Immortality, the Gift That Just Won’t Quit

The definition of death doesn’t hold much water, really, once all the voodoo juju is shaken out of it.  The harebrained doctors have one make-believe definition of it, the self-important scientists have another, and the whimsical believers have yet a third.  When one has faith in the existence of death, though, death can be a gateway, a rebirth, or even a redemption.  Anticipating death makes up the cornerstone of most world religions, while avoiding it remains the focus of most sciences.

— And that’s O.K.  There’s nothing wrong with any of those philosophies in and of themselves, but let’s eschew all that for the sake of conversation.  Let’s look at death without any allusion to typical, traditional beliefs.  What does death resemble, now?  A permanent medical condition?

Nevermind.  Let’s just say that death is a simple state of affairs that any doctor can walk up and diagnose, like this:

“Hey, this guy’s dead.”

Why, this guy's dead!

The doctor means that the poor guy’s lungs have stopped breathing and his heart has stopped beating.  That’s clinical death.

Most realists think of death as nothingness, bleak, black, and empty, which is typical of them; because if there’s any way to have less fun and be more boring, the realists will practically kill themselves to show you how.  Even so, most atheists and agnostics think this way about death, too, which is disappointing because as anyone can tell you, they throw the best parties, and therefore oughta know better.

“What happens when you die?” you may ask one of them.

“Nothing,” they say.  “That’s kind-of the point.”

OK Mr. Sunshine, but nothing is precisely what never happens.  There’s always something going on.  Besides, lots of things happen when you die.  When you look at clinical death, it actually mirrors the very early stages of clinical birth, so-to-speak, which normal people call pregnancy.

In the earliest stages of pregnancy, the fertilized egg (or zygote if we really must) has forty-six chromosomes, as well as its own unique DNA structure.  Anti-abortion terrorists are keen to remind us that this little eggy wegg is alive, and they’re not wrong.  In fact, scientists pretty much have to agree with them, because the zygote exhibits growth, metabolism, reproduction, and reaction to stimuli.

Apparently, the smartypants bigshot scientists have decided that a thing is alive if it’s got those four attributes.

What the zygote does not have, though, is a lung or a heart with which to satisfy the medical doctor’s requirements.  Its respiration has not yet commenced.  Its pulse is nonexistent.

“Why, this guy’s dead.”

“Now, you just hang on a second there, Doc.  We’re picking up growth, reaction, metabolism and reproduction.  This sonofabitch is alive.”

Great.  So the zygote is dead and alive.   Perfect.

Perfectly nonsensical.

Zombie Zygotes of the Living Dead

Why not, though?  When a guy looks at his arm, he thinks of it as a living part of him, right?  If doctors amputate it from him, then no one looks at it quite the same way.  It’s dead now.  The amputation was, as far as his body was concerned, a little death (or, la petite mort in French, which incidentally means orgasm).

Yeah, why not?  After all, when a pregnant woman feels her baby kick, she thinks of it as a living part of her.  If doctors deliver it, and amputate it from her, then no one looks at it quite the same way.  The baby’s alive now — even though the amputation was, as far as the mother’s body is concerned, a little death (or en francais, orgasm by baby).

Dead and alive, alive and dead.

The dead aren’t really all that dead, anyhow.  We eat dead things to stay alive, in fact — but only dead things which have recently become dead.  Dead things become more dead over time, and we can’t eat things which have been dead too long.

There’s not enough life in them, you see.

But just wait a damned second.  A little death?  More dead?  Death isn’t supposed to have all these degrees, all these shades of gray.

Silly-headed cynics and so-called realists step in at this point and remind us, “No, jerk.  Death isn’t in degrees or shades, and it’s definitely not gray.  Death is that certain change that happens in the instant that life stops for an organism.  Those four things you mentioned earlier?  Growth, reaction, et cetera?  The body can’t do those things anymore, so it’s dead.”

Yeah, alright, sure, Professor Killjoy, but from the broadest perspective, death doesn’t mark any significant change at all.  It’s just another change in an infinite pattern of changes — or, if you like, it’s another death in an infinite pattern of deaths.  Life, in fact, is what we call this infinite pattern of deaths.  Look:

Human life begins with an ovum and a sperm combining into a zygote.   This means the death of the ovum and the sperm, because they no longer exist as such; their chromosomes have been shared.  The zygote then begins cellular division at an extremely rapid rate, each division a little amputation (orgasm) from the parent cell, and these amputations are what we call growth.  When enough cellular carnage has occurred, the child is amputated from his or her mother, and soon afterward begins to eat dead things because of the life in them.

Dead things taste good.

Food is dead-ish

As the child grows, cells are born, grow old, die; are sloughed off, are excreted, are absorbed as more fresh dead stuff to nourish and prolong life.  Cells divide, and divide, and divide.  The lining of the small intestine is completely replaced over four-to-six days, you know.  The outermost layer of skin, or epidermis, every two weeks.  The hard structure of the human skeleton, every decade.  Even this child’s blood, just like the blood of every living person, is composed of red blood cells which live in the bloodstream for about four months before being replaced.

An elderly man of ninety years, therefore, has lived inside nine skeletons.  He has consisted of two-hundred and seventy human bodies’s worth of blood.

It’s all dead, though, remember?  We’re, like, hermit crabs or something.

Like our bodies, our minds unfold as a train of deaths and divisions, too.  Ideas grow and gestate, eating new information and transforming cold facts into newborn ideas, ideas which split and branch and grow of their own accord, just like a pride of lions flourishing from the carcasses of a few dead gazelles.  Sometimes ideas sprout from stagnant knowledge so automatically that our minds consider themselves inspired, but every new thought kills off an obsolete idea.

We grow and learn, shedding skin cells and obsolete ideas along the way like scraps of confetti following a parade, and when at the age of ninety we reflect on our adolescent selves, those teenagers seem long gone, long passed away, and the wistful feelings our memories evoke mimic those felt by mourners years after the funeral.

Death and life, life and death.

The thirty-year-old hermit crab and his previous shells

We still have no round definition of death, however.

Death seems no more than change and transition, and since change is an eternal constant, death must be occurring all the time.  If that’s so, then death as a single event does not exist.

If you think you’re going anywhere when you “die,” I’m afraid you’re horribly mistaken, as far as I can tell.  Nobody is going anywhere.  Nobody is going anywhere, and neither are the actions we are still making.  That the “dead” human mind no longer orchestrates these actions is inconsequential, since the mind was never orchestrating anything from the broadest perspective, anyhow, regardless of how intimately involved in the processes of the universe it seemed.

This will sound like glorious immortality to some and eternal damnation to others, so I guess that if you really wanted to you could call your opinion on living forever ‘heaven,’ or ‘hell,’ but don’t do that.  That’d be so tacky.

If all this sounds fantastic, consider that everything we are or will become was already here long before we were born.

All the material needed to put our bodies together had long been available before our births.  Our mothers merely needed to ingest some dead stuff and assemble it inside her.  The material to put our minds together had been here, too.  The elementary ideas, the deeper concepts, and the inner mysteries all, all, all had been waiting for our minds to ingest them and put them to use.  We were already here, waiting for assembly, just like The Great Gatsby had been when the Old Sport was alive inside Fitzgerald’s head, but not yet written down.

Sure, Dad can stick some spare auto parts together and build a car, but Mom can throw some spare body parts together and grow a person!

Cynics and skeptics will say, “An idea is not a thing, Sir,” and I must retort: well, where, exactly would you like to draw the line?  If Gatsby exists once he has been written down, what happens if the manuscript is destroyed?  — And if Fitzgerald writes him down again, is he birthing the same Gatsby?   What of publishing and printing?  Are all Gatsbys the same man, or different men?

Consider also the differences between brothers of the same family, raised in the same general time, by the same parents, on the same food, in the same area, with the same values, et cetera, et cetera.  One may grow up into a madman and the other a schoolteacher, but from the broadest perspective the difference can only be in human estimation, just like so-called death.  If we are arbitrarily, subjectively deciding what death is, then there really isn’t any such thing we can point to after all, is there?

In order to believe in death, one must think just like the doctors and scientists, coming up with their own willy-nilly criteria by which something can officially be called “dead.”  You may as well say that death is what we call the future, and birth what we call the past.

The Starship Enterprise notwithstanding, we will always be here, extant, just as we have always been here, and the proof and cause of both is that we can’t help but be here now.  There can be no escape.  We are captives of existence.  And why?

— Because the present time, nestled snugly between the past and future, between birth and death, seems very much alive, and it happens also to look very much eternal.

With much pleasure and measured amounts of pain I remain,

Yours Truly,

-BothEyesShut

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Meat, Meat, Meat (Food, Sex, Death)

Death doesn’t scare everyone.  Millions of Americans look forward to death with all their heart, and not because they find this life deplorable.  They simply want to hang out with all the cool, dead Christians they’ve always dreamed of meeting or seeing again.

I’m not interested in talking about death this week, though.  Maybe some other time.  I’m interested in fears which share the same dark roots as those of death, but which more icily chill our blood, fears which turn the most stouthearted Southern Californian into a simpering coward, desperate and ashamed.  Like all terrors, these fears inspire feelings of profound anxiety, hate, and prejudice, thus spreading misery and contempt throughout society.  I’m talking about black evils, one must conclude.  I’m talking about the closest thing around to a real Satan, two things Southern California fears more than cancer.

I’m talking, of course, about food and sex.

Bananas make people hungry.

I. Food, Sex, and Death, the Meat Triplets

Upon consideration of food, sex, and death, one finds them interlaced.

The human body’s response to the promise of sex mimics it’s response to the fear of death: sweat, tension, heightened blood-pressure, elevated rate of breathing, diffusion of endorphins, et cetera.  Sex’s primary purpose is to fight death by creating and celebrating life.

Food is tied to death, too, as we only eat recently deceased plants and animals.  We ingest ebbing life to keep from dying, and also enjoy the taste.

Our biology also blends food and sex.  The tissue which forms our lips is hyper-sensitive and found also on the nipples, the head of the penis, and the clitoris only.  Breasts, an important erogenous zone, represent the original food source for all humans.  Oral sex is ancillary to reproduction, yet ubiquitous.  Food-play fetishism has existed for millennia.  We could go on for pages.  Mary Eberstadt writes, “. . .ordinary language itself verifies how similarly [food and sex] are experienced, with many of the same words crossing over to describe what is desirable and undesirable in each case.  In fact, we sometimes have trouble even talking about food without metaphorically invoking sex, and vice versa.  In a hundred entangled ways, judging by either language or literature, the human mind juggles sex and food almost interchangeably at times.”  There are whole books on this stuff.

In addition, whether eating, fucking, or dying, most animals feel compelled to do all three in relative seclusion and safety, and will react violently to an interruption of any of them.

Cucumbers are for eating

Squash. It's for eating.

Horror movies showcase the Meat Triplets gorgeously.  Watch any old scream flick, and you’ll see a delightfully predictable pattern.  First, the director excites the audience with an attractive woman, and she makes everyone sweaty and anxious.  At the height of this sexual tension, the antagonist enters the scene and massacres somebody in a gruesome gush of gore.  The audience’s sweaty sexual anxiousness allows a seamless transition from lust to fear, and this startles everyone.  Following the carnage, a common gimmick is to cut to a knife carving roast beef, or some such food, at which the audience laughs because it is ironic to think of the newly-mutilated characters as dinner, which in many horror films they have literally become.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula could not exemplify the triad better.  The Count lures his prey with an uncanny sensual charm, plants his lush lips on their naked necks, and feeds on their lifeblood, himself of course being undead all the while.  The food-sex-death relationship may be the secret to the popularity of the vampire legend.

Was it fear of death that led to our terror of food and discomfort with sex?  Maybe.  But it had a lot of help.  Let’s see where our trepidations come from.

II. North Americans: the Anti-Pleasure People

Many are condemned to repeat the past for having forgotten it.  Sure, we remember The Scarlet Letter, by Hawthorne, and The Crucible, by Miller.  They bored us in high school.  Do we consider those sexless Jesus freaks our great-great-great-great-great grandparents, though?  Not usually, and that’s because there’s like, sooo muuuch time between then and now.  I mean, seriously, the people who fashioned North American culture bore little resemblance to the ostensibly sex-crazed fatties we’ve become.

We wear entirely different hats, for instance.

The progress of the American people as illustrated by the marked difference in hats.

The American people were made up of four major groups, including the Quakers, the Puritans, and the Scotch-Irish, as well as some indentured servants and disenfranchised rich kids from England.  Of these larger groups, only the Scotch-Irish did not have wickedly sadistic punishments for open sexual behavior.  They learned to beat fear into their adolescents to keep them safe from the laws of Puritan communities, but considered premarital pregnancy rather hilarious.  From these jolly warmongers many American wedding customs are descended.  Scotch-Irish weddings were lavish, expensive, wild, and occurred roughly between 18-25 years of age.  Sound familiar?

The Quakers and Puritans, of course, were Christian extremist groups comparable to the jihad-waging, fatwa-declaring Muslim extremists of today.  Quakers imposed prison sentences for extramarital and premarital sex, and Puritans executed adulterers.  Quakers thought sex sinful, so many went celibate.  Puritans thought the body sinful, so they scorned pleasure.  Puritan legal records show that men have been jailed for flashing a smile in church.  Fun-loving, affectionate people, those pilgrims.

The pilgrims weren’t violent, though, not against one another.  The Scotch-Irish, now they were violent.  They had left their homeland in order to escape generations of borderland warfare.  Their horses and their guns constituted the most important possessions they owned, and their home lives blended familial love with casual violence in a way that is now illegal in most states.  We must ditch our inherited fear of pleasure, because violence and pleasure are inextricably linked.

Violence and pleasure, anyone? These four chaps knew how to have a good time (from Kubric's "A Clockwork Orange").

Stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain, and angry dogs lay down.  Break someone’s nose at the dinner table, and suddenly nobody has much appetite.  Violence destroys pleasure, pleasure evaporates violence. . .

America sure seems violent these days.

Nothing obscures the solution, though: a little pleasure goes a long way.  If the Trenchcoat Mafia had been getting laid on Friday nights in the back seat of a Chevy like many of our parents were at their age, those disgruntled kids would’ve had better things to do than gun down their classmates.

Maybe we’re less hedonistic than we think.  Maybe we really are our fathers’ sons, our mothers’ daughters.  Maybe we’re still having expensive, drunken weddings at too young an age to be married, even after all these years.  Maybe, just maybe, we’re sexless, angry religious fanatics who would rather watch people on television beat the shit out of one another than find someone sexy and copulate.

On the other hand, maybe we are the captains of our own destinies.  Fuck antiquity.

III. The Sex-Crazed American Epicure

Were I you, I’d say, “What fear of food?  You think Americans are afraid to eat?  Have you met any?”

While it’s true that we eat plenty of garbage in the good ol’ U.S. of A., one has only to examine the tastes of any region to notice that our eating proclivities exhibit a remarkable tenacity, an almost rabid resistance to even the smallest alteration.  Cultural norms cause the bulk of this aversion, of course, but a propensity to stick to cultural norms is nothing more than a twig off the xenophobia branch of the ethnocentrism tree.  Ethnocentrism — as anyone can tell you — is nothing more than canned fear.

Carb's, starch, gluten, preservatives and pesticides: with your mouth full, no one can hear you scream.

To see this applied to our diets, follow the disgusted faces of your countrymen to their sources of revulsion.  Texans would rather die than eat tofu.  Midwest farmers might call the N.S.A. on anyone eating kafta or felafel.  And here, in Southern California?

Oh, baby.  Southern Californians are afraid to eat anything.

Eggs are good for you; eggs are bad for you; eggs are good for you; eggs are bad for you.  I’m not worried, myself; I’m on a macrobiotic diet consisting of mostly grains.  Exactly one glass of precisely red wine is good for expectant mothers, but coffee mutates fœtuses.  R.B.S.T. makes ten year olds grow mustaches, grow tits, grow ten feet tall.  Fast food is dog food.  Hot dogs are lips and assholes.  There’s pus in milk, listeria in cheese, mad cow in beef, trichinosis in pork, salmonella in eggs, insect parts in peanut butter, and enough pesticide on fruits and vegetables to poison the populace of Paraguay.

To combat these culinary evils are our So. Cal. dietary defense forces, the vegetarians, pesca vegetarians, lacto vegetarians, lacto-ovo vegetarians, and vegans.  These troops remind us to neglect certified-organic foods; they’re not really organic; the only way to be sure is to buy at the farmers’ market, except that you can’t really be sure there, either.  Bytheway, free-range is not really free-range, so the best bet is to cut out eggs altogether.

We consider anything that touches a surface other than a sterilized plate contaminated.  Even our toddlers practice their own forms of dietary paranoia and follow five-, ten-, or thirty-second rules.  One never knows, though.  A chocolate chip cookie dropped to the playground concrete could carry cancer.  Bubble gum, on the other hand — you can stick that pretty much anywhere and resume chewing at your leisure.  Gum has antibiotic properties.

All of us here in Los Angeles have a little list we add to and subtract from according to hearsay and newspaper articles.  Eat this sometimes, eat that never, eat this other thing every third morning in order to guard against Bavarian eyelid syndrome.  We know which companies to trust, which ones to keep an eye on, and which ones to spread bad press about like wartime propaganda ministers.  We also wash everything, wash it in scalding water infused with antibacterial, environmentally friendly soap.

And when I say everything, I mean everything.

Some fine, downy hair visible at the nape of her neck. That'll haveta go.

It should come as no surprise that our anxiety about food mirrors our anxiety about sex.  We spray the poisons off our bodies once a day as though we were suspect crops, using antibacterial soaps fundamentally indistinguishable from that which we use for our dishes, soaps which deplete the epidermis of natural sebum which naturally lubricates and conditions our skin and hair.  Knowing our bodies have been sterilized daily doesn’t make us feel handsome, pretty, or sexy, though — merely not-revolting.  I remember learning in college during a non-verbal communication class that the least-attractive scent according to a poll of women was men’s cologne, the most attractive being by a large margin, soap.

We’re so uncomfortable about our bodies today that many young men shave their chests, those symbols of masculinity so desired in the disco era, and many young women won’t go on a date without having shaved — well, everywhere.

We have bigger problems than a soap fetish, though.  Toby Young writes that young men are too busy styling their hair to want sex.  Kathleen Parker says feminism has outright neutered us.  I don’t know if sexual paranoia causes this hyper-vanity and gender confusion or is being caused by them, but they’re certainly not helping.  We’re terrified that our cocks are short and our boobs droop.  We’re convinced that they should be shaved, dunked in sanitizer buckets, and covered up with Gucci until the lights go thankfully out.

The man's man.

Emasculation and anxiety over our bodies may make up some of our fear of fucking, but not all of it.  We’re taught that we’re going to make babies unless we use five types of contraception.  The rest of the world would rather give up oral sex altogether than feel it through cellophane, but dental dams are a way of life for many Americans.  Abstinence education still happens in high schools, too, during which undercover Christians tell students about how glad they are to have gone celibate, because anyone who exposes an erogenous zone to the open air is sure to contract gonoherpasyphilaides.  We eat it up and pay no mind.  Our Puritanical past has imposed many other norms upon us as well, norms such as premarital monogamy.

In America today, premarital monogamy occurs tout de suite.  The trend among teens in the 1950s was to date different people until a clear standout appeared, at which point a decision would be made to go steady and halt other romances.  The Beach Boys sang, “None of the guys go steady, ’cause it wouldn’t be right to leave the best girl lonely on a Saturday night.”  Four decades later, twelve-year-old girls are getting into fistfights because someone looked at their crush.  This instant ownership occurs at the moment digits are exchanged.

Not long ago, the traditional courtship ritual began with flirtation and moved to polygamous dating, then monogamy, then the traditional promise ring, then engagement, and then marriage, which I remind is the official American signifier of expected romantic loyalty.  Romantic loyalty is extorted de facto from our amorous partners in American middle and high schools now, and many, many Americans marry people having loved (or god forbid, having fucked) but one or two people, hardly enough of a sample base to make informed decisions regarding whom one ought to swear one’s eternal fealty to.

He: "That Johnny kid ever talks to you again, I'll slice your nipples off while you sleep." She: "Sounds fair. Bytheway, I don't think that Jennifer girl from 2nd grade will be coming to school, anymore..."

Now, I truly detest statistics, but information on human sexuality comes in numbers (probably owing to its close ties with psychology, that contemptible exercise in neologism and self-important taxonomy).  I apologize for the following paragraph.

The Kinsey Institute says, roughly 66% of Caucasian women and 48% of Afro-American women in college have never masturbated.  35% of American men aged 18-39 don’t masturbate at all.  43% of fellas and 67% of women think about sex occasionally throughout the month, while it occurs to only 54% of guys and just 17% of girls on a daily basis.  Considering the health benefits of sex, this behavior runs counter to typical Southern Californian attitudes regarding physical health.

Studies have significantly linked sex to the following health benefits: stress relief, bolstered immune system,  burned calories, lower risk of heart disease, better blood pressure, increased blood flow, increased oxytocin levels and intimacy, stronger self-esteem, pain relief through the release of endorphins (including the curing of headaches), reduction of prostate cancer risk, increased muscle tone, fortified bones, healthier sleep, increased life span, increased clarity of thought, and healthy, balanced increases in testosterone and estrogen.

For a culture which produces six-hundred-million dollars worth of certified-organic health food per year, Southern Californians sure aren’t paying much healthy sexual attention to one another.  Perhaps we see Megan Fox acting in “Transformers” more clearly on our high-definition televisions than we do the girl next-door sunbathing on her front lawn.  Perhaps our sense of American individuality has run amok.  Perhaps we’re so stigmatized by social influences that we can’t feel our sexual urges, anymore.  Whatever the reason, Southern Californians seem shitty at getting one another off these days, and that’s stupid.  After all, we’re pretty attractive on the whole, we seem to appreciate our health, and we laughingly seem to consider ourselves rebellious liberators of the American spirit.

Doing something positive: almost as fashionable as abstaining from something negative, and a good sight more fun.

If we really want to be the free-spirited rebels who frighten people from the Midwest by starting new sexual revolutions, we’re going to have to knock off this vanilla bullshit and start living our lives, again.  I’ve never seen so much agnostic religiosity in my life.  Man, even the 1920s had more action than So. Cal. does these days.  Flagpole sitting — now that was an extreme sport.

No, really.  We’re fucking boring.

Time to relax, Los Angeles.  There’s no reason we can’t stop treating every girl or guy who strikes our fancy as some kind of last-ditch effort, every date a business proposition, every name in our little black book a natural resource.  We’re getting wistful about our glory days thirty years too soon.  All of us have a favorite outfit that gets far too little play on weekends; why not dunk ourselves in sanitizer, shave everything, zip that motherfucker up and show middle-class society what kind of trouble we can get into?

I respectfully suggest we stop daydreaming about plastic surgery operations, stop pretending that weight training at the gym justifies our fucked-up addiction to the great indoors, stop proselytizing about which fodders one should shovel down one’s gullet (the word should is always suspect, anyhow).

Quit cowering in corners, and crown your humanity.

You have a zit on your nose?  So-fucking what.  Nobody gives a damn about your stupid nose, even if it’s 12 feet long with 12 pimples and 12 warts on it.  In fact, if it were that awesome, we’d probably like it more.  It’d give our strip-mall-beige lives a little color.  Have you gotten fat?  Yeah?  Hairy?  Old?  So-fucking what.  Stop pretending LOST is the most exciting thing on planet Earth and ask somebody to dinner.  Your husband or wife, maybe.

There’s some pretty decent and affordable sushi around here these days.  Get the high-grade saki, it’s worth it.  You can make out with your dinner date afterward, too, you know.  Make your lips tender, but firm, and don’t shove your tongue all around his or her mouth.  You’ll have already tasted the sashimi by then.  Go dancing at a club that plays all that top-40 music I can’t stand, especially if you don’t know how to dance.  Get right in the middle of that scene and start shucking and jiving like an idiot.  Shakespeare’s fools weren’t just ridiculous, they were wise.

But for the love of God (big G) please stop taking yourself so goddamned seriously, Southern California.  Go have a slice of pie.  Go on.  Even if the glaze does have gelatin in it.  Be a madman.  And don’t be so ashamed of your body; it doesn’t look so bad.  I personally guarantee that if you get naked on a webcam and throw it online, you’ll have paying customers within 30 seconds who’d knife homeless people to get you in the sack.  Strange to think about, isn’t it?

You’re beautiful human being, so stretch your legs and live a little.  I’m not advocating total promiscuity, I’m suggesting a re-evaluation of our national fear of ourselves.  A little food, a little passion, a little conviviality, and we’ll have you patched up in no time.

Fuck Avon.  You look great.

With vice and good intentions I remain,

Yours Truly,

-BothEyesShut

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