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singing bowlApologies for the tacky title. I’m speaking metaphorically of course. What I mean is you don’t need anything to meditate, other than the stuff you were born with. But if you buy a book on it, particularly a western one, it’s inevitable they’re going to try to sell you some junk, after all, they sold you the book for starters, so why stop there? There are all those guided meditation tapes, incense sticks, various “sacred objects”, special clothing, crystals, mats, gongs, and then there’s all that cool traditional Tibetan stuff as well – the beads the bangles and the singing bowls.

Yes, there are bowls that sing!

I bought one, which isn’t exactly setting a good example for what I have to say, but I was curious about them. Mine’s pictured above, a pretty little thing, made in Nepal from an alloy of copper, tin and zinc and iron. It’s called panchalonga and it has curious properties, but nothing mysterious. Humans have been making bells with it for a long time, because it rings and sustains vibration really well.

When you rub a stick around the outside of the bowl, the tiny vibrations become amplified, building up to the resonant frequency of the bowl. It’s the same effect as rubbing a wet finger around the rim of a wine glass, but fortunately a lot easier to produce. The sound can be quite loud, and fluctuates between two distinct tones as the bowl changes shape and flips from one node to the other.

To use a singing bowl you get comfy and, as with any meditation, focus down on the breath. You hold the bowl in one hand and find a position where you can comfortably make it sing with the stick in the other. Focusing on the pressure and the speed needed to get it to sing nicely is an excellent way of shutting out other thoughts. Too much pressure, and the sound is too loud, the vibrations make the stick chatter and screech around the outside, too little and the sound fades to nothing.

There’s also the effect of the sound itself, which, if you can go with it, coaxes the frequency of the “brain waves” into the alpha range. This is the same as REM sleep, where the brain goes for rest and repair. That’s the idea anyway, and well worth experimenting with. My own experience however has been that the sound is like a beacon to those who would disturb your meditation by bursting in and asking what the Hell’s that weird noise? or oh that’s cool, and can I have a go? If you’re seeking an Alpha trip you’re better with a binaural beats app or a tape of shamanic drumming – through earpieces of course. But that’s more paraphernalia.

My objection to paraphernalia is this: there’s a danger of developing a dependence upon it. What if you want to meditate when you’ve not got your singing bowl handy? Props are useful for putting you into a relaxed frame of mind, but one of the outcomes of the Western malaise – that toxic blend of stress, anxiety and depression, is the manifestation of obsessive tendencies, so we’re setting ourselves up from the outset with the means of our own defeat: I want to meditate, but I can’t because everything has to be just so,… and it isn’t.

I still like my singing bowl, and look forward to using it more often.

But mediation is still best done naked!

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pardiseIt’s a difficult period to bear witness to, at least for one who’s always had a naive faith in the idea western society would, by dint of superior economic, moral and social models, continue to thrive. I never once thought the opposite was more likely true, until that is until the coming of this lost decade when it seems we have been thoroughly undermined by our own avarice.

Everything real is broken now. You might not notice it as you walk the consumerist delusion of London’s Oxford Street, the Capital seeming as prosperous as ever, but walk any other street, especially in the North, and you’ll understand where the pain is being felt, and why. Here, there has been no recovery from the crash of 2008 and now, a decade, on we are entirely disabused of the notion there will ever be one. That the poorest would one day be reliant upon charitable handouts of food, even those in work, would once have been beyond imagining. Now it’s normal.

I’m approaching retirement from a profession on its uppers, but it’ll see me out, and I have the cushion of one of the last final salaried pension schemes to take me into old age, so I write from a somewhat detached perspective, neither rich nor poor, but anyone with compassion cannot but be moved by what they see about them. And anyone with children cannot but be alarmed for their prospects.

My life began in a working class family, sustained by my father’s energy and intellect. In the mines he worked his way up from collier, to shot-firer, to deputy. Night school in his teens and twenties, and the earnest application of his craft in the very depths of the earth yielded sufficient reward to support a wife and two kids, a modest three bed semi, and a second hand car. He wanted nothing more.

When my father died early, his Coal Board pension sustained my mother for the rest of her life. It stood me on relatively secure ground too, saw me through the early years until I could work my way into a profession of my own. What I am now would not have been possible without my parents, and what they achieved, modest though it was, would not have been possible without a supportive society, a Britain that was by and large benevolent, providing those who had begun lowly in life with a basic financial catch-all, and a ladder to improve themselves.

This grand experiment ended in the 1980’s with another experiment, one founded on the redistribution of money into private hands. The theory was that, while this would naturally render certain individuals obscenely rich, their riches, through investment, would somehow spawn enterprise that would in turn allow money to trickle down and sustain the whole of society. What happened was rather different.

They entered into a kind of warfare against the masses, also against the governments who represented them. They developed ways of becoming richer, of evading laws, and where necessary lobbying sympathetic lawmakers into dismantling the financial checks and balances created to ensure decent and fair practice. Thus the financial systems pulsating throughout the nineties and the early noughties were already akin to legalised swindles.

As the rich prospered, they moved their money into secret places beyond the reach of the taxman, while industries providing employment for millions collapsed for want of investment. The industries were not replaced. The poor became poorer, and the ladder allowing them to become richer by means of diligence was kicked away. Reliant on by now severely rationed state handouts, and on ever more demeaning and dead end work that paid virtually nothing, they clutched at the devil of credit-trickery to makes ends meet, and fell headlong into a cunning debt slavery from which there was no escape. As if this were not enough, they were also vilified in rich men’s newspapers as n’er-do-wells and scroungers.

This appalling system fell apart in 2008, the result of one last financial swindle that spun the roulette wheel so hard its axle broke. The world would have ended then had it not been for the largely unacknowledged efforts of a former and much maligned British PM. But it was not enough to restore the world, even to pre 2008 levels of declining prosperity, and the decade since has been one deliberately contrived to render the masses poorer, increasingly insecure, and more despairing than they were before. Meanwhile the rich have continued to prosper so much they have begun gold-plating their Rolls-Royces,..

My ‘phone was bleeping every five minutes this last week as the Paradise Papers broke, my left-of-centre news-feeds breathless with yet one more revelation of how the rich keep their money safe from the rest of us, and what obscene frivolities they spend it on. None of it surprises us. We’ve heard it all before. If you take money from the masses, deprive us of meaningful work, you cannot expect us to support ourselves, let alone prosper and pay taxes for the benefit of society as a whole. We whither, and society withers with us, becomes cheap, threadbare, fragile. The rich have inherited all the convertible wealth of earth, dumped the rest of us among all the waste that’s left over.

We have no control over the circumstances into which we are born, and nowadays less opportunity to alter those circumstances as the rich secure their fortress positions and kick the ladders away. If one is born poor, it’s likely we shall remain so all our lives. The rich do not have a greater right to life than the rest of us, yet one might be forgiven for thinking they do since money is life, at least in the type of society we have created. To hoard riches beyond the reach and benefit of the masses is to deny security, and the sense that life means anything at all. But this is not a safe sport for the rich to play in the long term.

These scams and schemes are deftly gamed by the pulse takers and the money-lenders, and all the barrow-boys of the financial temples, but it is a crime, if not in the eyes of the state any more, then in the eyes of God. And if you do not fear God then perhaps it is the poor themselves you should be wary of, for there is little protection to be had from an ordinary man who’s already had everything taken from him.

But that the Paradise papers have come to light is itself a glimmer of hope, that someone working in the turgid murk of those sequestered riches possessed sufficient moral outrage to expose them. Look, someone’s saying, this really isn’t right! It could be something small, this thing, a brief cry in the dark and it’ll go the way of all such yesterday’s news, or it could be the start of something big, a viral howl of outrage to usher in a new, more socially responsible zeitgeist.

It is not my generation, the baby-boomers, who will solve this problem; we’re still too close to the myth of the golden olden times to put up much of a fight. But the young have and will suffer more, lose more than they have lost already, indeed they have grown up in a period that has eroded trust and faith in authority, a period that has equated wealth and power and privilege with corruption and the abuse of the powerless on an Herculean scale. This has been their bread and butter, and they are sick of it, and they are coming of age.

I forgive the young in advance their ire at so monumental a betrayal. The rich, who avoid their dues and bend the rule of law to suit themselves, I forgive nothing. I’ve no idea what the next decade will bring, but as the West stands today in the light of these revelations from paradise, the best I can see is a long haul, wading knee deep in the mud, while the bastions of the rich are dismantled one golden brick at a time. The worst I can imagine is that nothing changes at all.

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cameras

I fell out with the Single Lens Reflex Camera around the time digital was invented, found myself leaving the thing behind. It was a Pentax P70 with a medium zoom lens. It must have weighed over a Kilogram, and I was for travelling to places much lighter by then, and returning less tired. So I snapped the nineties and the noughties on a range of digital compacts, of increasing pixel count, cameras that travelled discretely in the pocket.

My family like the shots that have their faces in them. The rest, the scenic shots, the still lifes, are all neatly catalogued and backed up but, like my old Kodachrome slides from the 80’s, I rarely bother browsing them. Such is the lot of the amateur photographer, forever in search of that profound image, and nobody to show it to who gives a damn anyway. I sometimes snap myself, or have others do it for me, but then wonder what the Hell I’m thinking.

Mostly I prefer to be out of shot.

The current compact is a Canon G12, a worthy device, at the upper end of the market – or rather it was when I bought it – things move on so quickly these days. I took this picture of some conkers with it:

conkersWhy? Well, who can resist a conker? I like the colours, the autumn feel, which I amplified a little in Painshop. It conjures memories of childhood, schoolyard conker fights, the oily sheen when you first crack them open.

It was an arranged shot, the conkers recovered from a pile of leaf mould, and posed, so to speak. I extended the zoom to maximum, and set the broadest aperture I could, given the available light in order to isolate the subject and blur the background. I like the effect, but for all of that, I don’t suppose it’ll mean much to my great-great grandchildren who’ll be faced with the dilemma of continuing to archive great-great grandad Michael’s conker picture, or just deleting the damned thing. After all – I mean – what on earth was he thinking? Experience of past post-mortem clear-outs tells me only faces will be preserved, and maybe not even those, if names have already been forgotten.

Second exhibit: picture of a tree, green pasture, sheep, starburst sun:

treeoflifepicIt was the shadow of the tree that struck me here, almost reflection-like in quality. It put me in mind of the symbolic “tree of life”, the branches mirrored by its roots. I took it with a digital SLR, a Nikon D5600, with a medium zoom, which, like that earlier SLR camera must weigh over a kilogram again, and I’m wondering how much use it will see, because I still like to travel light. Purists won’t like the starburst, which is more of a lens artifact than artistically intended, though paradoxically you can buy filters to achieve the same effect.

The camera is new – bought it recently. It has a much bigger sensor than the G12, and twice the resolution. It delivers greater dynamic range, depth of colour, and a clearer, sharper image, but these things are only apparent if you’re particular about what you’re looking for. If you’re not, you might as well just use the camera on your phone, which, if it was made in the last few years, is probably pretty good anyway. This is called tech-talk and it always runs the risk of devouring itself, photography then becoming more about the device than the image, and that’s certainly the way it is with many photography enthusiasts. They talk intelligently and endlessly about aperture, ISO and lens distortions, but I always find their pictures rather dull.

Perhaps they’d feel the same about my conkers.

It could be a question of transience of course. It’s possible my tree of life will light up in a similar way at some point in the future, as it has in the past, but more likely the next time I pass it, it’ll be completely different. The conkers are unique, that moment – all be it somewhat staged – is gone for ever, but we can say the same for any image – even that gormless one of you propping up the Tower of Pisa.

But we may be on to something here, the power of an image lying in the unlikelihood of that moment ever occurring again, but it has to go beyond the mere documentary. The image has to touch the soul of the beholder in ways that to merely bear witness to that same event does not.

Food for thought, and happy snapping.

Thanks for listening.

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canon g12

Browsing Instagram it strikes me there are two kinds of people. There are those who see the world around them, and there are those who see themselves. There are the selfies and the worldies. I think of myself as a worldie, but does that make me any less narcissistic than the selfie?

Had I more youth and muscle and hair, I’d probably show off a bit, post myself atop Napes Needle, hands on head, balancing on one leg for all to go: Gorrrr-blimeee look at i’m! I too might have been an insta-fool, for sure!

But to become self aware is to disappear from the frame, rather than the alternative, which is more of an attempt to confirm our existence, and its validity, to say nothing of its coolness, as evidenced by our goofy grinning visage superimposed upon whatever monumental backdrop we find most impressive. But what is it that impresses us about an event or a scene? And why do we have to be pictured in it? It’s obvious we were there, because we remember it and took the photograph, so who else are we trying to impress by squeezing ourselves into shot as well?

As a young man I lugged a 35mm Single Lens Reflex camera up every peak in the Lake District, bar few. I was proving something to myself, walking, mostly alone, a reticent, anxiety prone individual, bluffing his way up the big beasts and around the classic routes. I have all those expeditions recorded and painstakingly labelled for posterity on Kodachrome slides. But they moulder slowly in dusty boxes now, and are rarely viewed. Memory then becomes the favoured means of ready recollection, blurred somewhat by internal and unconscious bias. So much for lugging all that weight up all those hills!

I’ve never been photographed, or taken photographs in China, because I’ve never been there. The memories are lacking because they don’t exist, but if they did, how secure would they be in the hands of old age anyway? How important are those neglected shots on ancient hard drives or buried deep in the sedimentary layers of Instagram?

Apparently, not much.

The evidence of our true presence in the world is more than skin deep; it doesn’t matter if you know I’ve been to China or to the top of Ben Nevis, or not. The evidence of a life’s experience can be measured only in terms of its effect upon the psyche, and the development of individual, and such things are glacially slow in their effect – hardly the work of an instant. In these terms then, most photographs of faces in the scene tell us nothing.

I see tourists armed with video recording equipment, capturing every last moment of a visit, too busy with the recording of it to pay much heed to the visit itself. Thus the experience becomes that of recording, rather than of being. The recording is a record of itself and, like in a hall of mirrors, vanishes off into infinite oblivion.

Why do we camera bearers think it so important to get the shot? Is it really just to impress our friends? Surely, there’s more! After all, there are images that are immediately arresting, hold us in profound stillness, humble us, make us think! But is it worth all that effort and a million snaps of crazy cats and goofy grins, for that one meaningful image to emerge from an otherwise dull collection?

I suppose it must be. It’s what the pros can pull off, if not with ease, then at least more often than the rest of us. And that’s why I persevere with, and why I love my cameras.

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The original Bladerunner movie is one of my all time favourites. It’s an unusual piece of work – futuristic, obviously – but also nostalgic, managing to combine forties noir with sci-fi, while remaining, in look and tone, still very much an eighties film with its shoulder pads and big hair. For men of a certain generation then, it also oozes nostalgia for a period when the girls we ached for all looked like Rachel Tyrell.

I recall the first cinematic release wasn’t brilliant. It had an unnecessary voice-over, also a twee ending that didn’t sit well with the rest of the film. In spite of these imperfections though, I found the rest of it visually stunning, and poignant, and it left you with a question – what does it mean to be human? If you could bio-engineer something that was more physically human than human – faster, stronger, more intelligent, what would that mean to be merely human in its presence, and how would you view your creations? The movie tells us you would despise them, and you would treat them as slaves.

A later cut – the so called Director’s cut – removed the voice-over and the twee ending. There was suddenly a brevity to the dialogue, as if the essence of the story had been mined in the editing room until they finally hit the mother-lode. And then there’s the Unicorn, and the silence regarding it, and the myth that has grown up around the movie ever since. It’s a sign of greatness it’s still talked about thirty five years after its release. I still watch it from time to time, still love every scene, know every line by heart.

I was dubious therefore about the release of the new movie, Bladerunner 2049. How could you take something so well polished, so well regarded, and hope to improve upon it? Was disappointment inevitable? At three hours running time, I was prepared for a long haul – something visually stunning, maybe a bit of a slow burner, but with luck something as thought-provoking as the original. I mean, with all that running time you could ask some pretty searching questions and make a good fist of answering them, even that one about the Unicorn!

So, how did Bladerunner 2049 compare?

Well, visually stunning is an understatement. It’s a spellbinding experience, this second outing, a visual and a sonic feast – a slow burner, yes – indeed several people got up and walked out after an hour. Fortunately one of them was the fidgety girl who’d sat right in front of me and played with her pony tail from the opening credits. But it didn’t feel like a three hour film. It took you in, showed you its wonders in myriad detail, and you were rapt with curiosity and awe.

The world of Bladerunner had moved on from the teeming, seething swamp-of-life feel of the original and was now overcast with a post-apocalyptic vibe. I found myself immersed in it, and yet,… I don’t know what I was waiting for. I suppose it was a Roy Baty moment – you know? The guy on the rooftop? the pouring rain? the dove? I wanted an answer to Roy’s existential dilemma. And the Unicorn.

“You people have no idea,…

“All those moments will be lost,…

“Like tears in rain,.. time to die,…”

And all that.

Perhaps I’d missed it. Perhaps it came when the screen was partially obscured by the fidgety girl’s pony tail, held vertical and flicked impatiently from side to side as if to deliberately test my patience – boy was I glad when she went! I presume the movie did nothing for her at all. Me? I came out of the cinema feeling still hungry for something. I had gone in itching like mad, but beyond beguiling and bewitching me, the film steadfastly refused to scratch the right spot. That said, it was a miracle, as so much of our capabilities are these days, it’s just that we don’t seem to know what to do with miracles any more.

There’s a scene, late on, in which Rachel from the original movie was recreated by CGI. It was for me, and I presume millions of other romantically inclined guys of a certain age, a truly heart-stopping – how the hell did they do that – sort of moment? She managed about ten seconds screen time before being pointlessly, casually and violently dispatched. It was a missed opportunity, I think, that one scene a reminder to me that while our achievements are at times astonishing, we have also lost our way, that our oversights and our growing insensitivities are becoming indefensible.

Speaking of violence, there were other moments, graphic and shocking, to punctuate the visual sumptuousness, as if to keep us awake. I don’t enjoy that sort of thing unless there’s a good reason for it – and in any case it’s a question to which I already know the answer – that we bleed and break when we’re hurt. Everybody knows this, no need for further demonstration.

What I wanted was the answer to Roy’s question. And yes, that flipping Unicorn! But I didn’t get it. The dialogue was occasionally stylish, but didn’t actually say anything in the end. In the original, the dove suggested the presence of a soul for all the otherwise synthetic nature of Roy’s being. The second movie did nothing to build upon this premise, indeed seemed only to take the soul right out of the human players as well. Perhaps that’s our future, and though it’s not a hopeful message, it’s worth heeding. In this sense alone then the film becomes more than visual candy. There is a meaning, but you’ve got to dig for it.

As for that damned unicorn: Arrghhh!

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loversI took a dip into the world of Instagram poetry, fell promptly headlong into the purple prose of a million broken hearts. Clearly I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be young. To be sure it’s a terrible thing, this compulsion we have to seek completion in another human being, and to have them seek a reciprocal completion in us. And like all compulsions it’s such a rich ground for disaster, for rejection, for betrayal, for the object of one’s desire not to return one’s feelings, or even know one exists. Okay,… so I’ve been there, written plenty for that genre in the past. Fortunately though there was no Internet in those days and a Boots’ diary had to suffice.

If I’d had the Internet back than, it would have been tempting of course to lay my heart bare, as many young ‘uns obviously do today, either as a plea for mercy, revenge against the one who did or did not love me, or as a beating of my chest and gnashing of teeth to Aphrodite. But I’d also like to think even my younger self would have recognised the indignity in such a thing. When relationships backfire, for whatever reason, and no matter how mouthy or cutting the other party gets, a gentleman is always better keeping his own counsel.

This is not to say love is not a beautiful thing, for a man in love sees the world differently. He can describe it from a heightened state of consciousness, a world that bears no resemblance to the same one described through shades of depression. But try as I might I could not find poetry like that on Instagram, only the petulant and possibly inebriated jottings of a million midnight Bridget Jones’s, lamenting the ups and downs (mainly downs) of their thing for Mr Darcy. As a forum for my own words then, I feel somewhat out of place, a veritable crustacean tiptoeing through a frightful wail of the fretful and the tenderly aged.

My apologies if one of those bleeding heart poems was yours, but I can assure you, at some point you’ll get hitched, you’ll find “the one” and hopefully have children with them, and then your life will change. You’ll have other things to worry about, to pine about, to cry about, and if you still possess the urge, it’s thus the poetry will change throughout the summer and the autumn and finally the winter of your life.

Like those teens posting their fevered “I love you’s”, it’s still a desire for connection, for completion that drives us in later life. But the love felt by youth is more a cunning deceit of Nature to get us to pair off and make babies. What we seek to connect with, actually, we find only to a small degree in others, and the younger we are the more we are likely to mistake it for the real thing and grow dissatisfied by it. The real thing is the mystery of Nature itself, the mystery of life. The hunt for it is an existential quest, and there are no reliable pathways leading to it from the material world. Instead, we must rely on imagination, conjuring up those parts of ourselves we would perhaps otherwise be afraid to be seen out with in public.

The love poem is of infinite value to its author of course, but unless it opens the reader up to more than the author’s misery, there is little of broader worth in it, only the author’s future embarrassment when things finally pick up and he looks back on the bad times. I’m glad I kept mine private.

For me the poet is someone wandering that great tideline of the world after the ebb. Indeed a beach is the ultimate metaphor for this mysterious liminal zone, the mysterious line between reality and imagination. Now and then we come across a curiosity washed up, say a bit of smooth-worn driftwood. We revel in its shape and its exquisite feel as we turn it in our hands. We cannot describe the forces that have shaped it, yet in the feel of it we intuit the nature of something divinely beautiful, far beyond our understanding. Then we turn to our companion, our imaginary reader, and we say “Wow, what do you think of this?”

Relationships confer a degree of self reflection, but it’s not the essential thing. After all, there’s no point being in love if you’re rendered suddenly blind to everything else that’s going on.

Oh my heart is like a red-red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June,
If I could only say the same for yours,
I’d be humming a different tune.

Bu-Bum.

 

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With the going of the light, and the fast fading memory of summer’s ease, Black Dog comes stalking once again. We toss him a stick, some stupid novelty or other, which he returns sodden and chewed beyond attraction. Thus, after a couple of turns, we are no longer minded to pick it up, so there he curls, our unshakeable friend, creeping ever closer until he’s in our lap, weighting down all possibility of forward movement.

Words fail in our throats, people look strange, look also strangely at us as we sink into paranoia at the apparent indifference, even of our loved ones. In pettiness, we withdraw, lose empathy, and equanimity as we huddle in imaginary self defence. We become then the worst of ourselves, favouring the lonely places, or the indoors, the impersonal, the pointless flicking at our phones,  the mindless digestion of the indigestible, the foolish, and the vain.

The soundtrack to our lives deepens to despair as Gorecki displaces once more the Red Priest from the player. A symphony of sorrowful songs de-tunes the cellos from their once ravishing Baroque concertos, splits the lustrous age-old wood, breaks the bows, shape-shifts rosin into a cold slime, and bends the dead strings into the intersecting snail-trails of man’s infinite inhumanity.

The filters of filth fail us, and we are overwhelmed by the madness of the world again, no longer able to blind-eye its deep vales of deceit, its mountains of depravity. And we see the leaders naked, as they truly are perhaps, lost or mad or utterly grotesque, letting loose their policemen, black-armoured cockroach armies to hammer blood from dissent.

Black Dog, your visions are cruel, rendered bearable only by the numbing fragrance of your breath. You are the rot of crushed leaves, the rot of wood dissolved to crumb by cringe-legged beetling lice, you are the perennial black mould on the wallpaper above my desk, you are the scratching in the night, and the sinister rustling of an infestation of mice.

We brush down our books in vain, our books of dreams, of alchemy, of transcendentalism, yet, once treasured, we find them mould-stained and dusty, and scented of you, taking with them the key to the only escape we knew, to the vast labyrinth of the esoteric. Now there is only the unsoftened day ahead, each to be taken in its turn. Thus we answer each half-lit morn the alarm clock’s shrill call, rise, stretch our stiffening limbs, pee out our aching bladder.

Is this really the only way? But what of those moments when we shook you from our lap and soared? Those days we rattled the high roads while the beatific sun beat down and tanned our faces? Where were you then? Or the glad beach-days with the soft sand and the multitudinous shades of ocean blue? Or coffee, and company, and that gentle hand to hold? Where were you then?

But these are earthly things for sure and transient as mist, the meagre sticks we toss, then you’ll chase and allow us a moment to breathe. What we seek now is the secret of another kind of cultivation, and the ability to cast it an infinite distance away.

Then go,… Fetch!

Damn you.

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