics, action and discourse.

You can read Scaramouche online or as an e-book today (I have not yet got myself an e-reader, and still like the tactile sense of actual books, but I do appreciate the technology). You can also down an audiobook at Librivox (I like to listen to audio books and courses when I drive long distances, or when I walk the dog).

It has some great lines, although the writing style is a bit florid for today’s standards.

He was too impish, too caustic, too much disposed—so thought his colleagues—to ridicule their sublime theories for the regeneration of mankind. Himself he protested that he merely held them up to the mirror of truth, and that it was not his fault if when reflected there they looked ridiculous.

It starts in France in the years just before the Revolution and follows the hero as he joins the revolutionaries, but many of the comments and political descriptions sound remarkably like a metaphor for modern American society:

“The King? All the world knows there has been no king in France since Louis XIV. There is an obese gentleman at Versailles who wears the crown, but the very news you bring shows for how little he really counts. It is the nobles and clergy who sit in the high places, with the people of France harnessed under their feet, who are the real rulers. That is why I say that France is a republic; she is a republic built on the best pattern—the Roman pattern. Then, as now, there were great patrician families in luxury, preserving for themselves power and wealth, and what else is accounted worth possessing; and there was the populace crushed and groaning, sweating, bleeding, starving, and perishing in the Roman kennels. That was a republic; the mightiest we have seen…

“Has it ever occurred to you, Philippe, what it is that makes the rule of the nobles so intolerable? Acquisitiveness. Acquisitiveness is the curse of mankind. And shall you expect less acquisitiveness in men who have built themselves up by acquisitiveness?”


“You do not speak of the abuses, the horrible, intolerable abuses of power under which we labour at present.”
“Where there is power there will always be the abuse of it.”

“Not if the tenure of power is dependent upon its equitable administration.”

“The tenure of power is power. We cannot dictate to those who hold it.”

“The people can—the people in its might.”

“Again I ask you, when you say the people do you mean the populace? You do. What power can the populace wield? It can run wild. It can burn and slay for a time. But enduring power it cannot wield, because power demands qualities which the populace does not possess, or it would not be populace. The inevitable, tragic corollary of civilization is populace. For the rest, abuses can be corrected by equity; and equity, if it is not found in the enlightened, is not to be found at all. M. Necker is to set about correcting abuses, and limiting privileges. That is decided. To that end the States General are to assemble.”

I read a recent translation by Richard Pevear of Dumas’ great novel, The Three Musketeers, a few months back, and this novel seems the perfect companion to that. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book – all 346 pages of it.


* You may know the name Scaramouche from the lyrics in Queen’s hit, Bohemian Rhapsody.

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Perfect Sense

Perfect SenseI have always liked sandbox stories; tales in which the author could stretch his of her imagination, place ordinary characters into a seemingly normal situation, then see what happened when the conditions were changed.*

Sandbox environments are virtual places were you can test ideas, explore paths, examine consequences to actions without spilling over into the real world. They have all the appearance of the real world, but the parameters can be changed to suit the tinkerer.

Programmers often create sandbox environments to test programs; anyone who does web development does so in a sandbox before putting the pages into use. Games like SimCity and Tropico are sandbox games where players construct virtual societies in a semi-realistic setting.

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a great sandbox novel. So was Jose Saramago’s Blindness. Both were made in to movies, as well.I, however, seems to have been written solely for film.

Warning: spoilers below.

Perfect Sense is a story about what happens to the world when one thing, one little thing, goes wrong. How would we deal with the loss of our sense of smell? How would we change, how would we cope; what would it mean to ordinary men and women trying to maintain relationships, jobs and families?

In Lord of the Flies, it was the loss of the social anchor of the urban environment that starts the downhill slide; we watch the children descend inexorably into primitive, tribal behaviour.

In Blindness, the majority of people lose their sight, and the author asks us to imagine what life would be like for not only them, but for the remaining few who prove immune to the blindness. In Saramago’s sandbox world, the “one-eyed man” is not king, but either tyrant or slave.

The former is set on an uninhabited island, the latter in an unnamed city. Despite the differences, both are “jungles.” Perfect Sense has a worldwide backdrop,but is predominantly set in the streets of urban Glasgow.

In both Golding’s and Saramago’s novels, humans show themselves unable to cope effectively with significant change: becoming violent, brutal, authoritarian and cruel. Once the veneer of civilization is rubbed away, the authors tell us, we become little more than animals. By extension, the authors imply that authoritarian states are therefore uncivilized and barbarian.

While the image of the children becoming savages was chilling, Saramago is far more graphic in his description of the madness and brutality.

Also in both these novels, the change from civilized to uncivilized setting is abrupt and overwhelming, crashing down upon people unprepared for the event. In Perfect Sense, it’s a gradual descent, a slow but inevitable slide.

Perfect Sense doesn’t tumble you into some apocalyptic nightmare: it eases you in, lets you see how people cope, come back to their jobs a little less whole, but still carry on. But the stiff upper lip trembles a little more with each step.

The film stars Ewan McGregor as a chef, and Eva Green as an epidemiologist, both competent and believable actors. McGregor is probably best known as playing the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the last Star Wars films. Green starred as the deliciously evil Morgan in the otherwise forgettable Camelot TV series, as well as in other films. They work well together, playing two somewhat disaffected, disenchanted and slightly flawed, self-centred characters who have so far been unable to connect closely with others. As the world crumbles, they unite with one another, two against the odds.

It’s actually quite poignant at times, and pleasantly steamy. The DVD cover calls it an “apocalyptic romance.” But the romance isn’t quite given the time and space it needs to blossom – it’s a bloom doomed to wilt before it opens fully. They’re not going to be the new Adam and Eve in the reborn world of the future.

What is intriguing in this film is how the author, Kim Fupz Aakeson, stages the collapse, like a slowing falling line of dominoes. First we lose our sense of smell. But we adapt, we work around it, and learn to live in a world with one less sense. But then we lose our sense of taste. That’s more difficult – what would a chef do in a world where no one can taste the food? Again we struggle, but eventually come to grips with the loss.

Each time we come back, each time it hurts more, and takes longer to surface. Each loss is accompanied by something else, an emotional or physical trauma – a brief bout of overwhelming depression, an unstoppable urge to eat, a profound sense of loss, violent anger… But humans are resilient. We manage. The seeming “ordinariness” of it all is what creates the counterpoint to the tension of the descent.

Then comes the loss of hearing. That almost shatters us, but we crawl back one more time, shaken and scarred, but we adapt as best we can. Until the end, of course.

You can see it coming. The disease is pitiless, relentless. It strips us of our senses, and our humanity. When one loss fails to devour us, another follows. How much chaos, tragedy and disruption can humankind stand before crashing into madness and anarchy? Where is our tipping point? After hearing goes sight. And after that…

Unlike Blindness, there is no indication that anyone is immune. The disease strikes everyone. There are no unaffected few to guide the rest – or at least no indication of any – no one to shepherd the afflicted. Unlike typical “survivor” tales – the Walking Dead, the BBC series Survivors, Day of the Triffids, etc. – everyone falls prey to the disease. No enclaves of saved and safe souls to rebuild the world later. As a parable for humanity, it sure has an unhappy, albeit predictable, ending.

The film has had mixed reviews. While not exactly an uplifting flick, it’s got great production value, stylish sets, good acting, and the premise makes you wonder how you yourself would manage the loss while you’re watching others struggle with it. “What if…” will go through your mind many times after the film has ended.

For the $5 price tag** , it’s a good buy.


* Novels that brush up against the borders of science fiction and fantasy may also be sandbox novels, although by far not always – usually only when the scifi or fantasy setting is a metaphor or allegory for the modern world rather than the focus of the tale.
** I found it at the discount store in the former Shopper’s Drug Mart in Collingwood.

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Propaganda, PR and Spin

What is propaganda? The word gets thrown around easily by people who obviously mean “anything we dislike or don’t agree with.” It’s a pejorative often used by a small group to describe anything official that any level of government puts out, no matter how benign or factual. Libertarians, for example, often grouse that government information about, say the efficacy of flu shots or the safety of fluoridated water, is “propaganda.”*

Ironically, many of these individuals and groups then turn around and create their own pieces, blogs and websites to counter these government’s declarations, and aggressively spread them through the internet and social media while decrying the government’s documents as “propaganda.” Pot calling the kettle black, eh?

Wikipedia describes propaganda like this:

Propaganda is a form of communication that is aimed towards influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position by presenting only one side of an argument. Propaganda is usually repeated and dispersed over a wide variety of media in order to create the chosen result in audience attitudes.

Chapters Indigo imageI usually find Wikipedia a reasonably valid source of information, albeit one that has to be weighed in the balance most times, and I think its description here is a tad weak. It needs enhancement.

In their excellent book, PR: A Persuasive Industry? (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, USA, 2008), authors Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy dedicate the whole of chapter seven to wrestling with a definition that differentiates between public relations and propaganda, and to explain the mechanics of each. While recognizing some of the similarities between the two (and their common origins), they write,

“…there is no real moral distinction: both practices are essentially amoral, capable of serving any cause. However, there are some practical differences. The ubiquity of propaganda as a term arises from the fact that it does not just describe a debating technique or a particular mode of persuasion such as media relations. Instead… it is all-encompassing. Thus propaganda is perhaps best seen as an orchestra of persuasion. Propagandists exploit all possibilities for influencing human thought and action.”

Two key phrases appear in their description: ubiquity and all-encompassing. Morris and Goldsworthy underscore the “sheer scope and scale of the levers available to the propagandist…” in their chapter. They conclude by laying out three distinct ways in public relations is different from propaganda:

  1. It has far fewer levers of influence to pull on;

  2. It exists in conditions where competing persuasive messages are communicated;

  3. The public relations practitioner, unlike the propagandist, doe not have effective powers of censorship or any lasting control over the media.

To believe any small town bureaucracy and government has such power and control, is somewhat delusional. Censorship? Would the local papers or radio stations stand for that? You’d have to believe that town hall gives them their orders on what to print or broadcast.

But there are always conspiracy theorists in every community who see dark shapes in the shadows, where the rest of us just see the chiaroscuro (honest, we’re not building secret mushroom farms in the terminals…).

The word propaganda means “to disseminate” or “to propagate.” In 1622, the Catholic Church created the “Congregatio de Propaganda Fide” (Congregation for Propagating the Faith), which actively and aggressively spread Catholicism in non-Catholic countries.**

In short order, this was shorted to simply being known by the Italian word for dissemination, “Propaganda.” Catholics associated the word with spreading the truth (their truth, of course). Protestants, however, didn’t share their view and associated it with spreading lies. By the 1790s, the word had migrated from religious use to secular activities.

Political propaganda (PP) as a national, government activity played a major role in the Protestant Reformation, and then in the 18th century Revolutionary War between the US and Britain. It played a major role in the Revolution in France and Napoleon subsequently used PP to justify his actions and rule. PP was used in the American “Indian wars” and Civil War of the 19th century.

Chapters Indigo imagePropaganda really came into its own in the early 20th century. Governments on both sides of WWI ran agencies or departments dedicated to propaganda. One of the American practitioners, Edward Bernays, was schooled in its art, and took his skills into the private sector after the war, when he applied psychology to public relations to become the “father of modern PR.” From the early 1920s, PR became a discipline that used psychology and sociology and mass media. Propaganda followed apace.

The Soviets and Nazis were masters at propaganda (and reputation laundering). They both used every tool and technique at their disposal to develop widespread and ubiquitous propaganda. Mao Tse Tung’s Communists would learn from them and take propaganda even further during the Cultural Revolution. Today several nations live under a constant barrage of state propaganda that reaches through all media, culture, faith, government, recreation and business – Iran, North Korea, Myanmar, Tibet among them (Tibet being the subject of Chinese propaganda, of course, not the originator).

Generally no nation is free of some form of government propaganda. However, as Morris and Goldsworthy note, it’s amoral – it is neither good nor bad. It just is. Encouraging flu shots, rabies shots for pets, recycling, and not smoking are propaganda, too. It takes a fairly high level of authority and a lot of money to produce anything effective or widespread, and it isn’t always self-serving.

Every government also practices public relations (sometimes called public affairs, although there is a disagreement over whether PA and PR and the same), which is usually focused on single issues, rather than trying to sustain or create a particular national culture and mindset.

Spin is inherent in propaganda, but is not necessarily present in PR. Of course, PR frames the discussion in the most beneficial light, but this is not always spin. Spin is defined as presenting only the favourable side of the argument and deprecating the unfavourable.

A single flyer – Collingwood Councils’ Half Time flyer – is not propaganda, merely public relations.Some people complain that council doesn’t communicate with the public, others complain when it does.

Nor is it “blatant campaigning at the tax payers’ expense” as one person complained. Since municipal politics are non-partisan (at least in such small urban centres like Collingwood, and despite the overt partisanship of at least one previous mayor), it would not be a very effective campaign tool, since every member of council is listed and pictured, and no individual gets any credit for the accomplishments of the group. Not to mention that not a single one of us can legally declare our candidacy for council until January 1, 2014.

It cannot be called “spin” either, because it did not crow over council’s accomplishments aside from its teamwork, and does not deprecate anything. The inside merely listed what had been achieved for the greater good of the community. It was not “biased and misrepresentative,” simply a list of things council has initiated, passed, or accomplished. It is unclear how, say, approving a new fire station, reducing the debt, keeping taxes at a 0% increase, or resolving the patio issue satisfactorily can be misrepresented this way. I suspect that anything this council did would be objectionable to some people.

Simply because someone doesn’t like a council decision, listing it as an accomplishment for the greater good is a far distance from propaganda. So if we’re going to have a civil discussion about any council activity, we must first lose the emotionally-laden and wildly inaccurate vocabulary, and stick to the facts.***


* In a similar manner, the politically naive uber-right of the USA labelled Barack Obama a “socialist” during the election, which merely showed they were ill-educated in the actual meaning of the term. It would have been as meaningful to call him an Aspidistra, which they might have done, if they could have spelled it.

** Propaganda via mass media can be traced back to Pope Sixtus, who used the new printing press of the late 15th century to attack the Medicis.

*** And stop calling every council decision you didn’t understand or appreciate “hypocritical.” If you truly wanted to understand or debate a decision, you could call or email any member of council and ask for an explanation, instead of whinging in the media about how it baffled and angered you.

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ForgedForgery. It’s something that one normally associates with criminals; passing counterfeit bills, scammers, online pirates, people selling fake relics or fake ID. It’s something I would not normally associate with religion. But it’s a significant problem in the book millions of people cherish as infallible, perfect and absolute: the Bible. At least that’s what Bart D. Ehrman contends in his latest book, Forged.

If you are not familiar with Bart D. Ehrman’s writing, then you are in for an intellectual treat. He writes about a fascinating subject: the development of early Christianity, including all the fringe groups, challengers like the Gnostics, docetists, Marcionites and others, their alternate beliefs; about the development of the canon and the fight to establish orthodoxy.

Gripping stuff, if you are a history buff. But even if not, if you have any interest at all in faith or religion, it is well worth the read. As a lay historian, I find the history of Christianity fascinating. It’s a rich story; replete with politics, murder, armed insurrection, sex, violence, intellectual and philosophical challenges, forgers, liars, cheats, madmen, cults, deception, secret agents, assassination, sorcery and war. Its threads run through all of Western history.

While reading the whole history of Christianity may be a bit much for some folks (but if you’re up to it, start with Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 1,000-page tome, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years), Ehrman’s books break down some of the more interesting bits into more digestible chunks. The early bits, that is – Ehrman’s focus is on the first three or four centuries of Christianity. But it is easily the most important period for the development of what we know today as Christianity: he delves into how it developed, how the beliefs were established, what challenges the early church faced, what groups were contending for the upper hand in the battle for orthodoxy, and –  perhaps most critically – the creation of the canon we know today as the New Testament.

I’ve been reading some of the alternate texts and books that either never made it into the Bible or were later cast out, since the early 1970s. Then I came across an odd title called, Lost Books of the Bible and Forgotten Books of Eden. It was first released in 1926, and remains in print today. The description at says

This is the most popular collection of apocryphal and pseudepigriphal literature ever published.

It was certainly influential for me. It led me to read about and the texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi Library, and various collections of apocrypha and Gnostic writing – books that still fill my shelves today. Some of this stuff is amazing. Some of it is crazy. Some of it seriously challenges existing beliefs; and some of it contradicts the canon in remarkable ways. Some of it is beautiful, some awkward. And some of it is simply too odd and wacky for comfort.

Ehrman’s books (26 in all), along with a few others about the same topic*, answered many questions I had wondered about: who wrote the books of the Bible and when? Who chose what books were included? What books didn’t make it and why? And the answers were sometimes astounding. (NB: You can also get his lecture series called Lost Christianities from The Great Courses – among other related courses – good audiobook stuff!)

I had realized long ago that many of those biblical books were not written by the people whose names they were associated with. In the Old Testament, for example, the books of Daniel, Isaiah and Ecclesiastes were written not by Daniel, Isaiah and Solomon, respectively, but a few centuries after they lived, by now unknown authors.

Most of the “pseudepigrapha” and wrongly attributed works are in the New Testament.** Some of these are deliberate forgeries, Ehrman contends (his blog has even more controversial claims).***

Ehrman’s latest book confronts the issue of authorship and he clearly states that many NT books were forged in the name of apostles or Paul. While that’s not really new, Ehrman is the first I’ve read to call these fakes forgeries, rather than find some philosophical or theological excuse for them. He makes it clear that they were written to deceive readers about theological or liturgical issues. And he both defends his position and dismantles counter-arguments from apologists.

What’s fascinating – for me at least – is the question: who knew? Did the early church fathers who accepted and rejected various books and created the canon (Irenaeus, for example) know or suspect that some of these books were forgeries? And what does that mean to the Bible and its followers today?

* Barrie Wilson’s book, How Jesus Became Christian, Tom Harpur’s The Pagan Christ among them, both highly recommended.
** Authorship is questionable even in the synoptic gospels, and scholars argue about who actually wrote them. The attribution to the apostles is from early church fathers and based on tradition, rather than evidence.
*** One of the problems for people like me when trying to follow these arguments is that I have never read the Bible. I have, like most of us, read a translation (or rather, several translations) of it, but in order to claim to have read the Bible, one has to have read the actual books – in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.

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Not the expected blog post, I’m afraid

FrazzledSorry to disappoint those readers who expected this to be a blog post on ukuleles, tequila or our beautiful Mexican Sister City, Zihuatanejo (“Zee-hwa” for those in the know). I refer, of course, to comments in the recent parody video, in which my blog was commented upon (as if blogging was something conspiratorial, but it seems pretty much everything is, these days for some folks…).

However, my energies have of late been taken up by several other pressing projects, meetings and local political issues, so those topics have become back-burner projects. Sorry.

Speaking of conspiracies, my main research  – online and through books – these last two weeks has been on the Pazzi conspiracy of 1478. This event irrevocably changed the politics of Florence, and of Italy, but how did it play in the development of the young Machiavelli’s political thought? Machiavelli was eight when the assassination attempt took place, and lived through the city’s wars and social unrest that raged for the next decade and a half. But few biographers discuss the event in anything more than passing mention.

The complexity of the Pazzi conspiracy has taken me much more time than I expected, because it involves so many people, states, and families. It has given me new insight into Florentine politics, and the opportunity to reread Machiavelli’s writing on conspiracies (real conspiracies, not the alien-abduction-reptiloid-mushroom-farm kind that saturates the internet). Eventually my research and conclusions will be written up as a post on my Machiavelli site (I’ve already written more than 1,200 words on it – still working on it).

OverworkedI have always believed – and have written in my two recent books – that blogging is important for municipal politicians. In fact, I have encouraged politicians and municipal staff to use all social media. It’s a way to engage with the electorate and to create a political perspective of yourself for residents. It’s a way to let people know the reason behind your vote or stand, to expand on comments made at the council table, and to get comments back from the electorate. But it’s not for the thin-skinned or faint of heart.

However, since blogging is simply a hobby, not a profession, I have to attend to other matters and work on more economically sustainable projects, like my next two books (drafts due at the publisher’s soon…). I am, after all, not retired, but simply a freelance writer who needs to earn an income and I have to prioritize… 😉

I blog mostly because I love to write and it fulfills a need within me to be creative. I usually blog when something strikes me, rather than planning it in advance (some attempts at fiction being the exception). I kick around many ideas for posts but they don’t always get past the draft or idea mode. I will turn them into posts when I have the time. Perhaps then I will be able to live up to my readers’ expectations, and again write posts on ukuleles, tequila, and Mexico in the near future. I am buoyed by the knowledge that I will have a ready-made audience for them, when I do.

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