Oxygen Mask, Aisle 2: The Fear of Putting Yourself Out There

I help guide others through the maze of self-publishing. I edit manuscripts, walk them through the processes of ISBN purchases, book cover design, book distribution listings, marketing, etc.  I’m pretty good at it. One day, I asked myself how I could help others realize their dreams effectively, when I haven’t realized my own? So here I am, about to put my work out there to be praised, ridiculed, ignored, etc. via self-publishing.

Excuse me while I hyperventilate.

I’m a pretty private person, so the thought of putting something as personal as stories that I’ve created, out into the world, is terrifying. I’m like Erykah Badu: “Now keep in mind that I’m an artist, and I’m sensitive about my s**t.” Those are my children, and I don’t want anyone to talk ugly about my children. But therein lies the rub: if no one talks about it, then the books don’t sell, and I don’t get better as a writer.

Raegan Mathis of Untitled 1975 said it best in a recent blog post:

Sometimes, whether we want to or not, we have to lay ourselves bare and just put it all on the table.  

No one comes together with another person with empty pockets or bags.  It doesn’t happen. Unless we’re speaking of babies.  No matter how we come together – as friends or as lovers, everything needs to be put on the table.  At one time or another. 

Some things have to be laid out sooner than others.  Other things, they can wait.  Sometimes, we don’t have a choice but to lay it all out or lose. 

This isn’t cards.  We don’t need to hide our hands.  We lay them down and bring our hands together to form one hand.  Love is about bringing it all together.  

It’s like preparing a dinner with what you have.  My father is an expert at seeing things in the fridge and making a meal when no one can see how it all comes together.  Ever had a wonderfully unexpected dinner that wasn’t planned, wasn’t from a recipe but was from what you had left over? Putting everything on the table reminds me of those dinners.  

Sometimes we won’t lay it out because we think someone won’t like what we have.  But what if you learn they have some of the same things you do? What if they have the missing pieces you need to make your life better?

Meet people where they are, with what they have. “

 

This passage was a boost to my spirits. I will meet people where they are (as readers) with what they have (a discerning eye and search for resonance). To do that, and to do it now, I have to do it on my own terms.

I have my own misgivings about mainstream publishing (coming to a future post near you!), which is why I’m taking the indie route. It’s a risk: I’m coming out of pocket for pretty much everything: cover design, promotions, etc., in the hopes that I will reap it all back in the end. Go big or go home, right?

Yet I stay awake at night, thinking of the gamble. I am middle-class and single. I don’t have the luxury of having a spouse or significant other to fall back on, should this writing thing go left. I don’t have a trust fund to cushion my fall. Getting a “real job” would be an exercise in futility (see above comment re: laid off or fired), even if I could find a spot that wasn’t scared of having to pay me for my considerable experience and education, or afraid that I’d take some manager’s spot someday, or didn’t make me want to slit my wrists for having to sit behind a desk for eight hours a day.

What if my work doesn’t catch on? Am as good a writer as I think I am (and as others claim I am)? Where do I find decent help for navigating social media waters? Do I need to blog every day? Do I need to post to my Facebook page every day? What about Twitter? Instagram? Do I need a Pinterest account? Can my editor fit my project into her schedule in time for ___ release date? PR…I need someone to massage my image. Where? Oh Gawd, I need a book cover photo–who? Dang it–I have to write a blurb for the back cover. Do I want to release a hardcover edition for Christmas? How do I move the plot along in my book? Maybe I should work on ___ book/story instead. To include an excerpt from the upcoming book, or not to include? Should I post short stories online? If I do, will someone copy it and pass it off as their own? Is there a plugin to prevent that? Great, now I have heartburn on top of insomnia. I think I need another pillow. Maybe a banana.  Or a peanut butter sandwich. But I do have those granola bars…

It’s like having fifty browser windows open in my head, all at the same time.

Then it all circles back to perception. One of my greatest fears is ending up on the free book list on Amazon , which is the digital equivalent of the bargain bin.  While there are occasional gems on there, a lot of the books offered aren’t that great, for whatever reason. Not to mention the content of my books. In my romance-oriented books, as well as some of the mainstream fare, I have sex scenes. I was embarrassed to see the movie Monster’s Ball with my mother; knowing that she (and/or my grandmother) will read those scenes is a bit disconcerting…but not enough for me to omit them. 😀

Finally, I am not looking forward to the barrages of questions from friends and acquaintances, regarding characters in my books. As any fiction author knows, the assumptions that the characters are based on real-life people are automatic:

Person A: You didn’t have to make me so [insert negative attribute] in your book.

Author: What are you talking about?

Person A: Your character, ______.  That was me, right?

Author: No, it wasn’t. I made him/her up.

Person A:  Uh huh, whatever. I know it was me. You didn’t have to write me like that, though.

Author: *sigh*

That whole “any resemblance to characters living or dead, is completely coincidental” caveat on the copyright page of fiction books is nothing more than legal protection. Very few actually believe it, especially since writing is much less expensive than therapy. But that will be my story, and I’m sticking to it.

This is going to be a wild ride, so the only thing I can do right now is strap in and hold on…and see who’s going to ride shotgun.

Thanks for stopping by.

 

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You Spin Me Round: On the Genesis of New Ideas

I’m taking a break from working on the second novel in my Bastille Family series, because I had to shut down spinoff ideas. My head was spinning from idea overload.

Writers, you know what that is: you think of how you can further maximize your current or future work, be it a character spinoff, or a companion book, or a prequel. Those ideas then multiply like project roaches, until you have a folder full of half-baked ideas for expanding your literary empire.

(Am I the only one with such a file? No? My author heads, I know you feel me.)

There comes a time when you have to slam on the brakes.  Thinking too much messes with productivity and when you are hustling to keep the public’s interest by virtue of a new book, or short story, focus is important. Unfortunately, like most writers, a vivid imagination never sleeps. If we’re not careful, those bright ideas for literary dynasties will derail the bread-and-butter efforts. Once that happens, there isn’t enough Adderall in the world to get us back on track.

Because I’m working on a series, and because I have Gemini rising in my astrological chart, I have a tendency to work on two things at once. The headlines for various national and international newspapers, plus Facebook, adds to my treasure trove of story ideas. It’s hard for me to stay on task sometimes, especially when I’ve hit a wall in my current project. Then, it’s easy to ease on down the road to another incomplete project in an attempt to kickstart the Muse. However, I’ve learned from personal experience that that way lies madness. Staying the course is important and while I have a lot to say, and a lot of ways to say it, I have to establish myself to the public first…and that means riding the current project out to completion (especially since I’m including an excerpt in the first novel). *sigh*

Okay, back to the drawing board.  Thanks for stopping by.

 

 

Gone too soon: Dr. Maya Angelou, 1928-2014

We interrupt these brain droppings to bring you important news:

Marguerite Ann Johnson, better known as Dr. Maya Angelou, renowned poet and champion of (black) female empowerment, joined the ancestors today. She was 86 years old.

For some, Maya Angelou was just a name. For others such as myself, who grew up hearing her rich, baritone voice ooze like molasses with her slow, deliberate cadence, she was a legend. Her book I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was instant vintage, and an inspiration to me. Like Angelou, I was the victim of sexual assault at a young age. Like Angelou, I grew up in a southern town where black people were still, to a degree, seen as inferior. Like Angelou, I discovered an essential part of myself when I moved to San Francisco (twice!). And like Angelou, I used words to make sense of my world.

Her poems were life-affirming, especially to a black girl who was constantly bombarded by messages that she wasn’t enough. She saw all aspects of the human condition and used her words to seek understanding, rather than judgment.

There will be countless obituaries for Dr. Angelou, and the accolades will be well deserved and more eloquent than what is written here. I can only say what she meant to me, and for giving this black girl a boost of fortitude to make it through, I salute her. Rise to Paradise, Dr. Angelou. See you at the crossroads.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite poems by Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise.” Thanks for stopping by.

 

STILL I RISE

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

–Maya Angelou

 

Say It Loud: Acknowledging the “Afro” in Afro-Latino Identity and Literature

Back in the day, I had no clue that Black Americans and Latinos have common African roots. Growing up in North Carolina, we were used to people/places/things being defined as “Black”, “White”, or “other”.  American history was as deep as our Board of Education deemed it to be (which was, to say, quite shallow), so pesky things like slavery were glossed over–never mind  how the major cultures of this rock we call Earth are intertwined.

[sidebar: “Latino” is not to be used interchangeably with “Hispanic”, which indicates origins in Spain]

I remember sitting in freshman year Biology, chatting with a fellow freshman named Mercedes from New Jersey. The conversation took an interesting turn when Mercedes commented, “…when my parents came from Cuba…”

I blinked. And blinked again. Mercedes’ gorgeous mahogany skin tone was a few shades darker than mine, and her hair was neatly relaxed to her shoulders, like most of the (American) black female students.  She had no discernible accent  or mannerisms that would peg her as anything other than  regular ol’ American Black, to my untrained ears and eyes. As I alluded earlier, my relatively sheltered upbringing caused me to be quite ignorant of many things. My first thought upon hearing Mercedes’s comment was, “There are black people in Cuba?”

Fast forward years later, and I read  Explicit Content by Black Artemis (also known as Sofia Quintero). The book chronicles the rise and fall (and rise) of two unlikely friends turned rappers: Cassandra, a sheltered Trinidadian-American black girl and  Leila, a street-smart Puerto Rican girl. During an argument with her lover, Leila schools him about Africa’s indelible (and often overlooked) stamp on Puerto Rican history, from the origin of the popular dancing style of bomba y plena, to breakdancing. Even though it was a fiction novel, that one passage was eye-opening and I remember Mercedes’ random comment so many years ago. Since then, other novelists have included the African origins of Latinos in their works, such as Good Peoples by Marcus Major. Quintero continued this theme in her adult novel Divas Don’t Yield, which has an Afro-Cuban woman as one of its main ensemble characters.

Divas Dont Yield Quintero

explicit content black artemis      Good Peoples Marcus Major

As an adult, I started reading about the transatlantic slave trade and its impact on not just the West Indies (Jamaica, St. Lucia, etc.), but also Cuba and Puerto Rico. African slaves were dropped off at all of those islands, and it went without saying that bloodlines were intermingled.  Quintero started a personal literary interest that continues to this day: Afro-Latino literature.

Daughters of the Stone by Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa continues the Afro-Latino trend. The novel weaves a multigenerational tale of women who lived in Puerto Rico, and who are descendants of an African slave named Fela. What intrigued me about this novel was not so much the lyrical writing, but that Llanos-Figueroa weaved a Latino tale that constantly had its roots in Africa.

Daughters of the Stone D. Llanos Figueroa

 

 

What sealed the deal for me was the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz

Oscar Wao J Diaz front coverRiverhead books  1996 Junie Lee

Diaz first caught my attention with his first book, Drown, a collection of short stories. In  Oscar Wao,  Diaz tells a tale that connects a modern-day geek in New Jersey to the Rafael Trujillo regime in Diaz’s birthplace of the Dominican Republic. Then, as now, skin tone and hair texture are still arbiters of social standing, made all the more prominent by DR’s proximity to Haiti, its next-door neighbor and cohabitant of the island of Hispanola. It was mindblowing to read about the same types of physical classification issues occurring in countries I’d only heard of. Here’s a hint: what you see on the tourist board commercials and websites are watered-down (dare I say, whitewashed?) in the name of tourism.

While the term “Black” is still in flux in the current America, it is important to note that it is so much bigger than originally anticipated. Instead of being used as a divisive tool, “Black” should be seen as a way to bring together the many people of color both here in the United States and worldwide, since science has proven that every human on this planet shares a common ancestor in Africa.  Indeed, the very issues that plague American Blacks has been shown to replicate themselves among those of African descent in other countries.

Quintero, Diaz, Llanos-Figueroa, Alisa Valdes (The Dirty Girls Social Club, The Feminist and the Cowboy) and Julia Alvarez ( How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, In the Time of the Butterflies) are just a few members of group of talented writers who are Latinos of African descent. By virtue of identity in both worlds, the publishing world sees them belonging to neither (at least, for the purposes of genre classification and number-crunching).  This is especially true when it comes to authors of African descent, or Black authors: all too often, Afro-Latino authors are not given a place at the African Diaspora writing table. It’s as if the Latino part negates the African part in the eyes of those who have a more singularly categorical identity. It’s a travesty that this is so; the binary racial classification system with which I grew up is slowly morphing into multiculturalism. If the U.S. Census form can keep up with multiple self-identification, surely the publishing industry can as well. The purpose of literature is to educate as well as entertain; relegating a group of authors because they don’t fit into a neat, little box, or aren’t “black” enough, does a disservice to both readers and other writers.

Thanks for stopping by.

 

The New Breed: Multiculturalism and Young Adult Fantasy/Speculative Fiction

I love science fiction. Or, perhaps to be more accurate, I enjoy more speculative fiction and fantasy, rather than traditional sci-fi. Ever since I picked up Wildseed by Octavia Butler and Dragonsinger by Anne McCaffrey when I was much younger, I was fascinated by other worlds–worlds that were very similar to the one in which I lived. Back then, there were zero authors of African descent in the spec fic/fantasy genre of which I knew, and definitely no females of color. As for the Young Adult category, that fiction subgenre was laced with tales of losing virginity, getting a first menstrual cycle, first love (or at least, first intense crush), and the like. The protagonists were always human, and predominately white (not that this had any bearing on the stories, which were still relevant to my life experiences in a general way).  Likewise, authors of such were very light on authors of color, particularly females of color.

This started changing over the years, as authors like Walter Dean Myers  and Sofia Quintero (under the pen name Black Artemis) wrote young adult books that tackled stronger subjects more relevant to persons of color and women of color (e.g., juvenile incarceration;, the intersection of race, ethnicity, sex, and socioeconomics; HIV; the underbelly of the music industry). While good reading, these books were still considered under the auspices of mainstream Young Adult fiction. Then came the explosion of supernatural teen angst fantasy sagas such as the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer (which I read and enjoyed), and the copycats it spawned (e.g., Vampire Diaries). Still, for all these book’s popularity, characters of color were still relatively scarce (even in the TV and movie adaptations). Not to mention, romantic relationships were still coupled by race and ethnicity.

Now? ‘Tis a new day.

Authors of color are trailblazing in a teen fantasy multicultural world, which is more reflective of the society in which we live. Two such authors are Jaime Reed (Chronicles of Cambion series) and Cerece Murphy  (Order of the Seers series). That these are two females making their mark in a traditionally male subgenre is just gravy.

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Jaime Reed came on the scene in 2011 with her popular debut novel, Living Violet. This book featured protagonist Samara Mitchell, a biracial senior (Black father, White mother) in a Virginia high school who falls in love with Caleb, her White boyfriend who is a Cambion–a being possessed by a demon. The last two books in the trilogy —  Burning Emerald and Fading Amber–follow Sam and Caleb’s relationship as Samara is inhabited by her own demon, and Caleb’s dysfunctional, demon-possessed family (and their enemies) make their presence known in Samara’s world. Samara also has to contend with her own high school foibles (including a part-time job that brings her into contact with very interesting people) and her father’s second marriage–which includes a jealous stepmother and the children borne of their union.

 

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Order of the Seers by Cerece Murphy is an entertaining twist on psychic powers and global politics. It follows Liam and his sister, Lily, after they stumble across the violent death of their mother. While the siblings flee for their lives from a shadowy conglomerate called The Order,  Lily and Liam discover that Lily’s strong psychic powers were inherited from their mother, who was also a Seer. She guides them from beyond the grave to a group of fellow outcasts on a rural farm where Eli, the scientist who was best friends with Liam and Lily’s deceased father, lives. From there, they are able to join forces with other powerful Seers and take down The Order –or so they think. The Red Order picks up where Order of the Seers ended, with the group mourning the loss of one of the most powerful Seers in the world, and their sworn vengeance on The Order. The Red Order also further explores the soul mate relationship between Lily and Joel, the son of the dead Seer. The final installment in the series, The Last Seer, will be out later this year.

Having grown up during a time, a few decades ago, where racial demarcations were predominately black and white (literally and figuratively), it is refreshing to see that literature has kept up with the times–especially literature that is not mainstream fiction. The cast of multicultural characters in each book — and Murphy’s series had a veritable United Nations — is a reflection of our current society. That racial and ethnic diversity are apparent in Reed’s books are not surprising, given that she seems to be straddling the border between Generation X (my generation) and the Millennials (current generation), and the Millennials are all about inclusiveness and “post-racism”. Murphy may be closer to the Gen X camp, but she is still of an age where “Ebony and Ivory” is more of a life concept than an old Stevie Wonder & Paul McCartney song. I am also pleased to see that both authors are able to capture the teen angst and annoyances that are hallmarks of adolescence and high school years.

Reed and Murphy are following in the footsteps of Tananarive Due, who displayed obvious multicultural diversity in her Living Blood novels (My Soul to Keep, The Living Blood, Blood Colony, My Soul to Take). I am quite pleased that the Young Adult torch has been passed to them; they will keep it burning bright.

Thanks for stopping by.

Telling it all (but not really): My Thoughts on Celebrity Memoirs

I recently read two celebrity memoirs that were decent, but didn’t make me squeal with joy. They are Unbreak My Heart by Toni Braxton and Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina by Misty Copeland.

 

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In both, each woman gave an account of her rise to stardom from not necessarily stellar beginnings: Braxton from a religious family of eight in Maryland, and Copeland from a fractured background in both Missouri and California. For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past few decades, Toni Braxton is a platinum-selling, Grammy Award-winning singer best known for the hits “Unbreak My Heart”, “He Wasn’t Man Enough”, and “Love Shoulda Brought You Home” (the latter from the Boomerang soundtrack). Misty Copeland is a professional ballerina who is the first black soloist for the American Ballet Theatre in over 20 years.

Copeland’s memoir was more comprehensive, getting into her unconventional (and yes, unlikely) path to being not just a soloist at ABT, but a ballerina, period. Braxton’s autobiography, however, was not much of a revelation. I blame this due to the popularity of her reality show with her sisters, Braxton Family Values. Over the course of the show’s three seasons, Braxton has divulged most of the details that are in her memoir, so reading it was rather anticlimactic. The memoir served more for providing clarity on what she shared in the TV show, than learning anything truly new.

In both books, there seemed to be a lack of a ghostwriter (or if there were ghostwriters, not very good ones). In a way, that’s good, as each author seems smart and capable enough to pen a book on her own, without significant help. The downside is that the books don’t flow as smoothly as they should; this is especially true of Copeland’s book, which jumped back and forth between the time periods in her life; this may work in a spoken conversation, but it doesn’t translate well in a written fashion.

I was bummed because I was expecting more of…something from these books, especially because I was so looking forward to reading them.  Perhaps this is a result of this age of reality TV and social media (over)saturation: the wanting of more, more, more and everything, everything, everything from celebrities. Indeed, I came away from the books knowing more about Copeland’s life, but it was a more superficial knowledge. This is understandable, given that celebrities deserve privacy too (though privacy is the antithesis of being a celebrity). Still, I wanted to learn more about Misty Copeland on a deeper level, and the book was so heavy on her world of ballet that I didn’t get that. With Braxton, I am a fan of Braxton Family Values (or I was for the first two seasons; I’m not digging season 3), so I was hoping to see more behind the curtain of Toni Braxton that was not revealed on the show. Alas, I was disappointed.

I still would suggest the books for anyone to read, and maybe I’m just strange for wanting a deeper connection with the words I read on a page. However, if you’re looking for an old-school style of biography, it’s best to look elsewhere. Thanks for stopping by.

 

 

 

 

 

On Selling Out

A friend of mine posted an interesting status on his Facebook page the other day:

 

At some point in time, everyone sells out something that they believe in to cash in on something else.

Whenever you do cash in (and everyone WILL sell out for something), make sure what ever [sic] you ‘sold’ for your thirty pieces of silver, be it a belief, a person or a possession, was worth it, because once you’ve sold out, you can’t go back.” — L. Jay Houston

 

This has been resonating for me, especially in light of recent conversations with friends.

First off, what is “selling out”? The term has a negative connotation and usually involves giving up a moral or ethical position in exchange for something of tangible value, usually money or finance-related. I have found this to be true, both in observing the ever-changing landscape of our societal fabric (e.g., reality TV shows) and in my personal life. We all give up something we think we don’t need at the time, in an attempt to gain something greater (money, fame, security, love).

Secondly, everyone has a different price tag. Sometimes that price tag isn’t necessarily monetary.  Adulation could be the hook, or it could be a decent roof over one’s head. Being seen as a hero may be more important to someone than living a chaste life. Thus, one’s price for “selling out” — the thirty pieces of silver — will vary.

Finally, making the decision to “sell out” is, at some level, irrevocable. It’s the difference between pawning an item and being able to get it back before it’s due to be sold, and losing the ticket that would enable you to get that item back. Depending on what you give up, getting it back may not be that important. Case in point: a student may want to stay in on weekends and study, instead of partying, in order to keep his or her GPA up, which would enable him or her to keep a scholarship, and be in a better position for key internships, etc. In the short term, the student is “selling out” fun and frolic in exchange for a long-term goal of prosperity and accomplishment. Looking back, the student may be more than willing to give up some campus parties for the chance at fostering the type of connections that will further his or her career down the line. For that student, the risk is acceptable, the thirty pieces of silver easily pocketed as a down payment for future silver.

For others, socially approved virtues such as morality, ethics, modesty, etc. may be foreign currency to some, and again deemed unimportant enough to get rid of easily. This is best demonstrated by the lengths people will go in order to inject life into a reality TV show, and keep his or her spot on the show.  Others would deem the price for such virtues too high to contemplate, and would prefer to reject the silver. In either case, each person or persons have determined their bottom line, their non-negotiable zone, their dealbreakers.

Funny thing about dealbreakers: sometimes, you never know what you will (and can) really put up with until your boundaries are tested. When the rubber meets the road, it’s interesting to see how boundaries are recalibrated; the terms of non-negotiation are, well, renegotiated; and morality becomes more flexible than originally thought. It is during these times that the price of thirty pieces of silver, in whatever currency appeals to you, will either increase or decrease in value, and you will have to figure out whether you’re able to afford to purchase what you really want. Some decide the price is too high, and keep it moving. Others decide to go for broke, even if it leaves them in the red. In the end, whatever decision allows you to sleep at night, is the right decision.

I say all this even as my own boundaries are recalibrating, and I’m determining just how much I’m willing to give in order to achieve my goals. However, I have finally realized that you have to give up something in order to gain; the greater the goal, the greater the sacrifice. If you aren’t putting something personal in the game, then the game will mean nothing to you and you won’t play as hard.  The reinforcement of personal boundaries can be seen as selling out, as I am choosing to promote personal welfare over that of the greater good. I’ve come to understand that not everyone wants to be saved, nor is it my place to do so. The Captain Save-A-Ho cape should occupy space in my closet for even lengthier periods of time. When you try to save someone who is drowning, sometimes you have to let that person drown in order to save yourself. For self-preservation, I’m willing to accept my thirty pieces of silver, and I will spend it wisely. It’s an exchange I’m comfortable making, and I will sleep well.

Thanks for stopping by.