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Preserving the Canon

26 Oct

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation about blowing up the established reading canon. Matt Ryan disagreed with my guest, so I invited him to also talk. Matt is a high school English teacher from Massachusetts, as well as the host of #CanonChat on Twitter. You can follow him at @MatRyanELATeach.

Marcus: Why do you believe the existing canon is important for students today?

Matt: Why wouldn’t we want students to read the greatest books humanity has to offer? If I were to study painters of the Italian Renaissance, would I not study the works of da Vinci and Michelangelo? The same can be said about literature. When I teach American literature, I would be doing my students a disservice to not expose them to some of our most influential writers. The same writers, by the way, that our contemporary writers have all read. Additionally, classic texts teach universal truths, truths not defined by race or gender, but by human truths. They don’t reflect a particular ideology. They disrupt our own ideologies and nurture our own intellectual independence.

Marcus: What books are “canon” with the kids you work with?

Matt: I don’t teach every single one of these every year; some rotate in and out, depending on a few factors.

  • Freshmen: The Odyssey, To Kill a Mockingbird, Romeo and Juliet, A Raisin in the Sun
  • Sophomores: Chronicle of a Death Foretold, The Crucible, The Awakening, The Great Gatsby, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Scarlet Letter, Sula, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Fences, East of Eden
  • Juniors: Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, Macbeth, Pride and Prejudice, Lord of the Flies, Waiting for Godot
  • Seniors: Hamlet, Othello, Antigone, Oedipus Rex

It’s important to note, however, that I teach a number of newer titles that aren’t canonical. I’m not advocating that we teach only from the canon. What I typically do is pair texts together, usually an older text with a newer one.

Marcus: You reminded me – yes, we read To Kill a Mockingbird (great), The Crucible (eh), Beowulf (read later with a better translation), and Antigone (okay). From my perspective, I think that it’s often the language that throws me off. As I’ve mentioned before, I turned 180 on Homer once I found a better translation. I was able to read Sherlock Holmes as a teenager, but as I got older, I found I couldn’t read anything written before Hemingway. Nathanial Hawthorne, being a Romance / Victorian writer, uses a lot of phrasing which dates back to a time when people wanted more descriptive terminology… and now, not so much. The old joke that Dickens got paid by the word makes it difficult to wade through the verbiage to get to the story.

Matt: Language is most often the stumbling block with older texts. Knowing this, I generally approach these books differently. I’ll often start a book by reading it in class and discussing the language. Hearing me read the book is often a bridge to greater comprehension. I also share audiobooks with the students and encourage them to listen as they follow along with the text. And I assign fewer pages in a book I know is more complex.

Another stumbling block can be a lack of background knowledge. To give a specific example, when I teach Pride and Prejudice, I use the annotated edition by David M Shapard because it contextualizes a lot of elements foreign to a reader in 2020. Additionally, I work hard to make connections to their own lives. For instance, students often say that the rules that govern how people behaved in society are confusing and silly. So we talk about all the unwritten rules that govern interactions among teens, especially when there are romantic feelings involved. We’ve had some great conversations about how students “date” and promposals. Then they realize that we’re not all that different from the characters in the book.

We’ll finish our conversation with Matt tomorrow. Meanwhile, what do you think? Is Matt on the right track with his students? Or is he off base? Let us know in the comments below!

Sownynge in Moral Vertu was his Speche

25 Oct

When I used to teach World History, one of the things I would demonstrate is how much English as a language changed in just 600 years… but I’m realizing that English hasn’t stopped changing, and will continue to do so.

So in my class, I would start with Beowulf, circa 1000 CE, and quote:

Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum
þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon
hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon.

Listen! We –of the Spear-Danes in the days of yore,
of those clan-kings– heard of their glory.
how those nobles performed courageous deeds.

It’s unintelligible – it doesn’t even sound like English. You catch maybe two words that you recognize. That’s only a thousand years old.

Then I would go to Chaucer. Since the motto of my alma mater, Illinois State University, had a quote from the Canterbury Tales (circa 1400), I memorized the Clerk’s introduction in the General Prologue:

Sownynge in moral vertu was his speche,
And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly tech.

Filled with moral virtue was his speech;
And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.

This time, it sounded more recognizable, but still foreign. It’s also rather cool and appropriate for a teacher’s college. Side note: right before I graduated, ISU decided that their motto wasn’t gender-inclusive, so they asked their professors to suggest new mottos that didn’t have he or she. Instead of going with any of those, the committee went with “Gladly we learn and teach.” Seriously? (groan) That’s why the unofficial motto of ISU is “I Screwed Up.”

Then I would advance two hundred years and hit them with Shakespeare. However, only recently did I learn about The Great Tonal Shift ™. So even Shakespeare – 400 years ago – didn’t sound like Shakespeare, it sounded closer to Middle English. We softened some vowels around 1800, changed some pronouncations – I can’t help but think that had more to do with London English suddenly getting deluged by all the countryside accents that combined when their owners came in to work in the factories. So what sounded closer to what we think of as Cockney accent – or more likely, West Cornish – was closer to how Shakespeare sounded.

There’s a particular actor named Ben Crystal who works in London whose made performing in OP (Original Pronunciation) his particular niche. It also helps that his dad is a linguist, so he grew up with this, however, it’s amazing to hear him perform:

Of course, it doesn’t stop with Shakespeare. Every year, thousands of high school sophomores are subjected to The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, which was only written 150 years ago… and it’s very difficult to read. Not unintelligible, but written for people who had a very different expectation from their books… a very different worldview than a modern-day reader. I used to love Sherlock Holmes stories as a teenager – only 100 years old – but now I cannot enjoy them at all. It’s difficult to read anything written before Hemingway (70-90 years old).

I find this incredibly fascinating – and should expect to change in the future. Did I miss something? Is there a better example of changed English? Let me know in the comments below!

Swedish Fish Sushi

24 Oct

Talking about candy no kid wants for Halloween, someone mentioned Swedish Fish, so this segued into a joke about “Swedish Fish sushi.” However, if Rule 34 teaches us nothing, it’s if you can think of it, someone on the internet has made it. Oi mekheye.

Yes, as the picture above indicates, there is a recipe for Swedish fish sushi, and I have to admit, it looks really good! Swedish Fish on top of Rice Krispies and wrapped by Fruit by the Foot. Although I’m not a big fan of the gummy candies in general, having it cut by the more appealing Rice Krispie treats sounds really worth trying.

Of course, that’s not why I brought this up – it’s the sheer absurdity of it that caught my attention. I could go in many directions from here, but let me think about the infinite creativity of man. It’s very easy to say that “there’s nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9), or that there’s only ever four types of stories, but I’m pleased to see that there’s infinity diversity in infinite combinations. (Star Trek)

Sure, sushi and Swedish fish are not particularly new concepts, but combining them in a new way is really exciting. You shouldn’t get discouraged because your story is one of many military sci-fi space opera stories (which it is). What can you bring to the table? What about your voice makes the story exciting?

What I’ve discovered is that I enjoy combining sci-fi and humor. Since I enjoy universes where “things fall apart,” it seems natural that I like goofy situations to occur, because if it can go wrong, it will, and at the worst possible moment (Murphy’s Law). So my universes tend to be goofy places and I have a lot of fun with them.

Easy example: names. No matter how wacky the name you give a character, I can guarantee, someone has topped you. For example, in Defending Our Sacred Honor, I named a character Megalicious Jones – or Meg for short. Ridiculous? Sure. On the other hand, a hundred years ago in Iowa, there was someone legally named “Though I Walk Through the Valley of Death, I Shall Fear No Evil Smith.” I always wonder what his nickname was. Ship names are great, because non-Western navies have no compulsion after naming a ship “The 39th People’s Congress.” You can never go TOO far and pass reality.

What’s a wacky combination you can’t believe exists? What an unusual sub-sub-subgenre you find appealing (or disgusting)? Let me know in the comments below!

“I’ll geolocate your ass!”

23 Oct

Conversation moves to the extremes because it gets the most attention; it’s the most interesting. After all, who wants to listen to a reasoned debate on water storage when “You’re killing the delta smelt!” But it has a secondary effect: people hide their true feelings in the face of extremism.

I was going to write a post about trolls, after I heard a radio guy say, “I’m gonna geolocate your ass!” jokingly, but upon reflection, trolls dominate the conversation in many situations. Or at least, we don’t call them trolls when we agree with them.

BTW, this is what a Delta Smelt looks like. It’s an endangered Californian fish.

Take something banal – “Next Generation is the best Star Trek of them all!” I’m actually a huge fan of Deep Space Nine. I also know I am in the minority. Most Trekkers hated that show and I know why. For most of them, Star Trek is gleaming spaceships, boldly going, and science solves all problems. For me, DS9 rings more honest to me. Everything gleaming falls apart eventually, people DON’T get along, and you can’t just technobabble your way out of this one (although, let’s be honest, they still do). Because they were in the same place, they had the best recurring villains, and the more interesting plots.

I might say that in a small group of Star Trek fans, or even a small group in a friendly conversation, but I’m not going to get on social media or in front of a group of Trekkers and say that. Why? Because I don’t like conflict. With my ADHD, I feel emotions more. I think this makes me a better listener, but it also means that strong emotions bother me, so I try to avoid them. So if you profess a strong stance on something, most likely, I’m going to stay silent, even if I completely disagree with you.

What’s scarier to me is not the “silent majority,” but rather the “wannabes.” The people who disagree with someone’s strong opinion, but pretend to agree with them because they really don’t want the argument. They figure the best way to avoid it is to agree with them. It’s effective, but it gives the trolls power. More importantly, it gives the false illusion that everyone thinks the same as you. We create the bubbles we live in.

And the trolls want us in those bubbles. There’s a debate theory called the “motte and bailey,” which are the two parts of a castle – the strong fort inside and the walls on the outside. You start out with an easily defendable premise and then expand on it. If someone questions you on the expanded premise, you retreat to the easier point. For example:

A: “I believe that every child has the right to education. So we should instill mandatory attendance for all children in public schools. That means raising property taxes to have the best schools, and of course, to keep them safe, we need to have mandatory vaccination…”

B: “Hang on, parents have the right…”

A: “What! You don’t believe children have the right to education?!”

This is why I’m seeing people being more willing to be vocal. Because you can only be stomped down with debates so long before you crack. You will either then become the “wannabes,” or you’ll embrace the blatant “wrong.” It’s never been a better time to be a racist because when the trolls put the “racist” label on everything not theirs, you start to think, “#*($ it! I am a racist. Deal with it, brown boy!”

Is that better? No, but inevitable. But I could be wrong. What do you think? Are the trolls winning? Are we becoming more troll-like? Or will the silent majority surprise us all? Let me know in the comments below!

Just a Spoon Full of Sugar

22 Oct

Modern medicine provides miracles, but the sad truth is that medicine only provides miracles because there’s money behind it. So should we expect miracles in our health care? How much are we willing to pay for it?

There’s an easy answer that most people (usually my wife) give: “then we need public health care funded by our taxes! Make it free for all!” First of all, it’s not free – at present, Medicare/Medicaid/CHIP (America’s version of free health care) already covers 25% of Americans and takes up a huge amount of the existing budgets at the federal and state level. Here in Arizona it was 30% of the state budget five years ago; at the federal level, it costs $555 billion/year in matching funds to states. All of that amount goes UP when you add the other 75%. And Americans complain about taxes now.

Second, money drives people. Any family practice doctor will tell you that Medicare pays terribly compared to regular insurance; in fact, many family practice stop seeing Medicare patients for precisely that reason. (Well, most family practice is pointless in my opinion anyway.) “Well, if it’s all public health care, they won’t have a choice. They’ll have to see patients.” Really? To be a surgeon requires 20 years of schooling, 3 years of residency, and 2 (or more) years of fellowship before you’re considered qualified. Sure, they love cutting into people, but the reason they put up with the extra crap involved is because they get paid two to three times the amount of an emergency room doctor.

Now take money out of the equation – doctors get paid like teachers – based on length of education and time in grade. You might say that’s a false argument – specialists would still get paid more for their work… but if you look at Medicare rates, it would still be a lot less. If you’re a new doctor, you might say, “hell with surgery, I’ll be a urologist.” Why? There’s almost never an emergency in urology, so you’re never called in, and you don’t have to work weekends. (That was what my neighbor, the urologist, told me when I asked why he picked his specialty.)

Don’t believe me? Here’s my story – I was trained as a history teacher; I really like teaching history. I worked as an instructional designer (corporate teacher) in hospitals because it pays twice as much. It’s not because I had a great love of medical software – I needed a job and it paid great. After five years, I became a travelling consultant and travelled the country, working in hospitals because (wait for it), it paid twice as much as being an instructional designer. It wasn’t because I had a great love of flying to Allentown, Pennsylvania; I do like flying, but I went to these not-tourist destinations (or tourist destinations in the off-season) because that’s where the job was. If I got the same pay for medical software versus history, hell, I’ll teach history. I get to come home every night and I don’t have to deal with doctors. So you’ll have to wait on that medical software training.

And we can see that in Canada, in the UK, in any place with public health care… you have to wait. Six months for a routine appointment, years before surgeries, and many patients die because there’s no bumping the queue just because you need it more urgently. If you’ve got the money, you fly to somewhere else to get the surgery done faster. There’s a whole industry in Thailand dedicated to cheap surgery for western patients; their hospitals look like frickin’ palaces.

My wife likes to say, “People are willing to pay higher taxes if they see the benefit they get from it.” I agree – in Finland, you’re willing to pay 80% taxes if you get free and quality health care, education, infrastructure… sure, it’s great! My experience with any level of government in the United States tells me you might get free, but you will not get quality. And Americans won’t accept raising their taxes sky-high for not much benefit.

But I could be wrong – what did I miss? What oversimplification did I make? Let me know in the comments below!

Should We Expect Miracles?

21 Oct

It’s a clever slogan – “expect miracles” – but by its very definition, you can’t expect a miracle. And yet, we hear about miracles everyday and wonder, “Why shouldn’t I expect one? It happened to him, why not me?” The reason? Miracles aren’t cheap.

The slogan was about a medical charity for children – what’s more noble than that? We can and do deliver miracles daily in modern medicine. A disease that would have killed someone five years ago is treatable today. Surgeries that would have required two weeks of inpatient recovery are now outpatient procedures.

But here’s the sad truth – medical miracles are expensive. I was talking with Tom, a former potentate of the Shriners, which operate a chain of children’s hospitals that specialize in many diseases and offer their services free to kids who are suffering from them. He told me that their daily money requirement to keep their services operational is $2.3 million US. Daily. Here in Arizona, they don’t have a Shriners hospital, so they spend $22,000 (weekly?) just transporting the 800 kids here to their locations in Los Angeles, Galveston, and Salt Lake City.

At the same time, their own membership is decreasing. Here in Phoenix, they went from 6000 members thirty years ago to a present number of 1100. They’re trying to downsize from their large halls to more reasonable facilities; and due to escalating rents, those are often not there. Since they don’t need inpatient facilities anymore they’re trying to get rid of their specialty hospitals in favor of specialty clinics which already work with children’s hospitals to give kids the free help they need.

Miracles costs money. Since this post is running too long, let me answer the obvious answer to this question tomorrow. Otherwise, what do you think? Should we expect medical miracles? What are we willing to pay for them? Put your answers in the comments below!

Burke and Elmo are Stalking Me

19 Oct

So yesterday, I wrote a post about how James Burke really changed the way I looked at history, so I had to download a picture of him to explain who he is. Now his picture is hiding out in my picture folder, staring at me, looking at me like I owe him something.

I should be doing something to promote my book, but instead, I’ve got this science reporter staring at me. I feel like James Burke is saying, “Why aren’t you trying to figure out how to drain copper mines in Cornwall?” Well, James, I don’t live in the 18th Century, nor do I work as a handyman at the University of Edinburgh. He’d probably reply, “Not everything is the steam engine,” and I’d agree, and tell him I’ve got fifteen other things to do today. So he keeps staring at me.

Also, Elmo, God of the Ocean is wondering when he’s gonna come out of his electronic hibernation. “Sorry, Elmo, I found your cool picture, but haven’t found a post to go along with it.” So he’d say (in that high pitched voice), “Silence, mortal! You will find room in your blog post for me. Ha ha ha!”

Okay, Elmo, you win. May this electronic sacrifice be pleasing to you on Mount Sesame. Oooh, Sesame Street meets Clash of the Titans. That might be the weirdest damn fan-fiction ever. No… wait, no it won’t. I’ve read Star Wars meets My Little Pony sex fic – nothing beats that. (blink) And now I’m got that image in your head. 🙂

A picture of Conan the Barbarian’s father always has something wise to say, but he’s telling me to teach my son about the Riddle of Steel. I tell him, “I’ve got this picture of him with a sword. Does that work?” Conan’s father looks annoyed. Then again, he never -not- looks annoyed, so… win?

Gee – I really didn’t have anything to talk about today! I must be running out of the topics I’ve been writing down to… well, write down in my blog. I guess I’m a little gunshy after the “controversy” I got over “furbabies.” What topics would you like me to cover? Let me know in the comments below!

Baroque Tuning

18 Oct

Somebody once observed to the eminent philosopher Wittgenstein how stupid medieval Europeans living before the time of Copernicus must have been that they could have looked at the sky and thought that the sun was circling the earth. Surely a modicum of astronomical good sense would have told them that the reverse was true. Wittgenstein is said to have replied: “I agree. But I wonder what it would have looked like if the sun had been circling the earth?”

James Burke, The Day the Universe Changed

I love James Burke – he created several documentaries that really challenged how I viewed history. In fact, the quote is from The Day the Universe Changed, which explains the history of thought. People did not think the same throughout history – fundamentally different ways of viewing the world – because if someone tells you the sun goes around the earth… well, it looks that way, doesn’t it? Common sense. Let me give you a minor revealation to me that the way things now are not how they were.

James Burke – the man, the myth, the legend.

I have perfect pitch – most days, it’s a curse rather than a blessing – because although it helps with singing, it also means you notice everyone else’s singing is slightly off tune. I know what note the refrigerator is humming. Oi.

So once upon a time, I went to my stepbrother’s house and was jazzed that he had a harpsichord. He owned a church organ company, didn’t have kids, and being a musician… of course he had a harpsichord. This was the most bad-ass thing a young 14-year-old Marcus could imagine; forget the baby grand piano in the corner, this is a #*$%&@ harpsichord!

So I’m playing a minuet that I had memorized that had to have been played on a harpsichord when it was composed (by Nannerl Mozart, Amadeus’ sister). I’m playing it on this cool instrument and I’m disturbed to hear that it played flat. So I go through the piece and look over at my stepbrother and ask, “What’s wrong with the harpsichord?” He smiles and pointing to a strange block at the right end of the keyboard, he says, “Oh, I left it on Baroque tuning, that’s why it sound flat.”

Baroque tuning? I wondered. Yes, it turns out that there was no standardized pitch until 100 years ago. They did what I do to tune my guitar; pick one tune for the low note and make sure all other strings are tuned in relation to that one. To explain, the note A is set at a modern standard of 440 hertz (that’s what the tuning fork does). Although there was no standard back in Mozart’s day, most musicians came to a consensus and said – on average – the tuning of an A note was around 410 hertz. So an A today would have sounded like an A sharp.

The sound of many of the great composers’ work is going to sound flat to modern ears. This is a minor detail, but it made me question how we perceive many of things in the modern world.

Have you ever had a minor revelation like that? Did you know no one thought to standardize piano tuning until 1885? Do you think that’s a good thing? Let me know in the comments below!

Fantasy World Yelp Reviews

10 Oct

The Hissing Chef: 2 1/2 stars. Quaint, elf-run establishment, but turned off by the perpetual orc attacks.

Prancing Pony: 3 stars. Great beer, good entertainment. High pitched screaming by nazgul made it impossible to sleep.

So I woke up this morning with the weirdest thought – what if fantasy worlds had Yelp reviews?

Of course, it’s a silly idea – you don’t have the Internet in a D&D universe – but there are enough magical equivalents that could have a virtual bulletin board. However, once you leave the main cities, it’s not like the village of Broomfondle is going to have to many choices. You can go to the Boiling Leopard or you can sleep in the street. Gee.

So you only bother to have reviews when you have choices to make. The first restaurant reviews – Michelin – is a tire company. They made maps and reviews so that people would drive their fancy new cars and put more wear on their tires (so they could buy more tires). So you could drive from Paris to Caen and check out this “rustic interpretation of Norman cooking” without having to stay there.

Your intrepid band of adventurers doesn’t have this option. It took two days to get to Broomfondle. They’re hungry, they’re tired, they want a roof over their heads. So the Boiling Leopard is the place to go… the ONLY place to go.

Of course, I could extend this goofy metaphor to include dungeons, ruins, et al… but the point of these abandoned places is that “no one has journeyed there in a hundred years,” “No one ever returns from the Mines of Moria!” Well, then they’re not about to post: “Moria used to be a nice dwarven family establishment. Then they changed management. Goblins not friendly, rude service, had to run out of there. Will not go back.”

What you had instead was the wise woman of the village spreading rumors that she may have heard third hand from a passing bard. You know, what Facebook is today. 🙂 Actually, this shift in research really bit me in the butt once. One gets so used to Google searches that the time I played in a Call of Cthulhu game set in the 30’s, I forgot how to research! Thankfully, the game master took pity on me and suggested, “You remember reading something in this book…”

Have I beaten this metaphor enough? Have you been thinking we need to have more reviews or less reviews of things? Let me know in the comments below!

Missionary Chefs

9 Oct

One of the few restaurants we go to as a family is Loving Hut. It’s a chain of vegan restaurants that are spread all over the world. However, they’re not just interested in selling food – they want to convert you to follow the Supreme Master.

I did not make this up – there is a Vietnamese woman who lives in Singapore who is the leader of this religious group calling herself the Supreme Master Ching Hai. Why do I know this? Because they have their own television channel which is played constantly in each of their restaurants, which has 5 minute snippets to attract you to the wit and wisdom of the Supreme Master.

There are books available of her philosophy. There are pamphlets that talk about the joys of veganism and meditation. And that’s the real reason why they use restaurants as their outreach – to show that turning vegan does not mean having to live on kale and bean sprouts. Their menu is excellent, but I have to admit, I’m a little disturbed by the images lauding this middle-aged woman from Asia.

This technique has actually been done before. I’ve been to inner-city Atlanta and found a vegan soul food restaurant run by Black Hebrew Israelites… which is another faith that came out of the turn of the century (1900) where African Americans decided to reject Christianity and turned to new faiths where they felt more at home. This is also where the Nation of Islam and Rastafarianism emerged. This particular group believes in strict veganism and consider themselves true Jews. However, the State of Israel disagrees, and yet allows a couple thousand of them to live illegally in their country.

In Thailand, the local Chabad (missionary Jews who do outreach… to other Jews) ran a restaurant in downtown Bangkok. This is because Thailand has strict anti-missionary laws and the rabbi can’t work as a rabbi in a country that’s 96% Buddhist. So he worked as a “kosher consultant” and had someone run the restaurant that he owned. So missionary chefs are not as uncommon as you might think.

I’ve worked with missionary teachers, missionary doctors, missionary secretaries… and if you think it’s hard for regular missionaries to raise the funds to go overseas, try being a missionary secretary. India makes it difficult to be a missionary, but you can get visa to be a teacher or a doctor. The other thing my friends pretended to be tourists and just leave the country every six months to renew their visa.

What do you think? Is it more palatable to be another profession that is also a missionary? Or is it something that rubs you the wrong way? Or is it a necessary evil? Let me know in the comments below!

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