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A Societal Yearning: Masculine friendship and community

Your first reaction, depending on who you are, may be feminist outrage. I urge you to recognize your disagreement, put it away, and then take a deeper look. That said, Amos gets even the introductory exposition to this blog post. Take it away, Amos:

I’ve spent a good deal of time in the last four years considering the value of, and the fragility of, simple male friendship.

I say “simple” friendship because family and partners can maintain a separate and vital status in a person’s life. We’re stuck with the family we’re born into or bear; and divorce, while easy, is not as easy as it could be.

I say “male” friendship because it seems to me that women are, in ways, built more readily for deep bonding with their peers. My sense is that it’s more of an inherent thing, something genetic, but as always with the nature versus nurture question, the answer ends up being “well, some of both.” I haven’t lived as both a man and a woman though, so I can’t be sure. The general roles that evolution has put men and women into (which can be broken or tweaked just fine by a careful society, when needed) lean men at least slightly away from the deep bonding that women seem wired for through.

Male relationships often seem to drift toward (and prefer proximity to) superficiality, fun, and beer. Special people can be special exceptions, but beyond small grace periods, those precepts are broken at the masculine peril of expendability. And stray from the precepts knowing that, in order to call attention to your rule breaking and rescue the friendship, many men would have to become rule breakers too.

And that, rarely, are they willing to do.

Primal hunting and the life-or-death dependence of the military are some things that seem to break this tendency. They seem to tie men together on a deep and emotional level forbidden by our time-constrained lifestyles that offer a million fun replacements for things that displease. What more naturally binds women together seems to more readily remain in the lives we’ve all fallen into.

I always think of the scene in Moby Dick in which one attack of many is mounted on a pod of whales. The males flee individually while the females huddle together, standing by each other even though it may be the germ of their destruction.

I also think of the following passage from “Letters to a Young Poet,” a collection of correspondence doled out by the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

Women, in whom life lingers and dwells more immediately, more fruitfully, and more confidently, must surely have become riper and more human in their depths than light, easygoing man, who is not pulled down beneath the surface of life by the weight of any bodily fruit and who, arrogant and hasty, undervalues what he thinks he loves. This humanity of woman, carried in her womb through all her suffering and humiliation, will come to light when she has stripped off the conventions of mere femaleness in the transformations of her outward status, and those men who do not yet feel it approaching will be astonished by it.

In our everyday American world, bonds with other human beings seem less vital than they might have been at other times, or might be in other places. It’s not generally close bonds with other people that support us, not the fidelity of a tightly-knit community that bails us out when we face a difficult or even dangerous situation. Instead, the money we earn supports and bails. It gives us our food, our shelter, our health care, our transportation, and our entertainment.

In that way, the jobs we hold come to be our most vital companion in life. In that way, the jobs we hold become the important starter for almost any conversation with someone we’re just meeting: “So… what do you do?”

How can simple male friendship compete with this?

Recently, when using Facebook to ponder the significance of my name, a friend replied to me. I was considering how my first name means “Burdened” in Hebrew, and how my last name means “Gamekeeper of a Park” in English. The friend told me that I was wrong in my definitions. He said that Amos Parker actually means “He Who Overanalyzes.”

In pondering the nature of male friendships and overanalysis, I feel as I often do: underanalysis is overrated. Searching for the wellspring of existential loneliness is a worthwhile pastime.

**

“Hey Devon,” I said. “Good to see you.”

I shook his hand once he’d closed the door.

“Good day at work?” I asked.

“Busy,” Devon said.

“Yeah?”

“Cancer center’s a great place to work. Life causes cancer.  I don’t think I’ll be fired anytime soon.”

I nodded, smiling like a cynic.

“Care for a beer?”

Devon brightened. I already had mine open.

“Hell yeah. Choices?”

“Check the fridge,” I said.

Devon nodded, going to the mini-fridge in the basement where the beer could stay cold without taking up prime real estate.

“What do you feel like doing tonight?” I asked as Devon popped the top and took a swig. He swished it around in his mouth, wondering if he should’ve taken a seasonal brew. He swallowed.

“Oh, I’m ok with anything.”

“You sure?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“We can do anything. We can play a videogame, a long board game, a short board game, sit and chat, watch a movie….”

“Anything’s fine, really, just so I can relax. We’re friends. It’s all good.”

“You really don’t care?” I asked.

“No,” Devon said. “It’s up to you.”

“Ok. Well… how about War of the Ring?”

“Oh… yeah…” Devon replied, his facial features twitching like an old building in a strong wind. “I guess. We… might have time, and… I think I remember the rules.”

“Let’s go then,” I said. “Women like to talk about things and men like to do things.”

Devon managed a smile and raised his beer to me. I made a show of ignoring him and clanking mine up against the toaster.

“What are we going to do?”

The man stood outside the house, shivering. His wife’s teeth had chattered as she’d spoken. The man looked at the boards that covered the walls. He didn’t know when he might get another job. Winter was coming, and he worried there’d be no money to keep his family warm.

“I’m looking every day,” the man said. “I’ll find something. I’ll find work.”

His wife shivered. The man put his arm around her.

“We have… enough food in the basement… from the garden…” she said. “But we can’t burn the food. How are we going to keep from freezing this winter?”

The man blew hot breath on his free hand. His wife took the hand from him and tried to warm it herself.

“I’ll think of something,” he replied. “Don’t worry your pretty little head.”

“Hey Devon,” I said. “Can you do me a favor?”

“Sure buddy. What’s up?”

“Great,” I replied, relieved. “You know I’ve got too many board games, right?”

He nodded, half smiling.

“You’ve got a lot of space at your place, right?”

He nodded.

“Can you help me store some of them?”

“Sure!” he said. “I love board games. You know that.”

I smiled and continued. I felt like justifying myself: “I’ve told you why I have so many, right? It’s all I can do to tread water with my job. I don’t feel like I’m gonna mean anything to anyone with work. Sometimes I’m worried I’m gonna die a mediocre failure.”

I trailed off, smiling like I was joking. Devon was silent, waiting.

“Someday I wanna be able to use them to give something back. They bring people together, or they can. You’ve seen that with the guys, right? They’re nothing like what everyone thinks about when they hear the term board games.”

Devon nodded.

“Someday I want to create a big program, maybe with the library. It’ll be something fun, something that gets people out of the house, away from the TV so they can do something together. It could be a major town thing. I just don’t know how to do it yet, how to pull it off.”

“Sounds great,” Devon replied. “You’ll make it happen.”

“My girlfriend may not be comfortable with the money I’ve spent on them,” I continued. “That’s one of the problems. I have to keep trying though, somehow.

I have to feel like I’m working for something, to have some kind of life raft. And, with the cancer she’s been through, it’s even harder to justify the cost.”

Devon nodded, his expression cooling.

“I feel bad hiding it, but I have to feel like I’m at least trying to do something for people, to give something back. Michele can be so intolerant with things she doesn’t agree with. I have to feel like I’m trying hard, trying my best. Part of that is having a real collection. I’ll come up with something. This’ll buy me time.”

“I’d love to help,” Devon replied. “That’d be sweet to have all that stuff at my place. Mi casa es su casa. Can I paw through it whenever I feel like it?”

“It wouldn’t be a problem?” I asked, tentative in the way I raised my pitch at the end of the question.

“No no no. That’d be awesome. My pleasure.”

“Great!” I said, knocking him playfully on the shoulder.

He jumped a little.

“You’re a good friend,” I added. “If it’s ever a problem, let me know. I don’t want to be a bother, and it’s hard to come by good friends out here in the middle of nowhere. Sure, Saint Johnsbury is a town, but it isn’t much of one, right? All this cold. Everyone hides away, and the one’s who wouldn’t have already run away.”

“You’ve got that right,” Devon replied.

“You feel that too, don’t you?” I was glad to hear that he agreed with me. “I really don’t want to be a problem. I can’t afford to lose any friends.”

“Problem?” Devon replied, laughing just a little too loudly. “Why would you ever be a problem?”

“I’m cold, Dad.”

“Me too, Dad. I can’t stop shivering.”

Both the boy and the girl were doing their best. They tried to be tough. They wore the extra clothes that their parents had found, but layers weren’t enough.

“Let me bring you some food,” their mother said. “It’ll give you some energy, and it’ll warm you up too.”

Their father knew it had to be cooked to really warm them up.

He went outside and looked at all the other houses where they lived. Snow had fallen all over. Icicles were dangling from the homes of some of their neighbors. They were the neighbors who were lucky enough to have the wood to burn, and the heat their fires made escaped up through the roofs and melted the snow there, making the icicles possible.

The man didn’t have any icicles on his house.

Here and there, because he had to, the man began taking boards from the outside of his home. It was only a few, and the house could handle it. The man even convinced himself that it made the house look tougher, more lean and mean.

He took the armloads of boards inside and kept his family warm.

“Hey Devon,” I said.

I stepped in through his door and closed it. I was uncomfortable. I felt out of place, like it was one of those days. My sensitivity was acting up, my low-level autistic fragility. I couldn’t control the feeling. I knew it’d poison things if I couldn’t at least hide it. I tried to figure out where it would stash.

“Amos!” Devon replied. “Now the party can start. Flames of War is on the table. Beer?”

“Sorry I’m late,” I said.

He handed me an ale from the fridge, the top already off. I took a long swallow and hoped for magic.

“Ken’s been working on his bike,” Devon said. “He got some extra oomph for the engine. And there’s a new gun he’s been eyeing. You want a gun for Christmas?”

He jabbed me playfully in the ribs. I almost dropped my beer.

“No thanks. I don’t feel like one.”

“Oh. Well come play with us then.”

“I’ll just watch…” I said.

I was starting to sweat. I felt like I was between a rock and a hard place.

“Thanks though,” I continued. “I don’t really like that game. It’s… painful. It’s like having salt rubbed in my eyes.”

“Oh,” Devon replied. “Ok.”

“Actually, I don’t feel well. I need to go home and write too. I can’t make sure Michele’s taken care of if I don’t make a career of it. I get panic attacks if I have to go more than a day without writing some, and… my windows of time are tiny.”

I wiped at my brow and finished my beer, knowing it wasn’t enough to harm my driving. But I wanted at least that much in me when I thought about having bailed.

“Oh. Ok. Say hi to Michele for me.”

I felt bad about bailing, but it could’ve been worse.

The winter wore on, and it was a cold one.

The food ran low ahead of schedule. The man was more and more worried about his wife and kids. He scoured town up and down for both jobs and wood to keep them warm, but there was nothing to be found that other men hadn’t found already.

Lying in bed one night, holding his wife close, she tried to comfort him.

“You’ll find something honey. Keep your chin up.”

“I can’t,” the man replied. “I can’t keep my chin up. It takes dignity to do that.”

“You have dignity. You have us.”

The man held his wife tightly, trying to keep warm with what she’d said. He could feel the cold all around, and he was worried about the children in the next room. He looked out the window and saw snow falling in the moonlight.

“I’ll be back,” he told her, getting up.

He went out the bedroom door, down the stairs, and outside. There were already holes showing here and there in certain less important walls. One of them kept a closet protected from the winter. Another kept the living room insulated, and they stayed mostly in the bedrooms anyway.

Working quietly with the crowbar, he took off some more boards. By the time he was done, he could see into the kitchen.

He went inside and lit a fire in the stove. He stood by it, warming his hands. He went upstairs, feeling the heat follow him toward the bedrooms. He left the doors to the bedrooms open a little, so that the heat could follow.

“I just can’t deal with it anymore,” Devon emailed me, as part of a long, hard email. “I don’t think we can be friends. I didn’t know what to say when you called me. I really was busy. I think it started during Michele’s treatment. I can’t believe you kept all these board games when the money could have been used to help Michele. She had cancer, man. It’s been making me angry for almost two years now.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I wrote back in desperate reply. “Why’d you send me emails every once in a while saying you’d just been busy when just ignoring me would finally have given me the cowardly hint? Couldn’t you man up instead?”

“I helped you and Michele through her cancer,” Devon wrote, “bringing food and everything. You owe us so much. How selfish are you? When Ali and I moved into the new house a year ago, you didn’t move the games out quickly. I asked you twice. I even had to take your punching bag back to you myself. That was a really hard time for me. I just threw up my hands.”

“You’ve made almost no effort to communicate with me for almost two years,” I wrote back. “And I thought I had the games out by the deadline you gave me. I didn’t even know there were problems between us. How was I supposed to? Do you think I’m psychic? How can I just know that someone has totally changed his mind? Why didn’t anyone tell me? Don’t I deserve at least that respect?”

“I’m sure we both did the best we could,” Devon emailed me. “Have a nice life.”

“The best we could? The best we fucking could? If that was the best you could do,” I emailed back, “you need to polish your best. And the best I could? How could I give my best when I didn’t even know what the work was?”

There was almost nothing left of the house. It couldn’t even hold the heat from the fire long enough to be worth it.

The man, his wife, their daughter, and their son were all near to freezing. There was no work, and there was no wood. Everyone else in the neighborhood was either in the same trouble or unwilling to make their lives harder still by helping.

“Dad?” the daughter said one day. “I hear the house creaking.”

Wind blew in from every wall. The man had tried to ignore it, but he could tell that the house was giving way. He started to cry, even in front of them all. He couldn’t help it. He wasn’t even a man. He knew he had no choice.

“Dad?” the son said. “Where are you going?”

“Are we going somewhere, dear?” his wife asked.

“Take… what you can,” the man said. “We’re going to live with my parents.”

They left the house just in time. Turning around in the snow, the four of them watched as the house collapsed. It happened in a great cracking rumble. Some neighbors poked their heads out of their windows to see what had happened. They wondered if the wood might be available to them.

When they reached his parents’ house, the man knocked on the door.

“Can we… stay with you… mom?”

The man’s mother gave him a big hug. He was much larger than her, but he seemed much smaller.

“Of course you can, dear. Let me fix you all something hot to eat.”

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Author: Amos Parker

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Filed under Creative nonfiction, Features, Fiction, Guest author, Writing

Featured Fan: Kate Barkhurst

This is a fiction post based on info that Kate sent me in emails. (VERY FIRST FEATURED FAN POST EVAR !! ZOMG!@#$?!) I reserve the right to twist, manipulate, and mangle anything she might’ve said and to misrepresent her at least as much as my poor artistry necessitates, probably more.

To have a chance to get featured, join the group. Or wait a week or maybe a month: I plan on upgrading the group to a fan page soon, but I’m pretty busy for the next month or so.

**

Christopher, Christopher, Christopher, beautiful boy. I feel his breath moist on my breasts, his ear snug against my sternum. Gently, gently I raise my hands above the bed, place my fingers on the camera. Freeze: he fidgets, and my muscles tense; his head nuzzles and his eyes flutter, and then he’s asleep again. I feared that I had woken him.

I shift my pelvis to the side so that I can give the camera the best angle. My hair is still wet from the shower, and I’m unkempt, but I don’t care. My baby is adorable, beautiful, darling. No amount of photos would ever sate me. I love him, his little hand on my collar bone, his dreaming eyes, even the thin line of spit touching my chest. So many of his body fluids have touched me at one point or another that spittle seems insignificant, no, adorable, even lovely. I suppose that body-fluid comment works both ways.

Jack called and said he’d come home for lunch. It’s nice that his schedule it so flexible; along with Christopher, having Jack breaks the monotony over young motherhood. I love it, being a mother, but sometimes when Jack is gone and Christopher is sleeping, I feel so lonely. I know it’s not the case; I’m loved in ways that I would have envied even a year ago or been to ignorant to envy, but sometimes the sinking feeling comes anyway.

I put school on hold for Christopher. It was the right choice, I know it. Jack makes more than enough money for us as an IT consultant, and having the responsibility of running the business-end of his shop helps me to see that I’m important, that I’m involved. And my son is my priority, my first love. But school isn’t far behind, nor work, nor my dreams. I haven’t sacrificed them yet, no. I’ve put them on hold.

Christopher whimpers when he hears another shutterclick from the camera, so I put it down. I grab my phone off the nightstand and pull up Facebook. I play games, some simple and some complex. I can measure the degrees of my cabin fever by the number of eggs I’ve unlocked in the last week, but I never bother. I use the game to get my mind off of things; it would lose its point if I turned it into an issue.

People challenge me on my ability to follow through with my dreams when I’ve delayed my life to raise my son. They think I’m a cliche, that I’ll become some housewife and settle for doing Jack’s chores. But they don’t know me; they don’t know how broad these shoulders have become through trial; they don’t know the migraines or the father. And if they don’t know that, what do they really know about me at all?

Those fools don’t remember when I moved out of my parents house working at Cinemark as a ticket girl, minimum-wagin’ it without family support. I only had alcohol in my fridge because of a then-boyfriend who worked for a delivery service. I talked like everyone talked then, about success and chasing my ambitions and making my way. Who would’ve known I’d have been different then, if they had bothered to consider me? And yet I had to believe then that I was–different, I mean; that I was worth a damn.

So many of my friends went away to college while I stayed behind, unable to go on. So many dropped out, came home, chilled. I spent time with them, but also resented them, ones that had the ability to fulfill desires handed to them so that they could take it for granted. I guess I really didn’t resent them, but it frustrated me to have these dreams and see them squandered by people who didn’t, couldn’t, and wouldn’t share them.

But I remember Greg. Our friendship was always a weird mix of fun and awkward; how we maintained that for years I still don’t know except that we only saw each other occasionally through high school and his college. We used to drive around in his Trans Am, and he’d blast Savage Garden and we’d sing and smile. Our souls would dance on the T-bar. At the end of the night, he’d always ask me whether to turn left to take me home or turn right to go back to hang out at his place. I never did want to go home.

In 2004, he invited me one day to some alumni meeting, and I hadn’t had an excuse to dress up in quite some time. He picked me up in his truck and drove me out there, him in a suit and me in that black dress, my straight brown hair left loose over my shoulders. He smiled and I smiled, and we were awkward while the night was beautiful.

He drove me out to the Hilton at 635 and the Tollway. When we arrived, a string of old people and signs directed us to the meeting room. It was nearly an amphitheater, dark wood all around with plants in little rails, and all the old people, old rich people.

The hour-d’oeuvres tasted excellent, and Greg introduced me to a few unmemorable classmates before we sat down. I didn’t quite feel like a trophy while I stood there with Greg, but I wasn’t sure why he touched me on the shoulder every time he introduced me or why he bothered at all. His friends were all nice, everyone was nice, and then we sat down to listen.

The meeting started with a speech about finances that I didn’t pay much attention to and then a speech from Baylor’s president that I didn’t have any interest in. It wasn’t until the Q&A session that I saw something truly memorable: Greg stood up to ask the first question. He had said that was why the students were here, to spur conversation, and so he stood, announced that he was a Great Texts major, and asked something about Baylor’s new dorm rooms.

Before he could sit down, the president had him up there talking about Great Texts and core classes and who knows what else. The invitation for Greg to the front of the room took us both by surprise, but he handled it well. In fact, it was the first time I heard anyone I knew from school cover a broad range of topics with such knowledge and enthusiasm. I knew that Greg would go on to do great things in that moment, and that confirmed and comforted my ambitions, even when life had handed me several obstacles I wasn’t sure I could get past.

I did, though, get past them, and now I’m married to a wonderful man and I have a beautiful child, and somehow my dreams seem almost as distant as they did back then. But I know that they’re not gone; I know that I haven’t sacrificed them to motherhood altogether, only temporarily. The most important job I will ever have in life is to nurture and teach my child how to dream and pursue happiness in all aspects of his life, but that doesn’t mean that I’ll miss out on attending and graduating from Harvard Law School; it doesn’t mean I won’t practice corporate litigation for a prestigious firm; it still doesn’t mean that I won’t accomplish this particular ideal: all of this before I am 35. Maybe I can even see Greg when I move up to Boston, and he can meet Jack and write stories about Christopher, fun and immortal and pure. I can’t imagine anything better.

Christopher shifts on my chest, squirms, and wakes up with a small cry. The spittle snaps as I readjust and sit up. These days are difficult but so worthwhile, and the future is an infinite stretch of beauty and amazement. Happiness is a warm and giggly baby cuddling with you in the morning. As I settle Christopher in my lap, Jack comes in the doors, and our eyes connect and affirm our love. We smile. Christopher cries in earnest. I truly can’t imagine anythin better.

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Author: Greg Freed

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A Brief History: A view of sexual ethics today

Does social media work for blogs? Yes. Yes, yes, and yes.

I started this blog with my Facebook network, mostly friends, some family, and a few acquaintances. The first week’s readership was small, the next doubled, and the next doubled again. I had about thirty or thirty-five readers consistently interested in my work. Some were close friends in Boston and family, others were friends with whom I am hardly connected any longer, hadn’t seen since high school, maybe longer.

None of them were vocal. Few comments, no real feedback. But they were there; the stats were there. Their presence pushed me onwards when I might have otherwise abandoned the attempt.

Then I joined Twitter, and in the first week I grew a network of around a thirty I followed and thirty who followed me, give or take after you deleted the spammers. Readership doubled again; Facebook readers remained and tweeps came and retweeted. The next week I had about a hundred following and a hundred followers (my ratios are good, huh?), and readership doubled again to over a hundred independent viewers.

That’s five weeks (six minus the foundation week), and my blog has grown by two to the fifth power. I don’t see any reason that the growth will stop until I run out of tweeps, and I feel convinced that I’m barely touching Facebook’s real potential at this point.

Even so, the differences, to me, go like this: dropping an ad into Facebook is like dropping a penny into a pool. A small splash, the water ripples for you, and the penny sinks. Dropping an ad into Twitter is like dropping a penny into Jell-o; it riggles along until you drop something else in it.

As for the following piece, I apologize only to Jennie. You asked me not to write about you; too bad.

**

Aside from porn, I in my youth never had a consistent form of sex in my life. The girls I knew were horny, and I knew how to push those buttons, but they were also smart, wily, and conflicted.

One time during college I took Justin to my friend Ashley’s house. I had just broken up with Christina and he was about to leave for Marine boot camp, so I worked out a little double date for us with Ashley and her friend Holly. I intended for Ashley to give Justin a thrill to remember Plano by before he went away, but he was too straight edge for an offer like that, or else he was just downright embarrassed by the straightforward nature of the scenario.

Justin said that he didn’t know what to do, wouldn’t know how to handle our dear Ashley. So I showed him: I walked up behind Ashley, pulled her chin to the side, and attacked her neck with gentle nibbles. She moaned, she shuddered, and she asked me incredulously, “How do you do that?”

The scene reminded me of the one time in high school when Ashley and I almost got together, the time that essentially guaranteed we never would. Younger, seventeen, I had invited her to my home in order to invite her to prom. She hesitated, and I told her to take her time. We laid down on a couch together and watched The Princess Bride. She had her back to me, pressed against me, and I cupped her breasts with my hands, ran them down her swimmer’s body. She turned hot, and then she got up and walked away. We didn’t go to prom together.

When I left Justin alone with Ashley in her living room, Holly acted in the same way as Ashley had. Young, virginal, she squirmed against the carpet of Ashley’s bedroom when I poured cold strawberry sauce on her neck. She let me ravish her with my hands and tongue, neither asking me to stop nor initiating anything herself. I could taste the heat of her blood under her skin; I had my hands down her pants, rubbing her as she panted. She told me not to stop, but I asked her if she wanted to go further. Eventually, still in each other’s arms, we fell asleep. She left in the morning, and nothing ever became of it.

Jennie had the same initiative to not-sex that Holly had, the same seemingly religious impulse that contradicted directly with her will to fleshy desires. Her motivational conflict resulted in sinusoidal sexual patterns. Three weeks on, three weeks off. My pillow talk verges on the ridiculous, so we’d have sex and then talk about religion, her relationship with God, the pursuit of truth in my life. Perhaps I cyclically inspired her religious fervor; perhaps she was fucking with me under the guise of religion. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where sincerity ends and emotional games begin.

And yet I’m a man who respects principles, never the one to force the issue of sex where it’s not mutual. Perhaps this lack of a will to power on my part is what leads to what seems like an inevitable disappointment in my relationships: that the girls I date, though educated, expect the male to take the sexual lead, to direct the sexual course. If so, how chauvinistic, and what a lack of interest in my desires.

I want the girl to be interested. I yearn to please her, no matter how shallow our relationship is. I want her to enjoy being pursued, to give remuneration. I’ll only go so far before they initiate a next step: there’s nothing I hate more than a cold fish.

Jennie and I eventually came to an end over this misfortune. One day after another three-week asexual stint, she came over to bed me again. By the time she left, I knew that I’d had enough.

And yet I’d put up with much the same treatment from my very next girlfriend, Christina. Our relationship really comes in two parts: sophomore year and senior year. The whole of our sophomore ride, though sexual, lacked sex. She spoke of respect and fear and how she was still a virgin, though I highly doubt whether that statement was true. Still, I respected her wishes, and we kissed and fondled and I went down on her without her going down on me. And we didn’t sex, contrary to my mother’s belief.

One day during that sophomore year I had come home with Christina to introduce her to my family. Of course my parents were aware that I had had a sexual adolescence, much to my mother’s annoyance. Christina and I were upstairs watching a movie in the main upstairs room, one open to anyone who walks up the stairs and where my father spent a good deal of his time during those years. Because of the projection TV, we had the lights off.

Mother called up the stairs, “Greg, turn those lights on!”

“We’re watchin’ a movie, ma!” I hollered back. Christina had fallen asleep; she lifted her head off my shoulder.

My mother yelled, “Turn them on, Greg! I know what you do with girls up there in the dark!”

I looked Christina in the face after my mother said this; she had turned ashen, mortified. I felt embarrassed on her behalf, stood up, and marched downstairs without pausing the movie. Mother retreated into the backyard, and I pursued her. Of course, the TV room was only separated from the backyard by a thin window, and I’m relatively sure Christina heard every word we shouted.

“Mom, I’m not having sex with her.”

“Oh, bullshit!” My mother using profanity was rare; though she allowed it from my sister, she had slapped me the one time I had used it around her.

“She’s a good girl, ma! She doesn’t want to do stuff like that.”

She snorted a laugh. “That’s what Elvis said about Marilyn Monroe, and no one believed him either!”

I balked. “What?”

My mother’s finger shot into the air and shook with the exaggerated tremble of her angered body: “Elvis and Marilyn Monroe!”

A lull entered our conversation. I asked, “Are you serious?” I gave her a few seconds to answer before I finished, “Well, I guess that’s it, then.”

Christina and I broke up not too much later though for an unrelated reason. At the time, the reasons had seemed plentiful and the complaints against one another could have doubled as a code of law, but I recognize after some distance from our relationship that the split basically resulted from a mutual dislike of having a long distance relationship over the summer; she’d return to Houston and I to Dallas. Officially she broke up with me while she had me trapped in her Chevrolet Malibu on a long car ride out of town through rural roads. But I didn’t fight too hard to keep her around, either.

That summer I worked a menial job, a temporary night-shift construction gig that paid fairly well and let me destroy things. I called Christina every few nights to let her know how much I missed her until one night I perhaps overdid it, singing her a song that was playing on the CD player of my truck. When the song was over, she told me that she didn’t miss me and that we were through. She hung up, and I went back to work.

Bryan, Michelle, and Sydney came to my house a week later, and we all got sloshed on spirits, playing drinking games with Irish cream and vanilla vodka. Sydney and I slipped off to my bedroom while Michelle and Bryan caught up and made out; it was my first actual sex since I had broken up with Jennie, the first time in my life that I had had sex drunk, and the only time I had sex drunk with someone I wasn’t having sex with regularly sober. Of course it was a mistake.

One of the reasons Christina had broken up with me was Sydney’s reintroduction to my life. She had asked me to promise her that I would never cheat on her, and in one of the more controversial moments of my life, I had refused. Very few friends of mine have agreed with my refusal or my reasons for giving it.

I don’t make promises I can’t keep. In one of the introductory moments of my relationship with Christina, she had asked me to promise that I would never make her cry. I refused that request as well. She had smiled then, pleased with my candor. On this occasion, though, my blunt honesty seemed to her a fault.

I’m a writer, defined in my terms mostly as a person with an over-active imagination coupled with the disposition to record his thoughts. As a child, my parents caught me in any number of obvious lies, since I let my imagination run away with me. I grew older, though, and as I did I tried to reel in my mind’s propensity for exaggeration. The method I underwent in this pursuit was an evaluation of the human condition, an amateur exploration into why humans do the silly things they do. In this vein—a path which included observing my friends, asking them to observe me, and any art with a psychological angle I could ingest—I discovered that humans are capable of quite a few very silly actions, not the least of which is unexpected infidelity; and by unexpected I don’t mean that his partner doesn’t suspect (most suspicion is unwarranted, and most warranted suspicion is put aside), but that the person himself does not suspect.

The most common argument against this analysis of the human scene is that there’s always choice. At some point in the inception of an affair, an attached lover has to choose to cheat on his significant other. In my opinion, such a view shows the thinker’s naiveté: to assume that any given person chooses before he acts generally gives that person too much credit; people act for any number of unconscious reasons—unconscious here implies a lack of choice, which must be conscious—and in an attempt to explain such actions attempt to insert their motivation, usually foolhardily and in direct contradiction to the actor’s situation. Therefore, unexpected infidelity occurs; not only does it occur, I believe (possibly through my own inexperience with infidelity) it is the norm.

For this promise Christina asked, and I refused not because Sydney herself, a drugged up pitiable slut approaching me primarily for my pity and presumably for my help, was a threat to our relationship but rather according the principle, perhaps silly and idealistic: I won’t make promises I can’t keep. Any married man will tell you that’s no way to make a relationship work, and it’s not. But I’m nothing if not idealistic.

Sad and drunk, I fucked Sydney and enjoyed through an alcoholic haze my first experience with sloppy, self-serving, and artificially extended drunken sex. She left, and I didn’t see her again for weeks. Sydney called me and asked if we could get together again, but I refused her offers. She’d ask me if we could just be friends, say that she needed my friendship. I would take her to a movie to find out; in the dark we’d hold hands, then the kissing started, and by the end I was so excited for the sex to come that I accidentally backed my truck into a light pole. So, no, I guess at that point that I, without other recourse for sex, and she willing to give sex, could not just be friends. I didn’t see her again before she left for the Air Force.

I did, however, have to call her again. Shortly after our sport fucks my urethra itched and urinating at first began to hurt and then to sear, to burn. When I examined my penis, I saw that the skin around the urethra had turned scaly and looked like the dried-out remains of a sunburn. I called my family doctor and made an appointment; when I arrived, he asked me to remove my shorts and lay down on his table. I did, and he shoved a cotton swap inside me; the sudden sharp pain caused my body to tense involuntarily, and my hands flinched. He laughed, saying, “I bet you’ll remember this before you go sleeping with loose girls again.” Later, when I told my first primary care physician in Boston about the experience, my doctor would tell me that painless screens for STDs have existed since the mid-nineties but that some doctors still prefer to use the swab just to reinforce sexual morality. Good for him, I guess, but as you’ll see soon, dear reader, it hardly worked.

I had Chlamydia, a bacterial infection easily cleared up by antibiotics within a week. I called Sydney to let her know that I had gotten it and that she might want to be screened herself, and she became indignant, told me that I couldn’t possibly have gotten it from her. I told her that it had been over a year since I’d had sex with anyone else, and she maintained that I was mistaken. I asked her who else she had currently been sleeping with, and she mentioned some guy I didn’t know out in Allen who could find out on his own just how painful the disease was. My friend Bryan told me, though, that she was having sex with his brother Jay as well, and I felt compelled to warn him; when Sydney found out why Jay had stopped having sex with her, she called me up, chewed me out for violating her privacy, and refused to speak to me ever again, a promise which lasted a few years and ended with little or no real effect since without a real need for my pity Sydney has little reason to keep in touch with me.

I’d have a few other sporadic sexual partners throughout the first semester of my junior year. The most significant of these were the two intellectual extremes, Emily the education major who never let the contradiction between her devout views on conservative Christianity and her open sexual policies bother her and Courtney the educated debater who evidenced a disparity between knowledge of books and of the world usually reserved for romantic novels.

I don’t remember how Emily and I found each other, only that the first time she approached me about sex she asked if we could get drunk first. I refused, and she said she’d drink before she came over. I told her that if she showed up drunk I wouldn’t have sex with her; if she couldn’t fuck me sober, she wouldn’t fuck me at all. She agreed, and so the affair started. Twice a week we’d get together, and she progressively climbed the kinky ladder until she went past where I was interested in going, which was where we stopped: Sex itself contents me for a long while, and I don’t need any spices added to it until the repeated flavor makes itself monotonous. She wanted to start off on the heavy side, and my lack of interest caused her to pull away.

Courtney was something altogether different, a student from one of the courses I was peer instructing, just the sort of relationship I had promised myself not to get into when I took the job. However, my responsibilities included entertaining the students and getting them involved with social groups on campus (Goal number one is student retention!), and I had invited a few of the students over to meet my friends and to attend various parties. The male students I invited declined, but the females came in a small pack of three: Sarah, Andrea, and Courtney.

One day during Thanksgiving break when most of our friends had left but she and I remained, she came over to watch a movie with me. It started friendly enough, sitting on my couch together. Then she leaned against my shoulder, and I tensed. Her head fell to my lap, and I didn’t push her off. She mentioned that she felt cold, asked me to lay down with her; I removed the back cushions of the couch and put my left arm under her head and my right hand on the flat of her stomach; even through her shirt I could tell that she had lied.

Courtney had fallen asleep by the time the movie was over, and she unconsciously nuzzled into my arm. I tried to get up without waking her, but she came two and yawned that she had better get going. I walked with her out my front door and down the cement steps to her car. She opened the door, and right when I was about to thank fate for letting me out of this pickle without too much drama, she turned and asked me for a hug. I put my arms over her shoulders and slid my hands down her back, pulling her in a soft and sensual hug. Her breasts pushed into the soft tissue of my stomach just under my ribs; the wire of her bra tinged the excitement with discomfort.

“What is this?” she asked me. “What are we?”

I sighed and looked away from her, loosening my arms.

“Couldn’t we be together?” She had heard my arguments against dating my students, but it wasn’t forbidden; it was just something I had decided not to do. Cheers to my moral stamina, since that was the only boundary between what she wanted and what I’d give her.

I still wasn’t looking at her when I said, “I’d rather not.”

She moved her arms in between us, placing her forearms vertically against my chest. When I turned my head to look down at her, I saw that she was searching my eyes for a tiny flicker of passion to kindle her hope, her slightly pouting lips complementing her expression. I kissed her suddenly and stepped past my qualms without much difficulty.

We dated for several months. She met my parents in the spring, and they liked her, a first in my young life. Around my friends and at parties, we would make out, falling asleep together on the carpet of my living room so as not to blur her strict Christian principles, which kept her from wanting to go further. We talked about her religion, which I was only beginning to move away from completely at the time, and about the affect of learning how to debate on children, which in my opinion is to stunt the process of forming a personality by means of restraining spiritual nutrition (that is, restraining the child’s ability to gestate opinions and information outside of his field of hand-me-down beliefs). Her opinion was somewhat different.

One day she came over and we went into my room together. The lights out, we kissed in my bed. My hands roamed and then she directed them; my teeth pinched and then she moaned, breathed heavily. For the first time, I put my hands under her shirt and felt her flesh, the studs of the aureole. Following my own desires, I reached down and unbuckled her pants, rubbed my hand over the top of her simple white cotton panties. She lifted her hips, pushing against my hand so that I could feel her rough pubic hair through the soft cloth.

I pulled my hand away, stopped kissing her, and sat up. I can only imagine the look on my face as strained and irritable.

“What’s wrong?” she asked me, her voice strained with more confusion than worry.

My hormones and the tease of the situation brought out my grumpiness, perhaps to an unjustifiable extent. “I shouldn’t have to stop myself for your sake,” I said. “You’re a smart girl and willful. You know that you don’t want to go this far.”

Now fear started to creep into her; she sounded a bit like a mouse: “I know. Thank you, though.”

“Don’t thank me for holding you to your morals. Stop yourself next time!”

She placed her left hand on my arm, but I stood up and walked away. “You should go.”

Courtney didn’t say much as she buttoned her pants and adjusted her bra. She asked me if I was sure, and I hugged her and kissed her cheek and told her I’d see her tomorrow.

Of course I didn’t. A couple of weeks went by before she finally sent me an email about how things wouldn’t have gone any farther than they did, which made me laugh a little to myself. It also said that she felt afraid because she knew she wouldn’t have been able to stop me if I had decided to continue. I let out a bark of a laugh and replied with something terse and nasty. For some reason, we’re awkward around each other every time we happen to see each other these days.

Sometime in this period, Jennie came back into the picture, our lack of serious relationship putting her religious qualms to bed, I suppose. She pinged me out of the blue one day, asked me whether I’d be willing to hook up with her if she just came over that evening, and that was the beginning of something casual and fun that ended when she began to date Mani.

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Author: Greg Freed

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Filed under Creative nonfiction, Criticism, Humanistic, Writing

Beginning blogging and WordPress.com tips and tricks

I’ve been pleasantly surprised that even though my readership is small, several readers have asked how to make a website like mine. I’m going to charitably assume you mean my blog, which is what you’re reading, and not my temporarily abandoned website. Therefore, here’s a post about choices I’ve made, research I’ve stumbled upon, and hacks I’ve created. I will start with the most rudimentary information, since it’s what has been requested, and move on to the more difficult work and choices.

Blogging services

The first question a embryonic blogger wants to ask is what service to use; there are several. WordPress, Blogger, and Squarespace are the most used sites among my friends, family, and colleagues.

WordPress

I chose WordPress for two reasons: I had professional experience with them through StyleFeeder, and I appreciate their dedication to open source communities. However, WordPress.com blogs do not get to see many of the benefits of WordPress’s open source community; if you want to revel in the programming aspect of it, visit WordPress.org, download their server software, and tinker with it. Not up for that game? Well then say goodbye to easy extra functionality via WordPress plugins; you can’t use them. Also, there’s no javascript support at all, so you can’t even hack code together. Everything that you accomplish has to come through their already-provided widgets, which was tricky for me but also enjoyable.

The site does have many useful background tools, some of which are shared with Blogger. However, the default viewer statistics seem to be much more advanced on WordPress than Blogger (unless you use Google Analytics, which WordPress.com blogs can’t do). Also, media storage and other functionality such as media sharing that looks equivalent between the two sites is actually, in my opinion, much more user-friendly on WordPress.com.

In my experience, WordPress is used mostly due to their open source software, which isn’t any good to me, and also mostly by companies. While I’m very happy with my choice of home, average Joes tend to avoid it in preference of Blogger.

Examples:
gregfreed.wordpress.com
ranyachantal.wordpress.com
writingcontests.wordpress.com

Examples of WordPress.org blogs:
www.hyperorg.com/blogger/
blog.futurestreetconsulting.com

Blogger

Very many of my friends from Emerson and back home and most of the people I’ve found through Twitter so far use blogger. In my opinion, the sites looks messier in design than WordPress equivalents, but content should drive most of your visitors, meaning that the cluttered Blogger look shouldn’t dissuade you in itself. Also, how clean or cluttered your site looks will depend mostly upon the amount of time and effort you’re willing to put into design.

Blogger, at first glance, has more functionality that a WordPress.com blog and is more user-friendly for simple tasks. For example, you can put javascript on Blogger, allowing you to automate “Twit This!” buttons and other sharing services, which will garner you free PR. WordPress.com does not have this functionality, and making a workaround (see below) via html has already cost me several hours and will cost me more time in aggregate hours in the future.

Examples:
steadyblue.blogspot.com
mundaneproject.blogspot.com
dallasdreamer.blogspot.com

Squarespace

I only know two people using Squarespace. Both of their sites show extreme customizability and are built for heavy traffic and easy use. I’m under the impression that their blogging and site building experience has been fairly intense, but they both have something to show for all of their time and effort. Paul Wesman has worked in communication for years, and his blog shows his dedication to corporate quality and readability. Sadi Ranson-Polizotti is a deaf friend and mentor who is renowned for her knowledge about Bob Dylan, Lewis Carroll, and the written word; she has a new book of poetry, For Goodness’ Sake, due in August through Twilight Times Books. (Boy, do I wish I had an affiliate program right now… lolz.)

Examples:
www.paulwesman.com
tantmieux.squarespace.com

Hacks, or making my WordPress.com blog work for me

I discovered Problogger early, which has been both helpful and not. On the one hand, they have very good advice; on the other hand, most of their advice seems to me like common sense, or rather, like the decision that I came to when I thought to myself for a second about what I was trying to do with my blog. Either that, or their advice was far in advance of where I happened to be.

New readers are hard to come by, and you want your blog to be ready to receive them when they arrive. Problogger posted an article recently about the nine first steps for new bloggers. I’ll try to cover what I think they missed below.

Design

Readers coming to your site will have a series of questions in mind, such as Who does this blog belong to and why am I reading it? or Where’s the good info at?! Not having readily available answers to these questions puts your new reader at risk of leaving the site and never thinking of you again.

From Tim Ferriss I learned several points, but one most crucial theory: Do not have an easy exit point for new viewers. Every link that a reader can see within seconds of entering the site should be directed back at your site. Yes, you want to plug other people’s blogs wherever possible, but you don’t want a reader to leave your blog before they’ve even seen one post, and they will if they have reason to believe that you’re leading them into more interesting content than they expect to find on your site.

The topmost section of your website should be dedicated to you. Have an About page so that potential readers can get to know you and feel like they belong with your content. Have a Contact page, letting people know that they can feel free to contact you. List your most recent or most viewed posts at the top of your sidebar so that readers can find the interesting content they’re looking for as quickly as possible. Just don’t provide an easy out or the viewer just might take it.

RSS widget

That said, making the RSS feed I have in my sidebar was a bit tricky; maybe it’s because I’m a nub, maybe it’s because I wanted a custom RSS feed where I could decide what content my blog would link to. In order to accomplish my task, I created a Google Reader account. In Google Reader I subscribed to all the blogs I wanted to keep up with, which included Facebook friends, actual friends, and family in addition to the helpful blogs like Problogger and the blogs that created material I was actually interested in. Start sharing posts you think your readers should see; they will be allocated into an RSS feed at http://www.google.com/reader/shared/YOURGOOGLEIDHERE, which can be accessed via the “Shared items” menu. Access that page, and you will see the link Atom Feed next to the universal feed icon: feed-icon-12x12-orange. Copy the link location.

At that point, go to My Dashboard->Appearance->Widgets and drag the RSS widget to your sidebar (I drug mine to the bottommost section). Copy the link location for the Atom Feed where the widget says “Enter the RSS feed URL here.” Name the widget if you want (mine is titled simply My Google Reader), change whatever settings you want, and click Save. If that doesn’t work, mash you head against the keyboard until you successfully spell out Head hit keyboard sequentially, and then contact me, and I’ll do my best to help.

Subscribe links

After a little research on this crazy web of ours, you’ll find that WordPress.com recommends Google’s FeedBurner for all your subscription uses. Though a little tinkering is required, I now recommend it, too.

After signing in with your Google account, a basic page will load that says Burn a feed right this instant. Type your blog or feed address here. So do it and follow the rest of the instructions.

Go to the Publicize tab once you’re set up with FeedBurner.

Click on the BuzzBoost tab on the left, change the settings as you see fit, and then click Activate at the bottom of the page. When the page reloads with the service activated, there will be a box with javascript that FeedBurner tells you to put on your site. Except you know that you can’t use javascript on a WordPress.com blog. Therefore, check on your own to make sure that your RSS feed is activated by pasting http://feeds.feedburner.com/XXXXX?format=xml where XXXXX is set as your FeedBurner profile name.

Next, go to the Email Subscriptions tab. Simply click Activate.

Now go to My Dashboard->Appearance->Widgets and drag the Text widget to where you would like it to appear. Input the following code:

Subscribe to this blog via <a href=”http://feedburner.google.com/fb/a/mailverify?uri=XXXXX”>email</a&gt;!<br>Subscribe via <a href=”http://feeds.feedburner.com/XXXXX?format=xml”><img src=”http://feedburner.google.com/fb/lib/images/icons/feed-icon-12×12-orange.gif”></a><a href=”http://feeds.feedburner.com/XXXXX?format=xml”>RSS</a&gt;!

Replace the XXXXXs with your FeedBurner profile ID, and the code should be ready to go! I coded the RSS image and the hypertext seperately so that the image would not share an underline with the hypertext.

If, like me, you would like to invite people to join your Facebook group, simply create a group and then use the following code:

<br>Also, join this blog’s <a href=”http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=XXXXX”>Facebook group</a>!

Replace the XXXXX with your group id and it should be good to go!

“Share This!” links

As I said before, WordPress.com does not support javascript, so there’s no way to have automatically updated buttons. However, these buttons are so useful in publicizing a blog that it just seems a horrible waste to not have them. Therefore, I developped a workable work-around, though it does take some effort to pull off for each blog.

After some research I discovered the basic submission links for some of the syndication sites I felt my blog might likely get plugged on: Del.icio.us, Digg, Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter. I also discovered, though I can’t remember to link from where, AddThis, which on one page covers all sites that anyone anywhere might ever possibly want to link your blog to. While AddThis has such powerful capabilities, I opted to keep the specific website buttons because the less you ask of your audience, the more likely they are to follow through.

A little HTML trick I picked up: in order to have the icons contain links without being underlined, you have to link them seperately from text. Because of this, the HTML looks redundant, but it’s not; it’s simply a little extra code to reflect a design choice. The code I use for the buttons is below, and instructions on how to use the code follows it.

<a href=”http://del.icio.us/post?url=XXXXX;title=YYYYY&#8221; target=”_blank”><img title=”del_icio_us” src=”https://gregfreed.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/del_icio_us.png&#8221; alt=”del_icio_us” width=”16″ height=”16″ /></a><a href=”http://del.icio.us/post?url=XXXXX;title=YYYYY&#8221; target=”_blank”>Save to del.icio.us</a><a href=”http://digg.com/submit?phase=2&amp;url=XXXXX;title=YYYYY&#8221; target=”_blank”>
<img title=”digg” src=”https://gregfreed.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/digg.png&#8221; alt=”digg” width=”16″ height=”16″ /></a><a href=”http://digg.com/submit?phase=2&amp;url=XXXXX;title=YYYYY&#8221; target=”_blank”>Digg it
</a><a href=”http://reddit.com/submit?url=XXXXX;title=YYYYY&#8221; target=”_blank”><img title=”reddit” src=”https://gregfreed.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/reddit.png&#8221; alt=”reddit” width=”16″ height=”16″ /></a><a href=”http://reddit.com/submit?url=XXXXX;title=YYYYY&#8221; target=”_blank”>Save to Reddit
</a><a href=”http://www.facebook.com/share.php?u=XXXXX&#8221; target=”_blank”><img title=”n20531316728_2397″ src=”https://gregfreed.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/n20531316728_23971.jpg&#8221; alt=”n20531316728_2397″ width=”16″ height=”16″ /></a><a href=”http://www.facebook.com/share.php?u=XXXXX&#8221; target=”_blank”>Share on Facebook
</a><a href=”http://twitter.com/home?status=Check+out+XXXXX”><img title=”twitter” src=”https://gregfreed.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/twitter.gif&#8221; alt=”twitter” width=”16″ height=”16″ /></a><a href=”http://twitter.com/home?status=Check+out+XXXXX&#8221; target=”_blank”>Share on Twitter
</a><a href=”http://www.addthis.com/bookmark.php?pub=dvd&amp;url=XXXXX;title=YYYYY&#8221; target=”_blank”><img title=”aolfav” src=”https://gregfreed.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/aolfav.gif&#8221; alt=”aolfav” width=”16″ height=”16″ /></a><a href=”http://www.addthis.com/bookmark.php?pub=dvd&amp;url=XXXXX;title=YYYYY&#8221; target=”_blank”>Even more ways to bookmark</a>

Copy this code into a text editor with a replace function, such as Microsoft Word. Using the Replace All function, replace all XXXXXs with the exact web address of your post as you can copy it out of your browser’s address bar. Replace all YYYYYs with the title of your post. Select all of the updated code, put your WordPress post creator into the HTML tab, go to the part of the post you want the links to appear in, and paste the code. Click either Publish or Update Post and then check your links. If there are any errors, it’s probably user-generated, so look over your own HTML code before you come crying to me about how it’s broken. If it is legitimately broken, however, I would like to know and will help you resolve any issues. If you want submission links that are not included here, AddThis is a much better research tool than I am: I will not do your research for you.

Good Luck!

And with that, I’m outta here. I have that faint yet numb buzzing in my head that’s generated solely by technical writing, so it’s definitely time for a break!

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Author: Greg Freed

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Filed under Technical