Sigiriya Retreat Day One

Arrived last night in Vermont for the Sigiriya game-building retreat with Rad Magpie. We’re in a gorgeous old farmhouse, and lucky enough to have Kel‘s wife, Becca, cooking for us all weekend. I enjoyed a little local cider (Tits Up!) last night, and started the morning with Dana, our project lead, also leading us in a little stretching and a guided meditation. After the hurried rush of the last few months, this is bliss.
 
Sometimes this life of mine, it is very good.

It feels a little ironic to be creating a Sri Lankan jungle game in the midst of New England hills and trees and snow, but also oddly good. A little attention to environment, please; it determines so much.

Breakfast of “Mike’s Mess” with artist Kat Weaver.

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ADD and agents

Here’ s another ADD-thing maybe, this one writing / agent-related. I work in a lot of different areas, and it turns out that the literary agenting world is REALLY not set up for this. When I was last agent-hunting, Benjamin Rosenbaum was strongly advocating that I find an agent who could represent all the varied things I do. That sounds great, but the thing is, what I do is REALLY varied.

My attention scatters hither and yon, and as a result, I am working in the following fields: science fiction, fantasy, mainstream lit, memoir (two different ones), cookbooks, and kids’ lit (picture books, middle grade, YA). I also write poetry, but it is perhaps my salvation that I don’t even try to publish it properly, but just post it here. I dabbled in playwriting for a year, but thankfully managed to set it aside. Mostly. I keep fighting the urge to write a graphic novel; it’s a good thing I can’t draw.

I don’t know of ANY agents who actually represent all of that. I’ve asked around, a lot! Agents tend to specialize, which makes sense, because they need to know their sub-field really well in order to keep up with what’s happening there. So in the end, I decided to pick SF as my major focus right now, and choose an agent who was good at it.

Russ Galen is, in fact, GREAT at SF/F, and I feel very lucky to have him as my agent. He’s helped me see where my first attempt at a SF novel went wrong, and the version I’m working on now is, I think, much better. On my good days, I’m quite hopeful that I can write a good SF novel and he can sell it. (Last night I was being very mopey about that whole endeavor, but Kevin talked me down from the ledge.)

Russ has given me permission to go find other agents to represent anything else I do, but unfortunately, that’s turning out to be really difficult. Most agents would prefer to represent an author entirely, so a lot of people will just say no straight off, when they hear that Russ is representing my SF/F.

After talking to some more agent friends, it seems like I MIGHT be able to find someone to do just my kid lit, so I’m agent-hunting for that now. But agents are really quite resistant, even in the initial inquiry phase, which is disheartening.

Agent-hunting is maybe not quite as terrible as job-hunting, but it’s close. I think I’ve been spoiled because I’ve never really had to do it before — I got my first agent through editing a book with Bob when he was still an editor, and I got Russ through an introduction from a fellow writer. I’ve never done a real agent search before. It sucks.

Anyway, to come back to the writing-in-many-genres thing — a lot of people would say to just pick one and stick to it, that it’s almost impossible for someone to do well in multiple genres.

But almost impossible isn’t the same as impossible, right? Iain Banks / Iain M. Banks published in both mainstream lit. and SF. Ursula K. Le Guin wrote SF/F, published as mainstream, and even did a lovely children’s book (Fish Soup) that I’m insanely fond of. Michael Chabon writes mainstream lit. and superhero stories and Frankenstein baseball. (Yes, I am aware that these people are exceptional. Sigh.)

I am *trying* to focus. I am. But sometimes my brain just spins out in other directions. On my good days, I’m hopeful that it all goes together in some sort of hodgepodge that I hope will work synergistically.

My work does center around certain things, no matter what genre it’s in: Sri Lanka, domesticity, gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, immigrant / refugee / nationalist politics, polyamory, food, gardening. (A bit of climate change too, as it intersects with postcolonial concerns.)

I mean, that’s a weird mix, but it’s me, and I can hope that there’ll be *some* crossover in readership across genre borders. I think I don’t really have a choice about writing all of that, honestly — I can’t seem to stop working in multiple genres. Maybe someday it’ll all come together in a glorious explosion.

But right now, it makes agenting / marketing much harder than it would otherwise be. Sigh.

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ADD thoughts

You know, I was actually in many ways a terrible student. I was bright enough that I tested well on standardized tests, and engaged enough with literature that I aced essay writing classes, but even there, I usually wrote the papers the morning they were due, getting up at 4 a.m. to crank out a quick first draft and hand it in.
 
I didn’t learn how to actually study until my Ph.D. program in my 30s, and I remember looking sort of bewildered at my college roommates, how they would just sit on their beds and study. For hours. I didn’t get *how* they could make themselves do that. I mostly didn’t try.
 
I think I am slowly processing this diagnosis / understanding of how my brain works. I hadn’t really found my ADD upsetting before now, but last night, while talking to Kevin, I kind of lost it a little. Looking back at all those years of half-attention schooling, wondering what my education might have looked like if I’d been able to approach it fully equipped. Maybe I wouldn’t have flunked calculus freshman year. Maybe it wouldn’t have taken me three tries to get into grad school. (I really am stubborn. A reasonable person would probably have given up.)
 
I spent so many years in temp secretarial jobs, and I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t doing better career-wise. Which, okay, maybe makes me a better teacher now, because I have a lot of empathy for my students who are struggling. But still — frustrating. Roads not taken. Lots of what-ifs.
 
Which are all kind of pointless to dwell on, I know, but maybe I need to sit with the frustration a little bit before I can manage to release it and move on. Going to start meditating again today, though, after a long hiatus. I think I need it.
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Christmas present

Kevin and I were going to try to do a monthly date night this year — it was part of my Christmas present to him, to spend more time together, just us — which doesn’t seem too much to ask, one night a month — but then I asked if we could push the one we’d scheduled for last week to this week because I was feeling so far behind that I was too stressed to take 3 hours off on a Friday night. He said sure.
 
So we pushed to today, planning to have my assistant come in late and stay and keep an eye on the kids while we were out, but then we realized that with me going out of town for a work weekend tomorrow and him with a late work thing on campus, it’d be better if my assistant came tomorrow so we’d have coverage of the kids from 3:30 – 5:30 p.m (not that they can’t manage on their own for a few afternoon hours at this point, but it still stresses us out a little (more him than me, but still)).
 
So we thought we’d just make the kids eat pizza upstairs tonight and we’d lie in bed and get fancy takeout and watch a rom-com and call that date night, but we’re both working at home today, so he suggested we could also go out and work at a cafe together the way we used to do when we were young and carefree and I said that’s great, but it’s cold and I don’t want to leave the house.
 
So we appear to have ended up with me setting a load of laundry going and pulling all my winter clothes out of storage (because I’m cold and don’t have enough warm clothes available in my closet) and him piling them in the library for me to sort through later. And then with him lying in bed doing serious math stuff, and me lying in bed next to him half-watching cooking shows (which he swears won’t disturb him) while posting research photos from the Sri Lanka trip I took without him.
 
And maybe we’ll order some takeout later, but I actually kind of wanted to try making a curry to go with the pongal I cooked on Tuesday, so maybe we won’t do the takeout thing at all….and this, this is why even a once-a-month date night is maybe not going to happen for us despite our best intentions.
 
Maybe in February.
 
I love you, sweetie. Best of husbands.
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ADD Meds Report

ADD meds report, about 3 months in:

So, I’ve been taking Vyvanse for a while now. I like it. I still find myself a little unsure of whether I ‘need’ it — various things I’d read said that the nice thing about ADD meds is that if you started taking them, you knew immediately if you needed them, and I don’t think that’s the case for me. Maybe I’m an edge case, or maybe I have developed good compensating skills in 47 years, or maybe I have the kind of job that lets me function productively despite the ADD, or all of the above — I’m not sure. I can certainly manage without them.

But I still like them. There are two distinct positive effects I can point to:

– about half an hour or so after I take them in the morning, I start feeling noticeably more relaxed. That surprised me, because my understanding is that what I’m taking is a form of ‘speed,’ which I’d expect to be the opposite of relaxing. My best guess, though, is that what the med does is reduce the stress of the cognitive load of distraction / switching attention. Because it makes that so much easier, the end result is that I feel less stressed. I hope I explained that clearly; it’s a little convoluted, but it feels right.

– when I start working on something that’s logistically complicated — a host of e-mails and FB messages and digital notes and paper notes all related to one project, which need to be sorted and assembled into some kind of coherence and then posted to a wide variety of places, keeping track of them all so I don’t duplicate or forget or put the wrong thing in the wrong place — it’s much easier. Before the meds, I found that kind of thing intensely stressful, and it would make me panicky (though I was reasonably good at shoving the panic down and getting through it somehow). Now, it’s straightforward — I just do it, and while it doesn’t make the work of it any less, the meds seem to remove an extra layer of franticness, which I think must come from the added difficulty of switching between many different types of input and output.

So that’s the good. Then there’s the ‘I don’t know yet,’ which is writing. Between everything else that’s going on, I haven’t actually done the kind of sustained novel-writing that I hoped the ADD meds would help me focus on. I haven’t even started, really. I’ve been finishing up Wild Cards and other smaller projects, and there were three international trips and Christmas and it’s easy to come up with reasons (excuses), but the end result is that I just don’t know yet how Vyvanse affects my novel writing. Hoping to change that in the next month; we’ll see. More on that anon.

What about the bad? Well, it’s not super-bad, but here’s a few more things I’ve noticed:

– if someone (usually Kevin) tries to talk to me when I’m deep in work mode, working a complex problem, I have a hard time pulling out of it to even speak to him, and I have to suppress a bit of crankiness about it. Mostly this isn’t a problem, as I try not to start on complex projects when I’m likely to be interrupted, and Kev and I both try hard not to interrupt each other during work time, but occasionally he needs to ask me something logistically important (like who’s picking up the kids, etc.). It’s a small, annoying thing.

– after about 8 hours, when the Vyvanse is wearing off, I’m definitely cranky, and try to avoid my family for 20-30 minutes until it wears off. I think that must be the return of the cognitive load, the stress of switching attention being hard. I’m trying harder to not work in the evenings, which is good for me overall anyway, and that does help.

The appetite suppressant effect is much less noticeable than it was when I started, by the way. I still don’t feel super hungry at lunchtime, but I’m not as likely to just forget to eat as I was originally, and what I eat at breakfast / dinner easily makes up any missing calories.

And that’s where we are. I like Vyvanse and plan to keep taking it.

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MPS 175

Last night I went to a reunion dinner for my high school, Miss Porter’s. My parents sent me to an all girls’ high school over my fierce objections — I wanted to go the local Catholic school with my friends. I think they sent me mostly because they were worried about me getting in trouble with boys at a co-ed school; they had gone to single sex schools in Sri Lanka. (They had no idea what was to come…)

In the end, they decided that Porter’s had actually made me too feminist and independent — tough on immigrant parents! But for me, it was one of the best experiences of my life; that all-girls’ environment made it possible for me to speak up in class when I got to college in a way I think I’d have had a lot more difficulty with otherwise. Porter’s really does train leaders, and I’m seriously thinking of taking Kavi back to CT next summer for their summer leadership institute (can also visit my parents in the process).

I’m probably not going to send her there for high school — we’d need serious scholarship help, for one, as it is not cheap; my parents could barely afford it back then, and I’m not a doctor and tuition has gone up! And right now, I can’t bear the thought of sending her away to boarding school. (I was a day student). And we moved here in part because our local public high school, OPRF, is really excellent.

But I had such a great experience there (once I got over the misery of being a weird brown girl who didn’t know what to wear and didn’t fit in at all — thank god for a Star Trek geek to bond with freshman year), that I still waver sometimes. And maybe Kavi and I will start fighting all the time once she’s a teen, and the distance would be a good thing? Two strong-willed women in the same house….

Well, we’ll see what the future brings. She’ll only 11. In the meantime, it was truly lovely to be reminded of all the sweetness of those days at MPS, and to get to know a few other alumnae a little better. Now I’m wishing I’d made the effort to go out for a few of the reunions.

Also, host Sophia du Brul fed us incredibly — awesomely garlicky edamame hummus, chicken marbella (which I haven’t had before, roasted with olives, capers, and prunes! yum yum yum) with couscous and roasted vegetables, followed by a limoncello tiramisu. Her table setting was also so ridiculously pretty (with daisy-embroidered napkins!) that I was just entranced.

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Putting Sri Lankans in Space: SALA Presentation

“Putting Sri Lankans in Space”

The previous times I’ve been to SALA, I’ve mostly talked about my mainstream fiction; Bodies in Motion is realistic immigrant stories, starting in Sri Lanka in the 1940s and coming to America down two family lines. It came out in 2005 from HarperCollins, as part of a two-book deal, and was supposed to be followed by a realistic novel featuring a Sri Lankan-Indian-Jewish threesome. That novel crashed and burned, which is a long, interesting story that I won’t be telling right now.

More than a little scarred, I took a break for a while, had children, and when I came back to writing, was determined to do something fun, something I loved. I had grown up with a passion for science fiction. (Half-human/ half-Vulcan Spock spoke deeply to me, an immigrant Sri Lankan child growing up as the only brown kid in a Polish American Catholic school. There was a while when I was more fluent in Polish than in Tamil. ‘W imię Ojca, i Syna i Ducha Świętego. Amen.’)

So I set out to write a light, erotic SF tale (I spent my 20s mostly writing erotica), a set of linked stories about Sri Lankans in space. They’d settle a university planet (of course), hang out with aliens, and generally have a fun, sexy time. (https://www.goodreads.com/bo…/show/18754952-the-stars-change)

***

That book turned serious, despite my best efforts. The Stars Change ended up mostly about Black July; it centered on the opening salvos of a long and bloody war, an alien ghetto under attack, and the humans who must decide whether to risk their own lives and safety to help their neighbors.

I had tried to write about Black July in realist fiction over and over in those intervening years, had started more than one novel, but had run aground on the rock of diaspora, of being so distant in time and place. I was full of questions about stakeholding, about my right to tell a story where the details were being gathered from newspaper reports, where my mistakes, misrepresentations, might contribute to an ongoing, bitter conflict. Might even cost lives, with my own relatively safe in America. Translating the issues to science fiction was safer. Maybe that’s cowardly of me. I don’t know.

***

But there’s a way in which translating the work to science fiction is clearly useful. When we teach science fiction, we talk about ‘cognitive estrangement’ – the way that setting a story in an alien time and place makes it possible to address issues in a different way, so readers might disengage from their preconceptions, see things more clearly.

Sheree Renée Thomas‘s Dark Matter is an excellent anthology of black American speculative fiction that traces the work of African American authors who have attempted to address the grievous history of blacks in America through stories full of aliens, vampires, goddess interventions. It offers machines that can change your skin color, aliens who arrive and offer humanity wealth and health in exchange for America’s black people, women who struggle to survive in a post-apocalyptic hellscape.

Cosmos Latinos (ed. Andrea L. Bell & Yolanda Molina-Gavilán) offers Latin American science fiction, with a perhaps unsurprising focus on the rush of oncoming technology, the problems of factory workers & their relationship to the factory owners, a host of Marxist critiques wrapped up in science fiction trappings. Similarly, Polish and Russian writers, who were at risk of being jailed by the state, cloaked their cultural critiques in alien skin.

***

In The Stars Change, there is no overt mention of Tamil or Sinhalese, nothing so explicit for a reader to balk at. Maybe that lets the arguments of the book slip in under a reader’s radar, sometimes.

A linked story, “Plea,” is ostensibly about pacifist telepathic space whales. But it’s really about the Syrian refugee crisis, about my relatives who fled Sri Lankan after ’83, and about my son’s difficulties in kindergarten, when he was sent to the principal’s office seventeen times in one year. It’s about which brown boy (or adult man) gets labeled as ‘violent’ and why, and what desperate choices a parent might make in the worst of circumstances. (http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/plea/)

“Webs” is about Black July again, from a different angle, and also centers on transgender concerns and passing privilege, but on the surface, it’s about people who have genetically engineered themselves to fly. They do have tires shoved over their heads and set on fire, before they themselves are tossed off the edge of a cliff – that detail might give the game away. (http://maryannemohanraj.com/webs/)

***

Recently I was flown to Paris to participate in the Plurality University, a response to the famous Singularity University in part, a gathering of futurists, science fiction writers, artists and designers, and more, from around the globe. I’ve served as a futurist board member for the Museum of Science and Industry, and for the XPrize, bringing speculative futurist perspectives to discussions of housing, environment, and more.

Futurists don’t claim to be able to predict the future, but we do think about it, in great detail. Sometimes the far future, sometimes the very near. I recently wrote a story for Welcome to Dystopia, an anthology of stories responding to the election of Trump – my piece interwove my concerns around reproductive rights, revocation of immigration status, and the challenges of parenting mixed-raced children in the current and near future political climate. (https://www.goodreads.com/…/sh…/36359199-welcome-to-dystopia)

At the Plurality University, I was introduced to the term ‘perspectivist,’ currently in use in France and Latin America, where historians are founding companies that offer perspectives on the past and the future to tech companies, to NGO’s (one woman I met served as the official futurist for the International Red Cross), to governments, and more. I find that term useful.

Speculative fiction writers have been trying to offer alternate perspectives, lenses of cognitive estrangement, for a very long time.

***

I admit, I often find it irritating when mainstream writers, readers, and academics dismiss the vast corpus of science fiction, and then go on to stumblingly reproduce the beginnings of what we’ve been working on for decades. At the Museum of Science and Industry futurist board sessions, for example, it was incredibly frustrating hearing people of power offer brainstorming suggestions as if they were brand new, as if no one had ever thought about the future of housing, or space travel, or gender expression before.

I (along with spec fic author Mary Robinette Kowal) promised the museum staff that I would give them a booklist of science fiction titles they should read. Speculative fiction writers have been interrogating human nature, life on this planet, for a very long time; there’s a vast, deep conversation that museums, corporations, governments need to get up to speed on.

***

What’s exciting to me right now is seeing who else is joining that conversation. For a long time, science fiction was the province primarily of white men. The 70s saw a wave of serious feminist work, from authors like Russ and Tiptree and LeGuin. A little later, Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale, which is classic dystopian science fiction, as much as she might hate to admit it. The magical realists started breaking down some of these barriers – Marquez, Allende. Salman Rushdie, in Midnight’s Children, gives us telepathy and time travel, classic SF tropes.

In the last decade, writers of color have exploded onto the speculative fiction scene, with African American writer Nora Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy winning the Hugo Award for three successive years running (a feat never seen before in the field), with Nnedi Okorafor’s stories being picked up for development by HBO. Anthologies are now coming out featuring sourceland African writers (Imagine Africa 500, edited by Billy Kahora), Ken Liu has just edited a major new volume of Chinese science fiction in translation, Broken Stars. South Asia is coming too.

Mimi Mondal recently published a round-up of South Asian speculative fiction at Tor.com, an excellent primer for those who’d like to familiarize themselves with the beginnings of this field; it includes familiar writers like Anil Menon and Vandana Singh, but also some newer voices (https://www.tor.com/…/a-short-history-of-south-asian-specu…/).

I expect an explosion of South Asian speculative fiction in the next few years – I’m talking to a few different publishers about editing an anthology right now, in fact. South Asian visions of the future, perspectives on the past, will surely provide fascinating and productive lenses on what’s to come.

***

As for me personally, I’m delighted and thrilled to see more speculative fiction writers from Sri Lanka (both sourcelanders and diaspora) joining the conversation. I’ll end this with a brief introduction to some of their work, so you can see a little of what they’re bringing to the conversation.

R.K. Kalaw is a diaspora author of Sri Lankan & Filipino descent, writing various short fiction pieces. (https://twitter.com/rk_kalaw)

Naru Sundar is writing short fiction and poetry; I’m passing along his black July story, “A Ghost Among the Mangroves.” (http://podcastle.org/…/…/pc-478-a-ghost-among-the-mangroves/) (http://www.shardofstar.info)

• Vajra Chandrasekera is currently a fiction editor at the magazine I founded, Strange Horizons (a particular delight to me) – they’ve written short stories that have appeared in the genre’s foremost magazines, like Clarkesworld and Lightspeed. http://vajra.me

• Mandy Jay (Mandy Jayatissa) is the author of a steampunk novel, The Other One.

Navin Weeraratne is the author of Zeelam and a few other novels; Zeelam is a zombie novel set in Colombo, but also explores government / military brutality.

Yudhanjaya Wijeratne is the author of Numbercaste and a new series from HarperCollins India, the Commonwealth Empire books – the first one, The Inhuman Race, takes place in Colombo in 2033, and centers on robot sentience in a world where the British Empire stayed in power.

Finally, I offer you a story by Tobias Buckell, published in Nature, titled “Toy Planes.” Toby is a Caribbean American writer, and this brief story lays bare the pain of those who are trying to find a place in the future, when their relatives in the homeland don’t understand why they would bother. (https://www.nature.com/articles/4371064a)

Thank you.

[remarks presented at SALA 2019, Mary Anne Mohanraj.

Nalini Iyer and Madhurima Chakraborty, thank you very much for the opportunity.]

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Mid December

I had four BIG things to do this week before leaving for Sri Lanka on Sunday:
 
– finish semester grading — DONE, WOOHOO!
 
– finish Wild Cards story revision — DONE, ALSO WOOHOO! (though I really had to go lock myself in the shed to make myself finish — Ellie just came and whined at the door until I let her in for a bit, and then sniffed all around as if to say, well, this is interesting, but shouldn’t you be in bed?)
 
– finish maker space grant draft, due at the end of the year, but I really really want to hand it in before I leave the country, so this Saturday — getting close to done
 
– make Christmas (we’re celebrating early on the 23rd) — also getting close to done; most of the presents bought, with just Christmas cards to write and presents to wrap and maybe a photo album to make, but that can wait if necessary…
 
I think it’s all do-able, and I even think I get to rest and relax some in the next three days? Maybe? We’ll see. Kevin and I have some thought of going to see the Spiderman movie. We invited the kids, but Anand doesn’t like sitting through theater movies, and Kavi doesn’t feel strongly, so it’ll probably be just us. If we do it. We’ll see!
 
In excellent news, Karina was able to get away from work long enough to join us on the trip. So it’ll be me, Kavi, Jed, and Karina traipsing around Sri Lanka this time. Funfun.
 
I am irritatingly insecure about being on video, but I am semi-determined to get over it this time, so I can show you Sri Lanka a little better than just through my photos. We’ll see. Hopefully, some video clips will be coming your way next week…
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Plurality U (and Facebook note)

(Meta note:  I mostly try to copy at least the most significant posts over from Facebook to here, but if it’s not clear, I’m mostly living my digital life on Facebook these days, and I just don’t have the time to copy all of the posts over.  So if you want to see all the Paris photos from the last few days, or the Mexico photos from last week with the family, etc., please do head over to my FB page.  Sorry!)

*****

I know you just want to see more of my Paris photos (gargoyles are coming! lots of gargoyles!) — but I need to wind down a little mentally first. I’m once again in this weird place where I’m having a very hard time deciding what I should work on.

– This weekend at Plurality U sparked a host of new ideas for projects, but none of them are my own fiction.

– Walking around Paris for a day actually did spark several good ideas for my own fiction.

– Spending a little time in the governance track at the U today reminded me that by now, I have a fairly developed skill set for governance, and I really would like this Plural U project to succeed, but getting involved with that aspect would take precious time. Maybe I can give them a year (by which I just mean a few meetings over the course of the year, hopefully, not an actual year of work) on the governance thing, just to help it start on the right foot? (How many boards can you sit on, Mary Anne? Be realistic here. No, really. I said REALISTIC.)

– I spent a little time just now reading about the current competitive field of trustees for the next Oak Park election (9 people running so far for 3 slots, and I know of at least 1 more), and while I’m not running this time around, it means that there’s a good chance that if I run in two years as planned, for trustee or village president, there will likely be serious competition necessitating a time-consuming campaign. I don’t have to run — but I am worried about most of the current slate of candidates, many of whom are clearly running on platforms that I do not support. There are 52,000 people living in Oak Park who depend on good governance, even if they’re mostly just living their lives and not paying attention to the decisions that are being made in the room…

I don’t expect you folks to give me any answers here. Just…feeling painfully torn.

This may be kind of the perpetual state from here to the end of my life?
Mortality, it is not very convenient when you have a lot of stuff you really want to get done. Is it time to start training my replacements yet? Training takes time too, but I will have to pass the torch eventually…

(Feeling so grateful to all the people who took over Strange Horizons after me and ran it so beautifully. Susan Groppi, Niall Harrison, Jane Crowley, Kate Dollarhyde, and all the rest of the staff over the last two decades — thank you thank you thank you for not dropping the baby.)

#PluralFutures

(This is the last conference photo, as Tomo Kihara and I walked to our Uber back to the hotel.)

 

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