college, Women

THE FEMALE ASPECT TO THIS COLLEGE SCANDAL

The college scandal continues at every corner I have turned this past week since the story broke. With good reason, it is a dire and despicable example of what goes terribly wrong with too much money not used for the right reason. Despite the plane crashes, the school shootings and the massacre in New Zealand, these college scandals are still in front of us. This is serious business, this college outrage. It is indicative of the layers of entitlement and greed that is nothing new in our young country or world for that matter.

I have an old friend who is almost 97 at this point, walks every single day, lives on his own with his wife and still drives. He speaks the way an old Italian man who survived WWII gets away with. A few years back as we were walking, he said to me in regards to some scandal involving a politician whose name escapes me, “Anytime there is a scandal it is because of money or a woman.” I cracked up. Such an old-fashioned way to put it because I see it with a slight twist. The money and the women are more often the result of the behavior caused by the person causing it- usually a man and of course I said this aloud. It fell on deaf ears. He really didn’t see it this way at all. Now before you think this essay is headed towards some bra burning male bashing, let me assure you it is not. I love men, the good ones. And there are plenty of women who are as guilty of scandal and bad behavior. This is not male centric by any means. But his notion that scandals were because of the women not symptomatic is part of the reason I write today.

I remember reading The Scarlet Letter in high school and feeling so outraged that Hester had to walk around with the big A, not her lover who she protected with a vengeance. Sure the reverend’s identity wasn’t so obvious, but the female shaming was and continues to be so typical. The #Metoo movement finally brought some men out into the open for the parade that women have been walking for centuries and I think this may be progress? I put the question mark because I am not sure. We have had many feminist movements in the past century, yet we still struggle for equal pay, representation in our government and our boards. We still worry about our reproductive rights and our daughters’ safety if they choose to go out late at night alone. This is a universal problem- the double standard of our gender.

What I have found interesting in this recent college scandal is the female shaming. And we barely notice. Why is it that every news story features photos and names of the two actresses? Any story I have seen or heard says, “A list of people including two actresses.” Then their names, their photos, the photos of their children and the endless parade of their shame walk to and from court.

Where are the rest of the over thirty people and more involved? Why are their names not in the news? I am not protecting the two women and their children. Their example is an embarrassment to parenting, BUT so are the rest of them. If the news is not going to show the lists, the faces of the remaining, why should it just be the two women and their daughters? Women have been doing the walk of shame forever, what we wear, what we eat, how we choose our partners, our sex lives, how we have sex, the way we give birth, feed our children, choose to work or not work, constantly we are under the microscope in such different ways than our male counterparts. In the alanon meetings I have gone to for years, just like AA, the first step is awareness. Until we are even remotely aware of the imbalances that the media portrays us in, nothing will ever change. We women barely notice that there is an imbalance because we are just so friggin use to it, it is our norm.

I refuse to call out the actresses in this essay today until the media starts naming everyone, showing pictures of everyone involved, not just two women. I am not protecting them. All you need to do is google college scandal and see what shows up in the search. Two names, two faces over and over again. Once again, the media doesn’t get it right.

As a woman who takes care of women for a living, who employs almost twenty young women in a female centered business, I write today to remind us to start noticing. Just that first step in paying attention and having conversation about how much this happens. Ads that show women in the kitchen, at the washing machine, taking stains happily out of their children’s clothes with great big smiles, men cutting the grass with their John Deere mowers, fixing their cars, the media loves gender pigeon holing. I just turned 54 and in my lifetime I can recall the first time I saw an ad that showed a female doctor. The first time. What came first? Why aren’t we noticing? Our children are watching. This scandal is shocking and sad, but like all bad choices, there are strong lessons to be learned. Let’s start with simply learning that just showing the two female actresses over and over and not talking about the rest is part of the conversation we could be having with our children too. Teachable moments come in all forms. We are having more conversations about why the obvious is wrong, but there is an undercurrent of bias again that is also part of the conversation. Just google it and you will get my point.

college, Parenting

MORE COLLEGE PERSPECTIVE

“My mother made me take the SAT six times!” my son’s friend, Jake, announced almost four years ago in the back seat of the car I was driving. The backstory of this announcement was that our dear friend Jake was trying to get into Annapolis. His mom is one of the fiercest mama’s I know and if this was his goal, she was going to help make it happen. 

Getting into Annapolis is no joke. It is a huge accomplishment and with a lot of hard work, perseverance and incredible help (it takes a village for sure), Jake achieved his dream and is about to finish his second year. This is one instance where I don’t roll my eyes at the notion of a SAT repeat, repeat, repeat, you get the point. I mean, come on, ANNAPOLIS, is like Harvard except with many more layers of bad ass.

Meanwhile my son, who was finishing up his junior year of private high school, seemed to be taking the path of least resistance. His first run at his SAT was nothing to scream from the rooftops about, I think it was something in the low 1600’s. Considering his mother took her SATS back in the day perhaps a little on the high side, I mean it was the early eighties and I lived with my father who believed that a sixteen year old should figure herself out by her own errors and judgements. Hence the decision to be baked causing my score to be a number one would expect to see in the movie, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. More on that some other time.

The only reason our son went to private high school was because I used to volunteer in the lunch room of his public middle school. On more than one occasion, many of his teachers would come up to me and encourage me to allow him to go to one of the private high schools. We took the bait. Though I don’t regret it, I know he would have done excellent at our local high school. Michael is a smart young man. He makes good decisions, always has. He is the type of kid who people say things like, “He’s going to go places.” But he is also the type of kid who does what he needs to get by. He was not the type who would join every group and club because it would look good on his college application. He was also not the type of student that would take the SAT again just to get a better score hoping that the college of his dreams would accept him. I distinctly remember his saying this profound statement at his senior year when he was applying to the five schools expected of him by said private school, “If the only reason I don’t get into the college is because of my SAT scores, then the college is not for me.”

This type of comment from my son was not surprising to me. When he was around three, he was in a private home day care around the corner from our house. Often I would walk him in the stroller or maybe we walked, I can’t remember now, but he would refuse to put on his coat. For some reason, I went with it. “Ok, you don’t want to wear a coat, your choice.” And off we went. I was taking him to a house filled with mammas, and my son showing up with no coat on a brisk day could cause judgement and eye rolls, lots of potential tsk tsks. I was seldom the mom who got sucked into that vortex. I was usually an outlier type mom. My son knew his own body temperature. His dad never wore a coat, he ran hot always so I just guessed that my son had the same body heat. I think these small decisions as a parent over time allowed me to be more accepting of his laissez faire attitude when we got closer to the college application circus we found ourselves in.

A circus indeed. At the same time he was applying to college, I had decided to take some classes at our local private university. At the first and only class I took there, I was surrounded by mostly white kids, they looked mostly the same, most from New Jersey, New York or Connecticut. These kids were uninterested in the class, many of them texting while the instructor was offering valuable information. This university was almost 45k per year and these kids were ambivalent, entitled almost. I couldn’t take it. So off I went to Rhode Island College for some classes where I found a diverse population, many kids who were there for the price, or as first generation college attendees. These kids were hungry for learning and I am guessing many of them held full time jobs while trying to get through their classes. Impressive and I had a new found appreciation of our local state colleges and universities.

Meanwhile my son was getting acceptance letters from four of the five schools he applied to. He could have gone to an out of state school for an extra 25k more per year then our in state colleges, not counting the travel back and forth for holidays and every time there was a hurricane warning. But with his unique wisdom, he was not sucked into the bragging fest. He was and still is pragmatic and frugal. His father and I were offering him a free ride at University of RI because that was what we could afford so that he would be able to leave college debt free, if he chose this path. Should he have decided to go to the out of state program, he would have had to take on some loans, so much harder to start his young life with after graduation.

I met a professor from Brown one day who told me that she had a student who was a first generation college attendee who managed to get into Brown the old fashioned way, by actually applying and getting accepted on her merit. She also had to take on student loans that would make your head spin. At the time of graduation she was burdened with over 150K in tuition debt. It is shameful that our colleges are even allowing this. The pressure to get a job right out of school so that they can begin paying their debt down is catastrophic to our children’s futures and their creativity potential. For what? So they can for four years say they went to a fancy school? I am not saying that kids shouldn’t go to these other schools at all. If they can afford them, if their parents can afford them without taking on home equity loans and burdens of debt that make them have to work well past retirement.

Our son gets to leave college with no debt because he had two parents who work hard, saved money and offered him this final gift in his young life. Neither of his parents finished college. We learned trades. Skills. And this has done well by us. I have always said that college shouldn’t be the only directive for our children. We should be allowing them the freedom to discover what ignites their passion and SUPPORT it without feeling like they are failures.

When I dropped out of college and chose the path of esthetics, aka beauty school, I thought my grandparents who were like my parents, were going to kill me. They were not happy. But I persevered; after all it was my life, my money. My problem was the outside forces who try to make our kids feel bad if they decide to go a different path or choose a community college or state university because it is what they can afford. I say bravo every time I speak to one of my son’s friends who have chosen to go to Community College of RI for two years to save money. Of all of the choices, these are the smartest ones. NO DEBT, this is what we should be teaching our children. This is a way better gift then bribing their way into a prestigious university with a brand name.

I think it is time we look at what we are teaching our children by forcing them to choose college as the only path. I know that life is harder without a degree, but I also know that pigeon holing our children from the time they are in kindergarten to think that college is the end all, we are doing a major disservice to the creativity that lies within each of our children. We should be working harder to develop their passions, juices, their entrepreneurial spirits, their community activism. College isn’t for everyone and clearly with this latest scandal it shouldn’t be.

Michael and his friend Jacob way before college became the thing it became.

college, Parenting

THE EGO OF COLLEGE

The latest college application scandal has been all over the news for the past few days. Interviews with college sports directors- the good ones, and interviews with people who help kids with their college applications- the honest ones. Interview after interview, each one more embarrassing to these prestigious schools that parents have paid boatloads so that their children could get accepted into them.

I remember the two years prior to my son going to college like it was a bad dream as I reflect on the absurdity of it all. The pressure between his peers, the parents I spoke to daily and the teachers and counselors. It was like he was getting ready for the Olympics.

“What colleges have you applied to?” People would ask. The laundry list would be repeated, mind you each application had a non-refundable fee, and there would be discussions about the choices as if somehow this was a gauge of worthiness, of intelligence, of prowess for both our son and for us as parents.

Then there were the visits. The expectations of them, the decisions to go to them, the costs involved with them, the time it took to schedule them and the visits themselves. My son applied to five schools. Two local schools in our own state, Roger Williams University and University of Rhode Island and three distance schools, University of Arizona, Florida State and The University of Alabama. He got into four of them, two were a good distance from our home.

He had the same idea as many of his peers to go to a school “far away from this little state we live in, Rhode Island.” The pressure also poured in from the private high school he attended who wanted their own accomplished students to be able to say they went to “acceptable” schools. Schools that would make their roster of students who attended them add value to the price tag of four years of a private high school I suppose so that when parents were shopping for high schools, those lists of colleges that the seniors had recently been accepted into would be that sparkle you see in the rings at a jewelry store. I remember thinking to myself, Am I the only one out here who thinks this is the most ridiculous bullshit I have ever seen?

We ended up visiting Florida State and Alabama, beautiful campuses with all of the bells and whistles you never knew were possible at a college. There were times I looked around thinking, Am I at a college or a country club? Isn’t college supposed to be crappy food and dorm rooms the size of a postage stamp?

I remember sitting in the orientation at Alabama after our wild tour of their football stadium, and boxed lunch at said football stadium followed by a rousing practice cheer “Rolltide!!!” As I looked at my all too happy son and my former husband  screaming Rolltide, I sat wondering if we were ever going to see a classroom.

The starry eyed look in my beautiful son’s eyes as we were promptly dropped in the Alabama store where my former and I began buying all things Alabama like there was no other school in our dreams. Sucked into the Rolltide.com machine. I know for you Alabama football fans out there, this is blasphemy, but I started to question what the 42k price tag was actually paying for. A beautiful campus and I am guessing some form of education, I wouldn’t know, we never saw a classroom. Yes we went to the business school auditorium where the dean of business talked about what else, Football. He did occasionally mention the curriculum, but he lost me when he started a sentence with Irregardless, a pet peeve of mine going all the way back to my teacher grandmother. I saw my son’s heart sink because he knows me well and that one grammatical slip was likely the nail in the coffin.

Then we sat down at the how are you going to pay for this school seminar where we learned that I had misread the tuition costs. I thought the costs were 21k and it turned out that was PER SEMESTER. Needless to say, I felt like an idiot, my ex-husband freaked out like a five year old, reminding me of why we weren’t married anymore (there had to be some bonus to this wacky trip), my son was almost in tears because there was just no way we were going to spend what would have easily turned into 60k per year on college and I felt like a failure as a mother. As we made our way to Florida State somber, but hopeful, I really began thinking about all of this nonsense.

The pressure for what? Except for bragging rights, and connections, wasn’t the point of college to get a degree and get out and get to work? One thing I knew was there was no way I was going into debt for college. I convinced Michael and my former to visit URI. They begrudgingly agreed with their tails between their legs. I became the cheerleader and we found our local school to be a great fit for many reasons. Location, ease of getting there and home for holidays, a good program, and the cost.

If Michael went there, Dave and I could give him the gift of a college tuition with no debt for any of us. I began my sales pitch to my son and we decided that he would give it a year, then transfer if he wanted to Alabama where he would have to pay the difference of the cost of URI. My son is a frugal sort and I am guessing that this alone made him decide to give my idea a try. Well after the first year, he loved it, and stayed.

As he approaches his senior year, I look back at all of the worry and angst as well as the money spent prior on college coaching and sat prepping now through the eyes of this scandal and roll my eyes. Our children are watching us. What are we teaching them when we take our big egos to the college visits and write even bigger checks to ensure their little babies can have the bragging rights they were raised for.

What I also find amusing and disturbing in this scandal is the blatant mentions of the actresses and their names and photos in all of the headlines and not as much attention on the rest of the people who were caught adding another layer of female focus to this embarrassment. The calling out of women in the press adds another conversation to be had, but this is for another piece. Why not list everyone? Why is it only the women in the headlines? Just curious.

If you are a parent getting ready to send your child to college, first think price rather than experience, think education, safety, location, is it easy to get your child back and forth if they want to come home for all of the breaks, how much will that cost too? Four years goes by at a blink. When they get to be an almost senior, all of this worry that seemed so important at the time is forgotten at the same speed. No one cares. Except how you show you care.

College admission has been a great opportunity to set an example for financial responsibility, and we have given our son a gift that allows him to get out of college with no debt. What this gives him is financial freedom to travel after he gets out, to not feel pressure in having to line up his career immediately, to learn what he enjoys so he can choose what he wants to do with his life rather than it choose him. In this scandal I realize that the money is no object here. These people have the money to pay for their children to go to college. Maybe a better use in hindsight would have been to set up a college fund with the extra money that had to allow kids who otherwise couldn’t afford to go an opportunity. One of these checks probably would have paid for five or more kids to have the privilege. Hindsight.

This scandal is about EGO. I remember clearly the pressure coming from all angles and for some reason, we managed to get through it. I hope that this can be a teaching moment for all parents and their kids to settle down here and look at what is important. A good education, as little debt as possible and more important, an honest one.

self improvement, work

NOT THIS WEEK

Though I have been writing for almost my entire life, for the past three years, I have been writing almost daily and putting it out for the world to see. The world I speak of consists of a few followers who kindly take the time to read my writings and others because they see the post from someone who forwards it to them. I am lucky because I get to write continually and people seem to enjoy what I write. The beauty of this exchange is that there is no monetary connector. I am not writing for livelihood and people do not have to take out their wallets to pay to read what I write. It takes the pressure off for sure.

This all started when my beautiful partner said, “Alayne have you seen this site?” He was referring to Medium and it was the first site that showed up in my radar where all of these writings could actually land in a home somewhere rather than a folder marked Alayne’s writings hidden in a closet for my son to find after I was long gone. I remember the first time I hit PUBLISH. It was exhilarating and since then I have published on Medium over 300 essays or as the world calls them now, blogs. I like the word, essays. It feels more elegant and literary, like something Sylvia Plath or E.B. White would have written. Blogs seem to cheapen the process, but I try to stay current and if this is the way people care to refer what I write, so be it. I’ll take what I can get as I am just so happy to wake up in the morning and open my laptop to begin my daily ritual of taking what woke me up and placing it somewhere instead of the drawer in my office.

I noticed as I was posting on Medium a box I could check that allowed my writings to be part of a collection that could actually earn money as people read them. I clicked the box, what the hell, no pressure, if I made a little money because someone clicked on a piece or organically liked what they read, then that would be pretty cool.  So each time I now post on Medium, I click the box and off it goes into cyber space where algorithms take over to determine if my writing is worthy of whatever measurement they deem as such. I am thankful that I don’t have to rely on writing as a means of income; I am not sure I would be a great writer if I did.

I received an email from Medium the other day letting me know that a payment would be getting transferred to the bank account I had connected with my account. No exaggeration here, my heart skipped a beat when I saw this email. I have no idea what they were paying me for, but the fact that some random algorithm in outer space deemed worthy a blog that I posted made my heart sing. Alright so it wasn’t a million dollars, in fact it was $1.88, but that $1.88 was seriously the most rewarding $1.88 that I had ever earned. I jumped up and down and felt such pride that all of this writing I have been doing was actually noticed somehow somewhere by someone. How fun.

Now for those of you writers out there who think I may be settling for meager scraps, I am not. I write because it feels good. When I don’t write, I don’t feel good. Writing is like exercising for me, I must do it or my health suffers and my mind gets all staticky. Exercise is not about muscle and tight abs, that is the gravy. Exercise is mind clarity. Writing is the same. The money is the gravy and the $1.88 may as well have been $1000 because I just felt so happy when I saw it, but not enough to have that be the reason. Just like tight abs, they don’t motivate me to go to the gym, but a clearer less crazy brain sure does.

This week was the first week in a long while I didn’t write. Not one sentence. Not because I needed a writing break because sometimes I do, but because I was at a business training that consumed every waking minute. I am not kidding. Up at five, review until 6, out by 6:45, prep from 7-8. Training from 8-5, then business dinner until 8, then homework until I couldn’t keep my eyes open for another minute, then repeat. For five days straight. This training was a business coaching certification so I can get certified to coach other businesses in a strategic way based on this company’s philosophy and best business practices. I have been working as the recipient of their knowledge since I opened in 2002 so their culture and belief system is what shaped mine. The easy part of this training was that I am a believer in their business culture like it is my own because it kind of is. That was the only easy part. I already drink their Koolaid, but being a student in a business setting was mind blowing. Here’s the thing though, I AM NOT FRIED. I should be, but I woke up at 3:30 am on my own ready to rock. My brain reverberating with ideas and tasks filled with the possibilities of excitement and a new path towards helping other businesses have success and happiness like I do.

So not this week of writing, but of learning and remembering what it feels like to be an employee, on the other side of the coin for a change. This was the part I enjoyed the most, having to impress an employer, thinking about how I show up, how I look, what I do when I get there knowing that they are watching everything I do because as much as I think I am a good fit, they too have to believe this. Since I will be representing their company and their values, they have to be sure they want to date me too. Of all the incredible learning I did, this was one of my favorite points. To feel what it feels like to be an employee. That everything matters in a new job. The first date is the easy part. I have watched employees shine and get shinier and they are the ones who succeed. I have also watched the shiny ones get duller by the day and their ability to succeed falters quickly. I was happily reminded of how easy it is to be an employee when you give it your all. Effort. Showing up. Being present and all in. Every day. Every time. This is success. So not writing this week was fine by me because what I just accomplished was worth every waking minute. I can’t wait for this next chapter in my life. I am never bored. Life is too short to be bored; it is a thrilling ride and I keep getting on that roller coaster rather than sitting on the sidelines where it is a safe bet.








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“Success is waking up in the morning and bounding out of bed because there’s something out there that you love to do, that you believe in, that you’re good at – something that’s bigger than you are, and you can hardly wait to get at it again.”
-Whit Hobbs

WRITING

AN EVENING WITH PAM HOUSTON

I was meditating this morning as I have been doing almost every single morning for four months now. I sat cross legged on the hard surface of the floor, small pillow slightly under my behind for some added support, palms resting on my knees, open to the sky, open to the possibilities of what lies ahead and above. As usual, my mind drifted in and out of future and past thoughts, then back to center, to the glorious now, weaving in and out of the traffic of my busy brain.  Sometimes this is all meditation is for me, a busy freeway of past and future thoughts with bursts of the present. Through this practice, I have learned that this is the practice.

On many occasions though, ideas and thoughts start snap crackle and popping just as the ads for a bowl of Rice Crispies proclaimed back in the days when kids ate cereal as a nutritious breakfast. Do kids still eat cereal for breakfast? I don’t know since my son is mostly on his own these days away at college. I can wager a guess that the only cereal consumed is the type that gets gobbled down after a night out on a college weekend. But cereal or no cereal, meditation along with almost daily writing have become a nutritious healthy breakfast and I am more grounded and sane because of this practice. This is the pleasant and surprising outcome of this discipline I have added to my mornings.

This past week I had the pleasure of taking a writing class from a woman named Pam Houston sponsored by The Cardigan Connection, my new-found friends Robin and Emily Homonoff of the famed Reading With Robin in Providence, RI.  Twenty-five bright eyed women sat together in an odd venue choice, kind of a bar, music space, sitting with pens and paper or laptops eagerly waiting for Pam to shine her expertise on our aspiring writing lives. Most of us were in our forties and above, I am guessing that the price tag of the class deterred the twenty somethings, but there we sat all hoping to learn another nugget about the craft we love.

Once I made the commitment to writing, I have been inundated with the business side of writing, advice, workshops, blogs, events endlessly abound most with a hefty price tag. Like Alanon has taught me for over twenty years, I must be disciplined enough to take what I need and leave the rest. Between reading, doing my morning writing and taking writing classes I have come to realize that some of these activities, though valuable, are distracting me from actually writing the historical fiction book I have in my heart.

The only way a book is going to get written is to sit down and write it. No amount of classes, trips to the library to read more historical fiction and daily blog writing will make my book come alive. Surely it is helpful and  I am humble enough to know that this is all part of the process. Slow and steady, no rush. I don’t think this book will come from waking up in the morning, locking myself in my house and writing for forty-eight straight hours. On the other hand, it is surely not going to write itself.

What Pam Houston spoke of was her own writing style, how she has written for decades and the results of her writing actual books. She said something that surprised me, that she does not write every day, that in fact she can go weeks or months without writing. This gave me a sense of relief in some ways because two things happen to me when I am not writing. One is I feel absurd pressure to write, all self induced, but still there taking up brain space and time. Two is guilt, surely not a good attribute to become a better writer. I love to write, but sometimes the tank is empty and it needs refueling. A break is often the best solution. Pam saying this a loud was both reassuring and calming to this overactive overachiever brain in my head.

The other offering I received from Pam was what she called Glimmers. Of all of her presentation that I loved, this was my favorite as it gave credence to the pictures I see wherever I go. Some people who take photos for a living see scenes and snap pictures of them, for me I see the same scenes and stories unfold at the speed of light. Many writers would say this, I am sure. Pam used the word Glimmers to define this and it resonated with me immediately.

For example, I may be walking down the street and I see an old woman struggling with her groceries. I offer to help her and she smiles with a bright welcome relief eagerly accepting my gift of help. I notice her coat is bright red as are her pants, her blouse, the buttons on her blouse. So is her lipstick and her nail polish which immediately makes me curious about her life. It is here that a story unfolds, just not yet. I write the few sentences down. This is what Pam referred to as a glimmer. This short experience may not be the story or a story in itself, but may eventually become part of something later. Or it may become its own story or nothing at all. Regardless, the picture needs to be captured and developed so it is not forgotten.

I see glimmers constantly. Pam gave this experience of mine a voice and a house for them to reside in. Her presentation was a short one; we were only there for two hours and we wrote for about forty minutes of that time. Glimmers. I could have sat for two days listening and writing more with Pam as a guiding force. As it turns out, Pam does these hiking writing combo workshops in places like Colorado and France that make me want to charge up one of these on my beautiful balance free credit cards. Instead I call upon that deep meditative breath that has become my new best morning friend and acknowledge what I need to do is simply take all I have learned from the five or six writing classes I have taken in the past few years and seriously continue to schedule the time to write. To actually write and research my ideas. No writing class is going to do this for me at this point. Later yes, but right now, I must work on developing my own writing practice. What I learned from Pam Houston in the short time I had the privilege of her time this past week is we all have our stories. There is no perfect way to write except to actually write them.

In my meditation this morning, the idea that every day is Groundhog Day popped into my head. One of my favorite movies where Bill Murray gets a do over every day, over and over again until he learns the lesson. Right in front of all of us if we have the luxury of waking up today is a new day, our own Groundhog Day where we can start fresh like it is the first day. The hell with a new year, how about a new day? Isn’t this amazing to think that every waking day is a chance to get it right? Whatever your it is? Mine is completing my idea for a historical fiction novel. What Pam Houston taught me is every glimmer that has come into my viewfinder may end up being a part of this story so today I roll up my sleeves and get to work like it is the brand new day that it is. #luckyindeed.

Cheers to a new year and another chance to get it right.

oprah winfrey

I think I would say Cheers to a new day.

books, grief

NOT JUST COMIC BOOKS

There are times when a book lands in your lap and as you being reading it, a sentence or a theme reminds you of a memory. The Lost Letter by Jillian Canton brought me to only page five when her recollection of her father’s love for collecting stamps promptly reminded me of a long rectangular box about three feet long and about eighteen inches tall residing in my third floor closet. A box I had never opened since it was delivered to me in December of 1995. Not even two months since my brother had died from a year long battle with adeno carcinoma of the lung at the too young age of 25.

I remember being in my mother’s basement after he died and we were going through some of my brother’s things that had found their way as storage there.

“Do you want Michael’s comic book collection? She asked.

There seems to be two distinct ways a parent may handle the intense pain of losing a child. Hanging on for dear life to everything and anything is one way, or purge all physical items that are distinct reminders of pain. My mother had chosen the latter and I was the lucky recipient of whatever I desired of my deceased brother’s. There was a part of me that wanted to hang on to every item possible so that he would not be physically forgotten so I accepted the box and placed it in my basement of the house I shared with my former husband. Four months later I found myself pregnant and the box became a temporary forgotten shadow of my brother as we made our way as new and busy parents.

Fifteen years later, the unopened and mega taped box followed me in the wake of my divorce to condo number 1, condo number 2, then a storage unit and finally making its way to its permanent home where I presently live. Placed in the closet of my son’s space on the third floor it sat with the idea that he would be the proud owner of the contents when he was ready to take a look. Likely long after I am gone.

Lately there have been some discussions with friends about comic books, can’t recall how the subject has come up, but I remembered the box thinking, “I should take a look in there to see if there are any Wonder Woman comics.” A planted seed perhaps waiting for some water so the shoot could peek from the soil.

When I finished reading Lilac Girls, I was so hungry for more that I read every comment on the back of the book and jotted down the author names and the books they had written. The Lost Letter was one of these books. I have never done this before- read a book and then head towards the back cover for more books but for some reason, I went with the notion that Like attracts Like and made the assumption that the authors who kindly gave their reviews for quotes would be similar in taste.

This is how The Lost Letter came to be my next book on my reading list and this is the book that made me walk upstairs this morning and bring the box down to finally take a look inside. It never occurred to me that there would be anything inside this box besides comic books. I am not sure if I had ever opened the box but I always thought that it was filled with comic books from a collection my brother had started in the late eighties. Every comic book in its own plastic sleeve protector along with the paperwork of the place he had ordered them from. Back before the internet when you ordered things by mail through mail on an actual order form and waited for the delivery to arrive in “4-6 weeks.” The order forms were along with the comics to remind me of this time in our lives when waiting was part of the daily act of living.

I perused the collection and not knowing anything about comic books, lost interest rather quickly when I realized there would be no Wonder Woman of yesteryear waiting for me as a nice surprise. Instead of Wonder Woman, I  came across a cardboard box filled with stuff, cards, letters, old advertisements and photos along with their negatives. (remember those?)

I walked it over to my couch and my waiting coffee cup and proceeded to go through the box where I found a chronological time travel of my brother’s world from before cancer to during. I found Happy Birthday, Hope it’s a great one! cards, Christmas? instead of Hanukkah cards, reminding me of the yoyo world we both lived in with my parent’s religious choices at any given time. Then there were the hope you get well soon cards, sorry I haven’t called but I don’t know what to say cards and finally the cards that tried all too hard not to mention the elephant in the room that an almost 25 year old strapping healthy young man would not be getting well soon after all. all handwritten, all encouraging and kind, filled with love. Names I never knew of friends at work, to family members who have since died, in their easily recognized handwriting. No emails, no text messages, only beautiful writing because that was the only option for regular communication back then.

I was in awe of the love pouring out, the well wishes and most poignantly, the hope. I got to read letters from my grandmother who always spoke and wrote detailed messages and my other grandmother who simply said, hope you get well soon. Letters from my Aunt Peggy who died a few years back and great aunts and uncles long since gone. There were cards from friends traveling and moving inviting my brother for a visit and letters from our cousins giving him their life updates in handwritten prose on personalized stationary.

Needless to say, not a dry eye from the moment I realized what I had come across and was struck by the power of grief creeping up on me again just because of a random book I began reading. There are times when something doesn’t feel quite right in my spirit, I feel a little off balance emotionally. When I do the infamous checklist- what did I eat, drink, have I been exercising, meditating? Is it a full moon, is mercury retrograde? When none of those fit the bill and I am still a bit off, usually it is some emotion that needs to be released.  I unknowingly needed a good cry and this was the entry ticket I needed to give some bottled up tears a little extra nudge to get them flowing up and out.

There will never be a time almost twenty four years later when I don’t miss my brother, the further away he gets from me, the more I am realizing this very simple and stark fact. He is no longer- and the trip down memory lane this morning jet set me right into the island of loss that has been a part of my adult life with me in the passenger seat. The further the years take me from my grieving this loss, the more it seems like it plays hide and seek with me, hiding in the darkest furthest away corners that I didn’t know to look.

Waiting to be found, Grief seems to sit lying in wait for discovery until it just can’t hide out any longer. Grief may soften or go back to its hide out, but at the strangest times, it needs its own recognition or else it leaks in a slow drip hard to decipher until the faucet gets turned on full throttle. A good cry on a random Sunday morning is the ironic gift that keeps giving. Despite its sadness, there is a release. Opening a box of comic books looking for Wonder Woman because of a book called The Lost Letter seems like no random coincidence. Once again my brother’s loss has brought me to my knees and he never stops teaching me to pay attention all these years later.

family, travel

DOLPHINS AND JELLYFISH

It was a bright clear morning barely a wisp of a cloud in the blue sky. The temperature slowly creeping from a cool 60 to a much warmer 75 in less than two hours. A perfect breeze like there was a fan on my neck at a slow even speed. People of all shapes and sizes beginning their long jaunt to claim their perfect spot where they would be laying their heads hoping for a day of rest from their busy lives.

I speak of the glorious Florida beach in February- Siesta Key, white granite cool sands and the lucky draw of a fine week of sunny perfect weather. A stunning break surrounded by temperatures from the otherwise blustery frigid February of unpredictable New England weather.

Though the temperature “up north” has ebbed into a brief and unusual fifties, purely a chance happening in a New England February, fifty is never the same in the north because of the stark lack of green. Everything is grey despite the teasing warmth. Until I land in my beloved home away from home, I am always surprised that in addition to beach air and warm sunlight, what the absence of green has had in its effect on my personal brightness.

I watch the families and couples, the aging partners holding on to each other for dear life as they try to stay healthy to keep enjoying what I take for granted with both the luck of my youth and my health. I see single women like myself enjoying time alone with only their ruminating thoughts to keep them company. It is hard to close your eyes at this beach because there is so much to watch. The glee in the eyes as the beach goers are filled with the hope and expectations of the day that before them.

There is the sound of the tap tap tapping of the soccer ball being kicked between two men, the tossing of a football between a mom, her husband and two sons, glimpses of conversation between women catching up on family gossip as they breeze by with matching hats and those calf length pants so many of women of their age seem to wear down here on their way to the shoreline for an early morning walk together.

I sit here in the heat this time under a bright red umbrella I have chosen to splurge on renting for seventeen dollars along with a five dollar deposit and a five dollar tip for just one day. If my grandfather knew what I was spending he would say his familiar one liner, You’re out of your cotton pickin mind. The rental, mind you, includes a sandy haired surfer type probably around my son’s age dragging the umbrella, setting up the umbrella and dragging it back when I am ready to leave. Worth every penny if you ask me. Though I don’t have to rationalize the purchase, it is easier to part with the twenty-seven dollars since I stay here for free every time I visit. This money spent today seems like a drop in the bucket.

Siesta Key is an expansive beach and is quite a walk from the parking lot to the shoreline. I have learned where to claim my own piece of territory since the unfortunate award of # 1 beach in America turned my beloved beach into Disneyworld. But at least there are plenty of parking spots now though out of habit I still get here at 8:00am so I can enjoy some quiet before the throngs of people descend with their loudness and boom boxes of country or rap music interrupting my peace like I am the only one deserving to claim the right.

Though I read entire books, write endlessly and deliberately leave my phone at home, the beach does not allow a bent head for long. There is just too much to see, to hear, to witness and watch. I find myself torn between the intensity of focus my current book requires and the lifting of my head to pay attention to the excitement and curiosity of my surroundings.

The water is cloudier than usual, remnants of last year’s highly publicized and horrific red tide causing temporary breathing problems and a rapid drop in tourism and beach closures unheard of on this beach. I must head for the February dip though since I have to pee like every other person who uses the span of water instead of the long walk to the row of bathrooms at the concession stand. To go to that bathroom, I must get dressed, take my wallet, put my shoes on and traipse. It’s easier in the water and the dip in the gulf in February is like the Atlantic at the end of June refreshing, reckoning, like a mikvah, a Jewish renewal and rebirth I have only once been part of in a much younger life or a baptism for those of you who don’t know what I am talking about.

I do my ceremonial dip that demonstrates to the beach audience that I am indeed a northerner and make my way back to my chair. Because I look up often, I see the familiar pointing from the many walkers at the shoreline as they notice the fins of the dolphins swimming by. Seeing just the fin of a dolphin dip in and out causes pause allowing us if only for a moment to leave our very blue screened lives reminding us that yes, there is a real world out here. Dolphins actually swimming at a real beach at a real shoreline can never be duplicated by watching it on YouTube, though plenty of people can’t resist filming this instead of just watching. Smiles! Excitement! Bliss. Just watching people looking up gives my heart an extra skip as it reminds me that we have not all succumbed to the seclusion and isolation we have allowed our phones to dictate in our non-beach lives.

After I dry off and take a delicious nap dipping in and out of the most meditative REM sleep no app could replicate, I sit back down in my squeaky old beach chair to notice another crowd gathering again at the shoreline. This time they are all looking down at the sand discussing a new finding. A jellyfish. Not just any jellyfish, a nuclear size jellyfish I can easily see from my very far away perch. Men referring to the size of its stinger like the fish that got away on their last fishing trip with the guys.

I was just in that water. I do not want to get stung by a jellyfish especially at the beginning of my solo vacation and I am now concerned that this may be a possibility. Woe is me.

I watch a beautiful couple walk by me speaking what sounds like Polish or Russian annoyed I can’t pinpoint the language. He is fit and his shorts are shorter than the usual length an American man would wear. If I hadn’t heard his voice, the shorts would have still identified him as someone from another place. He is a muscular sort and she is voluptuous and stunning with a rounded curve now in fashion among younger women at last. He sits and promptly checks his phone; she prepares the towels and herself then sits down to take her dress off, a familiar move I recognize. I am transported back to my twenties when I was self-conscious about my own curves and shape. I felt a moment of sadness for that time when I didn’t appreciate what I am sure was a kick ass body.  What a waste of time and a perfectly good body in retrospect.

Now that no one is likely looking at this aging body with the obvious fake boobs, cellulite that seemed to arrive overnight and a bloat that is caused by even one morsel of food these days, I so easily remove my sundress and walk around in a bikini like I am Giselle. I love the irony of this. As I reflect back on my beach day I am sitting on my grandfather’s patio cleaning up my beach writing. Life is ironic in so many ways and as I sit here transcribing my penciled writings onto the computer this morning, I listen to the baby monitor bellowing out the conversation between my grandfather and one of his caregivers sharing yet another intimate moment as he makes his way back into the womb with the slow inevitable journey back. This is irony.

family, life lessons

MOMENTS OF INTIMACY

There is a baby monitor in the living room that lets anyone sitting there hear the sounds of my 101 year old grandfather when he is in his bedroom. His long life has come to this and he is lucky. We are lucky to have a man in our lives who actually did what the commercials keep telling anyone who will listen.

Save for retirement.

Herb Horowitz did so when he and my grandmother retired, they had a nice not so little nest egg to move permanently to sunny Florida andlive the retired life. Cocktail parties, tennis, walks on the beach and lots offamily to visit. A successful well-planned life.

Herbie and Isabelle were good planners, responsible and thoughtful in the way they planned out their golden years. My grandfather readily admits though, that he never planned he would still be living at the ripe age of 101. Or that my grandmother would exit before him instead of the other way around, but as he would say himself, “Be that as it may, there is nothing that can be done about this.”

Herbie has chosen to stay in the comfort of his surroundings, his home, because he has the wherewithal to do this as well as the means. Because of this, he has 24 hour very expensive care to the tune of 3600 a week, yes a week and this is why there is a baby monitor in the living room. So the caregivers can hear his call, his bark at times, his breath to make sure it is still exhaling and inhaling at the rate that an alive versus dead person breathes.

When I am visiting, I am usually in the kitchen cooking and this is when I often hear the intimate dialogue between caregiver and Herb. I often wonder if these strong heady women who get paid to care for other people’s family members while said family members parade in and out of Herb’s home like it is their own personal vacation spot think why the hell are they not taking care of their own? This is my grandparents doing as their mantra has always been to never be a burden to their children and made it their personal mission to make this happen.

We are the luckier ones for it for sure and because of his planning and pragmatism, I get to comfortably sit on the patio by the in ground indoor pool sunning myself on an 80 degree day in Sarasota while my friends and family are lighting fires and bundling up in 22 degree New England.

As I made my way to the beach for the fifth day in a row yesterday, the notion that this life I have been privileged to take part in for the last thirty years will, just by statistics, come to an end. This made my eyes water. Herb is not getting any younger and despite the fact that every time I see him, he seems to be gaining more enthusiasm and zest in his reply when asked “Herb, how are you doing?”  “FANTASTIC.” He says this with a vigor that sometimes people in their sixties are lacking. And he means it. Herb, through all of his losses in his life, lives a happy life, an appreciative one, one of kindness and care and love. I appreciate it more every time I visit realizing how one day I will get the call that it is over. Herb taught me to me a realist and for this in my emotional curvy swings, I have a thread of this, more so now then ever.

I sit here in the luxury, surrounded by a golf course and million dollar homes set up like a monopoly board, palm trees swaying in the warm breeze, tropical sounding birds singing to me and barely a soul outside to enjoy this delight. Where is everyone? I often think this as I make my way in and out of the complex passing the workers making their way in to take care of the chemically greened grass and the too organized and perfect gardens. Are these hard working people scratching their heads like I am? I hardly ever see a soul out and about in this sprawling gated community and as much as I love being here, I am happy to get home to my cold house to actually interact with the many troves of people braving the cold and walking by my house to engage in neighborhood conversation.

“Hello, How are you today? It’s a brisk one,” as they march forth on their Yankee jaunts on a blustery New England day.

My grandfather is appreciative of the visits and we are appreciative of him. I love being in his house because frankly it is the last of the vestiges of my childhood home. This house is the place where when I walk in, I am also home not just because I go in and out with a carefree abandon, but because it is the place I have always felt safe, loved, cared for. My grandparent’s home is that space I am still a grandchild at almost 54. Not just the physical space, but the emotional one that is present as soon as I am greeted. Just like I am five again coming for a sleepover. It is magic.

My grandfather has been the connector of all of us cousins, the patriarch who manages to keep a family who lives as far away as London, to Austin, Texas, and New England to DC to stay in touch despite our young busy lives. I am the oldest of 8 very close cousins, oldest by twelve – fifty two years.  I consider myself more like an aunt to my cousin’s young children. I love knowing them and being a part of their lives. My grandfather taught me this by his example of always showing up. If  he still physically could, he would.

As I listen to him through the baby monitor gently bark and his bark has gotten softer with age, I am struck by how full circle life is. Out of the womb, back to it. The baby monitor is that metaphor that serves as the constant reminder that this life I know shall pass. I know when the inevitable call does come, there will be a finality like no other I have known because even though I am so lucky I still have a grandparent, he is my last one standing. The safety and comfort I have felt knowing his role in my life is an etching in my heart that lies in wait.

I am home today with him instead of the beach because a new caregiver was due in today and he wanted me close by. “No problem,” I said, my skin needs a break from the bright sun. And I am planning a birthday party for him today because even though his birthday is November 17, I have decided that every day he wakes up is a birthday now. So today he is 101 and three months and I can’t think of a better reason to have a party.

book reviews, books

READING LILAC GIRLS

library or bookstore, this book is worth your time.

The gift of the vigorous writing I have been doing has been the books that have landed on my desk about writing. I have learned when I am on the right path, the exact things show up in my life at the perfect time. This has been a consistent force in my life history and between Anne Tyler, Elizabeth Berg, Stephen King and a few more I can’t think of as I sit at my grandfather’s home in beautiful sunny Florida, these advice on writing books have been helpful.

Some books say, “Write every day without fail.” Others say, “Take a break, walk away, get inspired.” But all of them without fail say, “Read. A lot.” So reading I have been doing.

“How do you have the time?” My friend, Marcia asked me one night at dinner. I thought about this for a moment. When something speaks to your core with a such a force that I feel almost nauseous by not writing, I make the time.  I make the time because writing has become such an integral part of my priority list that everything I am doing right now must support this.

Once I made a commitment to write and write and write, reading became the necessary counter balance. What a gift that reading more books helps writing more stories because now that I am reading a book every three of four days, I am learning much more about the craft of writing. I appreciated great writing before, but now it has taken a hold of me with a fervor.

My favorite genre has always been historical fiction especially when a book takes the place during World War II. Perhaps it is because I am Jewish and because my grandfather was drafted, or because my parents were born a year before the war ended. Maybe it is because I am getting older and the world seems more fragile then ever. All of the historical foreshadowing for the world we seem to be living in pulses around me because I have watched too many episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, but when I read of a book that takes place during the early 1940s, I am drawn.

As I gathered my beach books for my trip, I came across a book called Lilac Girls that had found its way to my house around Hanukkah. I was between library books waiting to hear that the ones I had placed on hold were available for pickup so I began reading this debut novel by Martha Hall Kelly with a vengeance. As I made my way through yet another story about a female Holocaust experience, I couldn’t put this book down.

The Holocaust trauma is usually about Jewish people, six million children, women, men just because of their beliefs, but Lilac Girls reminded me of the many others who were put in concentration camps. People we seldom hear about and in this case a group of Polish women put in a concentration camp for women only called Ravensbrück in Germany, many because of their resistance work.

I had the pleasure of taking a course at Rhode Island College called Women’s Resistance in the Holocaust. It was here that I really began understanding the importance of resistance and how many layers there are to this response to a political movement gone terribly wrong. Lilac Girls reminded me of the varying ways one can resist and fight and the way that women do this or not is shown beautifully in this book. These women were held as prisoners not even knowing what the charge was. I never knew that there was only one concentration camp just for women. This fact alone makes the book a lesson in history. Even though it is a fictional account, the author does a brilliant job in giving us the factual details that a great historical fiction novel can do.

We so often hear of the Jewish resistance movement during the war, occasionally we hear of non-Jews who helped hide and save Jews, but besides the famed Schindler, so many heroes and heroines go unnoticed the further away from the time we move. This book introduces us to a real-life character who was doing her own resistance work in New York, a socialite with many connections named Caroline Ferriday and how she came to know about the prisoners at Ravensbrück.

Along with Caroline, we learn of the Polish women prisoners who suffered brutal surgical experiments on their legs, causing the women who actually survived this torture to hop around the camp because of the disfigurement and pain the surgeries caused. This gave them the nickname Rabbits and Martha Hall Kelly brought them back to life in her first novel. The women’s stories are only a part of this mind opening first novel. I highly suggest this book if you are looking for a poignant read that also gives you a time travel back to a time in history we must force ourselves to keep in our consciousness.

The glory of writing is that more reading helps more writing. A break from writing also helps writing and both are part of this week of solo vacation for me. I only hope that as I march forth with my own research for my first historical fiction novel, I do the same justice that Martha Hall Kelly did for hers. She is writing her next novel called a prequel to this one and I can hardly wait.

WRITING

Casual to Serious

If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it. -Toni Morrison

“What do you write?” Jodie from What Cheer Writers Club asked me as she gave me a tour last week of their new writing space. I was in writing heaven. I had decided to take the “big drive” from the comfort of my warm fireplace in Newport to Providence for a 10:00 am writing group I had just joined. It was Superbowl Sunday and I hadn’t planned on leaving the comfort of the couch until my biological clock woke me up at five am, as it usually did. What else was I going to do for the day besides sit on the couch waiting for my beloved home team to appear on the television? I said goodbye to my man and drove to the city on a bright morning.

Every time I choose yes instead of no, I am rewarded. This was no exception. I walked up the beautiful old-fashioned marble staircase last Sunday to a place called WhatCheer. Unbeknownst to me, this space had just opened to support anyone who has anything to do with writing. I walked in and my mouth dropped open with joy. Lighting, furniture, beauty surrounded me at every turn. From the pink and orange chairs, to the electric tables that rose to meet just the perfect height of whomever was sitting at them, here was a space designed for perfect writing fitness. Like a boutique gym, I felt at home immediately and like I wanted to write. This was the magic of this space. I quickly signed up to be part of this club and went into my new group, The Providence Writers Group.

Writing groups are a terrific way to take writing from casual hobby to serious focus. Every writing group is different, some have facilitators who lead the group with prompts, some are groups designed for critiquing, and some like this new group offer a blank silent space to just write among other writers. It may seem to someone reading this that this is something just as easily done in the comfort of your own home, but sometimes homes can be distracting, phones buzzing, laundry spinning, gardening calling. Some people don’t have the quiet space to be able to write, kids, roommates, televisions from partners, who knows? This is not my issue at all, if anything I could turn my space into a writing club, it is such a perfect setting, but there is something about writing on purpose surrounded by other peers tasked with the same driving force. I have learned that I write differently in a writing group.

This particular group on this day did not offer anything except a chance to sit together and write, no reading our pieces to each other for either positive or constructive feedback, no prompts, no line leading, just pure focused writing. I have never been in a group like this and it was interesting. The lack of conversing after didn’t give us a chance to bond with each other, but I really enjoyed the energy of simply being in each other’s company quietly sharing our love of writing. Tapping of our fingers on laptops, pencils scratching across lined paper, pens gliding in journals, some even writing on their phones, we all approached our writing tools with a sense of purpose making us all feel like real writers instead of casual ones.

When Jodie asked me, “What do you write?” I paused for a moment. She was asking me a serious question that catapulted me into this world of writers in an actual writing club. I briefly felt like an imposter on the precipice of being found out. But that only lasted about one second. I am a writer. I wake up every day at sometimes four am so I can write.  I have just made significant changes to my entire life so that I can, in fact, write. I have stepped aside from the day to day operations of running my business and created a new position for someone to take the helm not to work out more, not to go out to lunch with more women, but to write. Not just to write, but to edit what I have already written, to research and make time to discover facts and details for a historical fiction novel I am serious about.

Serious writing is hard work and in order to be a serious writer I must take writing seriously. Up until now, I have been practicing and playing. Writing first drafts and blasting them up on my website with barely a second glance, not so much as giving them a second look to repair, or rewrite is only the infancy of the beginning. “You should write a book,” comments come my way daily and this has fed my need to write more as well as my ego, but now if this is really true and I have decided that it is, the real work has begun. Being part of a focused critique group to gain insight from writing peers and then taking what I need from this and making the necessary changes is more work than I could have imagined and I have only just begun. Every writing minute I spend, I am in awe of the books that have not only been written, but actually published, not only published, but read and not only read, but admired. I have my work cut out for me, but I cannot imagine doing anything else right now.

From submitting, repairing, reading the critiques, deciphering four individuals’ comments and making the changes on just two chapters has taken me well over ten hours of work. And this is only the first round. But this does not feel like “work.” It feels like joy. I am in the midst of pure delicious joy. It is thrilling to appreciate how sloppy I was in my writing and how cleaning it up respects my work in a way I hadn’t considered when I was just casually playing.

What do I write? “I am writing a mastectomy memoir and am dipping my toe into historical fiction for the first time.” Jodie looked at me and said with kind eyes and a seriousness that made me feel like I was not an imposter here, someone whose feet belonged on the floor of this new club, “Ooh that’s brave, I haven’t tried fiction before.” I am sure Jodie does not know how much that beautiful simple sentence sent a wave of confidence into my body that helped change my paradigm from casual blogger to serious writer.

For any person who has read my writings and offered pearls of compliments along the way, it is because of this, I have found a writing voice and marched forth. By all means, keep reading and I am forever grateful to anyone who has shared publicly or privately a kind word my way. Thank you. See you on the page.