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Northward and through the gate
John Shepard ( - Mon Jul 12, 2010 14:27:12 GMT - 1115
''John Shepard, if that is your real name... ''

I've been writing Rastports, just not posting them. Writing them is easy. Finishing them - getting to a conclusion of some sort, maybe editing it to remove the chaos - is hard. And I've been too busy to commit much time to such a thing.

That and nothing happens in my life except dead animals and whining. Right?

April 2010

I've never really talked much about Stargate: Atlantis, have I? Mentioned it at all? Maybe once in 2006?

I do notice this. One of the motivating factors behind the Great Move was noticing, in back Rastports, the startling turn in tone from 2006 to 2007. In 2006 I could talk about stuff. In 2007 I was just sort of shut down. I might talk about topics from television to politics in 2006, but in 2007 it's like those weren't subjects anymore. Partly it was the loss of self-worth that left me thinking that I had no opinions. Not lack of opinions worth hearing - a lack of opinions, that what I thought were opinions were nothing. Very weird mind-place to be in, and the whole time this mechanism was stripping gears, I was aware it wasn't supposed to be like this and could do nothing about it.

But before all that, Girlfriend introduced me to Stargate: Atlantis, and you will see in a moment why that is today's topic of conversation.

There were two things which attracted her to the show: its then-thriving, possibly the most active fan fiction community in existence in 2006, and the chuckle she got from the fact that the show's lead character is Colonel John Sheppard, played by Joe Flanigan who looks nothing like me. About fifty times an episode people say the name "John Sheppard" and we can't help think it's funny.

Thus my introduction to what was, for a couple seasons anyway, one of the best sci-fi shows I've seen. They made a remarkable effort to keep the science and technology right. (Or so I thought, until I learned that SOP in most weekly sci-fi shows is to write the word "tech" in the script as a placeholder and send it to a consulting firm in Hollywood that fills in all the placeholders with well-researched, plausible-sounding technobabble that usually fits well with the plot!) The FX were state of the art for SF television at the time. And the characters.

Personally I felt like the characters never got the show they deserved. Particularly Sheppard and more so, resident mad scientist Dr. Rodney McKay.

Stargate: Atlantis was a spinoff of Stargate: SG-1, which in turn was a spinoff of the movie Stargate with Kurt Russell and James Spader. At the time SGA premiered, SG-1 was about halfway through its run. Here my understanding of the situation goes fuzzy: about this time, SG-1 switched producers and the new guy was kind of a douchebag. Atlantis remained unharassed during the first few years of this, operating "without adult supervision" until SG-1 ended and this douchebag producer looked around for something else to ruin. When he moved over to SGA, the difference was immediately noticable: McKay's character development regressed three seasons, beloved characters started being killed off in insulting ways (exploding tumor?!?) and producer doucheboy's favorite SG-1 character got brought to Atlantis to occupy more screen time than the regulars.

(It is nowhere as simple as this - the original producers of SG-1 seemed perpetually unhappy with the direction Atlantis went, and their occasional attempts to detonate nukes in its path to deflect it back where they wanted it are awkward, hokey, and transparent. Good writers go where the story and characters lead them - or are able to cover the staples.)

Then came the third Stargate series - Stargate: Universe - which began to show this guy's creepy influence even before it premiered. Word got around that a plotline of the show was going to involve the wheelchair-bound virgin swapping bodies with the token hot lesbian so she can get it on with the hot male lead. It had not occurred to anyone, from the writers on up through the producers, to ask what the lesbian is supposed to think when she gets her body back and realizes what was done to it. I realize science fiction creates a lot of situations that are not possible in our world, a few of which have rape-like characteristics, and if science fiction is going to deal in those subjects, it should actually deal with those subjects and not play it off for entertainment. The producer has a history of this: a date-rape-like scenario is written into an episode of Atlantis for laughs and I seem to remember this is the guy who wrote out a character on Sliders by having her abducted offscreen and raped to death between seasons. This isn't just me going "ooh, misogyny" and waving garlic and stakes at it. I am not the only person who gets this vibe from this producer, that after awhile once you notice a writer or producer thinks a certain way, you can't ever not notice it, like Michael Bay's racism or George Lucas' Aspergers.

And we'd have been willing to I don't know, ignore Universe and move on with our lives, and continue watching Atlantis, except the next thing they did was cancel Atlantis. Universe and Atlantis sets were built on different soundstages, and the original plan was to run both shows in parallel as was done with SG-1 and Atlantis, and this was before MGM began falling apart in earnest, so as far as we know, this was just the new production team finally ridding themselves of the Atlantis scourge and starting over with the show they wanted to make.

Which as near as I can tell is Battlestar Galactica shot on completely black sets with flashlights and handheld cameras held about waist high. I like some of the actors but I can't find anything to like in the characters, and I can't watch the show. Literally. My eyes have trouble tracking the screen with all the low-angle handheld shooting in dim light. Maybe it'll get better, but I don't want it to get better. I want it to fail and get off the air, and producer doucheboy can be out of a job and Robert Carlyle can go back to acting.

Against the backdrop of this developing saga, once money and car existed in our lives, we were thinking about attenting the next Stargate convention in Vancouver, the one held near where the show is filmed, because they offer tours of the set. Wanted to get in on this while the Atlantis sets were still standing.

Got tickets. We even booked at the Hilton where the convention was, a first for us - not just to stay at a Hilton, but to actually stay where a convention is taking place. That would have been so useful at conferences we've (or I've) been to in the past, but we never had the money to do it right. This time we did, although it took several months to stockpile it.

So. Booked rooms, got our passports, and then we get word that the studio has gone ahead and destroyed the Atlantis (and SG-1) sets, presumably to make room for more filming on Universe.

The convention organizers threw everyone a bone: anyone who bought tickets before the sets were struck got $100 gift cards usable at the convention, and complimentary autograph tickets for several of the stars.

So we went anyway.

Before daring this brave expedition to the north, I wanted to give the car a good once-over. She's been pulling a little, and needs brakes. I wanted the alignment checked. Turns out it wasn't alignment: the two front tires were disintegrating. (The two Firestones.) The roads were smoother afterwards. And of course it's nice having brakes. Last thing you want is for the brakes to fail approaching the border crossing.

And then there are the fish. I may kill a lot of these guys by being dumb, but I know a few things: I know not to use those stupid "vacation feeder" bricks that are basically drywall with fish flakes embedded in them, and I know not to have someone come over and feed my fish while I'm away (this is because it takes a great deal of training to get someone not to overfeed - even the aquarium's owner is usually guilty of this for the first few months). Fish, if well-fed beforehand, can go two weeks without food, as they must often do in the wild. No, what the fish needed were water changes, and they were getting water changes to the tune of about 40% per day for a month - and while I am gone they get none.

So before we left, I fed the fish, waited half an hour, and then did a massive 90% water change, and dumped in a whole bottle of bacterial booster (Tetra SafeStart - "with patented BioSpira formula") alongside the usual chemical treatments.

We'll see if it worked. The idea is that the bacteria help process the ammonia that builds up in the water - bacteria that should already be there after four months but I have my suspicions they're not quite established (and that this may have been the reason for the dieoffs last month) (or that each dieoff represents the bacteria dying off for some reason, resetting the clock).

Cleaned up the apartment a little so we weren't coming home to a mess. Cleaned the car in case we got searched at the border. Put the aquarium lights on a timer. Shut down all the computers (a process that took half an hour!). Locked the door, got in the car, and drove.

First stop: Girlfriend's place of work, whereupon she took delivery of her final paycheck. She timed her two weeks' notice to coincide with the start of the trip, and she is now gainfully unemployed.

That is one of the reasons I was unwilling to entirely give up on hopes of getting back my career: she deserves some time off. I just sorta hope her extended vacation is more enjoyable than mine was for me, since she doesn't have to spend all day hiding from a psychopath.

And then? Northward bound.

I love me some Canada. When we were in Toronto a few years back it felt to me like a dream world.

There are a few showstopping reasons why I don't just try to move to the North - the big one is that they only mostly have freedom of speech, such that libel laws trump free speech; I would paraphrase it as generally don't say bad things about anyone with a lot of money, even if it's true. Corporations have hidden deaths by suing the pants off everyone who knows about it to keep them from speaking. Can you imagine this power in the hands of American companies? Here, of course, freedom of speech is not an absolute right, but you can claim it as a defense in a trial and sometimes you win. In Canada you pretty much lose by default.

But if I were born in Canada, I'd find a similar list of showstopping reasons not to want to move to the United States. Tea Partiers are a huge one. I have much to say about them but now's not the time. Not if I want my blood pressure to stay normal. Fucking morons goddamn terrified of health care because it might mean they have no excuse to get their damn mental illnesses looked at... ok, calm down...

Canada has its quirks and annoyances. Sales taxes have sales taxes. Food is expensive, but we noticed that recorded media - movies etc - are generally price-parity or cheaper than the US. And I noticed I kept getting cut off in traffic by cars with a big green "N" on the back.

But once I get adjusted, and it doesn't take long, Canada's weirdness feels somehow normal to me. It became a running joke that every odd thing about Canada is "metric" especially if it has nothing to do with units of measure.

McDonalds is a pizza joint. "Metric."

Peanut butter comes in weird tall jars about the size of a jar of instant tea. "Metric."

Green traffic lights flash. "Metric."

The Canadian equivalent of the Sci-Fi Channel actually shows sci-fi. "Metric."

There are adult stores everywhere and no one seems to mind. "Metric."

No one has those dumb stick-figure-family stickers on their vehicles. "Metric." (Girlfriend calls those annoying stickers "serial killer bait".)

Food portions are smaller. Um... possibly literally metric, eg "they don't have quarter pounders"? Or possibly Canadians are not habitually gluttonous?

Kinder Surprise. "Metric."

A lot of these are about food, because most of our ventures outside the convention area were to try to find food. More as I think of them, as I write.

City buses, when out of service, actually have the word "Sorry" on their signboard. Metric. (Tri-Met doesn't even announce their outages half the time, much less apologize for the inconvenience.)

Vancouver feels a little more American than Toronto did. Maybe it's the proximity to the border. Maybe it's a west coast thing. But you definitely know you're in Canada. People aren't out to destroy you. Well, except for people with big green "N"s on their cars. I'll explain that mystery in a bit.

Now, for Canada being so notorious for its high tax rates, it's funny that their economy is thriving, and the Canadian dollar is rising while the US dollar is taped to the inside hull of the Titanic. What was I saying earlier about American superconservatives and mental illness? I mean, I go to Canada and can't even recall having seen a deserted storefront anywhere we've driven. Stateside we drove past entire shopping centers sitting empty. Obviously it's not the taxes. I think it has more to do with a) the Canadian national character doesn't view it as a religious obligation to crush your enemies and see them driven before you, and b) Canadian companies have a tendency to make stuff you might actually want to buy, whereas American companies use the Field of Dreams economic model.

Vancouver light rail is driverless. That means no driver to get on the intercom and insult passengers, or refuse to open the doors and blow through stops at high speed, or throw gays off the train, or decide they want to take the night off early and just take the train out of service and throw everyone off at the next stop. Metric.

Canadian car insurance companies offer discounts if you commute to work without a car. Metric.

For that matter I saw commercials for a company that banks umbilical stem cells. That cannot happen in the United States. Metric.

Aloe drinks. Complete with chunks of green stuff floating around in it, looking like the algae in my mini tank if I haven't cleaned it in awhile. Metric.

The convention is held at the Hilton in Burnaby. Burnaby, it might help to understand, is a cross between a suburb and a Borough. It's a suburb of Vancouver in sort of the same way Brooklyn is a suburb of Manhattan. Toronto used to have "suburbs" like this but consolidated them a decade back or so - becoming in the process the largest city in North America. Vancouver and Burnaby still have different mayors. Anyway. Burnaby is first-world enough to have a Hilton. And why Burnaby? This site was chosen for the convention because the studios where Stargate is filmed are right up the road a little ways. We think a few of the actors live in the neighborhood.

Our room was on the 13th floor of said Hilton.

Never stayed at a Hilton before. I have stayed in a nicer hotel room - but only once. (Marriott Suites, obviously someone else was paying.) And I've certainly stayed in worse. I tell you, one thing I found myself missing right away was food preparation devices. Apparently you have to upgrade to an even more expensive room before you get a fridge or a microwave. And we needed those. Badly. But in place of that we got a 60" flatscreen and a fancy desk with a Herman Miller "Celle" chair. I like that chair. I want one. So I looked for one online. Cheapest I found was $450. So that may have to wait.

Did I mention the pillowtop bed?

Still, I'd have traded the chair at least for a microwave.

We set out a day earlier than we originally intended, because we could. I figured it would be a good idea anyway to leave ourselves a good amount of extra time, in case anything spectacular went wrong - up to and possibly including being turned back at the border because we forgot something, and could go back and get it. (That fortunately did not happen.) But it got us to Burnaby a day before our reservation at the Hilton. So we grabbed a room at a Best Western. Wasn't bad - except the most important part: the mattress was a solid block of granite. I woke up at 2am with a Meteorite, which I attribute in part to lying on a mattress with no give (and partly to a Canadian grocery store selling something that called itself "cheese" but is actually, near as I can determine, a petroleum product).

Yes bits of the story are out of order.

I admit I am not a huge fan of the idea of a Hilton. But it's to be noted: However you feel about yourself, if your life maybe has been something of a train wreck over the last several years, checking in to a Hilton is a clear sign that something in your life has changed. I don't need to stay in a Hilton. But that I can if I want to - that means I am regaining some ability to do interesting things.

I begin to suspect that's the point of a Hilton. It's for bored executives to stay at and feel like they're awesome.

The real reason we wanted to stay at the Hilton is to actually be at the hotel where a convention is being held for once, instead of across town. We were an elevator away from the action: if we needed to go back to the room to get something, it was a 2 minute round trip. Plus you run the nonzero risk of actually being in the elevator with one of the celebrities.

The Hilton shares a building with a mall. But this is no American-style mall. This is an Asian market. Most of the stores are about ten feet (3 meters) wide. Many have absolutely no English signage at all. Most days I can walk the whole mall (it is circular) and see no caucasians. It's beautiful. The only real problem is, there is this vast food court full of amazing-looking Chinese food, and I don't trust my stomach enough to risk any of it. (I keep wondering if I should get a Canadian doctor to take a look at the Meteorites.)

I knew we were going to the convention to see Joe Flanigan and David Hewlett - Sheppard and McKay. I didn't know who else was on the bill, Girlfriend had been closer to all that than I was.

So we roll in on Thursday, pick up our convention passes, and I take a look at the day's schedule.

William B. Davis is on the schedule for that day.

Did you know William B. Davis was in an episode of SG-1? Neither did I. Well, he was, and apparently he lives in Vancouver and is easy enough to get as a convention guest, so there he was on the bill for Thursday afternoon and an autograph signing afterwards.

William B. Davis. You do know who that is, right? The Cigarette Smoking Man from the X-Files? That guy.

So now I have his autograph.

I get starstruck pretty easily, I guess. I couldn't manage to say much when it was my turn in the autograph line. I just felt weird. And he's the nicest guy, it's not like he's gonna bring the Syndicate down on me or something.

It's clear to me that X-Files couldn't have become what it was without him. He wasn't in every episode, but it became pop culture that he's in the best episodes - and anyone telling a joke about a shady conspiracy or something you're "not supposed to know" will throw in a shadowy figure with a cigarette habit to drill the point home. It's his presence. He went half the first season before ever saying a word. Always there. Always taking away what you have. And I mean, anyone can smoke a cigarette and look discontent, but this guy can act the doors right off their hinges and not move a muscle. Acting, it seems, matters. Actors don't just stand there and mug, there's skill involved, skill some people lack. I can't act, for example. Eric Bana can't act either but people keep giving him roles, go figure. But that's beside the point.

The point is I have the Smoking Man's autograph.

Figure there're about a thousand people at the convention.

Many days, many guests. They go onstage and they talk about stuff and they take questions from the audience. You learn stuff.

We did learn the real reason the Stargate: Atlantis set was torn down. Seems the Stargate production team was getting a nice deal: MGM was paying the rent, $30,000 a month, on that soundstage (the largest in North America). MGM didn't mind. But after Atlantis ended, and this movie they kept talking about to sort of wrap up the plot lines they left dangling failed to materialize, and more importantly once MGM's financial problems caught up with them, the free rent came to an end and that soundstage had to start hosting some paying customers.

Shame. Word is the main Atlantis set was amazing. By the way it was originally built for Blade III and the Stargate people were able to buy it for a song and retrofit it.

But it's interesting no one was willing to talk about how and why Atlantis itself was ended. I almost think orders came down from On High that you don't talk negatively about the production team and its decisions if you ever want to be part of a Stargate: Atlantis movie (or a guest spot on Universe).

I dunno. You know, the nice thing about the Internet, and living in the year 2010, is you can make your own damn television if you are so inclined. It makes the shit we put up with from TV executives and douchebag producers seem unnecessary abuse. You can go round up a dozen friends, pick whoever has the most interesting-looking basement, put up some lights, and go get a Mac and a $300 hi-def handheld camera, and you're already way ahead of Stargate: Universe. Television is an old model and the collapse of Stargate: Atlantis is proof that there's something wrong with it and the funding pipelines necessary to keep it running. But I have no good ideas how to fix it. What are you gonna do, round up a dozen friends and somehow William B. Davis is one of them? (Actually isn't that the point of theater?)

I suppose one can always raise six million dollars importing leather jackets... ah but that's a Rastport all to itself.

Eh. I don't actually know what I'm talking about. Just complaining, that's all. Television is all about money, but money ruins television.

The cool thing about a TV series is you can get into the characters in a lot more depth than you could in a movie where you can only spend an hour or two with them. Problem 1: American audiences have short attention spans so whatever character exposition you do, you must do every episode, each episode of NCIS must state by contract that Gibbs used to be a Marine. Problem 2: Depending on the show and the audience, if a character develops - changes - audience may grumble. Problem 3: Too many writers, bad writers, good writer leaves the show, executive meddling, etc, can change characters in ways the audience may legitimately grumble about.

Like I mean, you'd know if Spock were ever out of character, which makes him extraordinarily difficult to write for. Gil Grissom of CSI is similar to Spock in that he demands a lot from the writer, a lot of writers couldn't get to grips with the character, and after a couple of overhauls of the writing team, the actor got disgusted and left because he no longer recognized the character. It came through onscreen.

They did say they kept the Stargate itself, so they can reassemble that if need be, and probably use greenscreen and virtual sets if a movie ever happens.

We rode the elevator once with Rachel Luttrell. And our car was parked right next to Dan Shea's.

The "N" on the backs of cars? When a kid in British Columbia first gets their driver's license they must have the "N" prominently displayed for two years before they get a full driver's license. The "N" may be a proper bumper sticker, or it may be a thing that can be taped into the back window if they are driving someone else's car. So these literally are warning stickers: potential moron on board.

It's far too sensible. It could never fly in the US.

So I go up to to the autograph session for Joe Flanigan, the actor who plays John Sheppard on the show. To get your autographs personalized, the staff do Post-It notes upon which is written clearly what you want on the autograph - generally your name. Star is then going to put something like "To Bob, Best wishes, (signature)". I had them put my first and last name on the Post-It: it's just too good an opportunity to pass up. I just had to see his reaction.

And his reaction was: "That's not your real name." Not a question, it was a statement and I think he was saying it in character. I showed him my driver's license to prove it. It was awesome.

Then the autograph session for David Hewlett. Same post-it. Similar initial reaction: "That's not your real name... is it?" Light dawns on him that yes, it's real. He signs mine "if that is your real name..." He's just a really funny, smart guy.

Tried to get similar reaction from Rachel Luttrell, but she had her little boy with her and he'd just fallen and bumped his head, so she was distracted. I think she thought I was bullshitting or something - no way could this be my name.

Having nearly the same name as a character on the show is a trump card I began to wish I'd played sooner. That could have made everyone's day. Nametag or something.

There were at least two other variants on the name John Shepard at my high school. I can't be the only fan of the show with this name.

We did not meet anyone at the convention named Rodney McKay.

Too much of the trip was about scrambling around looking for foodstuffs that are safe for me and my defective stomach to get near. It's been a long, long time since I was able to have a vacation of this sort without these kinds of problems - of being able to eat one meal a day and not worry about what's in that meal. Our first trip to Canada, we slept in a cabin by a lake in Apsley, somewhere in the parts of Ontario that do not have tall buildings; I remember making do with weird Canadian snack foods and only having actual food if we got back into Toronto proper. (I also remember some weird moments that are probably attributable to crashing blood sugar.) Second trip, we stayed in downtown Toronto in a hostel, a crazy experience we will probably not repeat - but at least the hostel had access to a microwave and we were smart enough to bring a cooler.

It's just that these days, any special event or vacation, I seem to have to set aside a certain number of hours for the inevitable Meteorite. One theory we're looking into is that sitting posture plays a role, such that the actual trip and hours sitting in one place is the trigger, except that I have these problems when we arrive, not when we return. I thought it could be the water or something, but to ameliorate that, this time we took a case of bottled water with us. But honestly, what it looks like to me is, if I go too long between meals, it increases the likelihood that something in the next meal will knock me down.

That all said. Next time we do this, it'll involve a cooler and a small toaster oven. Or at least a room with a fridge and a microwave. It is not practical and not safe to constantly have to go looking for restaurants in a town you don't know.

The original draft of this - written mostly in Canada - was lost to a laptop battery mishap. So it does feel like there's a story to be told and I can't seem to tell it. But that's the way of things lately. A story I may tell about my life these days is either concrete and unpleasant, eg the loss of a tankful of Corydoras, or longer, happier, but more nebulous. But I think I prefer it this way. Machinery in my life is being demonstrated to function occasionally.

So we are back in the States again. The car performed admirably.

In fact this went so well - knowing now that we can do this - we may do it again sometime. We got from our front porch to Vancouver, BC in less time than it took last year to go from our front porch to Seattle by train. I don't want to say it's easy, there are a million things that can go wrong in a trip like this and past performance is no predictor of future success, but it's certainly feasible in a way I would not have even contemplated 18 months ago. We're just like, OK, let's go to Canada. It's not even that big a deal. We just get our passports and go. We can do that now.

Seattle, similarly, seems like it just picked up and moved about 100 miles closer. If we get bored one weekend and want to go to Seattle, we can. Concerts for example might be practical.

All the fish (three danios, three tiger barbs) are alive and, near as I can determine, generally healthy. One of the danios lost some weight and has taken awhile to relearn how to eat food, but otherwise it worked. The tank water was crystal-clear when I got home.

Do I dare proclaim myself Knowing What The Heck I Am Doing? Well - not everyone can make this work. I did leave a lot of variables to chance, there were no backup systems in case of power failures, the heater could have failed high or failed low, the stand the tank sits on could have decided to collapse. But that didn't happen. Nobody starved, nobody jumped, and when I took a pH reading, it was 6.6, 0 ammonia, 0 nitrites, 0.25ppm nitrates. That's some of the best numbers that tank has ever had - and that's after a week of no maintenance at all. That's kind of impressive.

I started a picture while I was in Canada. Haven't worked on it much since we got back, we've had other things going on (a story for another day) but it too seems to suggest there is still a new me at work here, that once in awhile I do things.

This is who we were ten years ago, or maybe a little better. I like it.

That all said, it felt like there's something missing from the narrative - and on reflection it's something missing from the trip. We went to a convention. And I like the show but Girlfriend loves the show, and of course neither of us are interested in Universe, or really much of SG-1 for that matter, so for the most part there's nothing doing at the convention. So what did we do instead? Nothing. Wandered around Burnaby looking for food. Sat in the room watching Canadian television. Wandered around the awesome mall that shares a building with the Hilton. That's about it.

I imagine we "saw" Vancouver the same way a rock star "sees" Indianapolis: a brief overview of the skyline from the freeway, the two-block radius around the venue, and not much else. We were islands unto ourselves, we did make a few token excursions through the city, but it's nothing at all like what we did in Seattle last year. Legendary places like Robson Street or Vancouver Park were not seen by us. And that's fine, but it does mean there has to be another trip at some point to actually complete this trip.

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