A Case for Studying Sports

November 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

Yesterday, in a large, public meeting with university colleagues from a variety of disciplines that was devoted to a discussion of intercollegiate athletics, especially as these pertain to academics, it emerged that I offer a course on the Cultures of Basketball.  Near the very end of the meeting, one colleague surprised me by saying something along the lines of “You teach a course called Cultures of Basketball? I’d like to know how that is a legitimate course for academic study.”  He insinuated that because athletes take the course it must somehow be not a real course and expressed a concern about “public perceptions.”  Numerous colleagues in the meeting stepped up, in various ways, to call out the question as inappropriate.  Today, the colleague wrote me to apologize and to ask if he might sit in my class when I offer it next term.  I mulled over various possible responses, but finally decided that this was an opportunity to educate a colleague about what I do and why it is in fact not only legitimate but valuable.  So I wrote him.  A friend has asked me if I’d be willing to share my reply.   I want to be clear: I’m not sharing this to inflame or to shame, but rather to educate.  I believe my the assumptions my colleague held about sports studies courses are probably widely held, both by university faculty and administrators and by the general public.  I’m hoping that this brief explanation can help erode those assumptions.  So here it is, below, redacted only to preserve the anonymity of the colleague and to eliminate a few errors.

“Thank you for your message. It’s not easy to apologize and I appreciate that you took the initiative and time to do so. And I’m happy to accept your apology.

To respond to your candor in kind, I must say I felt taken aback, and then insulted, by your question. And if you will indulge me, I’d like to explain. I was taken aback, I think, because the academic field of which my course represents a part is actually quite a long-standing and well-established one. Going back more than a half a century, sociologists and economists and then scholars from a variety of disciplines (philosophy, political science, history, literature, anthropology) interested in the critical study of culture have developed an extensive interdisciplinary scholarly area of sports studies including professional associations, numerous peer-reviewed journals, annual conferences, academic units in universities and special series in academic presses and so forth. I’ve only turned to this field in the past five years, but the intelligence and depth of the many scholars working within it is already evident and in some way second nature to me. My course grows out of that academic field and so I was a bit taken aback that someone wouldn’t be aware of it. Of course, there are numerous specialized areas of study in which my colleagues around the university work of which I am totally ignorant so that I don’t feel that such a lack of awareness alone is in itself a problem.

The problem, and what caused me to feel insulted, was that given your lack of awareness, your assumption was that it must not be a legitimate course (or, by extension, part of an existing and legitimate academic field). I’m sure you can imagine how it might feel for someone to presume, simply because they are unaware of your field of expertise, that courses you offer in that field might be illegitimate. I, to give you a random example, am completely ignorant of pharmaceutical science and of what might happen in a pharmaceutical science classroom. But imagine if out of that ignorance and, say, thinking only about a television series like “Breaking Bad,” I made assumptions that such courses offered drug dealers an opportunity to learn how to make or improve their product. I’m sure that professor would feel insulted. I’m also sure that it would never occur to that professor that someone might make that assumption because the legitimacy and value of pharmaceutical science goes unquestioned in the academy. Sports studies, and many other humanistic disciplines, however, are frequently questioned, especially in today’s higher education environment, which tends to place a premium only on those fields that are conventionally considered to lead to well-paying careers.

Sports studies scholars like myself frequently suffer from the perceptions of colleagues, familiar only with salacious stories in the news media, that we aren’t real scholars or teachers. And yet sport, going back to classical civilizations, has played a significant and varied role: both reflecting and influencing cultural and political trends and events. In that sense, studying sports can help illuminate one aspect of civilization. For example, yesterday, before our meeting, I lectured in my Global Sports Cultures class. In order to talk to my students about the culture of boxing in the United States, we had to talk about slavery, post-abolition segregation and Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights movement. In order to help them understand the significance of a figure like Muhammad Ali, moreover, we had to talk about the Olympics, religion, Vietnam War, anti-colonial movements in Africa and campus protest here at home. Of course, we also had to reflect on the ways in which the kinds of qualities—intelligence, courage, perseverance—that helped make Ali a successful boxer might carry over beyond the ring and enable him to take the various stands he took on human rights and political issues outside the ring. I could do all this because excellent, rigorous scholars specializing in sports studies had done the necessary legwork to establish important connections, that I could then share with my students.  I trust you’ll agree with me that it’s important for our students to graduate from the University with an understanding of American history and the role that issues of race, international relations and political dissent have played in that history. And of course, that’s just a small sample of the kinds of things we can— and that I do—get our students to learn about and to learn to think critically about by studying the role of sport in society.

As for the presence of athletes in such courses, I sometimes compare it to the presence of performance musicians in courses on the history of music. It seems natural to me that when you’ve devoted a considerable part of your life developing a proficiency in an activity, you’d like to know more about the history of the activity you’re involved in. Creative writers take courses in the history of literature, artists in the history of art. My late father, who was a biochemist at the University of Wisconsin, spoke to me often of the importance that understanding the history of medicine and science had for his research and teaching. So why wouldn’t athletes be in a course like this, and why wouldn’t we want them to be, if they have humanistic inclinations? Why would their presence make a course any less legitimate than a course on the modern short story in which a certain percentage of the students were aspiring creative writers?

Regarding public perceptions, we may discuss and reasonably disagree about the degree to which we in the university should concern ourselves with public perceptions. My own feeling is that when these perceptions are uninformed and those holding them show no interest in becoming informed, they are not my concern. If, on the other hand, the perceptions are either informed or those holding them show a clear interest in becoming informed, I take it as one of the most important parts of my job to communicate with members of the public about what I do, why it matters to my students and me, why it might matter to them as well, and why it’s a valuable part of the university curriculum.

I hope all this makes sense to you and helps you understand better how the situation felt from my side of the exchange.

Moving forward, I would certainly welcome a visit to my course. As you might expect, in order for your visit not to disrupt the classroom dynamic, I’d prefer if you could be a silent observer. But if that’s agreeable to you then by all means let’s touch base as the time approaches to find a mutually convenient date for your to attend.

Thank you again for your apology. I’m grateful that you were open to the opportunity to better educate yourself.”

The colleague replied to this quite graciously, again expressing his regret and his gratitude for my explanation.  He plans to visit my class in the next semester.

Values of College Sport Symposium

November 12, 2014 § Leave a comment


valuesAs some of you know, with my colleagues Silke Weineck and Stefan Szymanski I’ve organized a two-day symposium devoted to a discussion of the question: what that we value do we gain and lose by virtue of the current model of incorporating athletics into the university?

The event, free and open to the public, will be held on Friday November 14th and Saturday the 15th in Room 100 of the Hatcher Graduate Library at the University of Michigan campus.  It kicks off with a dual keynote address featuring Amy Perko, the Executive Director of the Knight Commission and Taylor Branch, author of The Cartel at 4 pm and 5 pm Friday, respectively.  There will be a q and a and discussion following Mr. Branch’s remarks.

Then, beginning Saturday at 10:30 a series of panels will zero in on the guiding question from the perspectives of Economics, Well-Being, Education and Ethics.  Each panel will consist of three speakers and will include time for discussion.

So, at 10:30: Rod Fort, Lawrence Kahn and Stephen F. Ross will comprise the Economics panel.  Following this at noon will be the Well-Being panel featuring Rebecca Hasson, Jane Ruseski and Billy Hawkins.  After a lunch break, the Education panel will begin at 2:15 with me, Jimmy King and Rob Sellers.  And the final panel of the symposium, Ethics, will include Jack Hamilton, Bruce Berglund and William Morgan.

I hope those of you near Ann Arbor will be able to make it for all or some of the event and that all of you will spread the word.

Here’s the full program with the titles of the talks.

To Protest or Not to Protest: Is that the Question? On Hamlet and Athletic Politics

November 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

Some of you know that I was recently honored to participate in an American Studies Association round table discussion on athletic resistance and fan pleasure.  Other panelists included Jennifer Doyle, Sarah Jackson, Ben Carrington and Harry Edwards.  Our organizer, Professor David Leonard of Washington State University, asked each of the panelists to prepare a 5 minute response to the  following initial question:   “Today’s sportscape is defined by the constant solicitation, maintenance, and fulfillment of fan pleasure.  It is equally defined by a far reaching platform afforded to athletes.  How do the privileging of fan pleasure and the possibilities of protest play out in today’s sports world?”  I’m including my response below.

220px-Edwin_Booth_Hamlet_1870 I can’t stop thinking about Hamlet. You remember Hamlet: bereaved young prince, heir to an imperiled kingdom, haunted by a ghost from the past who instructs him to do something he’s not sure he should, can, or wants to do. It gets so bad for him that he seriously considers just ending it all. But even that’s too scary for him. Burdened by an acute awareness of his conflicting impulses, he stumbles half-heartedly through a plot that ends badly. “To be or not to be”: that was Hamlet’s question and the best response he could muster was a paralyzing double bind: on the one hand, overthinking stymies action and, on the other, overthinking is inevitable.

Young royalty, political turmoil, ghosts from the past: I can see why we’d evoke Hamlet as a metaphor for athletes today. And yet, I resist. For I’ve often felt annoyed by Hamlet. I doubt I’m alone. I’ve been annoyed by his self-doubt, by the limited terms he chooses to frame his dilemma, by the subtle self-delusion through which he transforms that chosen perspective into objective conditions that then justify his paralysis, and I’m annoyed by his conclusion that thought itself is the problem (rather than, say, the particular form his thinking takes). But I know that in part Hamlet annoys because I recognize in him an uncomfortable reflection of myself: distilling the complexity of suffering down to impossible dichotomies, too smart by half for my own good, not as brave as I should be, and too quick to look to others to solve the problems from which I suffer. I don’t like it. But there it is.

To protest or not to protest? Is that the question?

What do we even mean by protest? Protest what? Protest where? Protest by what means?

Are we so sure we know what should be protested, by whom, where, and by what means? Sometimes, yeah, I feel sure. But many times the complexity of suffering in the world bewilders me and I’m not so certain.

If protest here stands for something like acting politically, must protest be the only or privileged form of that action? EP Thompson, in Witness Against the Beast, his masterful analysis of the politics of William Blake, concluded the first half of the book by noting that so far he’d shown only what Blake was against, but that to really understand him as a poet, a political figure and—most importantly—a human being, we still had to discover what he stood for. Can we at least try to keep in mind that all protest worth making must simultaneously affirm something or someone?

And what if that something affirmed were to be, in fact, pleasure? After all, we protest unjust suffering. Can we not affirm just pleasures? Must resistant protest and affirmed pleasure necessarily be construed as mutually exclusive?

Now, I’m uncomfortably aware of my role in the drama portrayed so well in David’s panel description. For I am among those fans whose pleasure we imagine constrains the capacity of athletes to protest. And yet, I’ve not once felt my pleasure as a fan to be diminished by the protests (let alone the political affirmations) of athletes. On the contrary. So that makes me wonder if there isn’t something to be rescued from that and perhaps plugged into the equations we come up with for trying to understand why athletes protest or do not protest.

Finally, I’m here in this room in this nice hotel thinking and talking about why someone else is or isn’t acting. But maybe we should consider that athletes—and even, heaven forbid, some otherwise merely hedonistic fans—may also be thinking and talking about the possibilities for political action. Moreover, if we consider our professional activity here today a form of political action, why don’t we consider the professional activities of athletes, in the arena—in their arena, equally a form of political action? If our words in this arena can be political, why can’t a LeBron James tomahawk jam, or a Britney Griner rejection, be political? Is it that we haven’t learned yet to see and persuasively articulate the politics and the pleasure already at work there?

I don’t mean, like Hamlet, to paralyze the outwardly directed, historically grounded investigation that we will undertake here today. But I do mean to slow the pace: to draw attention to and hopefully disarm the painfully sharp dichotomies that divide us from our power to act, even as they empower us to judge the actions of others.

So, concretely, as we attend to specific questions and cases, I hope we take the opportunity to observe and reflect upon how the following dichotomies work in practice:

politics vs. pleasure

resistance vs. affirmation

athlete vs. fan

what happens inside the arena vs. what happens outside

Michael Jordan and the Bildungsroman Index (BRI)

October 1, 2014 § Leave a comment


At last! A statistical measure of just how much of a bildungsroman a novel (or any story) is! And this indispensable and infallibly useful metric falls into my lap just when I most needed it: in the midst of pondering Michael Jordan and the stories we tell about him.

As some of you know, I’m progressing toward the completion of my book Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball.  At the moment, I’m working on Chapter 6: The Myth of the Greatest Ever, June 13, 1991.  Don’t be misled.  The chapter does not take up the debate of whether or not Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever.  Instead, it uses the tools of literary criticism to look under the narrative hood of those versions of the Jordan story (which I call, collectively, “The Myth of the Greatest Ever”) that convey the view that he is the greatest basketball of all time (or GOAT).

To that end, my point of departure is a somewhat offhand remark by Bethlehem Shoals in FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History.  In a chapter focusing on Jordan’s early career, Shoals first takes aim at the scripted version of that portion of the star’s life that has become standard fare for basketball fans.  Shoals writes, “We’re now supposed to see his first years in the league as an NBA bildungsroman, with Jordan paying his dues and working his way to the ultimate prize.”  From the first time I taught my Cultures of Basketball course using this book, this line was like gold to me for the probably obvious reason that it very explicitly joins the two areas my course (and my work more generally) are supposed to address: basketball culture and literary studies.

“Bildungsroman” is a German word meaning “novel of education” or “novel of formation.”  Like most terms in literary studies, though, this one is the subject of much learned and detailed argument among scholars.  Some of that is interesting and instructive, some of it is not, and I don’t want to rehash it here.  Suffice it to say, for the present purpose, that the genre got it’s start in late 18th century German literature and then migrated to French and English fiction in the 19th century.  From there, some say it ended with World War I, others that it proliferated still further in Latin America, the United States and elsewhere, often in forms in which the previous conventions are subverted in some way or another.  The basic idea, though, is that it is a novel that tells the story of how a young protagonist matures—a process usually entailing some serious setbacks, lost illusions, and some compromises—and finds a productive place in the society.

So in the course of setting up an account of the genre in my chapter, I was reviewing some of the materials I have on the bildungsroman and I stumbled across this remarkable study by Anniken Telnes Iversen (that last name, tho!) in which she aims to chop through centuries of fruitless debate by scholars arguing over what the essence of the bildungsroman is and so whether or not this or that novel should be classified as one.  Her scholarship is thorough, her tone modest, and her solution, in my view, ingenious and great fun:  a checklist!  She offers 96 different narrative features grouped into 9 sections or categories, with each feature assigned a different number of possible points (pp. 54-67 of the work linked above give the specifics).

Her premise is that there is no essence to the bildungsroman, just a fuzzy set of characteristics most (but not all) of which are shared by most (but not all) novels that people have called bildungsroman (for those with more serious inclinations, what she has done is substitute a polythetic classification system inspired by Wittgenstein for a monothetic classification system inspired by Aristotle).  So once you run a novel through the checklist you come up with a number she calls the Bildungsroman Index (or BRI).  This number quantifies the degree to which that novel bears the visage of the bildungsroman family.

Lest my somewhat ironic tone give the appearance that I think Professor Iversen’s (that last name, tho!) project is insane, let me assure you that 1) she is at pains throughout to emphasize the imprecision of the method; 2) it is not more insane than other literary scholarship and 3) who doesn’t love a checklist, or, as buzz feed calls it: a quiz?  How bildungsroman is your life?

I found this completely irresistible and set about to score the Michael Jordan story on Professor Iversen’s (that last name, tho!) scale.  I’m gonna share my scorecard with you in a second, but let me just say, in the interests of scholarly integrity, that what I call the story of Michael Jordan (or in my book “The Myth of the Greatest Ever”) doesn’t really exist as such in any one text (unlike these novels).  Instead, it’s a kind of composite of commonly shared elements of autobiographies, biographies, documentaries, broadcasts and newspaper and magazine articles.

Now, let the scoring begin! To honor Jordan’s legendary competitive spirit, I’ve included the scores that Iversen (that last name, tho!) gives to a few other novels alongside MJ’s (you know, just to get his GOAT—see how I did that?).

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 2.07.05 PM

Jordan’s off to a great start, staying even with the Michael Jordan of bildungsromans David Copperfield and contemporary variation The Magus and leaving wanna be Huck Finn in the dust.

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 2.16.07 PM

Michael’s tailed off a bit here, hurt mainly by the fact that he’s an active protagonist who is not basically good or willing to help others (I do recognize that Michael’s learning to share the ball is a key part of his story, but I really don’t think that his being a basically good person is part of it).   Also, though Michael obviously became supremely talented according to the myth, being cut from the varsity as a sophomore—perhaps the key element of the story of his youth—suggests ordinariness.  Finally, also notable is the appearance of the death of a father in the course of the novel: very much a critical part of the MJ narrative.

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 2.34.41 PM

After his lackluster second frame, Jordan once again runs almost even with the frontrunners and separates himself further from Huck Finn.  I doubt my choices here will be too controversial, note Phil Jackson (educator) and Scottie Pippen (companion).  At this stage, Jordan has already racked up 40 of a possible 47 points!

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 2.55.46 PM


Let’s be honest: Copperfield is like the Spurs in last year’s NBA finals.  I know Jordan’s frustrated, but it’s tough to beat anyone when they’re shooting 100 % from the field.  On the bright side, Huck Finn isn’t even relevant anymore and Jordan dusted The Magus here.  Note that he was particularly aided here by his gambling troubles, his flu game (and being helped off the court by Scottie Pippen), and by John Paxson’s game winning jumper.  Running total at the halfway mark: Copperfield 73/73; Jordan 63/73;  The Magus 57/73, and that great American not-bildungsroman Huck Finn 34.

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After these two match ups, Jordan (72/87) remains with striking distance of Copperfield—who finally missed a shot and stands at 86/87, and has increased the distance between himself and both Huck Finn (40/87) and The Magus (61/87).  I know it’s gonna be tough for Jordan to catch Copperfield with just three sections remaining, but, hey, he’s Michael Jordan, right?

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 3.38.31 PM

The Magus seems to be making a run here (perhaps better conditioned) and it might have been even stronger had I not given the Jordan story 2 points for the protagonist’s “learning to ‘see’” (my reasoning: it’s definitely part of the story through 1998, but begins to get questioned after that).  David Copperfield – OMG!  And Huck Finn, really?!  We’ve now covered 77 of the 86 features and 115 of the possible points.  David Copperfield has gobbled up 114 (or 99.1 % of the possible points) – giving new meaning to the term “prototype.” Jordan still holds second place with 89 points (77.4 %), maintaining meaningful distance from The Magus (81 or 70.4 %).  Huck Finn? It’s like it doesn’t even want to win.  I dunno, could be drugs.  But one thing is certain, with only 33 points left on the table, Jordan’s gonna need some help as we enter the penultimate frame.

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 3.47.52 PM

He does it! Jordan does it! He’s done it again! Jordan! Jordan!!!! Can you believe it!? Copperfield drops a point and Jordan goes a perfect 4 for 4 in the category.  That’s certainly gotta shake Copperfield‘s confidence going into the final quarter: a total of 29 points still at stake and Jordan is only 24 points down (117 to 93).

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 4.01.31 PMYeah, didn’t happen for MJ.  Sorry.  He was courageous and determined in overcoming constant slights he received from characters and even metaphors in David Copperfield, but finally, it just shows that a one man myth—no matter how talented—will fall before the perfect harmony, unselfishness, hustle, and hard work of a novel that knows how to narrate formation the right way.

Here’s the final tally:

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 4.09.25 PM

It’s a respectable performance.  While the Myth of the Greatest Ever doesn’t quite approach the bildungsroman-ness of the classical prototypes like David CopperfieldJane EyreGreat Expectations or Wilhelm Meister, it’s right there with such contemporary updates as Cider House Rules (123), The Diviners (123) and certainly is much more of a bildungsroman than either Huck Finn, as we’ve seen or even The Catcher in the Rye (57).

Now, the real question that the wiser among you may be asking is: who cares? What difference can it possibly make to determine whether Michael Jordan’s story, in its most conventional form, is or is not a bildungsroman?  Ah! That’s an excellent question.  But I ain’t giving away the cow.  To get my answer, you’ll just have to pick up your own copy of Ball Don’t Lie!  But here’s a hint: it has something to do with making us feel that there could be no better world than the one in which MJ wins championships by learning unselfishness, sells a shit ton of gear to everyone (not just to Democrats or black people) all over the world, and helps us kick the crap out of the commies in the Cold War.


Crowdsource Query: Writing the Athletic Body

September 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

This coming semester, it turns, out I’m going to be offering another new, sports related course. Under the auspices of Michigan’s Department of Comparative Literature, I’ll be teaching a course generically called “Literature and the Body.”  I’d like to use that rubric to explore the ways that writing meets the athletic body.

I’m at a very early stage of thinking about what I might do in this course, but I’m interested in finding interesting samples of fictional and non fictional writing, from around the world and across time, that will allow us to identify the challenges that the athletic body poses to writing and the different strategies writers use to meet those challenges.

So I can imagine non-fictional, journalistic but thick descriptions of athletic performance (like David Foster Wallace on Federer) or first person phenomenological accounts of the athletic body (like the opening pages of Agassi’s Open).  But I’m also interested in fictional accounts of the athletic body and the sporting experience (like, off the top of my head, Phillip Roth’s description of Swede Levov in American Pastoral).  How do writers convey the beauty, or the physical sensations or emotional experiences of athletic performance?

So for now, I’d love to hear of some of your favorite texts that you think might fit the bill or that might fall outside my thinking at the moment but that you’d like to see in a course like this.  If you can tell me briefly what motivates your suggestion, awesome.  If not, just authors and titles are okay too.

You can put them in the comments below, tweet at me (@yagocolas), or send me an e-mail (yagocolas@gmail.com).

And please, pass this along to friends on your social networks that you think might be interested.  The more suggestions I get the better!

My Interview on Race and Sports

September 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

A couple of days ago I was interviewed for a short article examining the role of race in the media portrayal and public perception of the most recent incidents of domestic violence by NFL players.  That led Marc Daniels, who hosts a radio show in Orlando, “The Beat of Sports,” to contact me for an interview addressing these issues on his show this morning.  I’m posting it here for those couldn’t hear it live.

Thanks to Autumn Arnett who wrote the original article, to Professor Lou Moore of Grand Valley State whose intelligent comments in that article made me look better, and to Dave Zirin who publicized the piece.  And thanks of course to Marc, who made the interview painless and even interesting and fun.

My Global Sports Cultures Syllabus

August 6, 2014 § 2 Comments

 U_48_939852047985_009This fall, I’ll be inaugurating a new course at Michigan: Comparative Literature 100: Global Sports Cultures.  The aims of the course include introducing students to a necessarily narrow slice of global sports culture, familiarizing them with concepts useful in thinking critically about sports, and developing what you might call their “literary skills” as critical readers and clear, coherent, thoughtful and honest writers.

We’ll take C. L. R. James’ rhetorical question from Beyond a Boundary—“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”—as our guiding challenge.  And, to meet that challenge, we’ll refer to Ben Carrington and David Andrews more fleshed out description of the tasks of students of sport:

“to think about sport as an escape from everyday life whilst understanding that no cultural activity is completely autonomous from societal constraints, to examine sport as a form of cultural struggle, resistance, and politics whilst recognizing that it is also compromised by forms of commodification, commercialization, and bureaucratic control, and to consider sport as an embodied art form that is formed in relation to both intrinsic and extrinsic goals and rewards that sometimes over-determine the stated aims of participants” (“Introduction: Sports as Escape, Struggle, and Art” from Blackwell Companions in Cultural Studies Volume 37: Companion to Sport [John Wiley and  Sons, 2013])

I’ve learned so much in doing the research to prepare the course syllabus, including how much I don’t know about global sports culture and how many brilliant writers, journalists, scholars, athletes, and film and video directors there are out there who know a great deal and generously share their knowledge in interesting ways.  I’m very excited to teach the course and so thought I’d share the basic reading schedule for the course, the fourteen weeks of which I’ve grouped, by lecture topic, into four broad units. « Read the rest of this entry »

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