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Second Anniversary

Two year down the road since I started blogging, I’ve posted 115 times and collected 575 followers. I keep writing for the joy of it and for those who regularly read and comment. If you’re here for the first time, welcome. If you visit regularly, thanks for stopping by and coming back.

In honor of this second year, here are five of my favorite posts since last September. Some may not have been the most popular, but they’re ones I look back on fondly.

Getting a Good Night’s Sleep

Expectations

On the Way to School

How to Fold a Blanket

My Privilege

I hope you’ll stick around for the next year too.

 

 

 

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Honestly

My daughter once told me I was brutally honest. I think she’d stand by her assessment. I don’t believe she means I’m not kind or I go out of my way to make cutting remarks. It’s just that I mean what I say and say what I mean. I don’t sugar coat. If you ask me how your performance was, I’ll tell you and you won’t need to worry I’m just being nice.

This is not to say I never lie. I’m human. But when you lie as little as I do, people assume you are always truthful. More often, my infrequent untruths are lies of omission.

In my real life, I sometimes tell meandering stories, and may even add side stories, playing devil’s advocate with myself. Without hearing the whole story, how could you possibly understand the truth of my words?

But in writing, I tend toward concise. If you follow my blog, you know I share real events in my life in very short stories. The tales are essentially true, but those lies of omission protect the anonymity of others I mention.

So, overall, I consider myself an honest person. That is, I did until I read this.

Yuval Noah Harari explains that much of what we consider the truth is lies promoted to keep society functioning. We trade green paper or numbers on a screen and credit them with the value of the items we buy. Our leaders gather followers with simplistic homilies, rather than the complicated facts that might solve problems but won’t inspire loyalty. Our love of books and movies results from our ability to suspend our disbelief. We seem programmed to seek out fiction, whether it’s our loyalty to a sports team or a product, or a disregard for the beliefs of others, all the while smugly thinking we are the ones being honest about the state of the world.

Now I wonder, as I teach my students, is what I’m sharing accurate? Not that our number system can’t be proven or that the Pilgrims didn’t arrive in Plymouth Harbor in 1620. Rather, the year 1620 is an arbitrary number, loosely based on the Christian tradition. Some of the skills I tell them they will use as adults may be less important than future skills I can’t even imagine.

When I listen and read pundits, favoring one, disregarding another, is it because “my” side is better, or did their political handlers spin the yarn that is my siren call, that will get me to follow?

My doctor prescribes a medicine for me at the recommended dosage for my sex (if I’m lucky) and weight based on studies of hundreds of my peers. But as we head into this age of personalized medicine, is it really the right protocol for me?

The engineers and physicists in my life would chide me for suggesting science is subjective. Certainly greater harm has been done by denying the veracity of science than by following its precepts. True science, while not completely objective due the presence of humans, has its system of checks and balances. Other scientists will review the literature, then repeat or further the experiments. Given time, mistakes will be sussed out and corrected.

As Harari says, where it falls apart is when we try to use science for policy, when politicians lead us toward what they can make popular instead of what might be best for our world. Should money go toward renewable energy or cleaner coal? Is it economically feasible to clear our food supply of harmful chemicals and drugs? At what level can we claim it’s safe? Politically, we can’t even agree human activity is creating global warming when the evidence is everywhere.

Despite Harari’s assertion that social “truths” can last hundreds or thousands of years, I can’t help wondering if our society is resting on a house of cards. If you pull one out, does it come crashing down? But he reminds us we are wired to want this, that following leaders has fostered cooperation and helped us survive through the ages. Faith in the system is the only thing that keeps it going.

I am left with the knowledge that, on some level, we are all figments of our own imagination. When I share my thoughts with friends and family, they are honestly mine. But whether they are true appear to be a matter of opinion.

A Life of Games

Five was the last time the older neighborhood girls would let me stand in the middle before they turned the rope. By six, I had to learn to jump in or be out of the game. Jump rope and jacks were the favorites through eighth grade, both on the playground and on the sidewalk in front of our friends’ houses.

The benefit of having four kids in the family was that there was usually someone who’d be willing to play a game. There was Monopoly and Sorry, and my mother’s favorite, Scrabble. At extended family get-togethers we played a hangman-like game called Probe. I once used my grandmother’s unabridged dictionary to find a word that stumped them all: quaquaversal. My uncle’s legendary game was won with flugelhorn.

At home we had a set of games that looked like books on a shelf. My favorite bookshelf game was called O-wahr-ee and involved spreading rocks around in a ring of cup holes, and collecting them based on the number left in the cup. It was something like mancala. My older sister’s favorite was Facts in Five, a trivia game that she could always win. When she headed toward her teen years, I’d play it anyway, just to get her to play with me. For years my youngest brother and I battled with Quinto, setting numbered tiles in crossword puzzle rows with multiples of five.

I learned Euchre from my husband early in our marriage. For a few years, we’d have dates with other couples to play.

When my girls were little, I’d stack the deck in Candyland to give them a chance to win, or at least let the game finally end. As they got older, we played rapid fire Uno, and never-ending Monopoly.

Now days, my games are more likely to be played alone on my phone. But on lazy Christmas days between gifts and dinner when my daughters are home, they may challenge me to Scrabble, or feeling childhood nostalgia, The Game of Life.

Miskidceptions

I have been a mother for almost twenty-eight years and a teacher much longer than that. As a society, we have some serious misconceptions about who our children are. As I start this school year and get to know my new students, here is the truth I come back to every year. If you know one student, you know a single child, a single personality. Here are my least favorite popularly held beliefs.

“He’s all boy.” This is usually said by parents of very active boys when they don’t pay attention or they misbehave. There are, by the way, very active boys who do very well in school. There are boys who love art and reading, boys who love video games, boys who dance, boys who like action figures (can you say dolls?), and boys with compassion and empathy. They are all boy too.

“Girls are kinder/meaner than boys.” Girls are socialized to be aware of the needs of others, which may be why, when they bully, it’s often with words. The need to serve others doesn’t stick for all of them, and some boys have more natural ability or socialization than some girls. All children can be kind if we teach them how important it is. All children should be taught how to stand up for what’s right as well.

“Girls have neat handwriting and boys are messy.” Um, no. My own handwriting is messy for myself, but neat for others. There are a few boys and girls who truly have difficulty with fine motor skills. The rest can write neatly when they practice.

“Be brave, son.” “Be careful, daughter.” I struggled with this one myself, but my daughters must have had enough other role models that they turned out fine. We need to make sure that our kids are sensible enough to be careful, but brave enough to take chances when they arise, no matter their sex. Our brains don’t fully mature until our mid-twenties. Let’s prepare them for that day.

“Girls need protection.” “Boys don’t cry.” Don’t tell your son to suck it up. If you give him the attention and comfort he needs, he can pass that caring on. Allow your daughter the chance to try and fail. It will give her strength.

“Pink for girls, blue for boys.” At least in my classroom, pink is currently unisex, although parents of boys tend to buy lots of blue, black, gray and occasionally neon green. In recent years purple has been a favorite girl color. When my girls were little, I used to call the “girls’” toy section the pink aisle. Coloring “boy” toys pink and saying they are unique for girls is still an issue. Manufacturers still discourage nurturing in boys, and spatial concepts and building for girls. Lego has done better than many, at least merging the two.

“She’s a tomboy.” Why does the word boy have to be part of what an active girl is? Lots of girls are active and play sports. For some of those same girls, it’s a central passion. Others dance as well, or play with dolls or Legos, or like art, or love to read. They are their own people.

“Boys are better at math.” Generally, when parents are comfortable with math, their sons and daughters are comfortable too. Sometimes we can take the child of a math phobic and turn things around. Don’t tell your kids that you hated math as a child. Do tell them that if they work hard at something they can improve. Praise children for hard work, not the ease of doing.

“LGBTQIA is just another liberal idea. They are brainwashing our children.” Actually, I’ve seen quite a few kids over the years who showed signs at six, seven, eight, or nine that they would identify with one of those initials when they grew up. If anything, the influence in their lives was to be more gender conforming. But still, there were differences. Love your kids for who they are.

“Girls/Boys are harder to raise than girls/boys.” Take your pick, but I can give you examples on either side, even during the teen years.

In the end, your child needs structure, security, and love. The kindest thing we can do is accept all kids for who they are from the beginning: beautiful, normal, unique human beings.

Sweet Notes

My mother liked to tell the story about five-year-old me at my first recital. I wore a shiny gold dress that someone had passed down to me after serving as a flower girl. Between my sissy socks, shiny black patent leather shoes and dimples, I was an adorable little lady, sauntering down for my turn at the piano. Until I reached the bench. Instead of gracefully sliding in from the side, I straddled it before swinging my other leg high and over.

This story sums up my instrumental career. On the surface, I seemed to have a certain amount of musical ability, but I couldn’t quite get up and over to doing well. To be fair, I seemed to have an allergy to practicing. Perched on our piano bench at home, I would wiggle and squirm, yank a hand from the keyboard to scratch an itch or wipe my nose, and whine. My mother was determined. She quizzed me with note flash cards and punctuated my playing with the tick of a metronome when her constant cry of “Count!” didn’t do the trick.

We took lessons at school during our lunch hour. At the end of every year our teacher, Mrs. K, held an awards assembly. My older sister won a piano pin for being best. I thought the only category I had a prayer of winning was “most improved.” In second grade, if I had made any progress, it was certainly more than in the past. I listened while all the awards were given and held my breath.

“And the award for most improved goes to – “

And she said my kindergarten brother’s name.

My eight-year-old heart sank. Even a five-year-old was better than me.

My nonmusical father was determined he would give all four of his kids a musical education. The four years of piano were nonnegotiable. After that we would choose a second instrument. My sister stuck with woodwinds, my brother with brass. My youngest brother wanted the drums. I think his plan was to be so annoying they’d let him quit. In the end, he got his way. I chose the violin. Finally, I had a chance to do something no one else in my family could do.

Mr. A, my longtime teacher, was a professional violinist who gave lessons on the side. Endlessly kind, he’d prompt and remind and demonstrate, and I did improve. When I hit a sour note, I wrinkled my nose. In a rare moment of impatience, he said, “I know you can hear it. Why don’t you play it?”

I quit violin for a six-week group guitar class my junior year. It was a lot of fun and I didn’t mind practicing. But with college looming, I was struck with an inexplicable urge to try out for my university’s general orchestra. Senior year I went back to Mr. A. The next August, I restarted the audition piece three times. They didn’t cut me, but I was the last chair. In retrospect, I realized they let anyone in this group, unlike the symphony which was by audition only. A month in, I quit. No one discouraged me.

Fast forward fifteen years. On a visit home with my kids, I told my mom about taking out my violin for the first time in ages. My baby daughter looked at me with adoration. Her three-year-old sister cried when I wouldn’t let her try it and the dog howled along. Mom and I laughed together.

“I looked through my old music,” I said. “I can’t believe I used to play that. I don’t remember being any good.”

My mother raised her eyebrows. “Of course you were good. Don’t you remember?”

I didn’t. I still don’t. She might have been biased. But the evidence of some quality is there in the music I played.

But here is what I’m left with. I have a friend who likes music and theatre as much as I do. We are each other’s culture buddy. Sometimes we go to student and faculty concerts at a nearby university. I marvel at the brass and woodwinds and picture my brother’s trombone and my sister’s flute. We go to see Time for Three and I admire the bow and fingering, hear the technique, recognize the harmonics. We attend an occasional symphony concert and I am immersed in the rich layers of sound.

Almost forty years later, all I’m left with is the love.

Regretfully

Dear Applicant,

Thank you for your inquiry regarding the position of Youth. While we respect your efforts to regain it, the level of energy you exhibit simply does not match our needs. As requested, we offer the following feedback.

It was admirable that you continued to race young students when you took them out for recess well into your thirties. Yet, although childlike, the power dynamic never really shifted, especially since once students started winning, you stopped running. We also must point out you haven’t run in over twenty years, unless you count that single game of Steal the Bacon five years ago, and you must remember how sore you were the next day.

We do appreciate the sense of wonder you exhibit on learning new things. We feel that will serve you well in future endeavors, but does not, on its own, qualify you for Youth.

You mentioned the distance you can walk. With all due respect, we feel we must point out that past the age of one, most people walk until very late in life. Also, consider the amount of huffing and puffing you do on hills. We do encourage you to continue the practice and remind you that anything you don’t use, you will lose.

An example of this is your recent attempt to do burpees. If you recall, you absolutely hated doing burpees in elementary gym class. The routine of squat with hands on floor, shoot legs back, pull legs in, and stand up with a jump was not difficult in those days. Though you have periodically practiced other youthful exercise routines, you only recently have thought it worthwhile to do your most hated one. As you have seen, without repetition, the ability has been nearly lost as evidenced by the way you crawled to standing at the end. It remains to be seen whether you will ever regain this skill.

In closing, we appreciate your interest, and with work, you might apply for the position of Longevity.

Sincerely,

The Three Fates

For a better example of this kind of essay read here.

Racing the Rain

I look out the window when I wake and smile to see blue sky and fluffy clouds after last night’s storm. I check the radar on my phone. Red and yellow skitter across the map toward my location. If I leave soon, I should escape it going south.

All packed, I point my car toward home. Driving through lush tree-covered hills for the first hundred miles, the clouds multiply to a blanket of white.  I appreciate the loss of glare. The cruise control keeps a steady pace slightly over the speed limit.

The next hundred miles slip by uneventfully through ever flatter farm land. I pass semis, SUVs shoot past me, in a high-speed dance.

I am sixty miles from home when the first drops fall, spitting against the glass. I turn on my lights and use the wipers once and it’s over.

At forty miles out, I wipe away drizzle. Then the rain starts in earnest. The wipers set an even rhythm.

The skies open as I reach the city. Sheets of water obliterate my view. I slow to 55 and wonder how the vehicles speeding past me can see. With every swipe of the wiper blades I can barely make out passing lights and the white lines of my lane. I white-knuckle steer against gusts of wind, wondering if I should pull over. Narrowly missing a stalled vehicle to my right, I drive on, moments stretching like a taut thread.

Then suddenly it stops. I hear thunder booms behind me, but the world looks a little lighter. My foot on the gas goes a little heavier.

As I begin the twists and turns of the downtown highway, there is a bone-rattling boom and it starts again. I slow and lean forward, trying to glimpse my lane. A passing semi adds its spray and I coast for a moment in engulfed in gray. I plow through flooded low spots before I realize they are there.

I think, just let me get to the bridge. If I can cross the river the path will straighten and I will make it home. I tense as I approach the on ramp hoping no unseen car is coming my way, then hear the familiar whir of tires on steel. Up and over to the other side.

Cars and trucks whiz past me as I climb the hill. Another downpour, but this time with even rhythm and I can see. The steady rain lasts till I take my exit to the final two-mile stretch of highway. If I crane my neck I can still make out black clouds above me. But up ahead is clear cerulean sky. I smile to think I have outraced the rain, relax my fingers on the wheel.

Just when I think I have won, a long, jagged bolt of lightning comes literally out of the blue directly ahead.

Sobered, I cross the remaining mile to my country home, gratefully pull into my garage. Defeated but safe, I wait for the coming storm.

 

 

The Kindness of Strangers

The summer I got married, I decided to take a trip alone about a month before the wedding. It was one last spurt of independence for what I thought would be years of partnered travel.

These were the days before cell phones and GPS. I planned my journey with maps and wrote to the people I’d be visiting to get directions to their homes. My goal was a day at the beach. I planned my visits and route so that I could get to Atlantic City. I promised my mom I’d check in with my fiancé daily, although what he’d do if I disappeared I have no idea. I was a city girl and would be careful.

I set out on a sunny hot Midwest summer afternoon in my used Chevy Monza, with the windows down (no air) and the AM radio blasting. I drove until I was tired and stopped at a motel somewhere off the highway past Columbus, Ohio. The desk clerk checked me in and gave me the key to a room right off the lobby. In retrospect, I’m sure it was a gesture of chivalry, keeping the young single woman travelling alone out of harm’s way.

The following morning, I drove a few hours into Pennsylvania, taking side roads to visit the town where my grandmother lived when she first came to America, where her father had died in a coal mine accident. The modern shops and vehicles didn’t match my mental picture.

On the Pennsylvania Turnpike, my father’s voice echoed in my head when the signs by the tunnels nagged me to turn on my headlights and take off my sunglasses. I did as a I was told, driving deep into the mountain, lights flashing on the tiled walls, finally exiting on the other side into the bright sunlight.

My first visit was in Philadelphia to a friend from college, with his wife and baby daughter. We spent the following day, a Sunday, walking the historic sites of downtown Philadelphia, and I watched the baby while they sailed a small boat in a park lagoon. When I told them my plans for Atlantic City the next day, they encouraged me to come back and stay another night.

I left bright and early as my friends went off to work. In Atlantic City, I carefully locked my Monza and pinned the key to the shoulder strap on the swimsuit I wore under my clothes. I carried a beach bag with a towel. My flip flops slapped the boardwalk as I strolled to the beach. I spread my towel in the hot sand a few feet away from kids building sand castles, men in speedos and women in bikinis baking in the sun.  Whenever the sun became too warm, I headed for the ocean, swimming out till I was neck-deep and floating at the whim of the waves.

After a final night in Philadelphia, I started the long drive to my next destination. The day was even hotter. As fast as I drank water, I sweated it out. Somewhere in Indiana, steam rose from the hood of my car and the temperature gauge needle surged past high. I parked on the shoulder and opened the hood. The radiator hissed. I knew enough not to open it to check the fluid level until it cooled. I grabbed a book and sat in the grass at the side of the road to wait.

Only a few minutes later, a semi pulled up. Two men got out and walked back to me. The driver puffed out his chest, hitched up his pants and said, “What do we have here? Need some help?”

“Oh,” I said, “I think it’s my radiator. I’m just waiting for it to cool so I can check the fluid level.”

The man put his hand on the cap and let go fast. He pulled a rag from his pocket and quickly twisted the cap off.

“Looks like you have a crack. Do you have any water?”

I handed him the cup from my car and he poured it in.

“You should be okay. Just make sure you keep filling it up.”

I thanked them and drove off as they strode back to their truck.

My next stop was an Illinois farm where another friend raised champion Cheviot sheep that had paid her way through college. I added water to the radiator that evening and more in the morning. After a night visiting, I went on to see my brother at the house he rented near his university campus. Again, I filled the radiator and packed more water for the trip home.

My car limped the final miles home, a new radiator in its future.

As I tell this story, I reflect on how much life has changed. My daughters taking a similar vacation would ask Siri for directions and listen to music on their smartphones on the ride. If their car broke down, I’m sure we would get a call and keep them company while they waited for AAA to come and help. I know they have close friends and family that would come to their aid the same way I did. I only hope they, and all of us, could still depend on the kindness of strangers.

Over the Line

CW: childhood trauma

Nature versus nurture? That used to be the essential question. But now we know that life events (Adverse Childhood Experiences) can change our brains, alter even the expression of our genes.

I’ve spent a lot of time the last few months reading about the ACE study and others like it. As a teacher, it’s important for me to know how to help students who have experienced trauma. Those students? They are the majority of us.

The original ACE study was for a health insurance company. They wanted to know how to get costs down, what factors could contribute to better health. The vast majority of the participants were high school graduates, with over half having some college or a degree, more than the national average. About three-fourths were white. Almost half were sixty or older, giving a longitudinal view of how childhood events could affect your health.

What they found is that approximately two-thirds of participants had experienced at least one Adverse Childhood Experience. About a third had experienced two or more. Twelve percent had experienced four or more. Repeated studies have shown that as the number of ACEs goes up, so does the risk of a host of health and social/emotional issues, including heart disease, diabetes, teen pregnancy, risk for sexual violence, alcoholism, poor achievement in school, early death and more. These all contribute to the quality of life and genetic expression of the next generation, whose ACE score may be just as high.

My readings are weighing heavily on my mind today, as reports from the border continue to stream in. Families without visas trying to cross into the U.S. from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and other Central American countries are stopped by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Whether they are coming for economic reasons or seeking asylum, the current policy of the Trump administration is to separate parents and children.

For asylum seekers, the government says the entire process will take 180 days. Other sources say that with the backlog it takes 1000 days on average. Think about 1000 days for parents and children to be apart, especially infants and toddlers. If parents are deported, government sources say they have the choice of having their children go with them or leave them to make their own immigration claim. But instead, multiple parents say they have been deported without knowing where their children are. There are currently 10,000 immigrant children in care, over 2000 taken in just recently.

Let’s consider what their ACE score might be.

Have these children experienced verbal, physical or sexual abuse? We have no evidence for how these children’s parents acted in their homes. However, there have been reports of children being abused by coyotes, the smugglers who brought them over, as well as abuse here while they are being detained. Asylum seekers have often experienced violence, preceding their decision to come here.

Do these kids feel valued? Again, while we can’t know what their home lives were like, being locked up with strangers does not communicate high value.

Have the detained children experienced poverty and neglect?  Families desperate enough to risk crossing the border are often poor enough for children to have experienced food scarcity, among other issues.

Have their parents separated or divorced? We can’t know, on the whole, but any parents traveling alone are separated for months or years at a time.

Did their mothers ever experience abuse? Any children traveling with their mothers have now seen their mothers threatened with guns and taken from them.

We have no information on alcoholism and drug abuse.

Has a family member experienced mental illness? Among the asylum seekers, PTSD must be common. Among the detained, mental health treatment is scarce.

Has a family member gone to prison? This question must be uppermost in the minds of kids who have been torn from their families and locked up themselves.

Were you counting? Do you see the pattern? The current U.S. policy of separating kids from their parents is adding traumatic experiences that may affect the rest of their lives, and generations to come.

If you want to do something before the next election, you can find ways to help here, here, here, here and here.

Let’s stop them before more damage is done.

*As of 6-20-18, Trump signed an order to have the families detained together. Long term detention of children is not legal at this point. You will note that most of the traumas noted above still exist. For additional concerns about the policy, see here.

My Privilege

I’m going to brag about my success for a minute. I’m not saying I’m financially well-off, but thanks to saving, scrimping and hard work through the years, we’re not in debt and my husband and I should be able to fund a modest retirement. Thanks to consistent parenting, we have two wonderful adult daughters. Our marriage is solid because we work hard to keep it that way.

Except, none of that is completely true. The good parts are real, and we did save, work hard, and try to parent consistently. We don’t struggle over our marriage. We just try to be nice to each other.

I think the truth is that we’re lucky. Not that we should play the lottery. Instead, I think we have the privileges that come with who we are in the world.

Our modest financial success did depend on our effort and living on less than we made. But sometimes people do both those things and still fall into poverty. Divorce, loss of a job, or a prolonged illness can all destroy someone’s finances, and by extension, their family’s as well. But there are things that can cushion that fall. If you have a financially stable extended family and other close-knit ties like we do, you can have support while you get back on your feet. If you are the first in your family to rise out of poverty, there is no safety net. It is way too easy to fall back in when disaster strikes.

We’re lucky because we’re American. The United States is one of the richest countries in the world. Now, most of that wealth is concentrated among a few individuals, but my husband and I are fortunate to be among those who make a living wage. Worldwide, our modest income is in the top one percent.

I’m lucky to have a post-graduate degree, which I attained when college was still an affordable option. On average, college graduates earn consistently more than those with high school diplomas alone. They have lower rates of unemployment. Certainly, I earned the right with effort and good grades. But I also had undergraduate scholarships and graduate financial help from my employer. Enrolling at all was helped by having two parents with degrees. Students who are the first in their families to attend are far less likely to finish. If you are a parent of a prospective university student, you know about the visits, the financial forms, the application forms and fees. It helps to have a college education to help someone apply for one. Even when students finance their education themselves, it helps to have financially stable parents who won’t require their help.

Our daughters really are wonderful. We did try to parent consistently and I’m sure that helped. But no parent can be all things. Their friends, teachers, first jobs, coaches, what they read, what they watched, the trips we took, volunteering, their own choices all made them who they are today.

My husband and I both came from a middle-class background. We started jobs in high school and learned something early about managing money. If our parents had loan payments or a parking ticket, they were able to pay it and move on. In too many places around the country, too many people in poverty have been arrested for not being able to pay their debts. Extended time in prison and garnished wages don’t enable financial stability. Fortunately, that policy may finally be changing on a large scale.

We are privileged to be white. I don’t say this to say that being white is somehow better than other colors, just luckier.  As a white American, I am more likely to be financially stable, because my family’s wealth has had more generations to accrue. I am part of the majority, so most institutions cater to my culture and skin color. If someone believes a stereotype about me, it won’t be one that gets me shot or keeps me from getting a job. If we were really a country of equal opportunity, and effort was all it took to get ahead, there wouldn’t be the extreme disparities we have between people of different races today.

Like the majority of Americans, we’ve had our challenges, but like the lucky ones, we’ve had blessed supports as well. Our fate is as much the result of fortune as anything we’ve done to deserve it.