This is not Star Trek


This is not a screenshot from a crappy Star Trek film. It’s a photo of the Aurora Australis.

Taken from space.

The Aurora Australis.  From space.

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Once upon a time, when I was seventeen, my friend Rick and I drove my mother’s car 40 miles to a marching band competition in order to flirt with the girls we had crushes on.

It was a late-October Saturday night with a new moon in West Virginia: very dark, very crisp; resplendent with the odor of Autumn.

The competition was being held on the football field of the local high school. The school grounds were a self-contained plot of land on the other side of a small creek. There was a rickety one-lane bridge crossing the water and there was a state police officer to direct traffic across.

On the excitement scale, “watching high-school marching band competitions” is an activity that ranks right up there with “listening to someone tell you about their level 17 paladin“. Further, they are rather poor venues for flirtation activities, especially when the female side of the equation spends most of its time in lockstep formation on the field.

After an hour and a half the two of us grew bored and decided to seek our destinies elsewhere.

My next memories are a set of fragments:

It’s dark. I light a cigarette, fire up the engine, and drop the car into gear. The lot is packed, the routes through it twisty and confusing. I slowly make my way out to the entry road.

A car approaches from the bridge. Its lights flare into my eyes. I squint and curse. Rick laughs. Practiced fingers flick a cassette tape into the radio (Queensryche’s Rage for Order). Adjust the volume. I look up, and there are things that look suspiciously like

in my headlights

slam on the breaks


motherFUCKER that is a body, rolling over the hood

and a splatter

on the windshield.

The body rolls off the hood.

There is a common turn-of-phrase: “I lost my mind.” I know exactly what that means because it literally happened to me then. There was a moment when I hit a man with the car I was driving and then there was only a low buzzing sound – like being underwater. My vision tunnelled and the lizard-brain activated.

This is what I was thinking:

ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck

This is what I was saying:

ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck

Someone put the car in “park”. To this day I do not remember if it was Rick or I.


snapped back

and I discovered that I was out of the car, yelling (ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck).

In all honesty I have to admit that I contemplated escaping in the car.

The body on the side of the road was slowing getting up, groaning, and I realized that I had hit the traffic cop.

He slowly stood up, disoriented, punch-drunk. He stood, searching the ground for something (his flashlight? his gun? all the better to kill me with!). We ask, over and over, “are you okay?” but he isn’t answering he’s just


for something. He took three steps to the side of the road and reached down to pick up his hat from the dust. He brushed the dirt from it before looking up to speak:

“Boy, it’s a good thing you didn’t scuff up my hat or I’d have had to kick your ass.”

He rung up his partner with his walkie-talkie and they called in an ambulance and tried to bring in some Authority. But there was a fun little snag with that: In West Virginia (and possibly everywhere, as far as I know), police officers cannot investigate accidents that involve their own department. This little rule spawned a fun series of calls while we waited in the darkness.

This guy was a state cop, working at a county event, acting in place of a local police officer. So neither the state troopers, the sheriffs, or the local constabulary could handle the incident.

Groups of uniformed people began collecting around the area. At one point there were no fewer than four ambulances parked off to the side.

The local cops were sometimes dicks:

Boy, are you 18?
No sir.
Put out the cigarette. Y’all ain’t old enough to smoke.

After about an hour the real investigative team arrived.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation. The goddamned FBI.

There was a large FBI fingerprinting lab about twenty miles out and they must have been very excited to engage in actual field work because they came loaded for bear.

These boys measured every inch of my car. They determined exactly how fast I was going (fifteen miles per hour). They plotted the car’s position and trajectory in exact minutes, degrees, seconds, and microseconds in latitude and longitude. They took photos of tire marks. They filled out many forms.

They brought a small army of forensic scientists to determine how a pimple-faced seventeen year old boy could possibly drive into someone who walked out in front of a car while wearing black clothing on a new moon.

They were exceptionally thorough. They had a method or device to measure everything. . . except blood alcohol content.

My “breathalyzer test” went down like this:

I was sitting in the back of a federal car, giving my statement to an agent. I liked this guy; he gave me a cigarette and let me smoke while he wrote down everything. At one point he stopped and stared me right in the eye, drawing himself up serious:

Son, you been drinking?

No sir.

And that was that.

After a while they let me go to drive home. While the investigation hasn’t been closed I was informed that I was NOT AT FAULT; the officer was, for walking into traffic. I wouldn’t see the official papers for another several days, however.

The car is a waste: the windshield shattered, hood crumpled, one headlamp busted. The return drive is contemplative at first, both of us thinking about the doom that awaits me when my parents discover what has happened.

Eventually, Rick speaks:

You know, I bet that when he was in cop school and they were teaching the “how to roll across a car hood and not get killed” lesson, he was cracking wise and saying, “what the hell are they teaching this for? We ain’t ever gonna need this shit.”

I started laughing so hard that I almost wrecked the car.

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Tonight, much to Stacey’s happiness, I finished Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.

You should just go find my review of Assassin’s Creed II and copy and paste it here. Then add “it’s better” and “the ‘brotherhood’ element is defined but doesn’t go very deep but that’s okay because it’s totally awesome to whistle and have all the guards die, instantly.”

I loved this game. My girlfriend, however, did not. Upon my completing it, she announced that she was very happy to have her boyfriend back.

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A Review Post While Stacey Hogs the XBox


Over Veteran’s Day weekend, we ran out and bought a replacement XBox and with it one of those new-fangled Kinect thingers. Since then it has ceased to be my XBox and is now our XBox as she has been playing the ever-living fuck out of Dance Central.

I want to get my stab on but the furniture has been reconfigured and I can’t dance so I’m gonna write up this instead.

Survivors (2008 Series)
A BBC series about a post-flu-apocalypse group of survivors and the crazy situations they encounter. Stark, unyielding. Thoroughly enjoyable. I am sad they canceled the series when they did.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
An excellent film and well-worth your time. I found it to be a fitting capstone to Ledger’s career, and probably the film he should have gotten the Oscar for.
La Mission
Clearly filmed on location, this movie had a lot of sweet cars in it. I felt it was a solid script but I’m having difficulty finding any stellar “stand out” moments other than it was a love-letter to San Francisco. The ending lacks resolution but so does life so it fits with the movie’s themes.
Personal Effects
An aging starlet and a pretty boy try to earn themselves some Oscars.
Stacey walked in on this about halfway through and asked me what was going on and I couldn’t begin to explain the concept. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself – far from it – but in the case of this movie they did the concept a disservice by slapping an action movie on top of it.
Another “super disease” kills everyone film, this one with Piper Perabo and Captain Kirk. While there was nothing glaringly wrong with it, I walked away feeling like this movie was a side-story to a much more interesting epic – and asked myself why we weren’t being told that story.
I guess this was supposed to be another B-level hit by the guys who brought you the Blair Witch but really this movie didn’t need to be made. The following things are bad about Altered: The plot, the writing, the dialog, the characters, the casting, the sets, the effects, the motivations, the revealed back-story. Also: they show you the alien in the first 10 minutes and it’s just a dude in a rubber suit.
Darkness Falls
This movie wanted to star Ryan Reynolds in it so bad. Interesting premise (kind of a Nightmare on Elm Street thing) and some decent effects given its budget. This is definitely a rainy-saturday rental, though.
The Code
This movie was so fucking interesting that I paused it after 20 minutes to get up and pee and forgot to press play.
This was a cute little romcom. It wasn’t too saccharine and I enjoyed myself.
The Men Who Stare at Goats
Thanks to my friend Noah, I can only ever think of this film as The Men who Stare at Goatse. Feels like it should be a Coen Brothers film; isn’t; reveals why towards the end. Still fun.
Crazy things in space. Tense and scary but the reveals are a bit predictable. There will be some Fridge Logic later.

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Ten Years Later, A Return to the Von Braun


System Shock 2 is a game about choices.

I want to start with some history to edumacate those of you who may never have even heard of a ten-year old game or understand its importance.

In August of 1999, Irrational Games and the now-defunct Looking Glass Studios released System Shock 2, a first person shooter with heavy role-playing elements. It was critically acclaimed and yet never managed to find an audience.

System Shock 2 is widely regarded as one of the best games ever made. I’m not kidding: it has a handful of “Game of the Year” trophies and consistently hits the top ten in all the lists by all the publications. It has a place in the hallowed halls with Pong, Tetris, The Legend of Zelda, and even modern classics like Portal (which really wouldn’t exist without SS2).

I played System Shock 2 for the first time in the year 2000. Now, ten years later, I have finished it again. It was – and remains – The Scariest Game I Have Ever Played.

After a decade, the gameplay shows some wear and tear. Time has proven a few gameplay elements to be poor experiments (the massive level of weapon degrade, some of the ways that context switching is handled) while others have become staples of first-person RPG games.

The interface itself feels a tad clunky. Default keybindings are sometimes awkward. The triggers feel wrong. The inventory screens feel inverted. Ten years of usability studies have occurred since the game was released, however, and it could be (and likely is) that my irritation at the controls comes from a decade’s worth of handling more intuitive systems.

However, I don’t want to talk about the game’s mechanics. I want to talk about the experience of playing the System Shock 2. About how the simple concept of granting the player choices makes the game scarier than anything I’ve ever played.

It’s pretty fuckin’ scary, my friends.

This concept alone tells me all I will ever need to know about whether or not “good graphics” make a game better. A good game makes the game better. When there’s a phase spider chittering towards you and you’re down to only one bullet, you don’t really give a shit so much about the visual fidelity applied to its fangs.

(Ditto for the cryokinetic monkeys with cybernetic brains.)

One of the most important engines generating SS2′s nightmare fuel is the sound design. You nearly always hear what is going to eat you before it makes itself known. This gives your lizard brain enough time to simmer in the understanding of the Big Suck That Is About To Happen.

When Doom III was released, it was claimed to be the “scariest game ever made”. That was bullshit: the game’s fear factor was artificially generated by the fact that your character, a marine, could not figure out how to duct tape a flashlight to his gun. Monsters didn’t inhabit the game world; they lived in secret closets and jumped out at you


without warning. After this happened the fourth time it was expected – and once something is expected, it can’t be startling. “Oh, the bad guys will be coming out of the floor over there as soon as I’m past this trigger point.” There’s no fear because there’s no tension. There’s no tension because you don’t have to make any decisions.

A typical System Shock 2 “Decision Time” goes like this: You’re crouched in a small alcove on the personnel deck. The walls are smeared with blood. Between you and your goal, around the corner (a first-aid station), you hear the shuffling feet and psychotic whispering of a demented, possessed crew member. He probably has a shotgun and you’ve only got five hit points. If he hits you, you’re dead.

Four of your weapons – the ones you have plentiful ammo for – are broken and useless. You do have three shotgun rounds but you want to save those for a real emergency. Normally you might just run in there and smack the guy’s skull with your space wrench, which doesn’t break and doesn’t use ammunition. But seriously: if he hits you at all it’s game over, load an old save.

What do you do?

It is moments like this that create the tension in the game. In Doom III, your options are pretty much “just shoot everything” since you can’t really find alternate routes and you can’t formulate a plan for a room since it’s nearly always going to be “the super silent monsters are going to drop from the ceiling without warning”.

If, as a player, you are not required to make choices there’s no reason to be afraid. Why bother? You’re just on a train-ride. If you fail, you fail. Might as well watch a movie at that point.

Decision time: You have one repair tool. You have two weapons that are broken. One of them is pretty effective against robots but shitty against fleshy targets. The other is excellent at pulpifying dudes but just dents machine entities. Which one do you repair? What’s the likelihood of there being robots in the area I’m heading into? What if I fix the pulperizer and then run into a combat mech? Ugh ugh ugh.

This focus on player choice crops up everywhere. Even from the very beginning, during character creation: Are you going to be a soldier, a hacker, or someone with mental powers? Okay, now make some further choices. And whenever you get the game’s equivalent of experience points (cyber modules), how are you going to spend them?

You’ve been getting your ass kicked pretty hard lately. Maybe you should invest in some more hit points? But, you know, you’ve almost got your hacking skill maxed out, and that’s super useful. Maybe you should up your heavy weapons skill? You don’t have much call for them very often but when the Big Monsters come running, being able to bazooka one is pretty awesome.

I love the game Half-Life. It’s got some scary moments in it (partly because it, too, uses sound to start the terror engines). However, it doesn’t have many choices: you are going to go from point A to point B. You never have to decide what abilities to grow and which ones to allow fallow. It’s far more twitchy; success or failure in the game ultimately comes to clicking the buttons at the right time.

Half-Life doesn’t really serve as a “horror” game. I think in order for a horror game to be successful, the player has to be injected with self-doubt. Is this the right thing to do? Or that one?

2007′s Bioshock (my review) tried to capture this and failed. This is disheartening as the guys who made Bioshock? Same guys who made System Shock 2. In fact, it is almost the same game.

Except for the entire “not being scary” bit: while Bioshock forced you to make choices (not many of them, mind you), there are no real consequences for making a choice, good or bad. The meticulous balancing of the game protects even the worst skill choices, leading to the same tepid boss fights having the same tepid difficulty.

Sure, you can choose to eat the little kids instead of rescuing them. However, no one who understands even rudimentary game theory is going to do that: the reward for saving them is so much better than for eating them.

In System Shock 2, a bad build choice will result in extreme difficulty for everything. Better: you won’t know how badly you’ve screwed yourself until you can’t go back.

There is a strong argument to say that is bad game design – that the enjoyment of the player is of paramount importance, all other priorities rescindant. It doesn’t matter how great a game becomes if the player quits in frustration early on. This is a true statement but makes several assumptions about the target market which may or may not be accurate. Sometimes, people want difficult games. They want to be afraid.

Players want to feel like their choices matter. If I make a choice and it is the right one, I feel elation. If it is not, then disappointment. I fear disappointment. I hope for elation. It’s that simple.

Reduce or eliminate that tension and there’s no point to even playing the game.

Shock 2 is long out-of-print but you might be able to find copies on eBay for a small handful of ducets. Once you’ve got a disk, you’ll need to do some magic to make it work in modern hardware. This can be frustrating but ultimately is worth it. there are several mods that update the graphics, even.

And some mods that make the game harder.

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My latest hobby is one I have invented and call Junkbombing. What is Junkbombing, you ask?

It’s when you take your own old, busted crap and secretly leave it at someone else’s garage sale.

I take photographs of my victories. Since I started this hobby, I’ve come up with a couple different “degrees” of Junkbomb quality. Point values could easily be applied to these degrees, and I would normally do that, but I’m the only person playing this game so I am, by default, the victor.

The first degree is basically “dumptrucking”. You just wait until no one is looking, drop your item on the table, take a photo, and move on.

The second degree is when you call attention to the item in some way – or be seen by the seller(s) holding the item (like you were examining it). First, “dumptruck” it. Then, later, make sure the seller is looking at you when you pick it up and examine it . . . but then put it back down on the table. This can be easier with a partner: by calling your partner’s attention to the object (“Hey, take a look at this!”), you’ll get the attention of the seller.

Junkbombing of the Third Kind is the Holy Grail: get the seller to claim ownership of the object, directly or indirectly. For example, “dumptruck” the item. Wander around a bit. Then, pick the item up and ask the seller how much they want for it, since there isn’t a price tag. It doesn’t matter the number you get quoted – why are you going to pay for something that you already own? Just shake your head, say “eh” and put it back down.

Some garage sales are very difficult to leave things at. Sometimes, if it’s raining, they’ll be entirely indoors, which means that the sellers are much more likely to be watching over everything like hawks. Other times, it’s almost too easy to leave something. Today, we went to a garage sale and the offerings were so meagre and pathetic that leaving my junk would have been better.

Soon, however, I’m going to run out of junk to leave.

Here are some of my trophies.

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In the Pines, IV


A couple weeks ago, a co-worker decided that several of us should play a game. This was a musical game: Pick a song, in secret, that “best describes who you are”. Once everyone selected their own identifying track, we would be given a list of people and a list of songs. The point of the game was to match the song to the player.

It was a difficult game for me. Not so much the “playing” of it (I came in second); rather, simply selecting a song that described me was an effort akin to cleaning the Augean stables.

What the hell, man? What the hell?

This is not a song that I like. It’s a song that best describes who I am. That’s tough. It took me a whole day of combing my library to find the right track:

Mark Lanegan’s version of In the Pines (called “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”), off his 1990 album, The Winding Sheet.


Because this track, over many others, actually represents a great deal about who I am.

The first time I heard Lanegan’s version was 1991, I think. I was working as a disc jockey at a nightclub (I wasn’t quite old enough to drink but I was “cool” with some people and knew my shit and had filled in on emergency shifts so there we are). It was maybe an hour before we opened, the owner, Kerwood, threw The Winding Sheet on over the system while we set up.

The track came on and I was instantly able to sing along to it. I didn’t know how or why; I just knew the lyrics.


(Kerwood is long gone now, overdosed on amphetamines, dead in a small West Virginia town. The man would wake at five in the afternoon, take a hit of LSD, do a couple of whippits, and then drink until he couldn’t feel the acid anymore.

And then he’d take more acid.)

(He once smoked me out and the joint was laced with PCP. That experience set me off pot for about a decade.)


In the Pines is a folk song from the Appalachians, where I was born and raised. I have fuzzy memories of people singing it around me. My grandmother? Possibly; she had a robin’s voice and there are many songs my three-year-old self learned while sitting on her lap.

(I learned it primarily as “In the mines, in the mines,” by the way, which makes more sense given the coal mining focus of my people.)

Lanegan’s version was a powerful retelling for me. It took the folk music I knew (and liked) and recast it, cloaking it with a chaotic distortion and anguish I’d never heard.

That mental shift has remained with me.

Do the lyrics reflect me? Not so much. It’s not the words. For me, the song represents my struggle to continually merge my history, lineage, and folklore into the modern, progressive mindset that dominates me.

When I am alone playing my guitar? My fingers fall into the patterns of Appalachian blues and folk. Take that, slow it down (or speed it up). Add in some echo, a lot of distortion, noise, fuzz – scream it, scream everything

birth to dying, all we are is trying

If you can understand that, then maybe I’ve succeeded in dumping my brain into notes and noise.

Nearly everyone playing the game guessed that song was mine, by the way.

An interesting bit of history about Lanegan’s version:

This track came a hair’s breadth away from subtracting both the Screaming Trees and Nirvana from history. Caput! Bands end, there is no Teen Spirit.

Mark Lanegan’s biggest fame comes from being the vocalist for a couple different bands: The Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age (with one of my favorite musicians, Josh Homme, the brilliance behind Kyuss), the Gutter Twins (with the other of my favorite musicians, Greg Dulli, from the Afghan Whigs).

The recording of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, in 1989, was actually intended to be one of the first tracks on an album by a new band (for Lanegan and Mark Pickerel, the Trees’ drummer) called “Lithium.”

The bassist on that track (and for the band)? Kris Novoselic. The guitarist? A young upstart and major fan of Lanegan’s named Kurt Cobain (who was once turned down as bassist for the Melvins – a job that would go to Lori “Lorax” Black, daughter of Shirley Temple).

When Nirvana covered the track for their “Unplugged” session, they were actually covering Mark Lanegan’s version (which was based on a 78 RPM recording he had of Lead Belly). Lead Belly’s most common lyrics went “Black girl, black girl, where did you go…”

Years later, Dave Grohl (the only member of Nirvana not involved in the recording) would refer to The Winding Sheet as one of the best albums of all time and one of Nirvana’s biggest influences.

Yay, history.

Previously, Previously, Previously, and Previously

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This evening found a thirty-year old memory drifting through the air. It is always a curious thing to be granted a window – albeit murky – into events that shaped my world view.

When I was in second grade, I performed in a local production of a play, Christmas on Erie Street. I played the part of one of the newsboys, Tony.

I remember little about the casting or rehearsals or even the performance. I remember that my copy of the script was a little orange book and that over the course of a month it became tattered. I remember lots of soapy, white powder, and I remember being annoyed at being forced to wear make up so that my features wouldn’t be bleached out by the harsh stage lights.

Most everything is a blur.

What I do remember starkly is a conversation with my mother on the night of our dress rehearsal and a fragile understanding that dawned within me afterwards.

You see, our dress rehearsal was to be performed in front of an audience – a non-paying audience composed of the mentally ill, brought in a bus from a local hospital. I don’t remember exactly where, I may not have been told. I spied on them through the curtain as they came in, while the house lights were up.

They frightened me. They were different from me, from everyone I knew; alien in ways that my seven year old self had no experience with or frame of reference.

I told my mother that I couldn’t perform. That they scared me, and that I didn’t want them there.

I asked her, “Why do they have to be here?”

My mother stared into my eyes for a moment, composing her answer.

“Oh, Brandon,” she said. “Yes, they’re. . . different from you. But that shouldn’t change anything.”

“They deserve to enjoy things, too.”

I pondered. What she said felt innately fair and correct, a truism I had known my entire life and somehow forgotten. It was like discovering I had fingers.

Despite this lesson, I am still human. And as all humans, I composed my own share of petty cruelties, fears, and jealousies. I do not regret these. They, too, continued to shape me. However, that doesn’t mean that I cannot grieve for them as lost opportunities to have been a better person.

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Flipping Cards


My friend Priyanka has an interesting way to get exercise in the workplace. It’s a little game called “flipping cards” and it works like this:

On your desk is a deck of playing cards. Anyone can go up to your desk and flip over any number of cards. Based on what gets flipped, you do repetitions of either sit-ups or push-ups. The number of reps done is based on the card’s face value, while the type of exercise is based on the color (black for push-ups, red for sit-ups).

Hello Kitty Cards

Here is my card deck.

So if someone comes over and flips an Eight of Spades, you’re going to be doing 8 push-ups. If they flip you three cards (10 of Clubs, 4 of Spades, King of Hearts), you’re doing a lot of reps (14 push-ups and 13 sit-ups, in that case).

You don’t have to do them all at once. You can spread the exercise out throughout the day but you have to finish what you’ve been dealt before you leave the office. However, unless it’s a large number (50+), you’re going to get made fun of for not doing them in one go.

(It is considered poor form to demand someone do sit-ups just after having eaten lunch).

This is the Punishment.

Priyanka and I sharing the burden. Photo by Guillaume Paumier.

I liked this idea and I’ve been trying to get more exercise lately so I brought in a deck of Hello Kitty playing cards that were given to me as a gift a while back.

Priyanka celebrated this by immediately drawing 10 cards for me. Then, just because she’s awesome, she did the same exercises I had to do.

This morning I came into the office to find that someone had pulled for me a full house: three jacks, two aces. 24 push-ups and 11 sit-ups.


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Protesters Arrested; Film at Eleven


Some people don’t like BP much. So today, while most of their numbers are out of the city at Burning Man, the remaining hippies decided to march and block the intersection at New Montgomery and Mission, where BP has some offices.

No Blood for Oil! No Blood for Oil!  Oh, wait.

No Blood for Oil! No Blood for Oil! Oh, wait.

This is BP *Solar*, by the way.

Save the earth! From oil!

Save the earth! From oil!

Frank Chu was there, of course.

Frank Chu Redoux

Frank Chu Redoux

Watching people get nabbed by the po-po is actually pretty boring so I left after fifteen minutes or so.



These two dudes behind me started shouting at each other. I thought they were going to start trading punches, but they didn’t.

Time for a little vay-cay.

Time for a little vay-cay.

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Jörm von Motörhead

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