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The restaurant I work at recently hosted an annual get-together for an area adoption agency. What followed was an evening that really affected me…

Now typically my first thought when I hear “adoption agency” is of a white, middle-class couple who can’t conceive. That’s commonly the case, and growing up I can remember my pastor, Steve and wife, Sandy, adopting an infant boy and girl from South Korea.

The overall notion I had was one of bringing minority babies into a white, American world. This understanding of the adoption process lacked much—not just in terms of the process, but in terms of the motivations of the parents and the influence the children have on their adopters.

Perhaps since traveling and living abroad, my idea of adoption has shifted to consider it from the child’s perspective—their country/culture of origin and how these global families tie the world together.

My ears on this topic started to sharpen when I was in Guatemala four years ago. I was in the lobby of a nice hotel in the capital, Guatemala City, one morning as a meeting point for my friend/tour guide. Inside, I saw one of these white, middle-class American couples. They looked like tourists, of course, but minus the excitement for a day’s activities ahead. It was soon apparent why they were there. A local woman arrived with an infant in a stroller. The couple greeted the child with love, excitement, and adoration.

Would this child be going home with them?

Later on in that trip I met another American woman who, with her husband and two local, adopted children, had veered off the beaten path, taking a tour of a small city and was taking a liking to rural Guatemala. I saw here how international adoption opened the world to the parents. It’s a lot more than a having the baby sent to you.

This evening at my restaurant opened the world to anyone present as children from all over the globe were there. And more than just the surface, I was able to learn the depths of the adoption process—the challenges involved and the emotions triggered.

While it was still quiet, some minutes before the event began, the former perspective that I grew up knowing: of the minority child growing up in white America, quickly became supplanted by the latter: the introduction of us Americans to the worlds of these children.

A large, three-panel display sat on a welcome table outside the ballroom. Each panel featured a country and representative pictures of waiting children. There were four or five children pictures from China, from Columbia, and from the Philippines.

Every picture was accompanied with a paragraph describing the child. Some children had special needs, some were upwards of ten years old; their names were given. Interestingly, either Columbia or The Philippines identified each child not by name, but by number. It struck me, this dehumanizing aspect.

Moments later, while I was still standing at the display, I spoke with one of the event organizers, Heidi, a woman in her mid-late thirties—herself and her husband with two young adoptees. She shared with me that, indeed, the process is, in plain language, a kind of shopping. Parents looks through the different offerings, sees which one is the best fit, and then tries it out.

She was very frank about this; I appreciated it. And she also accompanied the language with a sympathy for all those involved. Meanwhile, she demonstrated her frustration with how “cool” some seeking parents are about the whole process, returning a child with seemingly little attachment.

Indeed, true to the whole “shopping” process, returns are possible and happen. But though admitted by her, she couldn’t understand it, and to my comfort this stereotype of the elitist couple handing back babies willy-nilly wasn’t confirmed in any example I saw this night.

Rather, the children were the story, and their lives and their happiness here in America with loving parents defined the night.

Dozens of families came and a rainbow of children ran around playing. One young Chinese girl—around 4 years old—caught my eye. She was adorable in her little holiday dress and precious smile. Her left arm was amputated shy of the elbow. One feels for this handicap on such an innocent victim, and on top of that, is touched by how she went about playing with absolutely no recognition of her physical shortcoming.

Of all the parents, one father caught my eye. He differed from my idea of what most adopting parents looked like, indeed differed from all the others there that night. A mustached man with a 5 o’ clock shadow, he wore a blue-collar-type baseball hat and sported a flannel. A tall and lanky, dark haired, middle-aged white fella; I approached him at a table surrounded by kids.

This man and his wife have adopted 13 children.

Their first is now a 24-year-old Romanian woman. And get this: touched by a local news story, roughly 24 years ago, about adoption that featured this woman back when she was a baby, this mustached man and his wife flew to Romania and found the very girl. Today, she acts as a third parent to the others: another Romanian, five Ukranians, and six Columbians. Those six Colombians are two sets of siblings of four and two.

Who can imagine the kind of effort needed to keep this family running. The mustached man and wife demonstrated such charity and concern for these parentless children, on top of the desire to have a family.

Indeed, in speaking with Heidi some more, I realized that opposing the emotionally withdrawn adopting parent, was the fact that these “middle-class American white couples” are sometimes more affected than even the birth-mothers. She told me about meeting the mother of her newly adopted baby in their country. They spent some days together during the hand-over process. By the end of her stay, Heidi cried as she parted with the biological mother. The birth-mother seemed calm and fairly unaffected watching her baby carried away by its new parents.

(It’s another article examining the lives of these women—how in Heidi’s case, they came to voluntarily forfeit their child to an orphanage.)

The whole adoption process is full and fraught with emotion. And it seems that though all adopting parents want the same thing—a child—perhaps they do so under different motivators.

But this event got to the bottom line: children finding a safe, healthy place to grow up; childless couples getting to have a family. More than that, it featured examples of charity and love that I never before considered in the world of adoption, and the sight of children running around with such glee revealed just how wonderfully it can improve lives and bring the world together.

I even walked away with a little souvenir. At the beginning of the event, I walked around and saw some of the little games set up for the kids. I saw a vertical Wheel of Fortune-type wooden circle about two feet wide. I spun the sucker and saw the arrow point to the green slice of the wheel. “I won”, I exclaimed to a little 6-yr-old girl who watched. I walked away to continue my job. Some minutes later the little girl handed me a little green bouncy-ball. I was confused for a tick, but remembered the spinny wheel.

Apparently she did, too, found my prize, and hunted me down to reward me. The little, green bouncy-ball has a little smiley face on it, and I keep it in my work apron to this day.

See the little smiley faces in your day: )

to new plateaus,

-Brandon

Let ’em Drink

“I’ll have a Jack and Diet”, said the gentlemen to me as I bartended an event recently.

My manager came by and interrupted this transaction as well as others that were about to take place at the bar. “Sorry, we’re not allowed to serve alcohol at this event”, he said.

The guys at the bar looked back a bit dumbfounded—as in, “I’m a 48-year-old man. What do you mean I can’t have a drink?”

But word came down from the event organizer. This was a gathering to celebrate a high school sports team’s accomplishments, and it’s against school policy (perhaps State policy) to have alcohol at a school-related event.

Now that you’ve heard the explanation, I’m betting most are thinking, “Oh, okay, that makes sense.” But I assure you this is only because America is a unique culture regarding how it chooses to combat youth drinking.

Remove yourself from the culture we’re used to, and you’re as dumb-founded as the guys looking back at me from the other side of the bar.

When I started working the event that night, I asked about alcohol sales—it’s a big variable in our income for an event. I was told “no alcohol”; it’s a high school volleyball event. Later, I was informed that we could serve outside of the ballroom. So when parents showed up with their high-school daughters, some wanted to enjoy a wine, beer, or cocktail. I obliged and sold a few drinks. It wasn’t long until concerned was expressed at a parent who crossed the barrier and brought a drink into the ballroom. (Who knows if they knew the policy.) Bar was closed.

My initial reaction to the “no alcohol” policy this wasn’t that it was silly that a few parents couldn’t enjoy a drink out on the patio. It was an image of parents and kids together in that very ballroom, a mom with a wine, a father with his Jack and Diet. It was of people coming together to recognize the hard work of the children and of each other, listening to speeches and handing out awards.

So Mom and Dad have a drink? So what.

But perhaps this imagined scenario was pure fantasy. Maybe the reality is a drunk parent interrupting the service or a curious teenage daughter stealing a sip from Dad’s glass.

No one wants kids drunk, no one in the world. But the way different cultures combat this concern has taken different paths, and the trajectory of the American strategy has taken it to odd extremes.

America took the cover-their-eyes approach—as oppose to most everywhere else that has a culture of early exposure—and as kids still find ways to drink in the U.S., more and more has been done to shield exposure, i.e. the national 21-yr-old law, strict statewide high-school regulations, and community regulations such as no alcohol in a park. We see the direction of this progression, and thus, if a school allowed alcohol sales at a sporting event, we’d regard them as “behind the times”.

I do give policy-makers some benefit of the doubt. Maybe America started slamming down laws because, when allowed, kids drank problematically—perhaps more so than European counterparts. Regulation was necessary. But who knows? Maybe it’s also the same paranoia that led to the film “Reefer Madness” and other extraordinary exaggerations of actual threats.

(Interestingly, it’s often a similar group who complain that abstinence-based sex-ed is defeating who promote the cover-their-eyes alcohol policy. And vice-versa. My conservative parents didn’t want to talk sex, but didn’t care if we had a beer as teenagers.)

And we know the results have been mixed, if not the laws moot, as statistics reveal alcohol remains a huge problem in America. Each year, approximately 5,000 young people under the age of 21 die as a result of underage drinking (NIH). I infer that all the attention paid to policy distracts us from better solutions. However, no one wants to be the one to relax policy for fear of being held responsible. As of 2007, 77% of America favored the 21 age limit. Thus, we over-leverage policy, and what happens at this recent event?—teenagers see their parents having to sneak away if they want a drink and then see the bar close because it’s “wrong”.

Communities, and the country, have backed themselves into a corner, and the only way to continue the fight is more of the same. Perhaps next time they’ll have us throw a tarp over the bar, lest the children see the colorful and enticing advertising of the draft beer tap handles.

We’ve let this momentum sway our intelligence about what helps and what doesn’t. Just prior to the event, I asked the organizers setting up the decorations—coaches and some parents—if they wanted a drink. One parent joked, “I’d like something else to drink, but I better just have a Diet Coke.” Later a female coach responded to me, “Oh, I better not drink in front of the girls.”

Nonsense. Have a drink. There’s no sense practicing useless resistance to what you want. And heck, as a role-model, show what responsible drinking looks like, and let’s stop playing these games of “it doesn’t exist”—insulting the intelligence of youth, having their drinking occur underground, and tabooing and demonizing alcohol, having turned it into a bigger issue and problem than it ought to be.

Production

We hear about the need for America to start producing once more. Financial analysts such as Peter Schiff make this claim. He’s a credible man, having seen the financial collapse coming a mile away throughout the 2000’s.

He is concerned that the U.S. doesn’t manufacture anything, but I say—so what?

Why does a country have to manufacture things? What if their economy is based on something else?

Each state of the U.S. offers something unique. Minnesota has lot of medical device development, California has a lot of computer tech and entertainment, Texas has oil and farming. Each doesn’t have every sector; not all are self-sustaining.

We could break this down further to the individual. I don’t have to grow my own food, so can be freed up to do what I am good at. Can’t we say this about countries?

Some countries offer manufacturing and some don’t. As long as we offer something of value, we’re okay, right?

To Protect

Right now, many folks are angered about the imprisonment of St Paul native, Koua Fong Lee.  They are demanding a retrial for his vehicular homicide conviction, saying it was his car that malfunctioned.  I’m happy to see them now trying to free this man, but I struggle accepting why he was threatened with prison in the first place.

What is the point of locking people up if they are not ruled a threat?

More than just seeing one individual set free, perhaps this case is a chance for us to rethink imprisonment in general, to examine the costs of enacting our current version of justice.

In the summer of 2006, Lee was in a very bad car accident.  He was driving home with his family from church when he exited off of I94.  But rather than slow down, Lee’s car accelerated, heading straight for a vehicle waiting at a light atop the ramp.  The crash was brutal.  It killed the driver of the waiting car as well as his 10-year-old boy.  A 9-year-old niece was left paralyzed; she died a year-and-a-half later from her injuries.

The car that was struck by Lee

What happens in the wake of something like this?  Those involved or who witness such a tragedy look for answers.  They experience a lot of incredible emotions and, naturally, fingers get pointed.  In this case, the finger pointing was easy.  Lee drove the car.  He maintained that his vehicle malfunctioned, but prosecutors said he was negligent, that he accidentally pushed the wrong pedal.  And according to our laws, this means he should go to prison.

I undestand the desire of wanting to see someone “pay for what they did”—particularly if you have close ties to the incident.  And even if you don’t have ties, I know it may seem unsettling to consider “letting him walk” if he caused such a horrible tragedy.  But what happens when we step back and survey the best way to handle a bad situation?  It allows us to look at incarceration in a new light.

Punishment, Revenge, and Protection

We all want to be safe from theft, assault, and the like.  So people appreciate a prison’s purpose of keeping these offenders away from the rest of us.  But many people in jail are no threat at all.  Like Lee.  The prosecution never contested that he was violent or malicious in his intent, that this was anything other than a horrible accident.  The prosecution wasn’t there to make an argument about protection.  But if not to protect, what the heck was the purpose of the trial?  Punishment, revenge–Lee had to pay for what he did.

It may fulfill a certain satisfaction to see another getting their comeuppance, but how much is that satisfaction worth?  Would we be better off not fulfilling this desire?

It’s troubling that we normalize these darker desires and actions, that another’s suffering can be obtained, supported, and encouraged by the highest orders of our law.  Think of how the veil of justice is thrown over people’s uglier needs, prettying up Group A’s demands for “justice” (revenge) against a member of Group B.

The door to inconsistency and favoritism also becomes open when we punish.  Cases all over the country occur where accident-causers stand a better chance if the jury can sympathize with the defendant.  This is tough for a minority who isn’t fluent in English.  While we can’t magically get rid of this type of favoritism in day to day happenings, we can help limit its effect by removing the legal mechanisms that can be used to exploit it.

[I once watched a segment about parents who forgot their babies in the car, resulting in them overheating and dying.  Clearly an accident, clearly distraught, and clearly pointless to imprison, the parents weren’t convicted. Were they negligent?  Certainly, just like Lee is said to have been. But in these cases, salt wasn’t poured in the wounds.]

As well, we’re willing to spend a lot of money for this need—it’s expensive to lock someone up.  And it’s even more expensive when you consider the loss from prisoner’s not producing while behind bars.

Back to this case, what about Lee’s wife and four kids?  Or his inability to act in ways to pay back the best he can for what happened?  (Isn’t this what true justice is all about?–making amends, not rotting in a cell.)

It seems to me that in cases where the defendant isn’t a threat, imprisonment only seems to make a bad situation worse.

Now it’s 30 months later and Lee’s claim about his malfunctioning Toyota has been gaining traction in light of recent, similar, high-profile recalls from the carmaker.  Suddenly, it’s looking quite possible that he wasn’t at fault and that two-and-a-half years of his life were, in fact, stolen from him.  Whoops.

Lee being interviewed- (AP)

Coverage on this has been national and steady over the last six months.  Pictures in the papers show a remorseful Lee crying in prison as he recalls that day.  Mentions of his wife and children are greeted by readers with sympathy and pity.  At the sight of all this, people are now demanding a retrial, literally lining up to defend Lee.

But what are they really defending?  Frankly, they don’t know the first thing about whether or not the car is the problem.  Nobody really does.  The defense says “yes” and the prosecution says “no”.  And the judge will determine whether this new evidence is legitimate grounds for a new trial.

Protesters want Lee free

What the protesters seem to be defending is their sense of morals, and its breach with Lee’s incarceration. But we partially forfeit this defense when we allow this version of justice to be elemental in how we handle accidents and other nonthreatening offenders.  This case is just so magnified, egregious to the point where even the family of the victims—often the very people who would call for more prison time—are supporting his release.

Naturally, this anger can spill over to anyone blocking this cause, namely, the prosecution.  And, ya, I’ll admit my own misgivings, but this is short-sighted in view of the the real concern that precludes subsequent factors such as the retrial, racism, poverty, or Toyota.  It’s about a justice system that seeks to harm a perpetrator, regardless of it being at the expense of helping the situation overall.

The way I see it, we could enact a method to ensure men like Lee do not face prison:  it’s a criminal legal structure freed from our desires to punish and seek revenge, that only serves one purpose: to protect.

(Civil law, of course, would still serve to make guilty parties compensate.)

The ideal way for the law to respond to any situation is to ask how we can move forward in the best, most helpful way possible.  So often, incarceration inhibits this. I don’t think Lee should have ever been on trial for a criminal offense.  Following the accident, how wrong would it have been for him to go home to his wife and kids, piece his life back together and begin to work to help make up for the loss caused that day?

It’s not about “letting him get away with it”, as some might argue; it’s about not needing to see a perpetrator suffer.  Vengeance and punishment may be our fantasy and we may even take it into our own hands, but a better justice system would not include it.

To have a legal system that mimics our emotional tendencies of “getting them back” goes against all that we learn as kids from our parents, teachers, and mentors.  It goes against what being a more mature, cool, and thoughtful human being is all about.

And perhaps Lee shouldn’t get a new trial based on the current evidence.  I don’t know.  I also think it’s irrelevant.  Because he should be pardoned.

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So I got a solicitation from Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) recently. They want some financial assistance. Well, let me think about this, MPR…

I used to donate. I gave because I liked the talk radio program “Science Friday” and also their classical music station. I liked the idea of “premium radio” like it was an “audio HBO”—great content and no commercials. (Well, it was kinda like HBO; HBO doesn’t get my money if I don’t subscribe. MPR’s does, and more so with the recent sales tax increase across the state allotting more money to various art causes. This new hand in the sales tax cookie jar put me and others I know in a hesitant mood.)

Some of these “others I know” provided an interesting perspective of the inner-conflicts of being charitable to a subsidized entity. And it also provides the framework for a creative examination of the ways this topic can be approached.

This hesitant mood I mentioned was strongly felt when I was an intern at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Here were all these reporters, some of whom really enjoyed MPR’s classic and contemporary music stations and so had been contributors. This is kind of extraordinary when you consider that MPR is a competing news outlet literally right up the street in downtown St. Paul.

Indeed, the reporters were in an intriguing spot. Put yourself in their shoes for a moment: they are concerned about losing their jobs (layoffs have cut the newsroom in half over the last 10 yrs); this year, the remaining staff agreed to have their wages froze and hours cut in exchange for no layoffs for a year. So now they all make less money while their competition, MPR, rolls in the automatically-received dough.
Seeing your competition do well can create moments of jealously in whatever industry you’re in—restaurants, salons, whatever. But seeing them do well because they have to by law ups it a notch. And on top of it all, MPR was then in the middle of a fund drive, asking these very reporters for more money.

And according to the banter I overheard one afternoon, this was spelling the end of their giving.

[An interesting aside to this scenario is that for some of these reporters it wasn’t a “slam dunk” to stop giving. Frankly, they really like MPR. MPR provides good content and they felt obliged to give. As well, MPR’s fund drives are well-run events. When the DJ reads all the names of the recent donors, practically everyone seems to be giving to MPR. It begins to seem totally normal and reasonable, that it’s proper to donate money—even in the minds of the competing journalists!]

So some of them were disgusted by it all and some were like “eh, whatever, what’s $5 a month?” and kept giving. It was neat to witness the reactions to state sponsored art/ journalism from those it was harming.

And it got me thinking about how others handle this moral predicament and how that affects their decisions to give. At the outset, I see two knee-jerk reactions to state-sponsored art/media. One is from the group of active listeners of MPR who is pleased that the state is paying for what they enjoy. In this vein some from group may say “I’ll keep giving” and others will say “Now I don’t have to give because they don’t rely on me so much”.

The other common interpretation is from the nonfans of MPR (don’t like classical music, don’t like their journalism bend) so are unhappy they’re forced to pay for something they don’t want. Certainly, there will be no donations coming from these guys.

But now let’s pull back this surface layer and examine a deeper plane of thought, void of these “knee-jerk” reactions. It reveals a more principled side. Some folks don’t like the sales tax increase or any government-sponsored art because they believe that art worthwhile will be, by definition, supported by individual choices and not state ones. Why prop up what we don’t want? And, further, what harm can be committed by a direct media arm of the government?

Another principled side is from those who acknowledge that not everyone enjoys MPR, but that the overall benefit of publicly supporting a variety of artistic expressions is key for a healthy society. Without public funding, they say, artistic expression and society at large would suffer. So it’s not really about the ethical microanalysis of each individual, but the big picture perspective of the overall benefit. And with this thinking, they say, we need to be okay with our taxes not always going to things we like.

Lastly, and considerably considerate, some people don’t like the tax increases because of the direct harm it does to others, like say, the poor. After all, their sales taxes are now increased just the same as the rich, and the poor probably listen to less MPR and certainly go to less Ordway Theater performances. It’s a pity that the poor have to subsidize rich people’s pleasure.

So, in the spirit of not being “knee-jerky”, of being more thoughtful, when I got my latest solicitation in the mail, I held onto it a tick rather than robotically chucking it in the wastebasket. I thought about how I, like the Pioneer Press reporters, still do appreciate a lot of the music and talk radio content on MPR. I thought about how angrily refusing to give solely because of a tax increase was not really helping the situation. And with a more heartfelt approach in handling the issue, a cool thought experiment occurred to me:

As people stop donating it may strengthen this argument that voluntary payments aren’t enough, that without taxation the arts would not be supported. So to address this situation which most agree is not ideal (taxing for art), what if enough people did the counter-intuitive thing and donated more!? –so that MPR could meet their expenses without the need for tax dollars. “Hmmm”, I thought with the light bulb flickering in my head. I saw three results of such an act.

It would show that voluntary donations do suffice for good content—much like HBO. And second, if as a result such taxes weren’t needed, it would stop making people who don’t want and can’t afford it provide for those who do and/or can afford it. But most important, it would provide an excellent teaching opportunity about the nature of government enterprise.

Think about what MPR would do if infused with enough donated money that public dollars weren’t needed. “Okay, MPR”, we could say, “we got great news, you don’t have to keep receiving public funding.” In response, I’m guessing they would keep finding “needs” for the tax dollars some place. This would be powerful, revealing that even the good people at MPR aren’t immune to the lure of free money—even when they don’t need it. Seen, learned, and on display for those willing to look would be the moral hazard created by subsidization and the natural reliance on unearned money.

[Then again, this was just a thought. But it’s good to think about ways to help and teach rather than being “knee-jerky”.]

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Check out my sit-down with the GOP-endorsed GovCand, Tom Emmer: )

For the easier-to-digest, check out the highlight reel!

For the full-length interview, here you are: )

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I fondly remember attending a summer music camp as a teenager (yes, I went to band camp). I also remember the sadness I felt having to go home. I always thought that the sadness was from having to return to my regular, boring life. But in hindsight, I don’t think my sadness was about having to go home as much as it was about having to leave this almost magical time and place in life.

As young adults at camp, we were old enough to know the weight of life’s responsibilities—homework, relationships, jobs—but also subscribed to the idea of being truly “away”. To us, the world at camp was an isolate, apart from the weight of “real life” and allowed for incredible release, freedom and expression. It literally was all good. You seemingly couldn’t help but see all the good in others. If misfortune should come your way—injury or whatever—you shrug it off and see the bright side.

There just wasn’t that regular concern of security—gotta pay the bills—or that concern of worth—gotta impress others, get a career and a nice house. The distractions were nil and the result was an open view of the all the enjoyment to be had.

It is now about a dozen years later. I just returned home from another “camp” of sorts—a week-long academic seminar. And I realized the bitter-sweetness of ceasing to subscribe to this idea of ever being truly “away”.

You see, it is a little less “magical” to rub out the notion of getting to separate yourself from regular life. You realize that the bills and other concerns are always there, realize the permanence of obligation; ugh, this doesn’t feel like the care-free existence I remember at music camp!

But here comes the benefit to this realization: the isolation of this realm requires you to accept there is an inevitable “leaving”, and we mistakenly believe that the great feelings we had are restricted to that location. The sweetness of not accepting this notion is the revelation that “real life” is not so different—so all of life can be as free and fun! Experiencing this at a seminar, a camp, or while traveling, shows that it’s in you to have that joy wherever you are. It takes some work to be so upbeat when responsibilities are upon us, but with conscious effort, care-free existence isn’t confined.

So when leaving on that airplane, or in that taxi, strike up a conversation with your flight neighbor or taxi driver. Be as interested and upbeat with them as you were with your fellow attendees at the seminar: )

But these ideals of how good life can be are brought to the foreground during these rare, treasured times. And it elicits much emotion when recalling them and thinking of one day when they will be eternal. God bless the “seminars” in your life for revealing how amazing life can be and feel—always.

So if it be your benefit, here is a snapshot of pictures from the recent seminar where I was reminded of this joy.

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