Black Tie, White Noise

“I wish there was a sailor a thousand miles from here. I wish I had a future anywhere.”

Definitions

Trainers, they call them in Britain; runners, in Australia; sneakers, in the US. The nomenclature of running shoes, clearly, marks contentious geopolitical territory.

But while the preferred terms may differ, the English-speaking nations of the world have decided at least upon a convention – that these shoes should be given the same label as the people who engage in the activities the shoes are designed to aid. To put it more concretely: a person who runs is a runner, and – in Australia – the shoe the person wears while running is, by extension, also a runner. I consider this to be a particularly egregious travesty of language, but to explain why, I should first provide some context.

In 19th Century Scotland a single-purpose product was developed to take care of the act of toasting. Its inventor (or whatever version of a marketing department existed during at the time) decided on a name as innovative as the invention itself: the Toaster. 1

This level of creativity seems to be pretty typical of people faced with the task of naming new things. It is enough, apparently, to take the verb the thing performs, slap an ‘er’ on the end of it, and call it a day. Non-toasting examples include the refridgerator, the blender, the knife-sharpener, the can-opener – basically everything in your kitchen that was invented after the renaissance.

It is a boring, but harmless, convention. Less common, and more insidious, is the practice of dubbing a narrow-purposed tool with the very name used to describe the person who uses the tool to do the thing that the person is named after. Bear with me for just a little while longer.

A conductor is a conductor because he conducts. But a conductor’s stick is not, by extension, also called a “conductor”; a filmmakers’ camera is not a “filmmaker”; a shooter’s gun is not a “shooter”. It is an extra step of abstraction, and it is – by any reasonable account – a step too far. This is the first part of my case against the family of terms currently applied to running shoes in the English-speaking nations of the world.

Part two is less concerned with semantics and more concerned with the implications for society at large. If these terms – sneakers, runners, trainers – describe the default use for the shoe, then it is clear that the citizens of each nation lead their lives in very different ways. The Americans, for example, only spring into action to engage in nefarious activities. The Australians are comfortable with a more honest, but also more simple, use. And the Brits are wont to do practically anything, as long as it’s only preparatory.

I try to avoid marrying this blog to any particular place. There is a subtle linguistic othering that occurs when region-specific terms are used casually and without explanation. Like the acronyms thrown around on the first day of a new job, they imply knowledge or familiarity, but are used without any real consideration of the background of the listener/reader. At best, they shift the onus of understanding toward the recipient, and at worst function as tools of witholding, exclusion, or discomfort.

It is not always possible to avoid these issues. But writers have managed to hack their way around those undesirable assumptions that arise in language since ink was put to paper, both by appropriating old terms – such as using “their” as a gender-neutral pronoun, or by inventing new ones – orgastic comes to mind. It is in this proud tradition that I’ve decided to steer clear of the existing terms for running shoes and chosen, instead, to submit my own tentative contribution to the English language. Editors of running magazines, as well as humanity (more broadly), I present to you a gift in the form of an amalgamation of terms: snunkers.

I trust it will serve you as well as it’s about to serve me.

Rituals

In the hallway of a brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, I forged a ritual that would see the hastened deterioration of both my thumb and my snunkers. Prior to each run – in protest of the painfully repetitive act of unlacing/relacing – I would plunge a foot as deeply as I could into the mouth of my shoe, propel my ankle back/upward into a position that resembled a quadricep stretch (but sans the preventative purpose), grab for the bit of shoe that had been clomped down into itself, and try not to make any lasting elbow-marks in the walls as I attempted to complete the connection.

My thumb, scraping between the two surfaces, took the majority of the punishment – with a special pain being reserved for the final attempt, when the shoe finally regained its rightful form and moved rapidly into place.

It was a good ritual. Not “good” in the categorical, good-in-and-of-itself kind of way that things are sometimes good – but rather because of what it represented. It was a marker of the days when I felt good, or at least motivated enough to overcome the ever-present desire to do nothing. So, lazy as it may have been, I developed an attachment to it. And it was a little after 10am on a Saturday when I performed this graceless move for the last time.

As I exited the hall, the landlord – a jocular but fastidious Puerto Rican man named Willfredo – stood hosing nothing from the stoop.

“Beautiful day right?”
“Incredible.”
He laughed meaninglessly.
“You take care now.”
“You too.”

The sun was out. It had been out before, but only in a dishonest way – like a bully who trips you over then offers his hand. Today, though, that glowing golden daystar was actually radiating warmth, not just playing its usual psychological torture games I had by now grown accustomed to.

It was one of the coldest winters on record for New York, courtesy of the polar vortex – which I initially thought was a kind of tornado. People spoke at length about the demise of winter and the coming of Spring – a season I had begun to think of as a fairy tale. Its ETA elapsed long ago, and the night before was like all the others: freezing. So when the season finally came, I found myself hopping over anachronistic snowpiles and laughing as they desperately clung to their solid state.

Meanwhile, I grasped involuntarily at weak metaphors. My relationship of six-and-a-half years had ended, coinciding with the worst parts of that gloomy winter, and today was the first time I felt okay. A sampling of what my half-functioning imagination had to offer is as follows:

  • the ice was the ever-present element of dread; and
  • it looked like it was going to melt away a few times; and
  • the sun was hope or promise or something; but
  • this time it was strong enough that its ascendancy really felt inevitable.

Those prior weeks had been rough. They were filled with tears, followed by brief periods of self-improvement, followed by more tears.2 But those weeks were over, and the hope they gave way to was palpable. I had made it through the worst, and feeling as though I should do something constructive with this sudden wave of positivity, I called upon the aforementioned ritual and scrolled through my phone for the next Bowie album to listen to.

The opening track was called Wedding Song, and it was replete with wedding bells and other noises traditionally associated with such ceremonies. It was the musical sister-track to the album’s closing cut – a song about Bowie being way into his new wife, the mononymous model Iman. It might have been upsetting but for the hyperactivity of what surrounded me. Street vendors were out, children were playing, and parents were buying ice-cream from street vendors for their thirsty playing children. It was beautiful, but – as with the song – maybe a little on-the-nose.

Despite my optimistic outlook I could not hold my focus. Soon enough I gave in and let my thoughts veer past like so many cyclists. It was nice just to feel nice, so I acquiesced to the needs of my lacking attention-span, and let focus take the seat on the bench that looked so inviting. The weather was lovely, and I found myself thinking of the sage question raised by another mononymous celebrity – Cher: “Do you believe in life after love (after love (after love (after love)))? She’s asked me this question before, but this time I am sure that I get it right. Yes I do Cher. Yes I do.

False starts

It’s two weeks later, and I’m Bowie-Running the Brooklyn Bridge from my sublet in Williamsburg.3 The first reprieve from unrelenting despair, it turns out, is not the most appropriate moment to coherently describe said despair. But I’ve moved out and on now. I’ve even had several additional moments of happiness since, each one during progressively longer than the last. I’m better placed to focus on something external to the violently swishing washing machine that is my brain.

I switch on the tunes, step onto the bridge, run to Manhattan, get to Delancey, touch the edge of the gate that surrounds a subway station, and run back across the bridge. I make it through the whole album, but there is not one single thing I can recall aside from those fucking wedding bells.

Okay. Fine. That was a short-term sublet anyway, so perhaps the temporary nature of it stressed me out too much to permit any substantial achievement. This time, though, I am en-route to Prospect Park again, but from my new place in Bed-Stuy (a neighbourhood that, by the time I put this in writing, will surely be fully gentrified). I move past the man with the cane in the full velvet suit who definitely isn’t selling drugs, and all the way down to the park. I run around it – doing my White Chocolate exercises on the way.

The place I am living now is a lot farther from the park, and the run is fittingly intense. I’m actually paying a little attention this time, but when I sit down to write about it I realise that I remember nothing.4

So I’m running a different park now – Central Park – and I have taken the train into the city and everything. I make it all the way from Columbus circle, around the park, up to the border of Harlam, and back to Columbus Circle. Still, it’s no good.

Central Park Map

So I run again, and again, and again around different things – usually parks – until my cumulative total for the week is just two miles shy of a marathon. Were I a marathon runner, this would be totally insignificant, but for me it marks a greater total distance than I have amassed in any prior week of my life – a personal best, if you would.

Still, no good thing comes without a cost. As my enthusiasm for the activity increases, I get sick – about as sick as one gets without going to the doctor. It is my fault. Not only have I ignored the commonsense advice to progress at a reasonable rate, but I have refused to take time off work even after my body’s unequivocal rebellion. Instead – unsanitarily – I croak questions to customers through a throat so inflamed that it must look like an internal manifestation of The Thing from Fantastic Four.5

The running was supposed to inspire writing, but, with the poor condition of my body, writing seems impossible.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. There is an argument to be made, based on the above, that I may have been prioritising badly.

Eventually, as one tends to do until the time they don’t, I get better. And when I do I find myself with just a month left in New York – a Bowie-less tale best saved for another time.

Fake Tales of San Francisco

I’m set to fly out to Melbourne from San Francisco International Airport, so I book a hostel in the city and give myself a few days to walk up and down those iconic hills, cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge, tour UC Berkeley , etc. There are cars everywhere with advertisements on them for tech companies. Salesforce, apparently, are saving the world, and code is the new literacy.6

This city, it seems, suffers from a similar kind of self-aggrandising delusion as New York. Both are places where anyone can make it, apparently. Both are places where I’ve seen the indigent sleep under nothing but the weight of the American flag. To generalize, based on what I can gather from the conversations I overhear, the homeless would be the last to change things. Why would they want a higher level of social security when the government would surely claim a higher cut of their first million?

On the last day I get into a cab. The driver is a long-haired man with a relaxed, indistinguishable accent. He tells me that money doesn’t matter and we are alone in a vast expanse of universe, and that we should be happy that we have the opportunity to exist, you know? I tell him I know. He tells me that most people don’t know. We shake hands as I shuffle my year’s worth of stuff towards the terminal

In the aeroplane over the sea

And in just a few hours I’m being hurled through the sky in a giant metal tube, feeling every bump and dip as that fantastic vessel forces its way through that vast ocean of air. It feels strangely similar to the cruiseship I was on not so long ago, and I feel nostalgic for both my past and for the physical comfort of the ship.

A small consolation is that here they are offering wine, but without the threat of an exorbitant cabin-charge. When they ask me what type I would like, I say “red”, and when they ask “pinot or merlot”, I say “merlot”. It is then that they fill my glass. There is something about free wine that always makes me believe I have gotten away with something – as if I were a ten year-old boy and I have no right to be drinking the stuff. So I take advantage of the fact that the next few successive flight attendants are different, and guzzle my wine quickly until the first guy spots me doing it one-too-many times. He does not stop the person pouring the drink (how could he, tactfully?), but he offers a lifted brow that suggests I best be stopping, now, or he will tell my parents.

If his fear is a ruckus, it is allayed when I open my laptop and begin clinking quietly at the keys – an activity that continues for the duration of the alcohol’s effect. After a few hours of typing, I look up at him with an expression of self-satisfaction. He could not know that this is the culmination of so much listening, so much trying. That finally, six wines in and 50,000 feet up from the Earth, I have finally done it.

Black Tie, White Noise

After the amicable but traumatic breakup of a six-and-a-half year relationship, I wanted this album to be significant. I wanted it to signify a new beginning, or a rebirth, or some bullshit like that. The reviews led me to believe it would, and that’s really a big part of the reason I put it off so long. It was supposed to be a post-Tin Machine renaissance, and I was convinced that my ambivalence towards the album was my own failing – a post-breakup product of a hopefully temporary shortfall in my personality.

But at some point I made a realisation: I really was feeling good – great, even. Yet this continued to be one of the least satisfying albums I had ever seriously listened to. That instrumental track I mentioned earlier – The Wedding – is, when stripped from the context of a very recent breakup, just a really boring song. And those church-bells that were initially too-much now feel impossible to describe without using the term “lame”.

It’s no help that the album closes with the exact same song, just with vocals overdubbed. I get it Bowie, you’re happy you’ve found a wife. Especially a wife that’s a model. But, Jesus, two songs? And two songs where the first song is actually just a watered down version of the second? Nope. Nope nope nope.

And the thing is, the primary instrument he picks up on this album is the saxophone – an instrument that is just one level down from violin in the hierarchy of Things Amateurs Should Never Touch. Fun as it is to fuck around with the unfamiliar, it’s very rarely a treat for the audience – and these tracks are not exceptions. The rest follows suit.

You’ve Been Around is actually a leftover from the second Tin Machine album. Bowie decided it was fitting for this album after taking Gabrels’ guitar-playing and turning it way down. I imagine him sitting at the mixing desk after a fight with Gabrels, pulling that slider toward himself with a wry smile – Gabrels standing on the other side of the glass with a look of horror crossing his face. 7

But it doesn’t do the track any favours. In fact, the whole thing just gets kind of homogenised. Perhaps Bowie was going for that. He was, after all, inspired by dance and hiphop and all of those things that value a uniformity of production. But music is about pattern recognition, and when something verges on noise, it’s hard to avoid zoning out. This is fine for a drug-affected audience at a dance show, but Bowie seems to forget his audience. Perhaps I don’t have the well-developed pallet of the legitimate music cognoscenti, but I still maintain that the sample so far leads to a single logical conclusion – this album sucks.

And it continues to suck. It sucks right up until Miracle Goodnight, which distinguishes itself bluntly. The rest of the songs are serious – both lyrically and musically. Bowie commits to this Western-base-Middle-Eastern saxophone thing as if it were Iman. The album is definitely cohesive – this much is impossible to dispute. MG, on the other hand – with its synthy trumpets and spoken-word sidebars – is playful and eclectic, yet avoids crossing over that line of incoherence that might be a threat to an artist less adept at standing on its edge. It’s no Rock’n’Roll Suicide, but it evokes a similar feeling of attentiveness due to the impossibility of predicting where the track might lead.

The next few tracks are boring. As they drone on, I transport myself, mentally, to my destination. I am home, saying hello to my family. It suddenly becomes clear what a huge deal it will be to see them in person after a year away. Since my final month, I have felt a deep and premature nostalgia for Brooklyn, but it is finally superseded by the exciteent of coming home.

In this moment, I realise that I have an unhealthy attachment to place, particularly with regard to the mundane. I feel a disproportionate excitement about the fact that I will get to go to the shopping centre I frequented as a teenager and visit neighbourhoods attached to memories I have not revisited in a long time. I imagine myself running through familiar fields and down familiar streets to a soundtrack that is totally unfamiliar – and realise that my ears seek the opposite of my surroundings.

Where I am immersed in unfamiliar terrain, as I was in those first few months in New York, I tend towards soundscapes that comfort me. And when I know my surroundings well enough, I cannot help but seek out novelty – podcasts, ebooks, new music, etc. I come to a conclusion that I have come to many times over in my life, but forgotten as quickly: that the faculties of the mind and the body draw on the same reserves. That external repetition compliments mental excitement, and that external novelty precludes mental clarity. It is not boredom with one’s surroundings that tends to induce that focused, creative mode of thinking, but rather an ability to forget completely that one’s body is a thing in the world.

Which I am decidedly unable to do in my current surroundings, where I feel a great drowsiness washing over me. Beside me is a vacant seat, and I position myself across it so that I am almost supine. Another passenger sees me do this, calls over the flight attendant, and tries to claim that she paid for the seat/s I am in. The flight attendant walks toward me and tells me as much.

My mind flicks back to an interaction I had at check-in. The person behind the counter told me I could choose my seat. I asked which she would choose, and she pointed to the one I am in now. I said that I would defer to her expertise.

The flight attendant knows that the other passenger is one of those shameless people who happily make things up just to see if they can get a better deal. The stakes, after all, are only your reputation in the eyes of the flight-attendant – and this variety of person views workers in the service industry as mere pawns in a game of “what can I get today that I have no legitimate claim of entitlement to”. But I know – from years of working in offices and wearing the expression he is now wearing – that he knows that there are some battles worth fighting and some that are not. For him, this is the latter. But the call is not his to make.

So I say “that doesn’t sound right”, and he looks at me a while, his eyes pleading with me to make his life just a little bit easier. I trade him my best “sorry, I don’t have any change” look. We are silent for a moment.

“No, it doesn’t”, he says, before walking away and resigning himself to a flight laden with scornful expressions from her.

As he does I fall into a deep slumber, feeling both physical comfort and a deep satisfaction about the jealous scowl this other passenger wears each time she looks at me.8 I cannot see her expression while I sleep, but I imagine it superimposed on little sheep that I count as I drift off. It’s one of the most pleasant sleeps I’ve had in my life.

Permission to Land

The plane lands in New Zealand first, where it will sit for a couple of hours before flying back to Melbourne. Here, I clear customs, and although I am ready for the animosity and intolerance of the TSA, I am greeted with smiles and cheery dispositions. When they do not make me remove my shoes, and even help me to repack my bag after it pings the detector, I find myself feeling as though I have gotten away with murder. A sycophantic part of me wants to go back, wave my shoes around and yell “No, really. Look. I’m not a terrorist. See!” The world, it turns out, is not America. I refrain, and instead move into the main hall, where there are power-strips everywhere and an ample supply of two-seat couches. New Zealand, so far, is nice.

I order a coffee and the person behind the counter tells me about the “cronuts” they have in the window. “Have you not had one of these?” she asks.

I swallow my elitism like a handful of sand. I try to repress the part of myself that wants to tell her about the hours I spent in the cold lining up just to be part of a shared cultural experience, and that such shared experiences are only available from one place, and only really attain their value through communal suffering. A cronut is not something one merely buys, I want her to know. I want her to know it so badly.

“I have, I really liked it.”

New York is a city of “the best {x}”, and there is only one place to get {x} at a given time. In this, you have but two acceptable choices. You either line up and say it’s amazing, despite the actual experience, or tell people it’s overrated anyway and that {establishment 1} had {x} first, and does it better, and that all you people are sheep for lining up so long outside of {establishment 2}.

There are some things I will take away from that city – a commitment to walking on the same side of the path as the cars drive on the road, viewing “you’re welcome” as a superfluous element of an interaction,9 and knowing the joy of a truly good bagel. But the hostility displayed towards people who are not fully informed about cultural phenomena is not one of those things, nor is the feeling, when ordering food, that you are only ever a “actually, maybe instead I’ll have a…” away from being punched in the face.

Of course, to be confronted with a smile gives the illusion of having all the time in the world, and I understand why hostility might result in expedience. But expedience at the cost of basic human decency is necessary only in a city as crowded and passive-aggressive as New York, and it is an element of life I do not miss. It is nice, in other words, to be a human again.

Two steps forward, one step back.

The closing track heralds the start of a new period in my life. It is easy to forget, perhaps, that rebirth is a process – and when seeking its resolution in Black Tie, White Noise, I have so frequently failed to grasp that I was still going through it. Now, though, the gross pregnancy-goop has been washed from my newborn face, and I am able to open my eyes with a clear-ish view of things.

I am done with my undergraduate studies; I have taken my year abroad; I have left a relationship that has spanned what might be my most formative years, entered a new one,10 and begun the process of rebuilding a a new life in an old place.

Adjusting is a struggle, and by the time I sit down to put the finishing touches on this post, I am finally finding my footing. After talking to others about this, it seems that “coming home” is a universally difficult thing to do. It is not because you do not want to, but because home remains home while you have changed. This, after all, is kind of the point – to amass new experiences, to come back with a new perspective – and yet “you’ve changed” is a charge people will level at you as often as they are able, in as disparaging a tone as they can convey with speech.

Sometimes things you like about yourself stay in the place you leave. Others are tied to a way of living, and cross borders with about the same level of ease as contraband, remaining hidden deep within you.11 Others still, like expecting or demanding a level of respect, are guaranteed to be met with dismay by those who are not used to giving it. The anxiety of losing these qualities, even temporarily, can take your sense of self and set it back further than before you left, and the criticism you draw, if you choose doggedly to retain them, can be bitter.

But life is like that, a little bit. It’s almost never linear. It’s two steps forward, one step back. It’s looking forward to all the things you’ll do with all the time you have, and finding that the unstructured day scares you – that doing laundry on an otherwise empty day seems a terrifying commitment. It’s doing an amazing job in an interview, then not getting the job, then feeling depressed, and getting a better job. It’s the realisation that the mere survival of something terrible makes even the most basic achievement so sweet. Like that first hard run on that first warm day after a winter of unbearable misery.

The danger is not in the struggle. The danger is in what happens when one comes out unscathed on the other side. Both rest and mastery make one lazy, and wipe clear from our minds the arduous nature of yesterday. Every writer knows this – writing gets easier the more you do it, but take a few months off, and the notion of putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, is terrifying. Which is fine, if you are not scared of the discomfort when you pick it back up.

But believing that you can escape the struggle – that you are better than it or that past progress should make future challenges easier – that can crush you. Your achievements, while they may bolster your sense of self, can just as easily make you weaker.

In art, looking back at what you have done before and thinking of the ease at which you attained it is debilitating. It allows you to separate yourself from the person who sat daily and toiled away until the worst parts got done. It is a form of self-delusion, and it ignores all of the pre-work that was as necessary to achieving the state of flow as the state of flow was to finishing the thing.

For sure, things get easy by immersion and familiarisation, but that familiarity may apply only to the specific project, piece, or work. When it is done, if you are doing anything interesting, you must start from scratch. There is a reason so many great musicians don’t listen to their old stuff.

And it is like that, sometimes, with human relationships. Having made friends and acquaintences who are no longer in your life is scary. You think of the ease of your interactions with those who you are already close to, and forget the formation of those bonds and the awkwardness of the set-up. You forget the fear that came with putting yourself in situations where you knew no one, where you were totally uncomfortable – or ignore whatever stroke of luck that let you skip this step.

A network is one of those things that only gets easier to expand the bigger it is. But starting over is not like that. And the problem of being a former expat is that you have to ready yourself for the feeling that making a life again is a struggle. You have to avoid isolating yourself, and be willing to make a fool of yourself. You need to be able to draw spirit from your past relationships without falling prey to the siren-song of nostalgia – of looking for your old friends in the new ones you might make. Like an alcoholic asked to drink just one drink, the challenge is to use those experiences -to remind yourself that you are a person who can struggle, deal with pain, and overcome them – but somehow not to dwell.

New beginnings do not start with a bang, but with a whimper. Like the moment you finally lift yourself up to do the dishes after the end of the last relationship you thought you’d ever have, it starts with an act that seems pointless, but means everything. You can think a little about the good times, but the past is a whirlpool – a black hole – and you have to keep your distance.

As with most things in life, the teachings of Bowie provide an important lesson. You can look back on the joy of listening to Hunky Dory and wonder why you’d ever listen to anything again. Or you can struggle on through corny lyrics like “Heaven is smiling down, heaven’s girl in a wedding gown” and realise that sometimes things are hard, but that you are a person who can struggle. And maybe there is merit in that. Maybe that is good in and of itself, in a categorical sense, the way that things sometimes are good.

Unlike, for example, this album. What terrible lyrics. What an incredible waste of recording time.

This is like that, except if they had pointed it out. Is that a sign of insecurity, or is it a sign that you really can’t trust people to read things on the internet closely? I don’t know. But I did leave it in a footnote, so if you skipped the footnote, I suppose I have my answer.


  1. But what of the other toastables? That bread was given monopoly over the term “toast” is an extraculinary injustice of the most objectionable kind. 
  2. At least some of those tears were shed in Central Park, as beautiful couples walked past seemingly loving one another more than I ever thought possible in a place I associated with heartbreak. 
  3. BR-ing the BB from my TP in Dub-B, as it is commonly paraphrased. 
  4. I know this is getting exhausting. But it’s like the way Hitchcock traps you in the apartment with the protagonist in Rear Window so that you feel his cabin-fever. Shit, maybe it’s even the way David Malouf over-describes nature in Fly Away Peter, and it kills you at the time, but then later you’re just like “oh, that’s why he did it!” If you haven’t read Fly Away Peter (which I was tempted to reduce to the acronym “FAP”), it’s worth getting past the nature parts. 
  5. I fully recognise that I should not have been working. But this is New York, and even if sick days are theoretically available, the oversupply of servers means that workers “rights” cannot be written without scare-quotes. Unless, perhaps, you’ve been in the biz for a long, long time. 
  6. The latter is clearly stated on the back-rest of any of the park benches you can see if a homeless person happens not to be sleeping in front of it. 
  7. Maybe Bowie even says “yeah” the way Louis CK says “yeah” when he litters
  8. Which is a lot, for someone sitting so many seats ahead. 
  9. After all. I already did the thing you’re thanking me for (say, holding the elevator). You are thanking me for that act. What right do you then have to demand of me one additional pleasantry? None, I say. And so sayeth much of the world. 
  10. On this, more in the future. 
  11. Ie, the butt. 
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