Dramatic Tension: What Went Wrong with Act III of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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Unlike my last post, this one will have some spoilers. It’s been two weeks, folks. Information wants to be free!

In general, I enjoyed The Force Awakens when I saw it. However, I noticed during the climax at the end that the assault on the Death Star—uh, no, the assault on the Other Thing—anyways, it lacked a lot of the tension that characterized the original Death Star attack during A New Hope. I was discussing this with a friend the other day, and between the two of us I think we figured out the problem, and what JJ Abrams should have done instead.

During A New Hope, the first two attempts to attack the target failed. Worse, with every X-Wing that was shot down, it became increasingly less likely that the target could be attacked at all, until finally we are left with Luke, by himself, a sitting duck in Darth Vader’s gunsights. Dramatic tension was at a fever pitch, and then the Millennium Falcon arrives to save the day. Seconds later, the torpedoes go in, and we experience a massive rush of relief.

In The Force Awakens, first of all, the time limit has little impact on the viewer. We have seen this before, and giving us an exact (and arbitrary) time limit also drains away the tension until it returns in the final seconds, if even then. Second, the attacking squadrons immediately launch their attack on the primary target, and it fails without any particular explanation—or hope that the next one could succeed. Thus, we viewers realize, the X-Wing fighters actually don’t matter at all in the fight for dramatic purposes, and exist mostly to die gloriously.

So all of the attention is focused on our heroes on the ground—the same ones who have already planted bombs, and are in the middle of a dramatic character moment with a lot of emotion, and emotional tension, but not the tension you get from a race against the clock. At the final moment, time even seems to stand still, working against the larger sense of jeopardy the movie was supposed to create. All the pieces are working at cross-purposes.

What should the movie have done instead?

In the massive preemptive strike launched by the Super Weapon, it takes out multiple targets at once and then shuts down for a long period to recharge. This was a mistake, from a storytelling perspective. Only one of its targets was actually time-critical (the Republic fleet). Destroy that one first, and the others could be picked off at leisure. So what JJ Abrams should have done, is have the weapon fire once, every two minutes, continuously.

That way, every mistake the heroes make, every snag they hit, every obstacle they must overcome, means that millions more people die while they watch, each time the weapon fires again. Even better, it provides a better reason for the First Order to discover the location of the Resistance: when the X-Wing fighters make a panicked jump directly from their base to the Super Weapon, the bad guys can simply plot their path backward over the course of the next five or ten minutes. Then, after having destroyed several targets while we squirm in impotent horror, they can finally calculate the location of their hated enemies, and train their sights on the good guys, chortling evilly.

And then they can blow up.

That would have made for a much more effective Act III. And for the rest of us storytellers, it presents a lesson that sudden explosions are not necessarily better than explosions that we see coming, but cannot prevent.

Proxy Wars, and the Grand Strategy of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

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[Edited to correct the name of the First Order.]

First off, this post about The Force Awakens will be spoiler-free—with the exception of a few bits of data about the power-politics situation in the Star Wars galaxy, which are actually provided in the opening crawl, so it’s not a big deal. If even this bothers you, feel free to click away; but the political background actually played very little role in the plot, so I feel comfortable discussing it more even for people who have not seen the movie.

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Okay, so you’re still with me. I just saw TFA this evening (has that become the official acronym yet?), and the film gives us very little indeed about the politics behind it all. This is not a problem, exactly; the original films told us nothing except “Here is an empire, here are some rebels, go play.” I’m not demanding a strategic overview like something out of Clausewitz. (And of course, it would be silly to have some contrived plot about trade federations and blockades that hardly makes sense to a three-year-old… ahem.) But TFA gave us some tantalizing hints, that I can’t help but expand upon.

The Empire has fallen. The messy aftermath is not explored in any great depth, except that the New Republic apparently controls much of the Empire’s old territory—but not all of it. And in what remains, the First Order arises. It views itself as a strategic enemy of the New Republic, but has not launched an open war. Furthermore, the Republic has not made open war either, but instead creates a proxy group to fight the First Order, called the Resistance. (Because “Rebels” was taken, I suppose.)

This has many fascinating parallels with real-life insurgent groups, which are often supported or funded by neighboring states who wish to cause trouble for their enemies, while maintaining plausible deniability. (One of the key recent works on state support for insurgencies is Idean Salehyan’s Rebels Without Borders, a concise and informative work.) Usually, states support insurgencies if they are too weak to confront their enemy directly, or if they are powerful enough but simply don’t want to incur the costs of a direct conflict.

The movie is ambiguous on which of these is true for the Republic, but there is some evidence that the second case holds. In my view, the First Order would have dearly liked to crush the Republic even before the movie starts, but did not have the naval power to do so. So then why would the Republic resort to proxies instead of defeating them directly?

Furthermore, there are some hints (much more debatable) that not all of the Republic agrees with supporting the Resistance. A particular figure even seemed to have paid a political price for providing aid, giving up her prior position of authority. (I could be misreading this, but it seems right.) So why would the Republic be so reluctant to confront the First Order directly?

Perhaps the difficulties of rebuilding the galaxy have been too taxing. Reimposing order after the Empire’s fall would have been a grueling job, and it may not be done yet. Committing the fleet to a war might expose the Republic to dangers from other quarters. Or it may be simpler. Even if the Republic is wealthy and powerful on paper, its leaders may still bear scars from the last conflict that make them flinch away from taking on another one.

Whatever the reason, in the real world supporting proxy insurgents carries its own risks. For the state sponsor, insurgents can often provide a cheap and easy way to cause your enemy a lot of trouble; but the immediate costs may not be the whole story. The targeted country will be just as angry at state support of an insurgency as it would if it had been the subject of a full-blown war—without actually being weakened by one. And even though diplomatic fictions and strategic constraints may make retaliation difficult, the targeted country will often use any means available to strike back. Sometimes, support for proxies can lead to the worst of both worlds for the state providing support, an angry enemy at its full strength. In those cases, it would have been better to attack directly, or not at all.

Though I do hope that we get more information about the Star Wars Universe’s strategic picture in future films, I know that it’s not really that kind of film. But there does seem to be a lot more going on behind the scenes than is openly discussed in TFA, and all of it is compelling. Well done to the filmmakers!

Excerpt from My Current Project

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[I’ve previously written that I want to write a handbook for writers on how to handle politics and political conflict in our stories. Right now I’m working on a precursor to that handbook—a brief study of different types of political regimes, summarizing and commenting on the work of political scientist Samuel Finer. Here’s a short excerpt from my current draft, a fictional vignette illustrating what one example of the Palace polity would feel like:]

Amanukemba XVII yawned as he completed the last of the sacred rites for the day. The god-emperor had to placate the Ancestors, of course, but now that all of that was done he could pay a quick visit to the harem before finally meeting with his high council. They were a tedious pack of bores mostly, but it wouldn’t do to antagonize them too much or the bureaucracy would just make trouble. He would smile and nod, and then meet with his true advisors in secret later that evening. They were men more to Amanukemba’s liking, ambitious and driven, yet without high station and title—too weak to pose a threat, and totally dependent on his patronage. And unlike the paper-pushers, they got things done.

Which was good, for much remained to be done before the fall. The granaries needed filling, and that meant that the peasants needed squeezing. Yet somehow he had to free up enough men from his conscript armies to ensure a good harvest, without exposing his frontier to barbarian raids. Choices, choices.

The emperor hummed a happy tune as he passed between the eunuch harem guards, who bowed at his appearance. He would ask for Messarina today. She would almost certainly try to flatter him and distract him, and then at a crucial moment she would ask about affairs of state, about which she had no business asking. If Amanukemba were lucky, she would then whisper a suggestion for what he should do, and then he might discover which official had been bribing his eunuchs to gain access to the harem. Not to take liberties with the concubines, of course—it would be madness to risk death by slow torture—but to plot and scheme and do all those things court functionaries seemed to do with their time.

The whole thing was silly, of course. If they were smart, they would all realize that the surest way to wealth and power would be to please the god-emperor, Son of the Ancients. He was too wise and cunning to be taken in by such petty manipulations. Perhaps his grandfather had been, but not his father, and not he…

The Power of Guiding Metaphors

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I’ve lately been reading The Axis Grand Strategy, a book published in America during World War Two. With only light editorial comments, it presents translated writings from German military theorists and officers about different aspects of warfighting. (The editors are presenting this material, in part, as a demonstration of Nazi perfidy; they highlight passages in which the Germans offhandedly note various breaches of international law—for example, that the invasion of neutral Belgium during WWI was conceived of a decade in advance.) The book is incredibly interesting from many points of view, and even as a historical artifact itself; I did not know, for example, that the Allied powers were calling themselves “The United Nations” even during the war.

One point that the book is reminding me of is the importance of metaphors in structuring thought. Over and over again, the German authors refer to the ideal military enterprise as a well-oiled machine, operating with incredible precision down to the smallest detail. To make such a machine possible took a stupendous level of planning and organization, which had to be carried out years in advance (and which the authors describe in great detail). This was one factor that pushed German doctrine to the conclusion that to have any hope for victory, they needed to decide upon war several years before actually carrying it out, and then to direct all of their government policy and grand strategy to support that decision. That is, once the German decision for war was made, it became largely inevitable that war would result even three or five years later—because German leadership believed that such decisions needed that much lead time for the planning process to be adequate, and victory to be possible.

To be sure, the “well-oiled machine” metaphor was not the only reason that German doctrine came to that conclusion, or even the most important one. But it surely played a role, because it presented an ideal towards which to aspire.

Lewis Mumford, in his Technics and Civilization, presents a similar argument about the development of vast hierarchical bureaucracies. He writes that the age of coal had dramatic impacts not only on our economy, but on the mindset of society’s leaders. Where previously, water-powered manufacture had been relatively decentralized, coal-fired steam power created tremendous economies of scale. The most efficient method would be to tie all of your machines into a massive central boiler; this also meant that they had to be standardized, coordinated, and operated without any sort of individual discretion or initiative.

According to Mumford, the success of centralized manufacture led thinkers to imagine that other centralized projects were ideal as well—massive bureaucracies, mass armies, central planning of the economy, and so on. These people had been conditioned by the guiding metaphor of coal-fired steam boilers, and the resulting hierarchical organization of mass factories. Many would even make the parallel explicit. Individual initiative simply made a mess; better to control everything from the head. The result was the age of totalitarianism.

Economist Richard Bronk, in his The Romantic Economist, makes a similar argument about the development of the idea of equilibrium markets in economics. He says that the guiding metaphor there came from thermodynamics; in an attempt to make economics into a mathematical science akin to physics, champions of quantitative economics proposed simplifying assumptions such as “utility” or “self-interest” that could transform economic behavior into something predictable, something that could be captured in quasi-thermodynamic equations. Bronk argues that such metaphors have been played out, and the further progress in economic thought needs to borrow metaphors from the Romantics—biological processes, or ecosystems, or webs of interdependence.

Today, we netizens are conditioned to think about networks, or crowdfunding, or robots. These new guiding metaphors have in turn produced new ideas of how governments should work, or how organizations should be structured. Some of these new ideas are even useful. But in any event, they are very different from the sorts of ideas that would come from a person accustomed to steam-powered factories.

The concept of a guiding metaphor is important if you are any sort of creative thinker, whether in business or government or the arts. If you write fiction, think about what metaphors influence your characters or even whole societies. If you have a business, think about how new metaphors can suggest new products or services. If you are in government, stop trying to bludgeon your society with models of coercive government that date from nineteenth-century proto-fascism.

If you want to create something new, try applying a different metaphor.

The Defense of a Free State

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[Note: This is one of the short stories that can be found in my Kindle collection, The Best Congress Money Can Buy: Stories of Political Possibility. Given  recent events and the political debates that have accompanied them, I figured it would be appropriate to revisit this story. Let me know what you think!]

Beth had scarcely come home from the massage clinic where she worked when her smart phone beeped at her, with the news that Handgun Defense, Inc., was lobbying for more changes to gun-ownership laws. This time, they wanted to weaken the exemptions for pepper-spray.

“Ridiculous,” Beth snapped to her friend Donna, who had come by with a satchel of tomatoes from her garden. “Why should they force me to carry a gun if I don’t want to? What’s wrong with pepper spray?”

“It says here that they don’t think it does a good enough job against criminals,” Donna said with a sniff, reading from her own phone. “I think they just want to end up with everyone owning a gun, whether we want it or not.”

Continue reading

How Ideas Drive Societies

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Recently I attended a wonderful seminar on “Capitalism and the Future of Democracy” with the Tikvah Fund. One of the main themes of the class was about how societies and economic systems could not simply exist on their own, but needed justification. Back in premodern times, all over the world, the pursuit of wealth was seen as morally corrosive, commerce was viewed with skepticism if not outright contempt, and governments saw it as their duty to guide economic behavior with a heavy hand. Then came John Locke, who argued that ownership of property was a God-given right, an individual accumulating wealth actually facilitated the welfare of the whole society, and the best thing that governments could do is to uphold property rights and otherwise get out of the way. Thanks in part to that claim, a revolution in thinking about commerce swept across Europe.

Now, many are agitating about growing inequality. Whether or not inequality is a problem (I think it is, though not always for the same reasons as others) and whether it should be solved by government intervention (I think most proposed remedies are worse than the disease), it is surely the case that ideas about economic justice are creating social currents that work against the “natural” direction of our current economic systems. Wealth will have to be justified if it is to be perpetuated.

I came away from that seminar with ideas for another long-term project, now that my dissertation is done. (More on that when I actually decide to launch into the thing…) But a larger point, which is useful for fiction writers as well as those seeking to change the political world, is that legitimacy is a powerful force. New ideas can change notions of what behavior is legitimate, or which institutions are legitimate, or how that legitimacy is to be established and maintained. Before you can overthrow the king and replace him with the glorious people’s assembly, you need to believe that kings are not divine and that people have the right to govern themselves. This is not an obvious belief, and how such beliefs get spread in a society could be a powerful story in itself.

So I’m on the Radio…

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Apparently, my book, The Best Congress Money Can Buy: Stories of Political Possibility, got a glowing mention on the Ed Tyll Show earlier today. To any of Ed’s listeners who dropped by, welcome! Do introduce yourself in the comments.

This blog does double duty as a place for me to ruminate about my writing, and as a place where I can talk about different concepts in political science. (My most popular post by far is a comparison between Liberal and Coordinated economic systems.) If you want more overtly political fare, you can find it on my other blog.

Thanks for stopping by; if you like what you see, follow this blog to get updates when I post.

Politics for Writers?

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This being November, I am once again participating in National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo. Which of course has me thinking about one of my favorite topics, politics and fiction.

There’s a lot of “how-to” material for writers out there—how to write a compelling scene, create believable characters, and so on. But as far as I can tell with some random Googling, there seem to be few resources to help writers (especially fantasy and science-fiction writers) think about politics. As I’ve written about on this blog before, most writers have only a few mental models of how politics could work (fantasy medieval kingdom, evil galactic overlord, idealized democracy, and maybe one or two others); while there’s nothing wrong with any of these when handled well, the shortage of raw materials affects the kind of stories a writer can tell. As a political-science junkie, I find myself wishing for more variety.

What resources there are seem to view politics from the perspective of world-building, as an afterthought of things like culture and language. For example, Holly Lisle’s Create a Culture Clinic (which is otherwise a fantastic aid to fleshing out the richness of invented societies, and I highly recommend it) devotes less than ten pages to politics—and those are mostly asking checklist questions like “Who is in charge? How do they punish criminals? What rights are there?”

Missing is any discussion about what an author’s choices would mean for the story. Or, even more useful, what kinds of stories you could best tell in a given political system. Or, best of all, how the tensions within a given political system could give rise to powerful new stories. If I were a beginning author, I would want to start there—and once the plot is in place, then I would decide on the details that all the world-building resources deal with.

So it seems to me that there is a great need for a writer’s guide to politics in invented societies, and how to choose among political systems to help generate the strongest plots. But to write a guide like that, you would need to be an expert in politics who can cut through all the details and isolate the fundamental building blocks—the handful of key questions that are the key to rapid understanding. (As you can probably tell, I’ve been reading a lot of Timothy Ferris lately…)

As it happens, I am an expert in politics. And better, I’m an expert in Comparative Politics, which is the most interesting subfield within political science, if I may say so myself. And I’ve been thinking about doing something like this for a long time.

What I’m envisioning is a relatively short e-book that would describe each archetypical political system before distilling it down to a single chart of features, showing the most important actors in the system, the key points of stress, and the story themes that this system is perfect for dealing with. For example, a communist dictatorship would be a good setting to address themes of the individual versus the state, or property and communal need, or privacy in the face of constant surveillance. A monarchy would be good for looking at questions of loyalty, honor, the role of divine right, and so on.

There’s a lot more, of course, but the key here is that in a very few pages, you could learn how to build exactly the political system you need to form the backdrop to the story you want to tell—or you could discover new kinds of stories that never would have occurred to you otherwise.

If this is something that you’d want to see, be sure to fave this post, and I’ll get right to work.

The Princess, the Dragon, and the Baker: A Chanuka Fairy Tale

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[What follows is the text of an illustrated children’s book, now available on Kindle and in hardback. The artwork from my artist collaborators is absolutely stunning! Check it out!]

Once, long ago in a faraway land, there was a wise princess who lived in a magical castle. The princess commanded a large fearsome dragon, who was strong enough to do all sorts of work that people needed. If the people needed fish, the princess would tell her dragon to carry a giant net to the ocean and fish there. If the people needed a new road, the princess would have her dragon melt rocks with his fiery breath and pave the road with them. And the people were happy, because their princess took care of them.

But the dragon was not happy. Not only was he doing all the work, but he was always hungry, because the princess wouldn’t let him eat people. Imagine you were a dragon, and you were surrounded by happy people all the time, and you couldn’t even eat one of them! So the dragon was very sore at the princess, and dreamed of a day when he could break free of her control.

At last, his chance came. The dragon used a powerful magic spell to send the princess into a deep sleep, and hid her away in her castle. Then he flew out into the land, and ate dozens of sheep and cattle and even a few people. And the people were afraid, because their princess was gone and could no longer take care of them, and because the dragon’s hunger was insatiable.

Many heroes ventured into the castle to save the princess, but none of them ever returned. The people lost hope that they would ever have their princess back. But one man had not lost hope. Yet he was no great warrior, but a simple baker named Chanoch. And he had a plan.

One day, Chanoch came up the road to the castle, carrying a big heavy backpack, and cautiously crept inside. He found the main hall covered by thick darkness; he couldn’t even see the great throne where the princess sat, but he knew in his heart that she was there. Looking around the edges of the darkness, he saw four great oil lamps on the left side of the room, and four more on the right.

“If I light those,” he said, “I’ll be able to see the princess. Maybe then I’ll know what to do.”

But scarcely had he taken out his flint and tinder to light a torch, when the room rumbled as the dragon swooped down from the roof and landed on the floor with a thud. “Oh no you don’t!” he cried with a mighty roar. “I suffer a terrible hunger, and the princess would never let me satisfy it. So as long as the hunger remains, the princess will stay my prisoner!”

Oddly enough, this was just what Chanoch had expected. “Good sir dragon,” he said kindly, “of course I don’t want you to go hungry. But have you ever tried eating something other than people?”

The dragon paused and cocked his head. Normally, the heroes just went straight to the stabby stabby, and then he ate them. Chanoch’s politeness was unusual. “Well,” he said, “the princess fed me nothing but lettuce and tofu. It was all so bland. I needed something more. I needed to eat people!”

“I can understand that,” Chanoch said. “But what if there were a food that was better than people?”

“Like what?” the dragon asked, curious.

For answer, Chanoch took out mixing bowls, a frying pan, and ingredients from his backpack: flour, water, sugar, eggs, and oil. He mixed dough, formed it into round balls, and put them into the pan with a little bit of oil. “Could you do the honors?” he said to the dragon.

The dragon was skeptical, but he breathed a short puff of fire onto the pan, frying the dough balls in the oil. Chanoch nodded in satisfaction and held one of the dough balls out to the dragon.

“What is it?” the dragon asked.

“It’s called a donut,” Chanoch replied.

“Hmm,” the dragon said. He snaked out his big head and snagged the donut with his long thin tongue, chomping on it with his giant pointy teeth. “Not bad,” he said, surprised. “Nice and soft on the outside, and sweet and chewy on the inside. Kind of like people.” But he hesitated. “It’s still not as good as really eating people,” he said. “There’s something missing.”

“Tell me,” Chanoch said, “and I’ll try to fix it.”

“Well,” the dragon said, concentrating on the taste, “when I eat people there’s a gooeyness to it. The donut is too dry on the inside.”

Chanoch smiled. “Easy enough.” He took out a jar of strawberry jelly and a large syringe. Sticking the syringe into the center of a new donut, he squirted jelly inside, and sealed the hole with a little dough. He held it out to the dragon. “Try it now,” he said.

The dragon ate the jelly donut, chewing slowly, little globs of jelly dripping onto his scaly lip until he licked them up. “Hey, this is good,” he said. “Even better than before.” But still he hesitated. “It’s close, but it’s still not quite the same.”

“Well, you’re right about that,” Chanoch agreed. “Fried donuts aren’t people, even if you put jelly in them. But I’ll tell you how you can make them even better than people.”

“Better? Really?” The dragon blinked his great shining eyes.

“All you have to do,” Chanoch said, “is say ‘thank you’ before you eat them.”

The dragon laughed, smoke trailing from his mouth. “That’s silly! How could saying ‘thank you’ make food taste better?”

Chanoch smiled. “Because saying thank you shows that you appreciate the food. Here, try it.” He held out another jelly donut.

“I still think it’s silly,” the dragon said, “but all right.” He snaked his head forward again, but before grabbing the donut, he said, “Thank you for this donut.” Then he chewed and swallowed. As he did, the dragon’s face glowed with delight. “Wow!” he said. “You were right! This is so much better than people.”

“So does that mean you’ll free the princess?” Chanoch said.

The dragon licked his lips, fidgeting. “Do you think the princess will let me eat these jelly donuts? Or will she make me go back to tofu?”

“If you say thank you for them, I’m sure the princess won’t mind,” Chanoch said. “And I promise you’ll get all the jelly donuts you need.”

“All right then,” the dragon said. “I sealed the princess with a word of power. When you light the lamps, you’ll be able to read it. Just speak it aloud, and she’ll wake up.”

So Chanoch lit the eight lamps, and their light drove away the darkness in the throne room. Just as he knew she would be, the princess was seated on her throne, fast asleep. Hovering in front of her was a glowing word, written in the air. Chanoch spoke it aloud, and it dissolved. The princess woke up.

“Sufgan!” she said. “You’ve been a very naughty dragon!”

“I know,” the dragon said sheepishly. “But it’s okay now, because Chanoch is going to give me jelly donuts to eat instead of people.”

“That sounds better, Sufgan,” the princess said. “Just as long as you’re sorry, and you never do it again.”

So everyone was happy. The princess was awake again and could take care of the people once more. This time Sufgan the dragon got to eat jelly donuts, so he didn’t mind working. And he always said thank you to Chanoch.

The people were glad that their princess had been returned to them, so much so that they made a holiday in Chanoch’s honor, which they called Chanuka. They even forgave Sufgan the dragon, and called his jelly donuts Sufganiot. Even today, we eat sufganiot on Chanuka to commemorate when the princess and the dragon started working together again.

So now, dear readers, have a happy Chanuka. And remember that when your own dragon get hungry, it’s better to eat jelly donuts than to eat people. And don’t forget to say thank you!

[If you liked the story, check it out in lavishly illustrated Kindle or hardback!]

Say, Who’s Up for A Kickstarter Project?

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Grumpy dragon is grumpy...

UPDATE August 19: The project is live! Check it out here:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/292895205/hannuka-story-the-princess-the-dragon-and-the-bake

ORIGINAL POST:

I’m gearing up to launch a Kickstarter project for my new book, The Princess, the Dragon, and the Baker: A Chanuka Fairy Tale. (You can actually check it out as a Kindle book here if you have a compatible Kindle reader; it’s enrolled in Amazon Select, so you could borrow it for free if you like.)

The whole Kickstarter thing really is amazing. As I wrote in my first book, the ability to commit to a project without worrying if you’re going to be that one sucker who paid in when no one else did has revolutionary possibilities. I’ve been itching to do a Kickstarter project even before I knew what the project would even be about—that’s how cool I think the whole idea is.

Check out the preview of my project (EDIT: we’re live now, no more preview!) and let me know what you think! (I’m particularly interested if the “Cameo” reward sounds like something people would be interested in. If you have any thoughts on that, I’d love to hear them.)

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