WORD CRIMES: RU Guilty 2?

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Taking Down Word Crimes ! @ ; # } ?

There are no words … only snorts … for Weird Al’s war on Word Crimes.  The funniest thing I’ve seen in a long, long time.

And yes, I snorted. More than once :-O

It’s quite apparent,
your grammar’s errant.
You’re incoherant…

Sing it sister…dance it mister…

Word Crimes

It’s time to take down Word Crimes!



The Magic of “GREAT!” Beginnings

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Spellbinding Firsts

Magic of a good bookWhat is it about one book that you can’t put down once you start reading, and another that you can’t get past the first few pages? “Magic?” you say. I’d have to agree, if the magic is that of an intriguing story well told.

How does a writer work that magic into a story? How do we conjure the spell?

Multiple Newbery Medal winner, Richard Peck, shed insight on the magic behind great beginnings in an article in that appeared in the September/October 2006 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Then, at a SCBWI annual summer conference, he expanded on his theory that, “You are only as good as your first line.” The secret he related was that, “the essence of the entire story should be encapsulated on the first page.” Yes, the entire story…is an expanded reflection of the first page.

No wonder Richard Peck revises his first chapter again and again, and then once more after he’s finished the book. Because…

The first chapter is the last chapter in disguise.

Peck keeps working on the beginning of a story until he can answer each of the following questions with a satisfied “Yes”:

Does it intrigue? Does it invite? Does it work?

He should know. Multiple Newbery Medals don’t lie. Applying concepts to my own writing is always easier when I have quality examples to study for structure. The following books provide insights into how great beginnings work, each in its own way:

The Kiss of Deception

The Kiss of Deception, the first in The Remnant Chronicles series by Mary. E. The Kiss of DeceptionPearson, is expertly crafted in many ways. The beginning is no exception. The opening paragraphs wrap us in a lyrical voice and language that intrigue, engender suspense, and unfold threads of magic that alight to weave their magic throughout the series:

Today was the day a thousand dreams would die and a single dream would be born.

The wind knew. It was the first of June, but cold gusts bit at the hilltop citadelle as fiercely as deepest winter, shaking the windows with curses and winding through drafty halls with warning whispers. There was no escaping what was to come.

The Game of Love and Death

Game of Love and Death The Game of Love and Death, by Martha Brockenbrough, is an eternal love story staged by the ultimate masters of the game of life: Love and Death.

The masters choose players to unwittingly participate in a romantic dance through a life filled with jazz clubs and airfields. The players’ dance comes to such a poignant and satisfying culmination, that even the arch nemeses are overwhelmed by its divine beauty.

Brockenbrough establishes the fable in entrancing magic from the first paragraph, weaving the lyrical rhythm of language and fully developed characters with expert elegance:

The figure in the fine gray suit materialized in the nursery and stood over the sleeping infant, inhaling the sweet, milky night air. He could have taken any form, really: a sparrow, a snowy owl, even a common house fly. Although he often traveled the world on wings, for this work he always preferred a human guise.

The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate, is a fictional story that was inspired by Ivan, aTheOneAndOnlyIvan_cover real gorilla at the Atlanta Zoo. You can read about the real Ivan here.

The One and Only Ivan is both heartbreaking and heartfelt, brimming with the tenacity of true friendship and the beauty of resolute spirit. Ivan’s soulful voice, his big heart, and the simple honesty of his view of the world draw us in and hold us till the well-deserved happy ending:

I am Ivan. I am a gorilla.

It’s not as easy as it looks.

People call me the Freeway Gorilla. The Ape at Exit 8. The One and Only Ivan, Mighty Silverback.

The names are mine, but they are not me. I am Ivan, just Ivan, only Ivan.

Also Known As

Also Known AsGreat beginnings don’t have to be serious. They can be fresh and fun too, like Also Known As by Robin Benway.

Maggie Silver is the safe cracking prodigy of parents who work for the world’s premier spy organization. Maggie’s sass and snark don’t disappoint on this fast-paced caper, rife with international espionage and the unexpected perils of negotiating high school and first love:

I cracked my first safe when I was three.

I know that sounds like I’m bragging, but really, it wasn’t that hard. It was a Master Lock, the same combination lock that you probably have on your locker or bike. Anyone with Internet access and too much time on his or her hands can crack a Master Lock. I’m serious. Google it. I’ll wait.

See? Easy.


For the Love of Character ~ Idiosyncrasies that Build Empathy

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Building Empathy

I’ve written about various facets of character development in the past, mostly in broad-stroke terms, such as quirky characters who dress like Buster Keaton. Such extreme character traits Brenda Leigh Johnsoncomplement some stories. Other stories require a subtler approach. Developing empathy for a character comes from seeing their idiosyncrasies and flaws, which allows us to identify with them.

Let’s face it. No one can relate to a perfect person, because we all have shortcomings of some kind. Which is why a character’s weaknesses inspire empathy, and in turn cause us to fall in love with them. A tough, no-nonsense investigator who stress eats Ding Dongs (and other sweets) becomes instantly more likable.

Creating empathy is a lot like building trust, it happens over time as we get to know the real person from the inside out.

What “The Closer” Taught Me About Character

Research for writing fiction can cover a broad gamut, including watching television. And you wonder why I love this job?

I write for young readers, and initially started watching The Closera Warner Bros. Televsion adult crime dramato analyze the mystery plot structure and well planned plot twists. The series had garnered more than a few Emmy nominations, and at least one win. I figured I could learn something from the writing. I was right in more ways than anticipated. The Closer showed me the power of everyday character idiosyncrasies as a method for building empathy.

For anyone who hasn’t seen The Closer, here’s the synopsis: The Closer is a police procedural series, starring Kyra Sedgwick as Brenda Leigh Johnson, a Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief. Brenda moved to Los Angeles from Georgia where she trained in the CIA, and gained a reputation as a Closer — a tough interrogator who solves cases and obtains confessions leading to convictions that “close” the case. Deputy Chief Johnson uses her femininity to disarm and distract, and at times resorts to deceit and intimidation to persuade suspects into confessing.

The Closer -- Cast

Brenda Johnson is an expert in her field, relentless and often intimidating. As perfect as she is when it comes to succeeding at her job, her foibles make her relatable and endearing. Here are a few of her characteristics that won me over and made me root for her:

  • She dresses feminine and understated like the Southern girl she is, rather than embodying the high-power-business-suit-chic of the other women at her job level.
  • She stress eats sweets, especially Ding Dongs, which she keeps stockpiled in her desk drawer.
  • As powerful as she is at work, she is unable to stand up to her father whenever he comes to visit.
  • She has episodes of disorganized absent-mindedness where she can’t find her phone and loses her purse. Hey, we’ve all been there.
  • Her single-minded focus that makes her so good at her job causes friction in her personal relationshipssuch as her FBI boyfriend (Jon Tenny) who she eventually marries.
  • She has trouble dealing with simple things in everyday life, like remembering the sex of the stray cat that comes with the house she buys. Brenda calls “Kitty” a “he” even after “she” has kittens. This drives Fritz, her then boyfriend, crazy.
  • She is relentless in her pursuit of a criminal, creating loopholes in the system to pursue justice, even when the victims were less than noble when alive.
  • She uses her Southern charm to get what she wants, always ending an unpleasant request with a sweet “Thank you so much” before anyone can object.
  • She stands behind the people on her team, protecting their jobs during budget cuts, and refusing to believe any one of them could be the cause of the information leak in her department.

Every member of the ensemble cast received their share of idiosyncrasies that endeared them to me as well. And the final season closed with all the necessary ingredients for a satisfying ending.

Brenda and Fritz - Final Season of The Closer


Geek Speak Decoded ~ Software Secrets Exposed At Last!

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I’ve been a technical writer in the computer software industry longer than I care to admit. As in any industry, there are closely guarded secrets no one wants the unsuspecting public to know. /dev/null tells no tales, but I sure can! It’s time you learned what you never wanted to know about software, because you were afraid to ask.

CAUTION: Disturbing subject matter, could result in gut-wrenching laughter.

cat and computer

What they really mean when they say…

  • NEW — Different colors from the previous version.
  • ALL NEW — Software is not compatible with the previous version.
  • EXCLUSIVE — We’re the only one who has documentation.
  • UNMATCHED — Almost as good as the competition.
  • DESIGN SIMPLICITY — Developed on a shoe-string budget.
  • FOOLPROOF OPERATION — All parameters are hard-coded.
  • ADVANCED DESIGN — Upper management doesn’t understand it.
  • IT’S HERE AT LAST — Released a 26 week project in 48 weeks.
  • FIELD TESTED — Manufacturing doesn’t have a test system.
  • HIGH ACCURACY — It hasn’t crashed…yet.
  • YEARS OF DEVELOPMENT — Finally got one to work.
  • UNPRECEDENTED PERFORMANCE — Nothing ever ran this slow before.
  • REVOLUTIONARY — Disk drives go round and round.
  • BREAKTHROUGH — It finally booted on the first try.
  • FUTURISTIC — It only runs on the next generation supercomputer.
  • NO MAINTENANCE — Impossible to fix.
  • PERFORMANCE PROVEN — Worked through Beta test.
  • MEETS QUALITY STANDARDS — It compiles without errors.
  • SATISFACTION GUARANTEED — We’ll send you another pack if it fails.
  • STOCK ITEM — We shipped it once and we can do it again.

DISCLAIMER: I cannot take credit for this enlightening expose. This top-secret information was clandestinely distributed in the 1990s. Now that the statute of imitation has expired, the gritty truth can finally be told.


Write Word, Wrong Place ~ The Struggle is Reel!

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three laughing childrenLet’s take a break, for a moment, from the writer’s obsession with finding just the right words to convey voice, tone, emotion, character, pacing and the like.

Yes, we writers obsess over our words. It’s part of the job description. Ernest Hemingway admitted to rewriting the ending of a A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times! When asked what the problem was, he replied, “Getting the words right.”

But let’s ditch the obsessing—for a little while—and go back to the time when we were still trying to wrap our heads around the complexities of language, and indulge in some innocent language levity. [PC: morguefile]

Language Levity

I don’t know about you, but when I was in grade school I’d use a word because it sounded right. Back then, there were only paper dictionaries (yes, paper!), and if a dictionary wasn’t handy I’d go with what sounded right.

My “sounds right” guessing was probably as hilarious as some of the following excerpts taken from actual student science exams in the 1990s:

  • The dodo is a bird that is almost decent by now.
  • The Earth makes one resolution every 24 hours.
  • To collect fumes of sulfur, hold a deacon over a flame in a test tube.
  • The process of turning steam back into water again is called conversation.
  • The three kinds of blood vessels are arteries, vanes, and caterpillars.
  • English sparrows and starlings eat the farmers grain and soil his corpse.
  • Charles Darwin was a naturalist who wrote the organ of the species.
  • A magnet is something you find crawling over a dead cat.
  • A triangle which has an angle of 135 degrees is called an obscene angle.
  • For head colds, use an agonizer to spray the nose.
  • For snakebites, bleek the wound and rap the victim in a blanket for shock.
  • To prevent conception, the male wears a condominium.
  • Use a turnpike on an arm or leg if there’s a bad cut to stop the bleeding.
  • Living Death is an oximormon that’s like being dead when you’re really alive.

Shocking! Similes Gone Wrong, Very Wrong

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A simile is a literary device used to make a comparison by showing the similarities Surprised boyof two different things. A simile draws a resemblance, in most cases using the words like or as, to create a direct comparison.

  • She swam as gracefully as a swan.
  • Confidence radiated off him like he owned the place, even though he was just a waiter.
  • Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate. — William Shakespeare, Sonnet 18

When used correctly, similes are a powerful descriptive tool that engages readers, encouraging the imagination. Misused, similes can be nothing short of hilarious, maybe even shocking.

High School Hilarity

laughing catIn the process of cleaning out a file cabinet, I found a folder full of “funny stuff” that floated around the Internet back in the 90’s. I wish I could take credit for compiling this list of high school’s most hilarious similes, but I can’t. I don’t even know the originator, or I’d give them credit.

Each of the following similes was taken from an actual high school essay or short story, punctuation and all. What makes them so hilarious is their innocence, not their ignorance. Enjoy!

  • The thunder was ominous-sounding, much like the sound of a thin sheet of metal being shaken backstage during the storm scene in a play.
  • She caught your eye like one of those pointy hook latches that used to dangle from screen doors and would fly up whenever you banged the door open again.
  • The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.
  • McBride fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup.
  • The politician was gone  but unnoticed, like the period after the Dr. on a Dr Pepper can.
  • Her hair glistened in the rain like nose hair after a sneeze.
  • John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.
  • Her vocabulary was as bad as, whatever.
  • The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.
  • Her date was pleasant enough, but she knew that if her life was a movie, this guy would be buried in the credits as something like “second tall man”.
  • Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers race across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.
  • His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.

[PC: morguefile.com]

Historic Artists Colony with Fairytale Flair ~ Carmel by-the-Sea

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Carmel fairy tale architectureCarmel by-the-Sea is a small coastal town in Monterey County, California.

Today, Carmel is an upscale bedroom community and elegant vacation spot known for its fairytale architecture, gourmet restaurants, trendy boutiques, and numerous art galleries.

Carmel wasn’t always so glamorous or conventional, however. The seaside town’s culture is rooted in the whimsy of an eclectic artists community, including its signature fairytale architecture. [Image: The Tuck Box, Hugh Comstock’s only commercial building]

Bohemian Beginnings

Carmel was founded in 1902, and by 1905 the Carmel Arts and Crafts Club had been formed. Jack London, writingWhat started as a small enclave, grew significantly larger when the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 sent artists flocking to the small town–musicians, writers, painters and others. Little did they know that they would leave a lasting influence on Carmel’s culture.

Jack London described the Carmel artists colony in his novel The Valley of the Moon. [Image of Jack London writing: Wikipedia]

Creative talent from all disciplines comprised Carmel’s founding artists colony. Theater, music, and the visual arts continue to play an important role in the community today. However, for the purpose of this post I’m focusing solely on the writers.

Literary Legacy

Poet George Sterling paved the way for the town’s literary base when he moved to Carmel in 1905. After the 1906 earthquake, many of Sterling’s literary friends followed. The following are some of the other notable writers who joined the Carmel artists enclave, or frequented the community:

Henry Miller established another artists enclave in Big Sur, just a few miles south of Carmel along the rugged California coastline. For a comprehensive list of authors who have lived and worked in the Carmel area, go here.

Living the Fairytale

Hugh Comstock single-handedly instilled the architectural fairytale flavor in Carmel, establishing its signature characteristic. Comstock came to Carmel in 1924 to visit his brother, but ended up staying when he fell in love with a resident doll maker named Mayotta Browne.

Mayotta’s business boomed after she and Hugh Comstock married. Merchants across the country were vying for her unique collector dolls, and her stock soon took over their house. The practical business woman asked her husband to build something in which to show off her dolls when buyers came to town. Comstock was not a trained architect, but he had a wonderful imagination and a keen creative eye. He built his wife  a quirky cottage full of whimsical details, intentionally skewing things into charming imperfection. They named the cottage Hansel (shown below), and it was a perfect showcase for Mayotta’s dolls.

Hansel, Hugh Comstock cottage

Carmel being a town was full of artists and writers, it’s no wonder that Comstock’s whimsical cottage was extremely popular. In response to the huge demand, Comstock built numerous cottages with the same whimsical flair over a period of five years. Since then, others have mimicked Comstock’s original style, carrying on the tradition of living the fairytale. You can read more about Comstock’s Carmel cottages here.

Hugh Comstock cottages, Carmel, CA


 

 

The Covenant of the Character Arc ~ Raise the Stakes & Make it Count

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Stories help us cope with the chaos of life. They show us how to navigate social situations and overcome adversity. A New York Times article, “Your Brain on Fiction”, by Annie Murphy Paul, discusses studies that prove this.

For a story to fulfill its function and satisfy the human spirit, there has to be change. The covenant of the (character) arc, as Blake Snyder so wisely described it, is the necessity for characters to change. The measure of change is a character’s arc. In the best stories, all characters arc except the bad guy. J.K. Rowling did an excellent job of this throughout the Harry Potter series.

Harry Potter

The Transformation Machine

Shake. Stir. Whip. Frappe. Do whatever it takes to force your characters to confront their frailties and become wiser, stronger, better. Blake Snyder, Mr. Save the Cat! referred to this process as the Transformation Machine.

All stories are about transformation. And seeing this as a good thing is the starting point of writing a successful story of any kind. ― Blake Snyder

In essence, the hero’s transformation mirrors the process of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. A type of death and rebirth are required to complete a satisfying character arc. Take Gracie Hart, the unrefined FBI agent (Sandra Bullock) in Miss Congeniality, who must become a polished beauty pageant contender in order to solve the crime and save the lives of her new friends.

Miss Congeniality, Sandra Bullock

Dishing out conflicts for characters isn’t always easy, but  it’s a must. To achieve a great ending—as described in Secret Ingredients of a Satisfying Ending—the characters have to change. A lot.

There are plenty of character arc graphs and charts. I understood the theory, but applying it evaded me until I read Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet (BS2) story points, or beats, that push the character arc include: Bad Guys Close In, All Is Lost, and Dark Night of the Soul. Tim Stout provides excellent descriptions for each of these beats here.

Make ‘Em Suffer Till They Shine

It’s simple. To survive, our hero has to change. Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) puts characters through hell—literally and figuratively. This pressure has an effect similar to that which transforms a lump of coal into a diamond. It files down the hero’s rough edges and makes him shine.

You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are.
Joss Whedon

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Take it up a notch!

In chemistry, heat accelerates change. The same is true for stories. Here’s a few suggestions for turning up the heat and increasing the transformation process:

  • Make the Bad Guy badder—For the protagonist to be perceived as the hero he is, the Bad Guy has to be as bad as possible. The villain must be an equal match for the hero, but willing to do whatever it takes to win. Beating the villain has to seem impossible, so when the hero wins he shines brighter.
  • Increase internal conflicts—Fear, doubt, jealousy, shame, any and all emotional trauma. Bring it. The pressure makes the hero to face his inner demons, and forces him to realize that what he thinks he wants isn’t what he really needs. Dig Deep for a Story That Resonates shows how this can strengthen the story’s theme.
  • Increase external conflicts with friends and relatives—Betrayal, abandonment, rifts in trust, arguments, even death. Pile it on. These conflicts push the hero to his lowest, forcing him to find strength he didn’t know he had.
  • Throw in a force of nature—Wind, rain, earthquake, snakes, anything to make your character’s goal harder to accomplish. These obstacles can force the hero to overcome his flaws.
  • Blow something up—A couple of authors shared this advice at a conference. The event has to be organic to the story and plausible for the characters. The action must also come from a deep emotional need to force transformation. Extreme times call for extreme measures.

Enhance the Heat

Stories have flavor. And just like a great meal, flavor is enhanced when complimented by an opposite. To strengthen the impact of a transformative moment, pair it with its opposite.

Joss Whedon said it best…

Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.
Joss Whedon


Secret Ingredients of a Satisfying Ending

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A great beginning keeps readers turning the pages. A great ending builds a fan base, because readers will be thinking about the book long after turning the last page. We’ve all experienced the satisfaction of a perfect ending to a book, movie, or television series. But what’s the secret?

What makes the ending of one story great, while another story’s ending leaves us unfulfilled?

The finale of the TV series WHITE COLLAR helped solve this mystery for me. The series ending was so perfect, I couldn’t help breaking it down, analyzing the elements that lead up to a culmination of satisfaction.

But first, an overview of the series for those who may not be familiar with the main characters and premise of the series.

White Collar ~ The Series

Cast of White Collar

The third time turns out to be the charm for criminal Neal Caffrey. He has been eluding FBI agent Peter Burke for years, a run that finally comes to an end with his capture. But after the resourceful prisoner escapes from a maximum-security facility, then is nabbed once again by Burke, Caffrey suggests a different end-game: In return for freedom, he’ll help the Feds catch long-sought criminals. Though skeptical, Burke soon realizes that Caffrey’s instincts and insight are a rare commodity. Caffrey’s trusted friend and co-conspirator with ties to the criminal underworld, Mozzie, also becomes a useful source for Burke and the FBI. [Series Synopsis]

The series was well written with engaging characters and story lines, and plot threads with enough twists to keep the most agile guessing. Mozzie, Neil’s sidekick, added a delightful streak of rebellious quirkiness for comic relief.

Ingredients of a Great Ending

*** SPOILER ALERT ***
If you don’t want to know how White Collar ends, STOP now.

Ingredients for a satisfying ending, with examples from White Collar:

  1. The promise of the premise for the story and the genre is paid off. The FBI promised Neil Caffrey his freedom if he was instrumental in helping them solve their toughest ‘white collar’ cases. To satisfy the promise for this genre, justice had to be served to this end. Neil does go free after making the ultimate sacrifice when pulling off a sting on a treacherous ring of international thieves.
  2. The main character’s arc (Neil Caffrey) is completed in a believable fashion. Neil’s loyalty to Peter (as an FBI representative) and his wife Elizabeth becomes true, when he realizes his freedom ultimately threatens the lives of the couple and their unborn child. Neil also shows deep remorse when his actions hurt an innocent young woman he’s forced to befriend to bring down the thieves. For the first time he questions his life and the role he plays with the FBI. The completion of the character arcs for Peter and Elizabeth Burke, and of course, Mozzie, though less dramatic, are equally rewarding. It would take too long to explain them all here in detail. Trust me. Better yet, watch the series.
  3. The main character earns the payoff, internally as well as externally. In the end, Neil overcomes his inability to trust Peter (as an FBI representative), and puts the safety and well-being of his friends before his own. To ensure their safety, Neil secretly masterminds the final phase of the sting. His selfless actions earn him his freedom and happiness.
  4. There’s a significant sacrifice for the pay off. For Neil to earn his freedom (payoff), he made the ultimate sacrifice. He fakes his own death to ensure the lifelong safety of his friends—sparing them from retaliation by the gang members caught in the sting. Neil can never talk to or see the people who mean the most to him again. The ingenious method he uses to fake his death added to the overall satisfaction.
  5. Enough is left to the imagination without leaving unanswered questions. Everything isn’t tied up neatly, leaving “what happens next” up to the audience’s imagination. In the final scenes, Peter Burke discovers clues leading to the storage locker Neil secretly rented during the initial planning of the sting. What Peter finds gives him insights into how Neil faked his death, thus assuaging his remorse over the loss of his friend. In the final shot, we see Neil strolling down a Parisian side street wearing his fedora, a satisfied smile on his face and a carefree spring in his step.

 

If you have an a Perfect ending Element to add to the list, Please do!

 


Holy Cow! A Mooonlight Serenade Revival

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It’s hard to believe that I started this blog four (4!) years ago today. I was so timid about publishing my first post. Ha! Timid no more. That’s for sure.

To ensure that I don’t take myself (or what I write) too seriously, I’m reviving that first post from January 1, 2012. Light in word count (?!), but it launched me into the blogosphere. And that’s what counts.

Thank you all for being part of this wonderful journey.

Fred Astaire, move over for the Tap Dancing Cow!


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