Design Revision

For those of you not reading this on a feed, you’ve probably noticed a significant site revision. The design I created for Critical Games has been growing on me, so I decided to implement it on my main blog. One nice aspect of this is if I ever do switch to an entirely Nucleus setup (or other), the transition will be essentially seamless for the viewer. That’s not any time soon, though, if ever (probably never).

In either case, I like having the uniform design between sites under the Critical Games aegis. Once Gallery 2 hits a stable beta (or better, stable final), I’ll probably look into effective ways to integrate the gallery into the rest of the site (a random image block, for instance, which is a built in module in Gallery 2). There is still some work that needs to be done before the transition is complete, however. (The main page is done, and so is the Credits page, but the rest of the site still needs to be transitioned.) This will be happening over the next several days; I could have plowed through and done it all at once, but I DO have other things I need to be working on.
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General Updates

Before I get into it, I just wanted to stop and say HELLO to whoever it was that made a syndicated feed of this website on LiveJournal. I kinda wish you’d told me, so we could better keep it updated (it hadn’t updated since the site restructure 3 months ago), but I futzed with some redirects and got it working again.

On to the real updates. My parents flew out last Wednesday to spend a week visiting us. It’s been good fun, and I’m glad to see them. They got to meet our puppy, and we’ve done some basic touristy stuff (Science Fiction Museum, went out to Port Townsend and Port Angeles, etc), and in general have had a pretty laid back week. It’s amusing, since they get up before Mickey does, and generally by the time I come downstairs, they are sitting in the green chairs Mickey found on Craigslist for free, reading. We’re meeting with Uri for dim sum this afternoon, which I’m sure he’ll appreciate, since he’s unfortunately shouldered most of the driving burden in coming down here to visit us rather than us drive up to visit him. (As a side note, Freya LOVES Uri. Initially we were unsure how she’d handle him, since he’s A: male, and B: 6’8″. We needn’t have worried, she thinks he’s the best thing since doggie treats.)
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Quick Geek Post, Real Post Later

After mucho deliberation, I’ve decided on a new computer and will be purchasing it tomorrow. Tentative final specs: 2.0GHz dual processor Power Mac G5, 1gb of PC3200 DDR RAM, 250gb hard drive, Radeon 9600 XT, wireless card and bluetooth module.

I also plan to get iWork, and it’ll be coming with iLife ’05 built in. I also picked up a 250gb external FireWire and FireWire800 drive for backup and archiving (you lose all your data ONCE and you’re a die-hard archivist for life), and a LaCie ElectronBlue IV 22″ monitor (factory reconditioned… $300 off retail that way, which is why I decided to splurge on the larger monitor).

Total cost: more than we have, and let’s leave it at that. That said, my trust pitched in just under $1.7k, which helps a lot, and the hope is that I’ll have a job soon (two separate prospects have shown up on my doorstep around the same time… an internship locally, writing content for a MMORPG which could potentially turn into a full time job, and the other is a full time job writing content for a MMORPG… in Australia. Strangely, the Australia one is more concrete, since I’ve actually already made it onto their shortlist. I know I was talking about moving out of the country, but I honestly wasn’t expecting so soon, and am now kind of squeamish now that there’s even a potential real prospect.)

Anyway, as the title says, this is just a geekpost. I’ll post more real stuff later. Thanks so much to all of you who’ve commented recently, and I hope to get back to all of you in one way or another soon.

Annotation: Steering the Craft

Despite being the first book I started reading this month, Steering the Craft was the last that I finished. This is not to speak ill of it, mind you, as it is an excellent book on writing, written with candor, honesty, and expertise. Nor is it long. It IS, however, chock full of exercises of varying length and difficulty, and in trying to do at least some of them, it took longer to complete than I had expected. I’m glad I took the time, however, and I hope to return to the exercises I did not complete in the near future. Ursula LeGuin is easily one of the best science fiction authors in the history of the genre. If science fiction authors were a royal court, she would not just be a dame or duchess — she would be the Queen. And justifiably so. He writing is eloquent and remarkable, and her knowledge of the genre and field of writing in general is awe inspiring. I hope very much to meet her at some point, given that she lives a mere two hours south of me, in Portland, Oregon.

One of the interesting aspects of Steering the Craft is that it is actually a how to book, a book about writing, unlike most of the other writing books I’ve read thus far, which really amount to writer’s memoirs. To top that off, the book is done well, unlike so many other books of its type. It includes a glossary of terms, and an appendix of tips and advice on handling common issues like the lie/lay/lay debacle (it is not simply a matter of laying something down and lying down, there is also the intransitive verb that requires an indirect object, with its own set of rules), and the use of tense. The chapters themselves are insightful, and handle the more substantial aspects of writing well (tense, point of view, rhythm, sentence structure). She does away with many of the more stolid (read: stupid) rules from grammar school, and explains the ones she chooses to keep. Basically, what it comes down to is that any rule can be broken, but if it is broken, it should be broken well, and for a reason.

The book can be used in a variety of ways. Each chapter can stand alone rather well, and can be referenced fairly quickly as a desktop companion. Additionally, it can be used as a textbook for a peer writing group (and one of the appendixes is how to find or start such a group), or simply slogged through individually (what I ended up doing). Because each chapter stands alone, it can be done at whatever pacing necessary, though she recommends trying to spend at least a few days to a week on each chapter. Something else that I find particularly encouraging is that she includes her mailing address, and encourages readers to contact her with opinions on the text, how we found it useful, what could be improved, et cetera. Given her list of achievements, talent, and respect within the field, she could very easily have handed this book down from “on high.” I respect her a great deal for choosing not to do so.

Some parts of the book were more useful to me than others. I already have a fairly strong grasp over point of view, and while I occasionally absent-mindedly slip, a good grasp of tense as well. That said, it was vindicating to hear someone I respect as much as LeGuin declare that there is nothing wrong with using some of the more esoteric tenses (future perfect and past perfect, for instance), if you understand how to use them (which I do — four years of Latin does have SOME uses), and that largely the current avoidance of them stems from many mainstream authors and journalists NOT understanding how to use them properly. Her comments on the use of passive voice was also insightful and directly relevant: I am notorious for using qualifiers and passive voice in my writing, which makes the writing instantly less personal than it otherwise would be. It also makes it seem more “scholarly”, which is where I picked up that particular rut. It’s a vicious circle: we spend 95% of our academic career learning how to write things in an “academic” manner, which then permeates the media through graduates entering the workforce, which spreads it to the rest of the world… leaving so much of the population’s writing dense and impersonal, lacking the ability to truly COMMUNICATE.

A chapter that I found particularly useful for my own writing and myself is the first chapter, “The Sound of Your Writing”. It’s not just a matter of the rhythm, but also a matter of the sounds each word makes, in your mind and out loud. Using strong words, onomatopoeia, alliteration, rhyming, the flavor of what you’re talking about can convey a different effect. Something else I noticed about it, however, is that the nature of the exercise encourages word association, which can lead your story in unexpected directions. Word association is like a backdoor, getting you past that guard-dog we call our self-censor, and can let you be honest in ways that might not have otherwise gotten out. When I did the exercise for chapter one, what had started out as a silly little exercise ended up being a somewhat angst-ridden prose poem, which led me to discover that I still have a lot of angst in me, for better or worse. It made me realize that maybe I’m not handling my depression as well as I thought, because it became clear that I wasn’t DEALING with any of it, just burying it. Now I’m actually trying to take a more proactive stance in dealing with my depression.

Another chapter I really enjoyed was chapter nine, “Indirect Narration, or What Tells”, mainly because it’s a weak point for me. I’ve spent so much of my writing life outlining or creating character sheets and histories and not actually TELLING THE STORY, that I really found the information in the chapter really useful. It discusses ways to work in personality and history (both of the characters and the world) directly into dialogue and narrative, without creating “expository lumps”. I’ve always found my dialogue to be somewhat flat or weak in my writing, and this chapter made me realize that what I need to work on is weaving history into the dialogue. This will smooth out the story, and add a great deal of depth to the dialogue. I’m still not very good at it, but at least I’ve realized a method of improvement and can work on it more. (This is far more useful advice than what Stephen King said about dialogue, namely, you either have an ear for it or you don’t, and no amount of practice will change that.)

This is a remarkable book, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in writing. In particular, I’d recommend it to writing workshops and teachers (in fact, I’m going to email my high school creative writing teacher and suggest it), as so many of the exercises in it are perfect for a workshop environment (LeGuin even marks the ones she feels are particularly suited for workshops). I’m greatly looking forward to returning to the book as the semester goes on, to visit and revisit some of the exercises within it. Like any other artistic endeavor, art is not just a matter of creativity, it is also very much a craft. I’m looking forward to refining mine.

LeGuin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft. Portland: Eighth Mountain Press, 1998.

Annotation: The Princess Bride

When people generally talk about “the classics”, they are generally talking about books that are at least 50 years old, and invariably taught at some level of academia, where bored teachers ponderously ponder the possible intentions of the long-dead author, secure in the delusion that this secret authorial message couldn’t possibly be as simple or direct as what is stated upon the page. The students, often more bored than the professor, sit around writing bad angst-filled poetry, praying to god that the teacher doesn’t put anything on the test that wasn’t in the Cliff’s Notes. These books may well be excellent pieces of literature, but after the wringer academics put them through, that can’t help but be dry. It is extremely unfortunate that the term “classic” has been so subverted, because, you see, there are classics, and then there are classics. With a book that is classic of the second type, we delve into the realm of books where the hidden message isn’t hidden at all, academics are dismissive, and the rest of the world enjoys the story all the more for that fact. William Goldman’s The Princess Bride (purportedly an abridged version of a book by the same name by a Florinese author by the name of S. Morgenstern, but is more generally assumed just part of the greater fiction of the book, since you’d be hard pressed to actually FIND an unabridged version) is a classic of this second type.

The Princess Bride at this point has been turned into a better known movie (the screenplay was also written by the author, and as such retains a remarkable amount of the book’s flavor), and is considered a mainstay of any geek’s movie collection, sitting right beside Monty Python and The Search for the Holy Grail. If you were to walk into a crowded room of geeks (at a convention, or computer lab, or even most coffee houses) and shout “Inconceivable!”, not only would people know what you were referring to, but would likely respond, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Mandy Patinkin, the actor who played Inigo well over twenty years ago, is also a musician. Even now, at every concert he gives, he cannot leave the stage without giving in to requests for him to exclaim, “Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya! You killed my father, prepare to die!” Needless to say, I think it made an impact. As a writer, what this teaches me is that you should never underestimate the power of some good catch-phrases.

One of the amusing aspects of the book is the use of asides. At various points in the book, Goldman pauses from the story and adds an anecdote from when his father used to read him the book, or comments on the lengthy and completely boring portions of the book that he supposedly excised from the original edition. In fact, the entirety of chapter 3 is an aside detailing why he removed chapter 3 from the abridged version, involving Morgenstern’s extreme distaste for the aristocracy of Florin. These asides add a humorous effect to the book, which might otherwise simply be a rollicking adventure. They also occasionally serve a greater purpose, such as when Westley (the lead protagonist) is tortured and killed in the Zoo of Death (the Pit of Despair in the movie). That particular aside is used as a way to really give voice to the thoughts of the author in no uncertain terms. It discusses the first time his father read the story to him, and that his father had paused, and tried to skip the section. After much prodding, he admits that Westley dies, and it devastates the young William. In a later aside, he follows up with this, when as a teenager he has an epiphany: it had bothered him so much because it was the first time as a child that he had been faced with the realization that life isn’t fair. The ending of the book itself is also an aside: “But I also have to say, for the umpty-umpth time, that life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.” (Goldman 283)

Which brings me to a point of vague annoyance, though a very mild kind: I am not a big fan of “cliffhanger” endings. Goldman decided IS a fan of cliffhanger endings. He loves to leave things in a position where it is unclear what happens next, whether the protagonists live or die. Other examples of him doing this is the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where Butch and the Kid leap off the cliff to the river far below, where it fades to black. There is no resolution, no clear answer as to whether they lived or died. I hate that, it feels like a copout. A story doesn’t necessarily have to have a happy ending, or a sad ending, but in my eyes it needs to bring the story it is telling to a conclusion. Loose ends? Not a problem. Sub-story arcs not finished? That’s too bad. But the central story arc, whatever that is, needs to wrap up. It doesn’t matter if a year after they live happily ever after, the couple is divorced and hating each other’s guts, or one was run over by a bear, or whatever, that’s a separate story. But ending a story arc with a cliffhanger is a breach of the contract between the author and reader. It irks me, and I suspect always will.

That irk aside, I really enjoyed the book (and the movie). The narrative style is witty and self-deprecating in a way that is generally reserved for first person memoir and personal essay, yet Goldman pulls it off in a third-person limited narrative. The interaction between Fezzik and Inigo in particular is really excellent, dealing with two people who are excellent at what they respectively do, but still very human. The friendship between them never seems strained or artificial. In fact, I’d say that Fezzik is my favorite character in the book. He is very human, with a great deal of depth for all his simplicity. Fezzik has a very simple mind, and mentally really only takes pleasure in rhyming. He is also exceptionally strong, and a giant, whose greatest fear is of being alone. Despite working as a rogue, he is a very honorable and upright person, fiercely loyal to his friends, and who believes in the importance of telling the truth. His foibles are REAL. His emotions are REAL. That is a remarkable thing to pull off in a story, and my hat is most certainly off to Goldman for doing it. (As an aside of my own: in the movie, Fezzik was played MOST appropriately by the late André the Giant. I can think of no one who could have been more fitting or done a better job. From the stories I’ve heard, André was very much like Fezzik in personality in real life.)

It’s hard for me to make a qualification of the book solely for the book. I’ve watched the movie so many times, that scenes from the movie can’t help but sneak into my memory of the book. That said, it has hardly hindered my enjoyment of either, and I would most certainly recommend either, or preferably both. In so many ways, it’s exactly what an adventure story should be.

Goldman, William. The Princess Bride. New York: Del Rey Books, 1973.

Annotation: The Callahan Chronicals

The principle is simple: “shared pain is lessened, and shared joy is increased.” (Robinson xii). It could be quickly shrugged off as just another turn of phrase, but think about it for a minute. We’re all caught up so much in our own lives, our own pains, that we don’t stop to listen, REALLY listen to the people around us. Doesn’t it make you stop and wonder, if only for a minute, that maybe if we could get past that and genuinely care about each other, things would be better? We’ve seen the studies and reports expounding researchers’ findings of human behavior, finding (unsurprisingly, for some of us) that this statement is a fundamental aspect of who we are as humans. When we share our pain, honestly share that pain with those around us, the pain is lessened, even mitigated through the awareness that those around you really care about what is bothering you, even if they haven’t experienced it themselves (and sometimes, sometimes they can even corroborate). When we share our joy, our elation over an experience or situation or event, it brightens the whole room. Imagine a place that takes this principle to its logical conclusion, and explicitly fosters an environment that encourages such behavior, where every person that comes there is there because they need to be, and where every person there cares about each other. That is Callahan’s.

The Callahan Chronicals is actually an omnibus collection of the first three books in the series: Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, Time Travellers Strictly Cash, and Callahan’s Secret. They’re technically classified as science fiction, and there are certainly a fair share of aliens, time travellers, telepaths, and talking dogs, but these are really stories about people. (Though so are many other science fiction stories… caveat emptor, I suppose.) The fact of the matter is that the “science” part of the stories is kind of extraneous, it’s the people and their reactions that are important. From the very first story (“The Guy With The Eyes”), it makes this clear: it doesn’t matter whether you’re a heroin junkie or an alien scout charged with the destruction of the human race, the people here CARE about you, and will do whatever they can to help. They will not pry (in fact, there is a standing rule that if you are caught asking prying questions, Fast Eddie the piano player will blackjack you and you’ll be waking up elsewhere).

That’s the basis for the rest of the stories: they won’t pry, but they’ll listen and share if you want them to. ALL of them. How to break the ice, then? Simple: every drink in the place costs $.50. You put down a dollar on the bar, order your poison of choice, and you are given The Choice: you can either collect your change from the cigar box full of quarters at the end of the bar, or you can make a toast. The toast involves stepping up to the line in front of the fireplace, making a toast, and throwing the glass in the fire. Everyone will have quieted down for the toast, but again, they won’t pry… if you don’t want to talk about the reason for the toast, you don’t have to, but they’ll listen if you feel like talking. It seems to me like a great way to get people to open up without making them.

I’m torn on what my favorite story in the book is. “The Guy With The Eyes” is a strong contender, dealing with Tommy Janssen’s first night at the bar. Tommy is a recovering heroin addict, and had heard about Callahan’s from someone. It’s a pretty emotional bit of writing, as he toasts to smack, and rolls up his sleeves: clean, no needle-marks. It is also the first night of another regular… Mickey Finn, an alien scout sent to evaluate the risk factor of the human race, and if deemed necessary, destroy them. His assessment was going to be sent in later that night, and despite his desire not to destroy them, he had been counter-programmed and could not disobey. So they slipped him a “mickey finn” and made him miss his scheduled time to report it, thus saving the human race…

The other big contender for favorite story is “The Time Traveller”. It’s a bit different a kind of time traveling than you might think. It’s the story of Tom Hauptman, a former minister who had been visiting his sister-in-law with his wife in a small banana republic in central America. While there, a revolution happened, and they were thrown into prison under false names, and forgotten about for fully a decade. His sister-in-law died early on, and his wife died 9 years in of Malaria. Visiting tourists noticed them disposing of his wife’s body, and an investigation caused him to finally be released. That’s the time travel. Think about how much has happened in the past 10 years. (Or in the case of the story, 1963 to 1974.) If you are removed completely from any sort of communication with the outside world, think about how alien the world would seem once you were out. How much displacement can you take? You’ve lost your spouse AND your world, and your previous job hinged on an awareness of current social and moral dilemmas? It’s a damned hard thing, and Spider wrote about it beautifully.

The Callahan Chronicals is truly some excellent writing. The characters have depth and emotion, the stories are interesting (and funny when appropriate), and the overall composition is wonderful. I would heartily recommend the book to anyone looking to see what modern science fiction can be. Since the books is a collection of short stories, it works out well as a bedtime reader — there is no reason NOT to read this book, finding time is not an excuse. By the end of it, two facts are evident: I want to become as good a writer, and I want to find my own Callahan’s.

Robinson, Spider. The Callahan Chronicals. New York: Tor Books, 1997.

Annotation: Zen in the Art of Writing

Zen in the Art of Writing is not precisely a book about writing. Rather, it is a book about being passionate about what you do. While there are tips and tricks to writing and writing well, it is rather superfluous to the overall value of the book. In my eyes, where the book is most valuable is in encouraging you to be passionate. We have emotions, and yet so much of our academic lives are spent subjugating those emotions in a misguided attempt at objectivity. It is like a breath of fresh air to not only be told it’s okay to get angry or excited, but to be encouraged to do so.

The book is broken up into several essays, written over several years for various other reasons, collected into one book. As such, there is a bit of repetition in his subject matter (he comments on several of his stories several times through several different essays, often saying almost exactly the same thing), which can largely be forgiven. It really only irks when the points of repetition essentially boil down to some personal horn tooting on the case of the author (which kind of jives with what I’ve heard about Ray, namely that he is a very nice person but not all that modest about his talents). None of the repetition really harms the core of any of the essays, so no harm done, I suppose.

I thought about responding to each of the essays, but decided it would be more fun and rewarding to point out the parts that really struck me. In the essay “On the Shoulders of Giants”, Bradbury talks about the Science Fiction Explosion:

[…]and placed a gentle bomb on teacher’s desk. Instead of an apple it was Asimov.
“What’s that?” the teacher asked, suspiciously.
“Try it. It’s good for you,” said the students.
“No thanks.”
“Try it,” said the students. “Read the first page. If you don’t like it, stop.” And the clever students turned and went away.
The teachers (and the librarians, later) put off reading, kept the book around the house for a few weeks and then, late one night, tried the first paragraph.
And the bomb exploded.
They not only read the first but the second paragraph, the second and third pages, the fourth and fifth chapters.
“My God!” they cried, almost in unison, “these damned books are about something!”
“Good Lord!” they cried, reading a second book, “there are Ideas here!”
“Holy Smoke!” they babbled, on their way through Clarke, heading into Heinlein, emerging from Sturgeon, “these books are — ugly word — relevant!”
“Yes!” shouted the chorus of kids starving in the yard. “Oh my, yes!”
And the teachers began to teach, and discovered an amazing thing:
Students who had never wanted to read before suddenly were galvanized, pulled up their socks, and began to read and quote Ursula LeGuin. Kids who had never read so much as one pirate’s obituary in their lives were suddenly turning pages with their tongues, ravening for more. (Bradbury 102-103)

This piece right here is precisely what I’m talking about when I say that Bradbury’s writing is passionate and bordering poetic. It also strikes a very strong chord with me, on many levels. For one thing, I was one of those kids growing up, but in a later wave with a different fight on their hands. I had the side of the teachers now, and instead I was up against the other students, trying to convince them to just try it, and if they didn’t like it, they could throw the book in my face. I can count the number who actually took me up on my suggestions on one hand. A different but related chord is that the essay explains and encapsulates my feelings about science fiction so well. Science Fiction in so many ways should have stuck with an earlier moniker: Speculative Fiction. The genre is filled with ideas and notions and questions and ideals, some of which become reality, but that’s really superfluous to the nature of the genre. It’s the IDEAS that are important. And, for me at least, it is the challenge of Humanity.

The next most striking and invaluable essay for me was the title essay: “Zen in the Art of Writing”. It is one of his more straightforward essays, dealing with a (somewhat) more technical part of writing, namely how to do it. The entire essay can be summed up in one line: “WORK – RELAXATION – DON’T THINK – FURTHER RELAXATION” (Bradbury 144). The rest of the essay just explains that statement. What it comes down to is this: writing is WORK, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. There is craft in addition to art, and that is the structure of writing, and the act of writing itself. That said, if you are stressed out, your work will be stressed as well — it will not flow, and it will not be nearly as honest as you likely want. Likewise, if you let yourself think about what you are writing, you censor yourself: get it OUT THERE, you can always censor it later — chances are, once it’s out, you’ll be glad it is, no matter what your censor tells you when you’re writing it. Which brings us back to relaxation: ideas are from a deep part of your mind, and it takes being relaxed and receptive to get them to the surface. It’s where the “Zen” in the title becomes slightly less of just a turn of phrase. A major principle of Zen is an acceptance and receptiveness to one’s surroundings. Writing is very Zen.

The third and final essay I’m going to write about is “How to Keep and Feed a Muse”. There is always talk about a “writer’s muse”, talk that never seems to get anywhere, mostly involving some people arguing against any outside source, and others citing divine inspiration. Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle. Bradbury seems more in the camp of citing the Muse as our subconscious. There’s nothing wrong with this, and the essay is very valid regardless of which “camp” you belong to. It is worth noting that in either camp, there is the agreement that a muse must be fed. It needs experiences to grow from and work with, and life is its food of choice. It must also have an outlet, however: whether the work is good or not or feels particularly inspired or not, you need to write to keep a muse. Or paint, or sculpt, or any other creative medium — take your pick, the fact remains the same: if you are not willing to let the muse speak through you, then the muse will stop trying to. Of this I am absolutely certain, speaking from first-hand experience. You don’t even realize how important the interplay between yourself and your muse IS until it’s gone, whether through abuse, or neglect.

Zen in the Art of Writing is definitely worth reading. I would recommend happily (and have) to anyone willing to spend the few hours necessary to read it (it is not precisely long, weighing in at 176 pages in trade paperback size… I read it in less than a day). Those looking for a how-to book on writing should look elsewhere… and then come back when their priorities are in order. After all, what is the point in knowing how to write if you have nothing to say?

Bradbury, Ray. Zen in the Art of Writing. Santa Barbara: Joshua Odell Editions, 1994.

New Year

The puppy is on the floor behind me, lying under the light asleep. The first day of 2005 is winding down, and I’m alright with that. I just turned on “Float On” by Modest Mouse (off “Good News for People Who Love Bad News” if you care to know). I turned it up, and I don’t really give a shit if anyone thinks it’s too loud. For some reason, this is absolutely a song that must be played loud. It must. It absolutely is a part of the song, the decibels themselves are an instrument. Another case in point would be The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” off Quadrophenia.

What it comes down to is this: sometimes you’ve just got to turn it up until you feel it in your spine, and sing along at the top of your lungs, who gives a fuck who is looking, and fuck you if you laugh.
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