Category Archives: Failure and Difficulty

if i can do it today

if i can do it today - The Best Advice So Far - Barrel of Monkeys monkeys forming a chain across a blue sky

I was a skinny kid with a big butt.

Just calling it like it is.

By skinny, I mean that I’ve been five-foot-nine since eight grade—haven’t grown an inch—and yet, when I graduated high school, I had a 26-inch waist and weighed 105 lbs.

Alas, a disproportionate amount of that sleight weight was carried in the caboose.

For a too-long stretch growing up, I ripped the tags off all my pants, picking the threads apart stitch by stitch with my teeth if need be, just to get rid of the blasted thing. Why, you ask? Well, regular clothes never fit me. And we didn’t have money for alterations. So my mother wound up getting me a “special” brand of “slacks” that, to my recollection, seemed to only make wide-wale corduroys in burnt orange or puce green. But the tag and slogan were the real kick in the pants:

 

HIMALAYAS

For Full-Seated Boys

 

Feel free to cringe aloud as a show of solidarity at the awkwardness and indignity of it all.

(And doesn’t it just figure that burnt orange wide-wale cords are now considered fashionable, all these years later?)

In the 80’s, I discovered the magical properties of mouse and a hair dryer. So at least my hair was big enough to balance out top and bottom.

Still, the voluminous do did nothing to stem the comments and “nicknames” people attributed to me on account of my backside. Basketball Buns. Rhino Rear. Or the more straightforward Big Butt.

The nicest thing anyone ever said to me about it was “Don’t worry about your big butt. Everyone likes them in New York.”

Alas, the closest I would come to New York for many years was driving through on my way to college—where the coach for my freshman gym class wouldn’t allow me to do the one-mile timed run, because my body fat percentage was less than 3% and he feared a law suit.

Bobby was one of my early college roommates. Bobby had a feathered mullet like Don Johnson. He was also the first person I’d ever met who was a serious “weight lifter.” I remember lying on my bunk one day when Bobby came back from the gym. He peeled off his string tank top and started “making muscles” in the mirror.

Turn. Flex. Make tough face. Shrug. Turn. Flex.

I liked Bobby, but this peacocking irked me. (In retrospect, I wonder if it was mostly due to the fact that I was the skinny big-butted kid and he was the movie star.) Rather than scoff, I simply asked him about it. “Hey, Bobby, I’ve seen guys flex at themselves mirrors before but never known any of them well enough to ask why. So… why?”

I’ll never forget Bobby’s response. He didn’t stop his flexing. He didn’t seem the least bit irritated, just took it in stride. “Well,” he said matter-of-factly, “you write music and compose it on your keyboard, right?”

“Right…”

“And I’ve seen you work and work on a song that sounds fine to me. But you keep tweaking it. Listening to it again. Changing this one note or volume or sound or drum hit. Because it’s your song and so you know it best. You know what you want it to sound like in every detail. Well, my body and muscles are my song. I might look fine to you. But I know what I’m looking for, whether everything is even or not, proportioned, weird looking or whatever. So I’m ‘listening’ to my body in the mirror and then I know what needs fixing when I ‘compose’ my workouts.”

It was one of the first times I remember being aware that I’d judged someone unfairly. Bobby was no “dumb jock.” He knew what he was doing and expressed it eloquently.

In fact, the way he answered that question caused me to follow up with, “Would you mind if I… went to the gym with you sometime and tried it out?”

And so, at the age of 18, I swallowed my pride and shuffled my skinny-big-butt self behind Bobby into a gym full of clanging metal and grunting and sweaty socks smell and people I wanted to be. And I picked up a dumbbell and put it down again.

Bobby was unbelievably patient with me. A good teacher. Protective even. He introduced me to people I never would have thought were like me at all. And I made many friends who all seemed to make it their personal project to get the big-butt beginner buff.

I went irregularly at first, but I stuck with it. And by the time I graduated two-and-some years later, I thought I’d really arrived when I tipped the scale at…

… 112 lbs soaking wet.

But it was a different 112 lbs somehow. My butt didn’t look quite so much like the Himalayas in context of the rest of me.

I was sold. And ever since, I’ve continued to hit the gym, pick stuff up and put it down. It’s more than a hobby; it’s a way of life. And while I still haven’t grown an inch in height, I’m now generally in a weight range considered “borderline obese” on the BMI chart, even though my body fat is still quite low.

Yay, me.

Before I lose anyone who isn’t a gym-goer, this post isn’t about working out. I use that only as an example.

There are things each of us enjoys doing, things we’ve worked hard at, invested time in, grown to love and depend on.

For me, in addition to working out, I’ve studied languages for a lifetime.

I’ve played the piano, sung, composed music and recorded original songs.

I’ve mentored hundreds of teens and young people.

I write (obviously).

Your “thing” might be gardening. Or painting. Or dance.

Playing chess. Jogging. Surfing.

I’m talking about pursuits that take time. Skill. Endurance. Dedication. Brain space.

Things we get good at. Take pride in. Things we become known for.

Maybe even things that have become integral to our identity, a core part of who we perceive ourselves to be.

Are you with me now?

Keep your “thing” in mind as you continue…

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what if

“How are you?”

“How’s it going?”

“What’s new?”

While I’ve often had full-blown, soul-bearing conversations result from my posing these simple prompts, the typical range of expected replies remains fairly limited:

“Good, and you?”

“Eh, you know…”

“Not much. You?”

I suppose these exchanges serve some purpose in social settings, though I tend to be aware of the ironic distance evident in these greetings. That is, I find it odd that we ask how someone is if we don’t actually want to know. Most often, unfortunately, my observation is that these exchanges are an obligatory nicety we feel compelled to offer as a prelude before getting someone to do what we want them to do (e.g., ring out my order, buy this car, stop talking to me, etc.).

But that’s all a discussion for another time (and, in fact, one I’ve talked about often in previous posts as well as in The Best Advice So Far).

That said, of all such programmed responses to “How are you?” my least favorite is the seemingly ubiquitous reply of “SSDD.” It’s not that it offends me. It’s that it makes me sad. Sad to think that people choose to keep living unfulfilling, uninteresting, monotonous—unhappy—lives, day after day, ad infinitum.

Yet recently, someone asked how I was, and I found myself thinking and responding in just about this way—not in exact choice of words, but certainly in sentiment. It surprised me. And yet it felt like the most honest expression of where I was in that moment.

Back in 2011, my first year of blogging, I wrote a post following a period of “sleep walking” which had lasted about a month. It was weird. I didn’t feel like myself. But I at least felt like I was a semblance of that self. Then I woke up.

Halfway through 2015, life upended again with a systemic mystery ailment that came with a wildly spreading rash, incessant itching night and day, extreme fatigue, loss of sleep, digestive issues and more. It lasted over a year-and-a-half before I finally self-diagnosed the issue and returned to normal living.

Six months later, by June of 2017, the rash was gone but I still couldn’t shake the fatigue. Willing to try almost anything, I took a black pill that touted promises of natural energy from rare and exotic sounding herbs—but which instead quite literally nearly ended my life.

Still, I pulled through. Got life back on track, feeling positive and focused.

In September of last year, however, I got whacked again. I alluded to this in my last post. But at that time, I couldn’t bring myself to write about the issue, since I was still very much in its thrall. I’m ready now.

In 2018, I began writing my next book in earnest; and by the end of my August vacation to Florida, I was about 70% finished. I returned refreshed, ready not only to finish the book within another 30 days, but to expand into some new ventures that had me feeling excited for the fall.

However, the very next day, all of that momentum ended.

I woke up with red, itchy, stinging eyes. At first, I thought it might have been from all the travel the day before. Or from my last dip in the hot tub or pool in Florida. Or maybe the beginning of seasonal allergies.

By the next day, I awoke to find both eyes sealed shut with goop. The itching and stinging had turned to burning and pain. My vision was blurred. This was more than allergies.

Still, I figured it was probably just conjunctivitis, maybe something I’d picked up on the plane ride home. No fun, but not the end of the world. In fact, I still had some Ofloxacin in the medicine cabinet from a short bout I’d had the year before. I started the drops, sure I’d be fine in a few days.

Three days later, however, my eyes were a painful mess. I could no longer see normally.

I went to the local pharmacy’s walk-in clinic, hoping for something stronger. Maybe I’d developed a tolerance to the Ofloxacin. I was started on a new eye drop.

Things got worse.

Within a few more days, the whole shape of my eyes had changed from the swelling.

I saw my primary doctor. He immediately referred me to an ophthalmologist. New meds, both oral and drop, were prescribed.

Within a week, the pain was so bad that I was balling up wash cloths, pressing them to both eyes and tying them in place with a belt. I have a very high pain tolerance, but it brought even me to pitiful tears and whimpering. Sometime in the night, I fell asleep. I woke with the right side of my face completely sealed to the pillow case, as if I’d lain in glue. I couldn’t open the other eye, even with help from my fingers. I felt my way to the bathroom blind, still clutching the pillow to my face, where I had to use warm water, little by little, to peel myself from the pillow and my eyelids apart. Even with that, my vision was reduced to a blur through narrow slits. And twenty four hours a day, as best I can describe, it now felt like someone had taken a handful of fiberglass filaments and blown them directly into my eyes.

I used ice packs. I lay on the bathroom floor, dousing my eyes with eye wash like you’d do for a chemical splash in a lab. Nothing made it better.

Four medications later, the ophthalmologist noticed ulcers in my eyes.

He transferred me to a corneal specialist who poked and dug and scraped. Another month, and four or five new medications later, and nothing had gotten better.

I did my best to put my own “best advice” into action:

“You always have a choice.”

“Being miserable is a choice.”

“Practice positivity.”

But even little choices were becoming increasingly more difficult to make. I could no longer read—computer or books. I couldn’t see to write. I couldn’t do graphic design projects. Driving was difficult at best and largely reserved for getting to and from the doctors. Still, from within these limitations and through the pain, I kept re-centering, looking for the ways I could still choose happiness over misery or complaining.

But then two months passed with no solution in sight.

Three months.

Four…

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up

the best advice so far: up

I’m not a film critic—at least that’s not the point of this blog, though I do seem to have snuck a few reviews in from time to time (e.g., Beauty and the Beast, Singin’ in the Rain, Cinderella, and a few others) where they illustrate a best-advice-so-far kind of observation.

Well, as it turns out, it’s another movie—Mary Poppins Returns—that has me posting again for the first time in six months.

Why the absence? Well, I’m actually going to save that for perhaps another post. My mood is too cheery at the moment to relive the trials of the last half year through words. So allow me to “trip a little light fantastic” for now and simply tell you where my thoughts have been since Mary popped back into town.

And for those yet to see this gem of a movie, I’ll be careful not to drop any major spoilers.

Again, life’s been rather topsy-turvy (or, as Meryl Streep’s wonderfully quirky character puts it, “turning turtle”) since late August. On New Year’s Eve, I came down with a stomach bug on top of things—one more thing beyond my control. Yet I did have choices to make nonetheless (because, of course, “You always have a choice.”)

As it happened, I decided to go out with friends. After all, I could sit in a comfortable recliner at a move theater with a stomachache just as well as I could with it at home. And so it was that we headed off to see Mary Poppins Returns.

Now, I’ll admit—I was a little skeptical. The 1964 film starred the inimitable Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. I understand that it ran in theaters not merely for months, but for years. And the profits on this one film alone were enough to have allowed Walt Disney to purchase and develop the Florida property that today is Disney World.

How could a sequel released 54 years later ever measure up?

Well, color me surprised.

Not five minutes in, my spirits were already lifted, with “nowhere to go but up.”

Yes, the characters were on point. Every song remarkably managed to capture the spirit of the original. There are show-stopping dance numbers. There are plenty enough Easter eggs and references to the first film for trivia buffs. There are even a number of cameo appearances that are sure to delight Disney fans.

But none of these are what I want to write about here.

The truth is that the movie connected with me on a deeper level. It got me thinking. It restored a sense of purpose amidst hardship. And it inspired action—including breaking the blogging dearth.

Let me share just a few of those personal takeaways. Whether you see the movie or not, I’m hoping these reflections will encourage some of you who may be feeling stuck at present.

Perspective is Everything

The scene opens in the wee morning hours on a foggy, wet London street. Ominous clouds hang overhead as far as the eye can see. Everything is grimy and dark and cramped. Oily smoke rises from concrete factories. Bleak, bleak, bleak.

Have you ever been in a bad place so long—whether with health or finances, career or responsibilities, relationships or loss or fear—that you’ve forgotten what life was ever like before? …

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even though

The Best Advice So Far - even though - black ink spreading out through clear liquid

I was talking with a friend recently. I’ll call him Ralph here. Ralph’s relationship with his brother has been on the outs of late, and he was trying to understand what had happened and what he might be able to do at this point to improve the relationship.

I asked a series of questions. This revealed that the rift had started when Ralph had voiced his stand (e.g., opinions, religious views, moral position and, dare I say, judgment) on some of his brother’s recent personal decisions.

I asked Ralph, “How do you think you’d handle it if you were in the mix with a flamboyant gay guy?”

At first, Ralph looked bewildered, like he thought I hadn’t heard him clearly or that I was having a flashback to my famed Amnesia Episode of 1999. But trusting that I usually have a point to my rabbit trails, he answered. “Well, a few years ago, I actually was in the mix with a flamboyant gay man that I needed to interact with at an annual event. And we got along great.” It was clear from the phrasing that this was one of very few such people Ralph had ever known, if not the sole example.

I continued, “So, would you say it would feel comfortable for you to use the words ‘even though’ in describing your relationship with that person? For instance, could you easily complete this sentence, ‘I liked the guy even though…’?”

Ralph straightened up, answering quickly and confidently. “Yes, absolutely. I feel comfortable saying that I liked him even though he was gay, flamboyant and married to a man.”

The slump to his shoulders told me that he wasn’t expecting what I said next.

“I thought that might be the case, Ralph. And that’s a problem…

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dwelling

The Best Advice So Far - dwelling - dilapidated bedroom in what appears to have been an old, wealthy home

The phone rang at 9:52 this morning. Unknown number. I didn’t pick up.

At 9:53, a voice message appeared. I listened.

It was “Fabiola from the District Court victim advocacy office,” informing me that the case against the woman who stole my wallet and fraudulently used my debit card last summer was being heard today. It was a short message, which ended by asking me to return the call if there was anything I wanted to add to the case before it went before the judge.

At 9:55, I called back. No answer. I left a message explaining that the local police detective in charge of the case had assured me I’d receive an invitation to appear in court when the woman was tried, but that I’d received no such letter or call. I requested that the case be continued until such an invitation were issued, to allow me to be there, and asked that Fabiola call me back.

I continued to call back every 5 or 10 minutes. Answering machine. Answering machine. I left a couple of other messages with details pertinent to the case:

  • I’d learned that this woman had 19 prior counts of theft and fraud before mine, and yet had never received jail time.
  • I’d lost not only days of my life trying to rectify the stolen funds with my bank and piece back together the contents of the stolen wallet, but actual money by way of lost work hours and having to order a replacement license.
  • The woman had committed these thefts with a child of under four years of age in tow, using the boy as part of the con, involving the child in the crimes and modeling to this child that theft was an acceptable way of life.

Do you think me heartless? Did you imagine that I’d have more compassion, given my lifelong role as a mentor to youth, many of them having made poor choices along the way?

Please know that my first response was compassion. Had I learned that the woman had used my bank card to buy formula, diapers of food staples, I would have shown up to court and advocated for leniency, even offering her my own help where possible.

But it quickly became clear the day of the incident that she was not stealing out of indigence or need. No, she was rushing down my own street (a mark of a seasoned criminal, knowing that purchases near the residence of the victim are less likely to be flagged immediately as fraud), buying cartons of cigarettes here, magazines there, donut gift cards at the next place.

At close to 11:00, Fabiola called back. The case had gone to trial at 10:00 she told me. She was upstairs at the hearing when I’d called back.

I could feel my blood pressure going up.

“Fabiola,” I said, “so what you’re telling me is that you called me eight minutes before the hearing and immediately hung up the phone and went upstairs … meaning you had no intention of hearing my feedback before the case was tried.”

Awkward silence on the phone.

Then the excuses began.

“Well, we sent a letter to you in February.”

“I didn’t receive any letter. What address do you have?”

“8 Meadow Lane …”

“No, I haven’t lived there in over six years. And it’s not the address I listed on the police report.”

“Oh, well, I’m sorry you didn’t receive the letter, but we did send it.”

“Yes, you sent it to the wrong address … which wasn’t the one I provided on my victim statement. Are you telling me that the police didn’t give you my victim statement? It’s not in your case file? Because if that’s the case, I need to hang up with you and go right down to the police department to file a complaint against the detective in charge. Gee, and he seemed so competent …”

“Well,” Fabiola hemmed and hawed, “I didn’t say we didn’t get the report. I just know that we sent a letter to 8 Meadow Lane and didn’t hear from you.”

“And that is because … I don’t live there. Are you telling me you didn’t receive it back from the post office then? Because after I get done at the police station, it sounds like you’re telling me that I need to stop in at the post office and ask why they also screwed up. But what I’m sure of is that you had my phone number, because you called me this morning … eight minutes before the trial.”

More awkward silence.

“I was only just able to find your phone number this morning, sir. But good news. The defendant plead guilty and received probation.”

I drew in a long, slow breath and let it out.

“Fabiola … so, you didn’t use the address on the police report … which also had my phone number printed clearly on it … and you just happened to find my number minutes before trial … after which you left me exactly zero time to even call you back to voice my concerns and requests for reimbursement? And after nineteen priors and involving a young child in her con, the woman received … probation. What can I do at this point to have a say in the matter?”

“Well, sir, I’m sorry you didn’t respond to the letter, but …”

I cut her off. “Fabiola, I’m not going to accept that. I didn’t respond to a letter which may or may not have been sent to an address I haven’t lived at in six years and that did not match the address written on my police report or currently listed for me with the DMV.”

“Yes, well … no, there really isn’t anything that can be done now, because we didn’t hear back from you …”

I cut in again. “… because you didn’t send the letter to the correct address, and then called at a time you knew would not allow me to respond.”

“Again, sir, the case has been heard.”

“Can it be re-opened, so that I, the victim, can be heard?”

“No, it can’t. The judge doesn’t like to keep cases like this sitting around. He wants to just move them through. So once judgment is passed, there’s nothing you can do. But if she breaks her probation, she’ll be in a lot of trouble and maybe get jail time.”

“She hasn’t been ‘in a lot of trouble’ after twenty priors,” I said. “And were separate charges filed for involving a young child in the crimes? This is not in debate. She was caught on camera at three places with the child.”

“I don’t really know, sir. That’s not our field. That would be family court. Maybe one of the employees at one of the merchant locations filed a 51A.”

*sigh*

I was over it. As politely as I could muster, I ended the call with Fabiola.

*****

In my first post of 2018, I told you that my theme for the year would be further exploration of the advice contained in my book The Best Advice So Far, whether by way of different stories, new perspectives or additional thoughts. Here are a few ideas I was planning to revisit in this post:

Misery is a choice.

Worry serves no purpose but to ruin the present.

The sooner you accept that life is not fair, the happier you will be.

And I had originally intended to use a conversation I’d had with a friend a few weeks back as the central anecdote for this post. Little did I know that before it was all over, I’d wind up being my own object lesson for this particular “deep dive.”

I write quite a bit about topics like how to navigate regret, banish worry, and let go of anger before it turns into bitterness. But there’s some related ground that doesn’t get much air time.

I call it…

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bathwater

The Best Advice So Far - bathwater - dirty brownish water

“You always have a choice.”

I’ve spoken or written this central message of The Best Advice So Far literally thousands of times by now. And yet, I still feel and see the power in it as much as I ever have—the power to transform the way we view and live life.

In the first chapter of the book, I introduce you to Chad. You can read his full story there in the book (or HERE, right now and for FREE, if you like); but I trust you’ll get the gist from this snippet, even without the full context:

You see, even an ultra-optimist like Chad fell apart and was completely overwhelmed and despondent, because he’d forgotten a very important truth. He was immobilized, because he believed in that space of time that life was happening to him, and that he had no say in the matter. Yet, once he was reminded of this key truth, he not only rebounded but began to take the world by storm.

THE BEST ADVICE SO FAR: You always have a choice.

Chad did not need to be a doctor. There was no rule that said he must struggle through a schedule of classes he hated, or even that he needed to remain at that university. Chad had choices.

If you don’t accept this truth—that you always have a choice—if you don’t remember it and live it, then you are left to play the part of the victim in life. You begin (or continue) to live as if life is happening to you, that you are powerless, oppressed by your circumstances. But, if you truly change your mind set to believe and live out in practical ways that, in every circumstance, you have a choice—now, you open a door for change. Instead of living as if life is happening to you, you will begin to happen to life. You will begin to realize the difference that one person—you—can make, that you are an agent of change in your own life and in the lives of others.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that we get to choose everything that happens to us in life. We do not choose abuse, for instance, and we can at no time choose to undo those things which have happened to us in life.

We do not choose illness. We do not choose when or how the people we love will leave us. Or die.

We do, however, have the choice of how we will respond in every situation, even the hurtful ones. Instead, so often, we pour our frustration and anger into those things we cannot change, rather than investing that energy into the many choices that we can make from that point forward.

And yet, I realized recently that, much of the time, the stories I feature center on macro-level change:

  • You are not “stuck” in that job. It’s within your power to choose to walk away from it and do something else (as impossible as that may seem in a moment).
  • You don’t need to stay with that B.E.A.S.T., i.e., Big Energy-Absorbing Stupid Thing, that you’ve stuck with for so long even though it’s sucking the life out of you (for your own sake, if you haven’t already, please read that chapter in the book, or this post).
  • Chad wasn’t doomed to misery throughout his college years for the sake of grinding through a major he hated, even if quitting diverted from plan or conflicted with the perceived expectations of others.

In essence, each of these is a way of saying, “You can stop doing that—right now—and make a whole new choice.

And that is 100% true. You can.

But it isn’t the only option. Not by a long shot.

Today, I want to explore another possibility…

Staying.

You see, staying is also a choice. Sometimes, it’s even the best choice—one that involves countless other choices that have the ability to breathe new life into a tired, difficult or even painful situation.

I’m in the process of writing my next book, entitled Tried and (Still) True, which seeks to revitalize some very old pieces of popular wisdom that have sadly gone out of use. Among them is this gem:

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Rather than just read over that and move on, leaving it as no more than vague notion, let’s do some visualization together.

I present to you Exhibit B (for “Baby”).

When most people hear the word “baby,” they envision a wide-eyed little wonder like the one on the Gerber label.

The Gerber Baby

Awww. Babies are adorable (even when they aren’t really). Babies coo and giggle. Babies think everything we do is hilarious. We want to cuddle them and talk gibberish to them and smell their baby-head smell.

Thing is … babies also poop.

In fact, sometimes, babies poop a lot. It’s remarkable, really, how such a tiny body can even… [continue reading this post at the main site by clicking the button below]

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losing track of why

The Best Advice So Far - losing track of why

Saturday afternoon, I cheated.

Well, OK. What I mean is that I cheated on my self-imposed low-carb diet and got a ham, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich at a local joint. With bread. English muffin, to be exact.

It was snowing like gangbusters, and my feet were wet and cold. So sue me if I wanted something warm and salty — and crunchy. I definitely craved the crunch.

I know. I was weak. You may sneer and/or jeer at will.

I’d placed my order (which included a hot decaf peppermint-mocha with milk) and had moved to the far end of the counter to wait. From where I was standing, I could see through a rectangular window-like opening into the kitchen area, where an earnest young guy was making my salty-crunchy indulgence.

He plucked a couple of plastic gloves from a nearby box. One, he wadding into the palm of his left hand, holding it in place with his ring finger and pinky. With the remaining two fingers and thumb, he attempted to pull the other glove down over his right hand. His brow furrowed with the effort, swiping fingers over the entirety of the glove repeated until, after much ado, he was finally able to get it in place.

With his now-covered right hand he moved to uncrumple the remaining glove, which had been wadded up in his left hand the whole time. He fumbled it and the glove spiraled downward to land on the floor.

The greasy, filthy, wet floor.

Hey, it was already covered in hand sweat and germs. Why not add to the cocktail, right?

He bent down and retrieved the glove, shaking it a couple of times before managing to don it —

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