cold takes

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It Means No Worries


Dear Sylvie and Felix,

Last week we went to Disneyworld. It’s not really my thing. We weaved through the colorful, plastic buildings and dodged the colorful, plastic crowds, spun and sailed and watched and walked and walked. Then we came back to the hotel, slept nine hours, and began again. I don’t know how much you’ll remember, more than a sparkling zoetrope of anticipation and dissatisfaction and fatigue, disembodied smiles, darkened tunnels, turns on shoulders.

One thing you won’t remember, at least not in this context, is the phrase “Hakuna Matata.” It was everywhere – on the buses, on the matching T-shirts of every other family, pumped over the loudspeaker. The Lion King has risen to become, a quarter of a century later, the purest distillation of the Disney ethos. It’s not really my thing. The movie’s fine, among the canon of movies you make me watch too often, but the structure is an odd one – a hero’s journey that spends more than a half an hour on “the hero rejects” and maybe ten minutes on the journey itself. But it’s that middle third that captured the heart of the Disney fans, and its theme park.

It makes sense, in a way. “No worries” is a perfectly acceptable mantra for a vacation spot, a place to get away. But the cracks in the colorful plastic, its disturbing 1950s veneer, start to show when you think too hard about it, and I always think too hard. The material mixed into the concrete of Disneyworld’s foundations is magic, and it’s magic defined specifically by its undefinability – the purposefully vague and positive sentiments of “never giving up your dreams” and “believing in yourself.” Pinning down the Disney magic, the act of analyzing it, destroys it – and so it demands a certain type of unthinking faith, almost a Religion Lite. Which is fine for you right now, since that’s half of what parents do to protect their children from the world. I guess it’s that the parents that get me, the way people get mad when adults bring gloves to ballgames. There’s being a kid, and then there’s being a kid.

The funny thing about Hakuna Matata is that, in the context of The Lion King, it’s a failed philosophy. Simba (and even Timon and Pumba, who go to war with him) have to reject their childish freedom and go to work, assume their responsibilities. Somehow, we forgot to take that away from the movie. We all do have to grow up – you will too, someday. But not yet. So Disneyworld is fine for what you are, and I hope that the magic of it, undefinable because you aren’t ready to define these things anyway, sticks to your memories and colors pastels into your dreams for a while.

But I also hope that when you come back in thirty years to continue the ritual, I hope you don’t love it too much.




When I was a boy
I had a book that taught how to read palms.
I held mine up to the diagram
and studied the creases in my own skin,
embraced the lengths of my love and life lines
with the fervency of a phrenologist,
wishing my hands were more deeply lined.
All children wish they were older, in some way.

My hands are large, now.
I’m reminded of them
when I encase my son’s unwilling partner
to cross the street
or try to find the tiny frets of his ukulele
as he knocks over blocks with his plastic dinosaurs,
or when I sit at the piano
and my fingers find too many keys.

I am no Wing Biddlebaum;
my hands do not symbolize me.
I am not good with them.
They hold tools but do not become part of the tools;
they grip pencils and paintbrushes
clumsily, with all five fingers.

They are not good hands,
not the graceful, nimble instruments
I imagined in childhood.
They’re rough and half-callused,
betraying a lack of truly honest work.
the skin is dry and cracking
and tiny freckles of an old age I never imagined
are surfacing on the backs.
The hairs on my right index finger are burnt off,
victims of a semiannual cigarette held just too long.
I can no longer cross my fingers.
Someday they will begin to hurt,
and never stop hurting.

There are lines on my hands now
that weren’t in the book. I wonder
what parts of me they represent.

The Small Space

Dear Sylvie,

It was a hard afternoon. Your mother was in the shower, fighting through a quiet illness that made her face tingle and the rest of her numb; we were getting ready to head to Bellevue to get your haircut redone, then groceries, then dinner, then bed. It was two in the afternoon and it was also eight in the evening, the two points merged through a chain of irreversible events that had and hadn’t happened yet.

I could barely keep my eyes open, I was so exhausted. I had to lie down on the couch, and you brought your little Moana blanket to lay over me, but there could be no rest. Your brother was crying: crying over the absence of his mother, crying about the tooth that will stay rooted below the gumline until after he’s off to college, crying about the general unfairness of being two years old, the things he wants and cannot have, cannot chew on. You grew listless, wanted to play with your dolls. You would be baby Jasmine and I could be Chang, and beyond that the plot was pretty much my responsibility. It was the fourth time we had played dolls already that day, and I was out of storylines.

Instead we played hide-and-seek with my phone, usually a fine way to spend ten minutes. Only, once it was your turn and you hid it, you decided you were done with the game, and simply wouldn’t tell me where it was. You’d hit the magical point of childhood, akin to that seventh-beer spot of drunkenness, when business simply closed. You were done. I asked you where the phone was, growing irritable, and you just told me you didn’t remember. Felix continued to cry. I asked again, told you it wasn’t funny anymore, and you refused to answer.

Finally, Felix grabbed something small and edible, a toy of yours left a little too close to the edge of the table, and you shrieked at him and pulled it out of his hands. It was enough. “We don’t take things out of his hands or he learns to take things out of your hands,” I said, for the hundredth time, but your gaze was elsewhere. I told you in that voice that isn’t shouting but is firm enough that it doesn’t really matter: go upstairs and calm down. You marched away, slamming the infant gate behind you as I buried the screams of the toddler into my neck.

At midnight, after my work was done and we had brought a screaming Felix downstairs to dose with Motrin, I crept through the darkened house to go to sleep. I slipped into the bedroom and around the bed to my side. There on the floor, nestled between the bed and the patio window, I found a pillow and a little Moana blanket. I imagined you hiding from me there, crying, and I cried.

Then I went to sleep, because I had to.


an update:

I posted this, and then my mother read it to Sylvie at home. She listened, and then clarified: “I left the Moana blanket bed for you to use, in case you took off your sock and got cold.”

I guess in some ways she’s a step ahead of me.



My first full-time job was at a bank. I worked as a teller, and behind the line was a row of tall, plate-glass windows looking back on the pavement of the drive-through. I worked there for a year but the scenery from those windows was always just the one scene, gray sky over gray asphalt. Sometimes cars swung by, like a broken metronome.

The drive-through teller was named Charlene; she sat in a back room, apart from us. One day we heard Charlene talking over the intercom though there weren’t any cars there. It turned out that a stray cat had decided to sit down in the drive-through lane. She tried to scare it off, but it refused to go. We watched the battle with interest. It had no tag. The manager decided to bring it inside, just to see if they could find the owner.

For the next couple of weeks the cat lived in the bank by day, and I took him home with me by night. It was a revelation. The customers loved the cat, who would attack plants and climb over cubicles; the gray people, waiting in line, were amused. Our monotone day was suddenly divided into cat-length increments. Then, one day, the regional manager visited and saw the cat dozing in a sunspot behind the counter. The branch manager got in trouble, and I got a cat.

We’ve spent most of sixteen years together. Gato is smart, sometimes cranky – he once launched onto the face of a rottweiler five times his size and drove it out of a doorway to protect his kibble – but always kind. I left him in my parents’ basement for a year when I lived in Korea; when I came in the door, he crawled all over me as if I’d been gone for a weekend, licked at my face. Often he would wake before me, sometimes four, five in the morning, and gently bite my face so I could wake up and be with him. He once popped a screen off a second-story window and leaped fifteen feet to the ground, and ran into the nearby trailer park; when I finally found him and brought him back, he ran over and did it again before I’d thought to shut the window. He was kind of a bastard, really.

Last night, the vet got back to us: the swelling in front of his left eye was not an infection, but lymphoma. He has about a week.

I cried, of course. Well, not at first. First Kjersten and I stood on the back deck in the darkness, planning all the things we would need to do, because I’m an adult. Our options: a week’s worth of pain medication. Grandma coming down to watch the kids. Who would take him in, who would put away his stuff, where was the little red mouse that he’d spent a lifetime ripping to shreds. Once the last detail was in place, I cried.

Sylvie and the cat have never been the closest friends; he likes her well enough, and she tolerates him but never quite forgave the claw-based play he engaged her in as a toddler. Felix adores him; last night, unable to sleep, he kept crawling down to the foot of the bed and yelling “cat!” at him, I believe (in my fatigue) to be declaration of approval. We bought a couple books on the loss of a cat; Sylvie has spoken of death, mostly in cartoon terms, and she understands what happens to flowers after she picks them. But the permanence wasn’t there, yet.

Learning about death, actually understanding it and what it means, is the first true tragedy. We’ve bought a couple of books to talk about it, neither quite right, but they’ll have to do. I don’t know exactly how to say it: I don’t believe in heaven or hell, and that’s a choice I’m usually comfortable with, but it’s hard to impose that existentialism on a four-year-old. Felix will miss Gato, but he won’t really understand, just feel a blurry emptiness that dissipates with time. Sylvie will get it. She’s a smart girl. I just wish she didn’t have to understand it yet. I wish I didn’t have to, either.



The Ice Cream Man


The familiar mechanical jingle filled the park, and soon children were running, some with money and some with hope, to its source: the ice cream truck. They crowded each other, stared at faded photographs of colorful popsicles and chocolate-dipped cones, envisioned them on their tongues.

“This truck is empty,” the ice cream man told the children. He was plain, softspoken, not unkind. “There has never been any ice cream.”

The children snarled, waiting for the lie to surface.

“This is important,” the man said, growing a little flustered. “There cannot be ice cream. If there were, you would eat it and forget.” Seeing the faces of the children, he stepped out of the truck, and walked toward the back, the children following him like hungry dogs sweating under the sun. “Here,” he said, and flung open the doors. The children whimpered and cursed.

“You must learn to make your own ice cream,” he told them, though they were no longer listening. “It would taste better than mine. But,” he added, though the children were already milling, wandering, teasing each other for the unhappiness, “There is more than that. You must learn to stop making ice cream, and drive empty trucks. You must teach other children, teach them not to make ice cream.”

Not one child paid attention, but the man did not care. The word must was not an imperative, but a fact: it would happen, would always happen. He would leave the empty truck for his own son when he died, and someday the boy would know what to do, be driven to share his own emptiness. It was important. It had to be, because it was true.


I step out of the office into the family room. Years ago, when we had bought the house, these rooms were unfinished: concrete floors, with rough wooden panels mysteriously fastened halfway up the walls. We attacked those rooms with vigor, with all our poverty and time, took the emptiness and made fullness from it. Baseboard, drywall, carpet, furniture, television, plastic toys that sang mechanical songs unbidden.

You are asleep, burrowed into the corner of the couch, half-draped with a pastel-colored fleece blanket, bright even in the dim periwinkle of the frozen television screen. I am tired, I am waiting for the work to be done so that I can do my work. The baby monitor blinks one green dot from beside you: all systems nominal, for now. And still. And still.

I look at you for a moment, your large lidded eyes, lips pulled a little tight. Your hair is probably dirty; you’re always saying that it’s dirty. I can never tell. It’s just your hair, black, waving downward like a disappointed sigh. We are old, but I am too tired to notice our age. We are symbols now.

You hate when I look at you, so I do it carefully. Mostly I look at your back, when you’re cutting cucumbers that I forget to take with me to work, or picking up plastic ponies off the floor, or reading news. Now, I have a little time; you will not wake up. It’s a motionless sleep, a deadweight sleep. I like it when you’re asleep because then I know you’re okay.

I go back into the office to finish the work, crop images and add HTML tags to code, creating without creativity. I don’t know how long it take, just that I am more tired afterward than I was before.

I come back out to the family room with nothing to say, nothing to add to you. I want to wake you, and wait, and wake you again, and tell you that I love you and watch you frown and ask me why. I hate that you always do but I want to anyway. It is our family room. But the couch is empty.

The Hospital


Dear Sylvie,

Last night I had a dream. We were at the hospital: you, me, your mother and brother. I don’t know why we were there. For a friend, maybe: someone giving birth, a happy thing. No one seemed to be upset. But it was something, because you began to show signs of an allergic reaction, hives on your legs and feet, and your mother had to stay, nurse Felix and take care of whoever it was. She sent me with you, to go ahead, go to the front desk and get checked in. She would catch up. So we did.

You didn’t say much, uncharacteristically; you just held my hand as we started walking through lobbies and hallways, in and out of buildings, searching for signs. It was a very large hospital, and unfamiliar, and I realized that I couldn’t find anyone to ask for directions. We just walked along in sunlit, silent corridors, craning necks around corners.

This is what I always think of when I dream of hospitals, I guess. We don’t go to them often; the occasional checkup or shot for you or your brother, an odd ear infection. Your first allergic reaction. In real life they’re mostly waiting rooms, good memories, stickers and antibacterial handwashes. Once as we waited I walked you around the lobbies, chatting at the old women slumped in chairs, naming all the fish in the seawater tanks. But in my dreams, this is where my mind goes: to hospitals without people, of buildings so empty they no longer seem manmade. They have a silence that could even make you silent, as you walked with me.

We never found the front desk. I didn’t look down at you, but as we walked you were getting sicker, coughing more. I should have felt panic, but it was not that kind of dream. As the dreamer, I was not trying to make myself scared, just lost. I am terrible at dreaming because I am terrible at visualization; I do not look at anything, only think about things. Besides, it was all wrong. I am the one who will get sick, I am the one who will someday be at this hospital, dying out of sight. Thus the dream did not end, because I could not imagine it.

The Story of Spider-Man, As Narrated to Me by a Seven Year Old Boy

Chapter One.

Spider-Man jumped from building to building.
He fought a bad guy.
He won and the battle was over.

Chapter Two.

Spider-Man fought another bad guy.

Chapter Three.

Spider-Man thought he heard something, so he used his

Chapter Four.

spider senses. But he didn’t hear anything.


One Day There’s Baseball

img_1691One day there’s baseball
So much of it. So many stories
So many things you have to care about
Numbers and names
That represent
Other numbers and names
Each day an elimination game
Each game a portent
Each action a lesson learned
The sun beating down on plastic chairs
Boiling ten-dollar beers
And men shouting for everything
And the baby starts to cry
Rubbing the dome of her head
Against week-old whiskers

One day there’s baseball
And the next day it’s dark
And your daughter has learned
What Almond Joys are
The purple glitter shaken
From the used Halloween costume
Settling into skin and lungs
Cartoon soundtracks
So loud you may as well be writing them
And the world is too cold outside
And the world falls apart
And the lines on the pavement
(Icy enough to force you to walk
Carefully, slowly, like an old man)
Count off quarter-seconds of winter

A Reminder


Occasionally, as I’m combing through the bookmarks on my browser, looking for nothing, looking for something I haven’t clicked on in a while, hoping something has changed, which means I will have changed: occasionally, I will click on a link called “Millions.”

This is the link.

I have no context for it. I was given the link by Jason Wojciechowski, for reasons I don’t recall. I have avoided learning what The Millions is, or what they are all talking about in this particular webpage: I do not know the book, or the author, or the subject. I don’t want to know; it’s not important. I click on the link, and read the following passage:

“When the men with bluish rifles line up along the illuminated railing of the Ozark Bridge, do not marvel at how the bridge’s support cables resemble your own ribcage.”

I read this the way that sometimes, when I am at home and have done something stupid and unfatherly like leave the front door unlocked or forget to add something to the calendar, I will move into an empty room and punch myself once, in the shoulder. I read it when I have been writing too much and reading too little. It is so easy to write poorly, and I am so tired. I can rest a little, then a little more.

Another quote, this time by Reggie Jackson:

“When you take a pitch and line it somewhere, it’s like you’ve thought of something and put it with beautiful clarity.”

Baseball has been made into everything; that’s one of its virtues, to serve as the template for every possible idea or argument. There are few instances of sport that match the hitting of a baseball in this regard, however, with its indelible fortepiano. That knowledge, almost instantaneous but never quite, that you have got something, created something unique and thrilling. If I were a baseball player, if I were Reggie Jackson, I would never quit, I think to myself. I would keep trying for one last liner. I’d never grow tired.

That’s what the first quote is for: like pinching an earlobe on the fourth hour driving, something to wake you up and hurt you just barely. To try something fucking amazing. Last night before bed I read a short summary of the Allegory of the Cave, maybe for the hundredth time. The old idea that there is something greater out there, that our own existence is gray-scale, shadowy.  That there is a wisdom if we want it.

It’s paternalistic bullshit to me, mostly the idea that there is One Wisdom to have, the typical defensive philosophical stance. But it’s undeniable to look at this metaphor as a writer, to consider writing without the silken cords of our own patterns, our own cliches, our comfortable single-camera lives. The identity we forge in our own borders, the communication with readers and friends who know us, who expect from us.

So, to myself, when I click on this later: close your eyes. Forget the shadows, forget the light behind you. Forget the drive to work, the podcasts, the basic structure of the English language. Find atoms where there are objects, stories where there are silences, rib cages where there are bridges, mistakes where there is safety. Risk being alone in your words, risk not even being able to find yourself in them. Wake up. Go.

The H Word


Dear Sylvie,

You started using the word Friday night, testing the taste of it like a fine wine. At first it was snakes. “I hate snakes,” you said. There were no snakes present. “I hate snakes. I hate snakes,” you added, your tone no more vexed than normal.

“Why do you hate snakes?” I asked you.

“I hate them,” you said, smiling.

Disaster loomed.


You start preschool in two days. Today was the open house. We went to meet your teachers, to play with the other children, but mostly to remind you that this was where you would spend nearly every weekday morning for the next two years, to remind us that you’re growing up. The other children hid behind pant legs and spoke in whispers. You bounded in, found your teacher, and introduced her to the baby burrowing his way sleepily into the crook of my neck. You picked up scissors and cut paper circles into pieces for nothing other than the feel of it. You smiled and charged your way through the room, taking in everything, manipulating everything, fearless.

It’s strange having an extrovert for a daughter, watching you work the crowd while I, holding Felix like a shield, hovered quietly at the perimeter. This is a good thing, I recognize: you’re confident, you enjoy other people and you know how to interact with them. Yes, there’s the nebulous future of strangers and boyfriends. But it’s not that. You know what to say to people in a way I never do, and that, more than anything, is terrifying.


We took you to the science center on Saturday, mostly to let you play, but also to take photographs at one of the few remaining photo booths in the city. That’s part of your care package: indestructible snacks, changes of clothing, a space blanket, and a care photo and letter from us in case something unimaginable happens. It was a tight fit getting all four of us in there; Felix grabbed your hair at one point, and it was a strain just to keep all four of our heads in frame. We managed, barely.

You gasped at the animatronic dinosaurs, cooed at the butterflies and reeled back from them if they got too close. You looked at bugs and lizards and snakes (for which you were too excited to recall your newfound animosity), but refused to touch the starfish in the tide pool even when I put my own hand on them. “It just feels like a rock,” I told you, as if this were somehow incentive. Instead you asked a random nearby woman to touch it as well. She did, and asked if you would too. You said no.

Then, it was time to go home; Felix was tired, it was afternoon and we hadn’t eaten. I asked you to come and you ignored me, fixedly examining a plastic dinosaur skeleton. I came over and gave you a hug, but you pushed me away. And you said it.

“I hate you, daddy.”

It hurts more to type it now, honestly; now, I combine it with every time you will say it to me in your life. What I did at the moment: I backed away, because I knew I had to. I wasn’t angry, or even very sad. Instead I sat on a nearby bench, staring at my feet like a community theater actor, waiting, trying to look sad. Your mother spoke to you for a few minutes, and finally, begrudgingly, you came over and apologized.

But why wouldn’t you say it? There are so many rules. Wash your hands before dinner, go potty before leaving the house, be quiet while Felix is sleeping, leave when your parents say so. You have so little control over your life, have to take so many things like germs and stains and the benefits of napping on poorly-translated faith. And now you have this one weapon, this one source of power.


You’re three. Everything resets. You’ve never been hurt more than an ice pack or a television show can make you forget; when you talk back or fight, and you lose one of your three books at bedtime, the inevitable tears:

“I want three books!”

“But you have to have good behavior to get three books. If you’re mean, you lose a book.”

“I’m not going to be mean!”

The original crime is already relegated. And in a way, this is the desired outcome: we want you to feel safe, we want you to be able to take risks and talk to teachers and enjoy what you want to enjoy. This is just the price of it, a far better price than the alternative, mistrust and fear.


You stopped hating me. Well, first you fell asleep in the car, woke up in time to sit in the grocery cart, ask for your cereal bar and to be able to run through the frozen aisles, find your footing in old routines. That night, as we sat on the couch watching a show, you tested it again, carefully.

“I don’t like you very much, daddy.”

“Oh,” I said, careful not to overreact. “I’m sorry. I guess I’ll go do something over here, then.”

I stood up, and you quickly cried. “No, daddy! Don’t go.”

“But I thought you said you didn’t like me.”

“No, I do. I do like you,” you countered, as if I were making it up.

“Oh, okay. I love you, Sylvie,” I said, and kissed her on the forehead.

“I love you too, dad.” We went back to watching TV.

On Clapter

Mar 6, 2016; Kissimmee, FL, USA; Houston Astros mascot Orbit works the crowd during a spring training baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Osceola County Stadium. The Astros won 7-1. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

A passage I read the other night:

What has bothered me most for the last few years is that kind of lazy, political comedy, very safe but always pretending to be brave, that usually gets what my colleague Seth Meyers calls “clapter.” Clapter is that earnest applause, with a few “whoops” thrown in, that lets you know the audience agrees with you, but what you just said wasn’t funny enough to actually make them laugh. … As far as writing goes, the only important thing is that it’s funny, and that it’s an original comment. That the audience agrees with me isn’t necessary and probably isn’t even a good thing. It’s so easy to coast by, just hitting the same familiar notes you know are popular and have been pre-tested for effectiveness. The audience will always at least applaud, so you never have to risk silence.”  (James Downey, in an interview with Mike Sacks, Poking a Dead Frog, 2014.)

My wife always wonders why I care whether people read my stuff. I always struggle to come up with a decent answer. This conversation usually begins after I display some signal that some latest piece didn’t find its audience, failed to resonate, as I perform the marital dance of hiding my immaturity. The self-absorption isn’t flattering, but more than anything else she just doesn’t get it -€” she doesn’t need validation from anyone about anything. She’s a strong person who gets things done, and if no one notices her do it, all the better. Her logic: if I made something and it’s good, isn’t that enough?

I try to explain that comedy doesn’t work that way, even the loose version of it that qualifies as baseball writing. Sure, if you’re working through feelings or developing an intricate philosophical system, you can write for yourself, insulated from the world, but when you write jokes you need someone around to laugh. You don’t need them to praise you or feel good about the joke; it just doesn’t exist without them. Humor is about making connections: between concepts, between people. It doesn’t work solo.

The people are the problem. Audiences are difficult things; they have their own perspectives, their own individual desires. Most of all, the system of writing and comedy doesn’t particularly reward challenging people. Good writing forces people to test new ideas, pushes them out of their patterns and their comfort zones. Sometimes it offends, sometimes it confuses, sometimes it just deceives. But it always makes them work. And a lot of people don’t particularly want to work, especially in their leisure reading; the sense of camaraderie that baseball instills is usually enough. There’s no thought required to cheer, or to wordlessly just feel. And so, systemically, the writing that allows people to clap, rather than laugh, is always going to be the safest, most popular work.

I like writing for the internet: the contact between writer and reader is so clean, so quick, so honest. The thrill of writing for me is in its alchemy: you take random ideas, even sometimes just words that seem to conflict, and you throw them in a pot and see what comes out. You never really know until it’s done, even if you think you do, and it’s exciting. But the other part, the meeting the reader halfway, knowing where they come from and getting them to empathize with you and understand your thought process and find something interesting and useful in it: that’s its own roll of the dice. When you succeed, it’s brilliant — and when you don’t, you get silence.

There’s a place for clapter. There’s a sense of belonging, perhaps, a shared rosary. I don’t want to deny that. It allows us to feel active in our participation in something larger than ourselves, the way all sports do. But it can also be exclusionary, political, negative. Sports breeds its own peculiar, shitty nationalism, against people who wear different-colored hats, who use different statistics. Affirmations become cliches, then become commandments. Relaxing becomes living thoughtlessly. It’s the comfort food of writing and reading, the macaroni and cheese that reminds you of childhood, loaded with a week’s worth of saturated fat.

As beautiful as baseball can be, as much as I love it, it’s a shadow world, reality television set before a live studio audience. Its virtue isn’t the game itself, but the fact that we’re all experiencing it and caring about it together. And because of that, there will always be writing and products that look to profit off that motive, to tell the reader what they already know and to praise them for knowing it. There will always be hero myths and origin stories, prophecies and promises, tried and true tactics that flatter and stir the heart. There will always be hot takes, and there will always be clapter. But in the end, it all has to mean something more than itself, has to find some truth, or it’s just telling the same jokes over and over again.