Thursday, August 27, 2009

Robo Insect What?

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Merovingian has the right idea about learning to write.

That is all.

* * *

Basically, I've been in pre-school Professional Development and classroom cleaning and classroom setting up and lesson planning, and the fact that my school's wireless refuses to load Blogspot and I haven't gotten home before 8:00 PM since Sunday has made blogging... challenging. Fear not, gentle reader, for things should stabilize once school actually begins.

On Monday.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Burning the Midnight Zeppelin: What Could Have Been

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I'm not a very good fanboy.

I'm usually the last person to know about anything, and what I do know, the Abigail tells me. I just don't have the patience to scour celebrity blogs and twitter the way she does - hell, I don't even read the newspaper as often as I want to. Most of the fannish facts I know are truly ancient: tidbits of Star Trek trivia and an exhaustive supply of facts about J.R.R. Tolkien and a few about C.S. Lewis.

In general, I'm content with this state of affairs. I have better things to do than hunt down facts - especially when I have the Abigail to do it for me (I love you!). However, there is one fannish thing that always turns my crank: I love to know what could have been, the processes that lead the creators of the things I love to create.

For example, I bet you didn't know that in Exalted, the Dragon-Blooded were originally going to be the heroes of the piece and all their beliefs about how the Solar and Lunar Anathema are soulless villains was going to be true. The game was meant to focus on the crumbling, decadent empire of the Chosen and its death throes, until the developers decided that the idea was too much like some of White Wolf's other games and that it might be more fun to take Exalted in a different direction. Actually, you probably did know that. It's not a big secret.

In any case, it was therefore with great joy that I sat down last night with the Abigail to watch Echo, Dollhouse's original, unaired pilot.

Echo laid a lot of the plot out there; some threads that weren't fully resolved until the end of Season 1 were finished in one episode! It was obvious to me that Whedon intended Echo to catch the studio's attention, and I'm glad it did.

That said, I'm glad of many of the changes. I like that the real series drew out the process of breaking Adele DeWitt down from the untouchable and all powerful matriarch of the dollhouse (actually, in some ways, an example of the rare, well-done ambiguously powerful matriarch) to a conflicted middle-manager with intimacy problems. I also enjoyed real-series-DeWitt's less vulnerable, more self-consciously wicked style. I like that the real series softened Topher a little by making him the origin of the "humanitarian" pro-bono assignments on which the Dolls are sometimes, rather than Doctor Saunders.

On the other hand, some things seem to have been lost. In particular, the Topher/Boyd friendship was much stronger and more compelling in the pilot. Similarly, Topher's mercenary bent and anti-humanist ideals - all morality is programming, all humanity is meat and nerve, undeserving of respect or compassion - are downplayed in the series. It may seem contradictory for me to say that I liked Topher's image being softened on the one hand and wish it were harder on the other, but I don't see it that way. I like Topher conflicted. Epitaph One - the second unaired episode - did this brilliantly... but I'll let you find out how for yourself.

From whense comes my strange fascinating with what might have been? Why does it penetrate into my otherwise current-events-impermiable skull?

I believe that it is an example of my own writerly nature emerging. I have always enjoyed glimpsing the "maker's hand" inside a finished work. I like those moments when the world is pulled over my eyes, I am caught by some invisible trap in the fiction. The words (or images, or whatever) pull on my hearstrings, and while I succumb, some part of me goes "aha! Well played, sir!"

It's kind of like that, but retroactively, when I see what a story could have been and get to compare it to what was.

* * *

  • What "maker's hand" moments have you enjoyed? Does the concept make any sense to you, or am I on my own?
  • Do you know of any interesting "what might have been" stories? Care to share?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Bonus Burn II

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Lots of Bonus Burns this week. School starts on Monday the 31st, so enjoy it while you can!

All I have to contribute at this particular moment is an RPGnet post asking people to contribute their gaming and roleplaying blogs. I noted the Burning Zeppelin Experience, even though it's only partly a gaming and roleplaying blog. If you have a blog and you want to sell it, or if you're looking for more neat gaming and roleplaying blogs to add to your feedcatcher, check it out.

Web Redirect Protocal Alpha

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I hope you'll forgive the link post, but it's time. It's less a matter of laziness and more a matter of the internet (especially Twitter) turning up a huge wealth of nifty stuff over the last week, nifty stuff that I want to share with you, my devoted readers, before it all becomes obsolete:

  • The World's first Muslim Superheroes to come to British television - a team of super-powered Muslims, with abilities tied to the 99 Attributes of God. Most importantly, these are superheroes tied to traits like Mercy. The show is intentionally aimed to counter the influence of violent radicals, spreading a message that while it's neat to be Muslim, it's also important to be accepting , peaceful, and cooperative. If it works, it'll be a testament to the power of fantasy.
  • This was just cool and you should read it.
  • And finally, a blog post about why it's often important to not explain everything about magic. For magic to be magical it needs to be, well, magical. Good article. Enjoy

And finally, for your viewing pleasure:

A list of fantasy covers, sorting the prevalence of diferent cover elements. The list (I'm not sure why the image insists on being so small!) includes dragons, swords, citadels, and meaningless blackness, among others.

I'm surprised that the chart does not include gratuitous leg, breast, and panty shots.

I'm also increasingly terrified that the process of getting A Knight of the Land published may lead me to kill all humans, which would be depressing.

* * *

Remember that in addition to tweeting cool links and images in my presence, you can also get a picture or link tossed up on the Burning Zeppelin Experience by posting it in a comment, hoping it catches my eye, and waiting until I'm lazy/busy enough to do a lame internet post rather than a real post.

Till next time, have fun.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

This, I've GOT to share.

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Thanks, Scattercat!

Johnny Jordan <3<3

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Found in the bathroom at the cafe where I do my lesson planning, written on the wall in black permanent marker:

"Your soul was made for eating," said Johnny Jordan at midnight. He'd lasted a long time without eating souls and he was very happy about himself. He was also stupid. Very, very stupid.

Johnny Jordan <3<3

I wish I had a digital camera so I could capture for you the true strangeness of this moment, but you will have to make do with my meagre efforts at reproduction.

Who is Johnny Jordan? The closest I could come was an English former professional soccer player named Johnny William Jordan, and I can't imagine that's who our enigmatic graffiti artist was talking about. English soccer players don't eat souls, right?

Right?

H.P. H.P. Hurray for Lovecraft Day!

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According to Wikipedia (and blessed be its name), today is the birthday of the immortal (for "that is not dead which can eternal lie / and with strange eons even death may die") Howard Phillips Lovecraft. That makes today... Tentacle Day? Lovecraft Day? Extra-Galactic Horror and Hatefulness Day? The geeks of the world have not yet united behind a single vision of how to celebrate the life and works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, but I'm sure we will. Soon. The revolution is coming.

To do my part to spread the Lovecraft, here are a few links you might find titillating (or terrifying) (or both):
  • A list of lovecraft quotes I found, just now, looking to confirm the exact wording of the "death may die" quote above.
  • The Drabblecast's newest episode features some H.P. Lovecraft poetry and a Lovecraft-inspired story.
  • A Pseudopod story from some weeks ago that pokes gentle (and loving, I'm sure) fun at Lovecraft's Yog-Sothoth.
  • To toot my own horn: a rather silly (musical) Burning Zeppelin post from quite a while ago, a Call of Cthulhu character posted on my blog as part of my (currently suspended) project to make a character for every game I own, and another blog post (I think) from Rabbit Hole Day 2007.

* * *

Seriously, though, what is it about H.P. Lovecraft that we (ok, I) find so compelling?

The first is, simply, that Lovecraft is the father of a subgenre, and there's something kind of nifty about that. Despite never achieving much commercial success, despite honestly not being a very good writer, Lovecraft managed to touch a nerve. He tapped into something we thought we'd forgotten - some primal fear of the dark - and made art out of it.

But you know what? You've heard that already. If you're reading my blog, you know all about H.P. Lovecraft and how he came out of nowhere after his death and redefined horror and blah blah blah blah blah. You want to know what really inspires me about Lovecraft?

First of all, Lovecraft had balls. Huge writerly balls. Lovecraft made up words left and right, wrote the absurdly dense and flowery prose that he felt best served his fiction, and told stories that were far ahead of their time. As China Meiville said in a recent I Should Be Writing interview, (paraphrased) there's something to be said for tight, sparse prose, but there's also something to be said for lush, vicious, enticing prose that draws you in, sucks out your brain, and gives it back backwards.

Secondly, Lovecraft turned his life into art in a way that I admire. He was afraid of shellfish, so he wrote stories about tentacled horrors from beyond space and time. He loved Providence, Rhode Island, so he wrote stories in which the beauties of Providence were sufficient to draw the gods of earth from the rightful thrones to cavort among its steepled roofs. He was a vaguely racist, nativist, eurocentric weirdo, so he wrote... ok, let's leave that one alone. The fact remains, however, that Lovecraft wasn't afraid to mine every last thing in his life for inspiriation, and I like that.

So let's here it for Lovecraft! What the world needs now is Lovecraft! All you need is Lovecraft! Make Lovecraft, not war? Um...

Lovecraft,
Mark

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Stuff It!

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Most fantasy writers I know and know of have a love affair with stuff. Much like our love affair with invented vocabulary, I get the feeling that a lot of us know we shouldn't indulge, but we do it anyway. We build these fantastic worlds, and we want to show it all to you, not just the narrow corridor of the main characters' experiences and histories. So, we write extraneous stuff, appendices of history, pronunciation guides to our imaginary languages, huge, lovingly crafted maps, descriptions of noble houses and mercantile organizations and their intrigues. We don't want oto keep it to ourselves, we want to share it. We want to put it in the finished book. We want to send it to the publisher, so he can enjoy it, too.

In yesterday's Deep Genre post, contributor, writer, and former slush pile reader Madeline Robins gives us some bad news: slush readers don't like to recieve stuff with our fiction. No maps, no pronunciation guides, no appendices full of extensive historical details. In short, all the really awesome stuff that we loved creating but couldn't fit into the story... has to stay out of the story.

There are apparently two reasons for this. The first is that apparently including stuff in a manuscript you send to a publisher is just a newbie error. The second is that including all this stuff implies to the reader (in this case, a publisher) that you have neglected the story in favor of tons of abstract worldbuilding. While this might not be fair - in A Knight of the Land I wrote a significant chunk of a fantasy language, and while the story isn't perfect yet, I certainly didn't neglect it - it's important to remember that one of the businesses we writers are in is sales, and in sales, appearances matter.

Robins goes on to discuss what brought this up, a particularly frustrating fantasy series. Although basically a quality read, the maps and pronunciation guide were vague enough to be frustrating and specific and complex enough to be distracting, respectively. I can imagine how this would be a bad combination. Spending half your time peering at vague maps and trying to figure out where the characters are and the other half of your time flipping back and forth between the text and the pronunciation guide to figure out how you are supposed to say what you're reading is no way to enjoy a novel.

The take-home lesson seems to be:
  • Don't include extraneous stuff in your submission to a publisher, even if it's stuff that you're sure the book will need when it's published.
  • When the time comes (and may it come for all of us, amen and amen) for you to put stuff into a finished novel, make sure that the stuff is quality, that it is actually essential to the experience of reading, not just nifty stuff you want to add.

Otherwise, stuff it!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Drabblepost

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Last night, my friend Jon introduced me to yet another podcast - the Drabblecast - and today, I am introducing you to it. Or, perhaps, I'm introducing the Drabblecast to you. I have to admit that I'm not entirely sure which has more reality. Me, too, if it's any consolation.

The Drabblecast is good for fiction - 500 to 2k word short fiction, shorter flash-fiction, and 100-word drabble stories, to be specific - and good fiction at that. The Drabblecast is also good for news. Many casts include news items viewed through a hillariously sardonic speculative fiction lens; the one I just listened to explored the discovery of immortal and adolescent jellyfish. Finally, the Drabblecast is good for excellent production values. The narrator, Norm Sherman, has a wonderfully flexible voice and intonation and he peppers his stories with sound effects and music clips, producing a truly engaging listening experience. This means that even those of you who complain that years of headphones and boring professors have produced callouses on the parts of your brain that process auditory input - and therefore cannot listen to podcasts - have no excuse.

Anyway, I heard there was a cream for that.

Most importantly, however, the Drabblecast pays. 500 to 2k word stories will earn you 1.5 cents a word, which is definitely below the professional rate. It's also definitely money, though, so I can't really complain. A 2,000 word story will still earn you $30 and a moment of internet fame which could blossom into a following. Stories below 500 words will get you the dubious fame, but not the money. Such is life. The Drabblecast likes fantastic stories that are funny, weird, gross, and badass, but foul language and truly dark, heavy, and disturbing themes are frowned upon. Also, an "insider tip" (from the website):

"Luke likes pretentious stories that make him feel smart for understanding them. He is pretty lazy and good for nothing though so he probably won’t get around to reading your story and it will wind up with Kendall and Norm in the first round.

Kendall likes stories about poop, superheroes and vapid, saccharine relativist philosophies. He doesn’t like stories about vampires, pirates or ninjas. Send them anyways though, because he’s fun to piss off. Goofy stuff that doesn’t take itself seriously will make his day.

Norm likes stories with aliens fighting each other. He likes other stuff too though."

I think that does it for today. Listen to the Drabblecast (I already do). Send your stories to the Drabblecast (I will, soon). And remember, we all like stories with aliens fighting each other. And we like other stuff, too.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Vienna, CA

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I'm fresh home from a concert by my favorite musical artist, Vienna Teng (check out her website for music and information - more available at her myspace), and as usual, she blew me out of the water. This is the music that I dream in, the music that accompanies my prayers, and often the music I listen to when I write. More characters and stories have been inspired by Vienna Teng's music than I can count (and that's not considering Hope on Fire, the song that kept me going during the tough early days of the Oakland Teaching Fellowship's Summer Training Institute).

Better yet, Vienna Teng writes science fiction! Consider the lyrics to No Gringo, a song on her latest album (lyrics courtesy of elyrics.net):

Father says head down
We don't want them finding you
Mother says practice now
All the words you know

Oh Arizona's burning
They say the fence turned round
Now the razor wire keeps us out

Mother says with luck
We'll sleep under a roof tonight
Father says in the truck
We'll be crushed in tight

Oh Chicago don't forget me
As the miles between us grow
Keep the maple tree carved with the name of my love
The hills we would sled race down
Lake Michigan stay endless and painted in sky
Goodbye

Mother says years ago
The whole world was ours to rule
Father says let it go
Those days are gone for good

All the signs read no gringo
But somehow we'll find our way
Maybe waiting at dawn by the factory doors
Sunburnt and bent in the fields
Please don't turn us in
We'll be silent as the grave
As time

No gringo
No Gringo aqui
Words as levies against the flood
Hoy cerrado
There's too many to feed
Room for only our own kind, our own blood
No gringo, no gringo aqui
You have stayed in this land for too long
Tan amargo
But there's no time to grieve
You just pack up your things and move on

If you can't figure out how this song is science fiction, leave a comment and I or someone else will explain it. It's subtle and quite brilliant.

Finally, I like Vienna Teng's approach to creativity. A quote from her myspace page:

"These days I'm influenced by whoever intimidates me. I hear them, I'm astounded by them, I think daily about quitting music because I'll never be able to do it as well as they do. Then I try to steal from them without imitating. A tricky thing."

A beautiful sentiment, and one I could explore further. I won't right now, though, because I'm sleepy. I'll be certain to return later. In the meantime, however, I leave you with this: if you haven't checked out Vienna Teng already, you should.

That is all.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Prometheus in Chains

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Today I'm going to talk about my friend G.D. Crowley and how he has revolutionized my understanding of roleplaying in specific and creating in general.

G.D. is the prolific game designer no one has ever heard of. If you followed the short rise and precipitous fall of Shifting Forest Storyworks (of which no web presence remains), the company co-founded by G.D., you might have already heard of his work and maybe even played one of his games. Shifting Forest produced one-shot Live Action Role Plays - parlor LARPS as they are often called - in handy little books. The games were, generally, intricate, surreal, and dark, like Neil Gaiman on an absinthe bender. Unfortunately, after a promising beginning, the company vanished off the face of the earth and is unlikely to return.

This is a shame, because the man is brilliant.

Two of G.D.'s tabletop games - the two I have the most contact with - are referenced in the title of this post. The first, Prometheus, is something I'm playing right now alongside the Abigail. Our characters are two dyanic invidivuals - a Blake, a Byronic loner, and Natalie, an angry vigilante - attempting to guide about two hundred human refugees through the strangest alien invasion I've ever heard of. Chains of the World is an epic game of modern sorcery that takes a character through the transformation of the world. Both of these - and many of G.D.'s other creations - have been well-recieved by those lucky enough to experience them... but there's a catch.

G.D. has very little interest in commercializing most of his games. He talks about writing a game for publication one day - and I hope he does and eagerly await the prospect - but most of what G.D. writes, he writes for himself to Gamemaster and his friends to play.

The major advantage of this form of creativity is that G.D. can afford to be extremely idiosyncratic. Many of the systems aren't quite comprehensible to outsiders. They work extremely well in every way - they are atmospheric, stylish, and easy (in that I as a player interact with them, anyway) - but I don't really grok them yet, and I'm not sure I will. Prometheus, for example, relies on a complex mandala of playing cards - used kind of like a Tarot spread - which are determined to support either success or failure based on an arcane set of qualifications that include the chracter's traits and aspects of human (and alien) paradigms of thought. Chains of the World, on the other hand, relies on three twenty-sided dice, one representing power, which relates to the character's success or failure; the other representing weirdness, which can add or subtract a random degree of, well, random; and the third representing significance, which is a measure of how important the roll will turn out to be in the larger plot. I think most writers and designers will join me in acknowledging the appeal of idiosyncraticy. Imagine... producing evocative fiction without having to explain yourself... it's fantastic.

Similarly, G.D. doesn't have to bother actually writing a lot of his game material. They can live in his head, with only just enough external notes to provide a stable skeleton. Setting, system, chronology, and important NPCs... all of these only need to be written down as much as G.D. needs them written down. G.D. is no slouch. He's more than willing to write down what he needs to write down, but this is certainly less than he'd have to write down if I was going to run one of his games.

A more neutral, but fascinating, trait is the linear and directed nature of G.D.'s games. While there is always room for character choice, G.D. manages to write games that tell very tight stories in a way that I have never seen before. Other games that try to do the same thing - White Wolf's Scion and Orpheus (both brilliant games) for example - often come across as heavy handed. With G.D.'s games, however, this never seems to be the case. I'm still not exactly sure why this happens; I'll have to get back to you on this.

The only downside to all this is really all about me: G.D.'s games lack something difficult to define. I contemplated it, turned it over in my head, and finally spat it out again.

G.D.'s games don't feel finished.

It came out in a conversation with the Abigail. I consider a story or a game finished when it's "marketable." Not "marketed" - I have no illusions that many of my creations that I'm most happy with may never actually be sold, much less actually make any money - but "marketable"; ready to be produced, sold, and presented to the world. I long for, as much as I fear, the moment that I let go of my baby and let it fly away. G.D., on the other hand, aims for ready to be presented to his friends, with himself as the presenter.

Ultimately, however, G.D. achieves much the same thing I attempt, with much more success. He creates cool and evocative fiction that touches people and changest their lives.

As a result, I am contemplating changing my definition of finished. Perhaps it shouldn't be "ready to be...", but just "ready." Ready for what? For whatever I created it for. Ready to be run for the Abigail. Ready to be given to Jon as a birthday present. Ready to be edited. Ready to be sent to an agent. Ready to be sold. G.D.'s flexibility has given him more success in game design than my rigidity has given me, so perhaps its time to consider changing my ways.

* * *

  • What alternate definitions of "ready" have you seen and toyed with?
  • What have you created with a goal in mind other than the obvious?
  • Have you ever played in a similar game, one that could only be run by its creator, but is still brilliant and evocative?

Fire From the Zeppelin, Lights in the Sky

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I just got back from viewing the Perseids with the Abigail and our good friend Alan. If you haven't gone to see the meteor shower yet (and by some weird chance you're awake and reading this post) for God's sake, go do it. It's beautiful. It always is. Oddly, it reminds me of why I do this: why I blog, why I teach, why I write.

It's late and I'm tired - I'll write a longer post tomorrow - but I just wanted to check in with you tonight and let you know that there's fire in the sky, waiting for you.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Burning Update Experience: And We're Back!

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Tonight I'm going to fire off a brief update - let you know where I am and what's going on with me and what the future of the Burning Zeppelin Experience is going to look like.

As to the first, I am a very happy, very tired man. I have successfuly completed the Oakland Teaching Fellowship. I've been hired to work at Frick Middle School way (way) out in East Oakland, where I'll (hopefully and probably) be teaching 7th Grade Life Sciences. This is a life direction that I am exceedingly happy with.

This doesn't mean that I'll be abandoning my writing or my blogging, though. In fact, both will likely get more important. Frick is a high-need school in a high-need part of a high-need city. Nearly 100% of my kids will be recieving free or reduced lunches - a common benchmark of a school district's poverty - and their neighborhood has a staggering murder rate. After a long day of working miracles, I'll need something I can do for me, and I can't always lean on the Abigail. She'll be starting work at the Homeless Children's Network at almost the same time.

That's the Abigail and me, living the Oberlin Dream: doing the most important work in the world for not enough pay, on not enough sleep, and loving it.

Furthermore, I'm convinced that my writing will get better because I have so much going on. There is nothing less inspiring than sitting in a coffee shop all day and looking for work. Conversely, if there's something more inspiring than working to expand the horizons of high-need kids and equip them to shake the world to its foundations, I don't know what it is. How will I find time for writing, you ask? Bah! Stuff and nonsense. You don't find time, you make it!

In any case, a counterpoint to my glass-half-full attitude is that I haven't done much writing or writerly-related things in the past six weeks. I've run and played very little in the way of roleplaying games, written very little in the way of stories, and gotten almost nothing done on my Rejection Letter Challenge. I did, however, finish one story, a neat little piece called The Weight of His Words. After I've had a chance to clean it up, it will join the others on the rejection letter front.

As to my various rooms - the Writing Desk, the Back Burner, and Threshing Floor - I don't even know where to begin. I'm going to do have to do some serious inner housekeeping. I can tell you that my first priority is creating short fiction so I can meet my goal of gathering fifty rejection letters. The Abigail and I have plans to do National Novel Writing Month again. Other than that... who knows?

Where is the Burning Zeppelin Experience going? I'd like to go back to posting every day, at least until August 31st, when school starts. After that... I just don't know yet. Continuing to post every day would be cool, but it might not be feasible.

We'll know when we know.

That's all folks. See you tomorrow.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Look, A Distraction! Part II: Black Hats

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So, it looks like the Burning Zeppelin Experience's triumphant return will be delayed a day.

No, wait, tons of stuff has happened in the internet! I'm sure you can amuse yourselves while the Abigail and I take a practice honeymoon (because we've never been on vacation alone together ever! We're afraid we won't know what to do!).

In particular, Black Hat Matthew McFarland seems to have taken my advice (ok, the credit probably doesn't belong to me) and gotten a blog. The website I linked to in my previous post is defunct. You shouldn't go there anymore. God alone knows what will happen if you do.

That's it for today's relatively lame beginning to a glorious new empire of Zeppelin. I'll be back tomorrow with something more substantive.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Burning Zeppelin Experience...

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Will return...

Victoriously...

Tomorrow...