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French Lesson

10 Aug
Image

Image courtesy of num_skyman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As I sit here on the back porch on a beautiful morning, enjoying my tankard of strong coffee and yogurt with fruit and granola, I’m appreciating the simpler things in life. Less is more in most cases, especially when it comes to food.

Some of this I learned while living with a family in southwestern France as an au pair, back in the Pleistocene Age (1989). Here’s why my breakfast made me think of this:

Plain yogurt is better than any other yogurt. Why?

There are no extra ingredients.

It is tart, has a lovely texture, and 100% real. The flavor is even better if left to sit close to room temperature. (Most Americans find this gross, but in France it is quite normal.)

Mountain High, Fage, or Stonyfield are my personal preferences. We buy the giant containers and use them up. Because it’s an Ohio company and because the milk is extraordinary, I want to also try Snowville Creamery’s plain yogurt.

And forget the 0% fat. For a dessert yogurt or a special treat, go for full fat…it’s the good kind so nothing to feel bad about. And for everyday use, 2% is fine unless you really need to shed pounds.

I always substitute plain yogurt for anytime sour cream is required (with burritos or tacos, gazpacho, baked potatoes). The flavor is better, and you get more goodness out of the experience because of the live and active cultures, or probiotics.

Especially interesting to point out that I learned this NOT while in the notoriously liberal Paris, but while living in an area of France well-known for its political, cultural, and culinary traditionalism. The family I lived with supported Jean-Marie Le Pen, an ultra-conservative politician whose daughter is following in his footsteps. (Note that I did not share the family’s positive opinion of Le Pen!)

My family in France earned their living through veal farming (the famous black and white “Limousin” cows named for the region) and a small factory that made animal food. But unlike many American farmers, they did not support the use of small pens or antibiotics. They never used them and would not consider it because they found both practices fundamentally wrong, in keeping with their traditional views on farming practice and healthy eating. I received regular lectures from my family about the negatives of antibiotics and why eating such tainted meat was unthinkable “en France.”

So that’s my take on being simple, brought to you by my breakfast and my memories of simple living in France.

Herbert Hoover’s Tennis Game

9 Oct

Image courtesy of Dan / freedigitalphotos.net

Back in the early 1930s, my great-grandfather and his farmer friends had a date with President Herbert Hoover. At the time, the productive farms in Ohio’s Ross and Vinton Counties were struggling–like most other “real people” during the Great Depression. These farmers combined their limited resources for a trip to D.C. to talk with the president they helped to elect, to explain why they so desperately needed low-interest loans to help them get through those tough times.

A bit of background about these farmers:

Like my family, most had settled in the Scioto River Valley in the late 1700s, when Ohio was still the Northwest Territory. They built the towns like Richmondale, Eagle Mills, and Ratcliffburg. They planted and put down roots in the little dales surrounding the Salt Creek, where they could forge their own way for their families and generate enough of a profit to feed everyone and lead good enough lives. By no means wealthy, they were satisfied with the self-sufficient way of life that they had developed through their own hardscrabble and grit. Most among them were “traditional conservatives”–Republicans who had voted for Herbert Hoover in 1928.

Everything changed with the Depression. My grandmother, a teenager and young woman during most of the Depression, counted herself lucky to be just one step away from having to wear a flour sack for a dress. When my great-grandfathers George Washington Brown and Noah Ezekiel Ratcliff made the decision to travel to Washington with the dozen or so other farmers, it was a calculated risk.  They pooled their resources with the group, thinking that it was a worthwhile investment for the future of the land their families had worked for generations.

But the end of the story was not a happy one. When they arrived in D.C., they were told by the president’s scheduler that he was double-booked for their meeting. Instead of keeping the date with them, the president was playing tennis.

What a foreign concept to a group of farmers. How could someone have enough time to do something as frivolous as play tennis–let alone do that instead of keeping a scheduled appointment with constituents? Later in his administration, under pressure, Hoover did end up making a decision to create low-interest loans for farmers, and then FDR expanded the program.

But it was too late for my family. They like many others around them lost their farms. My Grandfather Ratcliff went to work at Meade Paper Plant before moving up to Columbus, where he got a job in construction and became one of the first presidents of his union affiliate, Local 44, representing asbestos workers. My dad went on to follow him in that role, both as a construction worker and union president. I grew up living in twin singles for much of my childhood–hardly the life that is often portrayed for a “union boss’s” family. But I never felt less than successful or well cared-for, so the move north was a positive one for the family overall.

As they say, things happen for a reason. If the family hadn’t moved out of Appalachia, I probably would not have had the same incentives to attend college. And there’s a larger lesson in this bit of family history.

Being insulted is not something easily forgotten in a “culture of honor.” Certainly my family, like other families who came to America from isolated areas such as Northern England or Sicily, continued to maintain a stubborn and independent streak in order to survive in the post-American Revolution “Wild West.” This way of life and attitude is what helped them to succeed as farmers, and what motivated them to make a change in party after the tennis game incident.

My father tells this story today, not to emphasize the reasons behind my family’s change in political party, but to explain the difference between wise and unknowing leadership. Timing and thoughtful decisions make a difference, for real people.

Superheroes

10 Jul

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

We are all suckers for a good superhero.

Everybody has their favorite:

  • Batgirl
  • Superman
  • Thor
  • Wonder Woman
  • Spiderman
  • Elastigirl

Okay, the last one is not a bona fide superhero. But I still like her special power, plus her hairdo.

Back to the topic:

Why is it that we are in awe of superheroes and their superpowers?

While watching Thor with my son over the weekend, I was thinking about this question. Besides the obvious reasons for why I enjoy Thor, there are more respectable and legitimate reasons to explain superhero worship, based upon my less than extensive research:

  • They have back-story. Superheroes tend to acquire their superpowers as a result of overcoming trials and tribulations. By enduring adversity, they rise above and conquer. They’ve worked hard to be super, and we like them more because we’ve seen them be vulnerable.
  • Superheroes have awesome costumes. The costume-maker in The Incredibles is a classic character that makes the costumes for her superhero cast come alive. Each costume is fitted specifically to the superhero’s needs, including being fire-retardant when necessary. Note to Wonder Woman: I urge you to secure Edna’s services. She could fashion a costume that would not prevent you from breathing.
  • The characters can do everything we imagine being able to master in our dreams. Flying, catching things on fire, freezing stuff, disappearing, shooting poison arrows with our eyes, bending metal, seeing through walls, etc. Superheroes mean serious business, and they have the powers to back up their promises. This is a superhero-worthy list of superpowers that goes into depth on all of the possibilities, by category. Who doesn’t want to have that level of bad-a$$-ness?
  • Superheroes save people’s lives. An extension of the above noted superpowers, the life-saving ability cannot be overrated. Superheroes have doctor complex out the yin-yang. Saving lives makes your own more valuable. This is an automatic confidence-booster, and I encourage anyone to do it whenever possible. Learn CPR. Who knows when it might come in handy?
  • They stand out in a crowd. Superheroes often wear garish colors that go well beyond the worst combinations of sports jersey hues. They look like bugs, bats, the American flag, or mythical figures on steroids. But they rock it. Who doesn’t want to pump up the volume like this every once in a while? It certainly makes the day more interesting.
  • Superheroes are real people in disguise. I personally think this is the best reason. Putting on a mask throws everyone off. What an easy way to become something you are not.

Every once in a while, we get to approach superhero-dom in our daily lives, in the eyes of our kids or our co-workers. And we get to watch others outperform normal expectations and impress us beyond belief. Then we go back to being normal.

It’s this chance to be “super” every once in a while that makes life worth living, but being “normal” on most days is such an important part of the appeal. Striving, never giving up, and believing we can be our best…this is the power of the “real-life” superhero.

RIP Kurt Cobain

5 Apr

A little bit of reflection.

Eighteen years ago today, I had just finished a retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. I’ve already written about how special this place is to me, because it is where I can go to be with “God Alone.”

It was a beautiful spring, and I took the winding back roads heading north back to Ohio. It was storming a little bit, but the bright green rolling hills and blooming bulbs were beautiful as I started my drive home.

After being on the road for a few minutes, I turned on the radio and had a rude awakening back to reality: Kurt Cobain had shot himself.

I remember cursing a little bit (probably not appropriate after so much time with God) and then crying for a while–in anger. What a loss. He could have created so much more.

It hit close for me because I was the same age as him at the time (27), and because I appreciated the music. Cobain was no musical genius, by his own admission, and he wasn’t the best singer or musician. But he put things together in the right way, for the time. He learned about catchy melodies from the Beatles, and combined that with drastic changes in volume that highlighted his band’s talents.

If he were still alive today, he’d be a great producer.

Addiction, mental illness, and the nasty results on mind and body. A lot has already been said about this.

Today’s a good marker for my generation. It is through luck and hard work that we can celebrate life and fulfill the potential we had when we were young. Not everyone has the personal capability to do this–by their own choosing or because of demons they cannot control. Many live but just get by, never being everything they could be.

Rest assured that I’ll play some Nirvana today to remember Kurt Cobain’s accomplishment. Even though he cut it short at the tender age of 27, his life was a blessing to many. “In Bloom” indeed…rock on wherever you are, K.C.

My Moriarty

13 Mar

Another in the category of: My blog, so I write what I want.

I particularly enjoy the Moriarty character in Sherlock Holmes stories (as well as the movies…Jared Harris plays it perfectly). This is a bit of reflection on Moriarty’s role, for each of us. It is also influenced by some recent reading, of Brené Brown‘s work on authenticity–I recommend it.

________________________

Everyone has their Moriarty, but not everyone knows who he is.

Dr. Moriarty is the archenemy of Sherlock Holmes, a mathematical genius who sets traps, builds bombs, and makes the world a more dangerous place for Holmes.

Moriarty would not exist without Holmes. Their struggle makes Moriarty stronger. Moriarty’s mathematical masterminding improves only because Holmes pushes him into a corner.

And in their final battle, they play a game of chess, which devolves into punching and shoving, followed by both Moriarty and Holmes falling hundreds of feet off a ledge into an enormous waterfall in the Alps–into the Reichenbach Falls. Pretty dramatic stuff.

A mind game, capped off with a sloppy boxing match and an incredible risk. What better metaphor for fighting off old (and often inaccurate) memories, shame, regrets, and remorse?

There’s a reason that villains such as Moriarty ring true: These people do exist–for all of us–in real life, as the actual cast in our own day-to-day existence, be they people, feelings, or thoughts. My Moriarty has been a distraction, a lessening of joy in my life. I am ready to get back the time I’ve wasted on this nasty character.

Sometimes I have been locked in mortal combat with something for so long, it becomes a habit–until I can find the strength in myself to no longer give it life. Trying to think my way out of it usually doesn’t work. In my case, the cerebral solution can (and has) resulted in years of making things more complex and angst-ridden than they really are. Obsession brings zero improvement. The process of letting go isn’t pretty, but it’s better than hanging on to an old arch-nemesis.

Pushing my Moriarty off the ledge requires that I go over with him–at least a part of me. Scary to let go of an old part of myself, even if I know that I no longer need or want it. It’s the ultimate renunciation of attachment. This is the rebirth process for Holmes, who survives the fall, a baptism of sorts for him.

When I make the decision to kill off my Moriarty, I am going to celebrate. As a matter of fact, there are two very specific Moriarty characters that I am pushing into the waterfall very soon. I will relish their drop into oblivion, because they have held me back from being as true to myself as I can be–from consistently being the person that I am supposed to be (insert God reference if you’d prefer).

Business Ethics: Integrity, Truth and Love

13 Dec

Image: dan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Originally published in March 2009…but an evergreen topic.

Recent well-publicized excesses have clarified the strategic flaw in letting money be the sole driver for excellence. Success is not about ripping off investors (Elie Wiesel, for goodness’ sakes) as did Madoff. That’s failure…of strategy and execution. Of course, money is a welcome byproduct of hard work and successful follow-through, but it should not be the focus. Madoff’s decisions exhibit an epic deterioration of values.

Core values drive vision and mission, which come before strategy and tactics and should be the foundation for day-in, day-out, year-by-year business operations. Most people would say that a successful business person has to override their emotions and lead with their head. Is it so? I hope not. Being successful in business requires reading people—which means that some sense of emotion is incorporated into the mix. I’m not talking about a constant group hug or self-help group kind of business. What I mean is a basic appreciation for what’s right and wrong, which is based on some appreciation for others. Call it heart or call it mutual respect, in some sense value-driven business management includes love.

Think about it. Values are built upon what’s true, honest and right. They have some appreciation for natural order—not a religious backbone but a basic tenet that says, “These are the rules of the game. To not follow the rules in the world of business will give me a yellow card, then a red card.” Like the world’s most popular sport, football (soccer for Americans), the players so love the sport that they play by the rules. So it goes in business.

Business leaders are tasked with making the decisions no one else wants to make. Power brings a dash of glory and a ton of ugly responsibility. These days, here’s what that looks like: Who gets to stay? Who can’t we afford to keep? How can I navigate the uncertainty of the future for my business, with so many people dependent upon my ability to discern what is right or wrong? What should I think as I see family members’ and friends’ businesses failing, clearly because of the market? Shouldn’t I do whatever is necessary to get a competitive edge?

There’s plenty of gray area. That’s the problem. If we get lost in the shades of gray, we can lose track of what’s right and wrong. Staying grounded in core values is a necessity for today’s business leaders. These are the three cornerstones of business ethics staying power:

Integrity – This means, “Know thyself.” What’s staying true to your standards, and what is not? Simple as that.

Truth – Never, ever lie. Not to make yourself or someone else look good. Not to win. No need to say more or less.

Love – See the world through the eyes of your fellow human beings, be they colleagues, investors or employees. Your passion for innovation (in whatever profession) should never trample over another human being’s dignity. Can we compete on a level playing field? Yes. Is it productive to operate out of anger just to get ahead? No.

Some might debate the rationale for including “love” in this post about business ethics. I think that without it, there is no case to be made for core business values.

Inspired by Fr. Vinny of the Newman Center (3/8/09 homily, 12 noon).

Riding with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

2 Dec

I am getting excited about my annual tradition of rereading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I do every year between Christmas and New Year’s. The action unfolds in Medieval England and begins on New Year’s Eve, finishing a year and a day later.

Image Courtesy of Hurley Century Arts - http://www.cjhurley.com/artwork/gesso-green.php

My favorite translation is a relatively new one, by English poet Simon Armitage.

I am fascinated by the story (an alliterative romance, for the experts) for lots of reasons:

  • Setting – The story is set in the North West Midlands, the general area of England that my ancestors came from. It just seems right that I should be reading this poem.
  • Symbolism – The author (unidentified) interweaves sexual tension and hunting (deer, boar and fox), temptation and self-control (including losing one’s head and giving away a girdle), nature and civilization, the mores of chivalry and courtly love. What else is there to discuss?
  • Story – This poem is an adventure to read. The story stands the test of time. There’s suspense, even though the themes are mostly about human nature. The writer does keep you guessing. And I’ve found that each time I reread it I pick up on a nuance I missed in previous readings.
  • Language – For me, this is the best part. (Caution: My undergrad honors thesis was on Cajun French morphemes. I’ll admit it: I geek out on words.)  I recommend a side-by-side translation. The original was written in Middle English, enjoyable to read because if you abandon all fear of the unknown the language is surprisingly understandable. Just don’t try to decipher every word. Think of the process as an adventure! Anyone who’s learned to read in a different language knows what I mean. The Armitage translation is lovely, because he’s a poet and knows how to do justice to the rhythm, sound and meaning of each word and verse.

Do yourself a favor and give the Green Knight a careful read. Steep yourself in language, and storytelling, at its best.

For those who have interest in learning more about how to intersperse your writing with Green Knights and other such characters, I recommend checking out this  Joseph Campbell book: The Hero With a Thousand Faces. I just found this helpful review from the Fuel Your Writing folks and am planning to give it a read.

Know Your Audience

7 Nov

Knowing your audience is a fine art. This is my favorite quote from Ron Alsop’s book The 18 Immutable Laws of Corporate Reputation, one that concisely sums up the spirit of being keenly aware of your audience, and their influencers:

“The stakeholder pyramid isn’t a static structure.”

What this means is that we’ve got to be constantly on top of the groups that are interpreting our image in the public space. They may or may not be customers. A good example Alsop provides is the Calvin Klein ads, noteworthy for those of us who first wore designer jeans in the 1980s. Although I looked nothing like Brooke Shields, I did love my Calvins. For the record, I had ONE pair. Lots of others loved their Calvins. They sent a message of youthful je ne sais quoi and corset-like zipped-upness.

imagesThe Calvin Klein ad campaign grew and developed into involvement of younger and younger models, which raised eyebrows for some. In the 90s, Klein’s underwear campaign became infamous for the heroin chic look of models like Kate Moss, known by her gaunt face and bag-of-bones body. At this point, the fashion popularity of Klein was very high, but his reputation began to suffer because of what older people—not his demographic—thought of the ad campaign.

For a long time, it was okay to push the envelope, with ads that were more and more risque, but that only has so much staying power. People pay attention, and they don’t put up having their intelligence be insulted.

The same type of phenomenon happened to Victoria’s Secret. When the company began, their brand promise went something like this: We make lingerie for real women, who are somewhat modest and have zero interest in tacky feather-laden teddies from Frederick’s of Hollywood. We will properly fit you for a brassiere that is uniquely for you, and will last for five years. But a couple of years ago, VS was selling Fredericks-esque teddies and trying to convince me that I needed to throw away perfectly good a year-old class of bras to buy Tyra Banks’ or Heidi Klum’s favorite because it was “just better bra technology.” Yeah, my foot.

What happened? How did they stray so far from their brand promise? VS did have very good success with its Pink line, for younger women, but they may have lost the market that has more money to spend: Women who are “of a certain age.”

Women who have daughters that are old enough to wear nice underwear…and want their daughters to buy nice underwear from a reputable, above-board shop. Yes, To Know Better is in that category, too. VS ended up with a tricky consumer with my demographic. I’m buying bras and panties from them, and my daughter is on the cusp of it. As a result, I am a proponent of VS keeping it clean. It’s only been recently that I have given VS another look, and it’s because they have started to get back to their brand promise. And I’ve wanted my daughter to have a better first bra-buying experience than my own, which involved my grandmother’s sudden bright idea of strapping on a training bra over top of my clothes in the middle of the Hart’s Department Store. For a 12-year-old girl, this was not a welcome experience.

So this is a good case in point for how much public perception matters. Even if Calvin Klein was not a proponent of heroin chic, or underage sex or people having to lay down on their beds to zip up their jeans, SOME people—influential people—in the investment community did believe so. And for Victoria’s Secret, their bread and butter consumer (yes, To Know Better and her friends) was not to be messed with.

Women with buying power are a force not to be manipulated. We stop spending when we get peeved. And even if a stakeholder group is not spending—like the investors that influenced Klein to get back on track with the basics—it is wise to monitor reputation with all key image-perceivers.

Contemplate This

7 Oct

A nice picture of Thomas Merton with the Dalai Lama, both quite ecumenical.

When I was in my 20s and had the luxury of time on my hands, I hung out with a group of people who were into contemplation.

Not the thinking kind of contemplation; it’s a form of prayer in the Catholic tradition practiced by Benedictine (Trappist) monks and is related to Buddhist meditation.

At an area church connected to a nursing home, there lived an actual Benedictine monk with responsibilities outside his monastic community. I think he’s still around Columbus, Ohio but have lost touch with him. He hosted weekly gatherings at his house where a group of us, called “lay contemplatives,” would gather for this particular form of prayer. The idea is that you do this at least once a day, as a lay contemplative, to extend the dedication to prayer built into the discipline of Trappist monks at monasteries all over the world.

The best way I’ve seen it described is “prayer of the heart.” Instead of praying FOR something and thinking about the conversation with God, the purpose is to open your heart and quietly be open to God for a period of time every day. Trappist monks pray through contemplation and chanting at least seven times a day (at specific times called “offices”) in addition to daily practice with the rosary and a daily mass.

For we humans who try to overthink everything, the concept of contemplation is both very simple and extremely difficult:

Stop thinking and doing. Be alone with a quiet knowing.

Several times per year our group of lay contemplatives traveled to Kentucky, home to the closest “mother ship” of contemplation: The Abbey of Gethsemani. This is a place that’s mostly silent, so that retreatants can converse with “God Alone.” There’s a large retreat house, acres of trails and a chance to pray and sing with the monks, beginning as early as 3:15 am. Amazingly, a stay at Gethsemani, like all monasteries and in the Benedictine tradition of hospitality, is free–by donation only.

I’ve tried to practice this life of quiet and unassuming prayer as life has become more complicated, with husband, kids and career. In concept it doesn’t require a huge time commitment; only a few minutes per day. I haven’t always done it well, but I’ve tried. I’ve tried to be comfortable in the unknowing of this silent prayer.

This prayer by Fr. Thomas Merton, who lived at Gethsemani prior to his untimely death, is a good guide for those of us seeking but not feeling quite perfect along the way:

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

– Thomas Merton, “Thoughts in Solitude”
© Abbey of Gethsemani

Worth a view is this video of the recently deceased Fr. Matthew Kelty, poet and mentor of Merton’s, reading that prayer. I had the pleasure of hearing Kelty speak on dozens of occasions and was charmed by his Boston accent and cowboy boots worn below his robes. Kelty was also a gifted poet.

Bed Bugs and Buddhism

23 Aug

The bedbugs have made me into a better Buddhist. Or Catholo-Buddhist. Or whatever mish-mash of “religions” I’ve become.

Here’s why: I have been a disciplined practitioner of eliminating my attachment to earthly things over the past days.

Meaning I have thrown out A LOT of stuff in a very short period of time. To quantify: One dumpsterful plus a double-load for bulk pick-up.

I thought it would be interesting to explore some Buddhist and Christian quotes on attachment and “worldly” living, made all the more interesting thanks to my new frenemies (props to Eric Calvert), the bedbugs.

Starting with this Buddhist quote:

The greatest generosity is non-attachment.

So, I’m being generous to the city dump, since no one wants my bedbuggy stuff? (Well, I suppose that’s not technically correct. See here for more on people who grew attached to my stuff, thereby taking on my former attachment with the added bonus of bedbugs.)

This next quote (also Buddhist) unmasks the illusion of the uniquely human trait–saving face:

The greatest wisdom is seeing through appearances.

This is a special shout-out to any of my neighbors still speaking to me, after the several days of trash piled on my front lawn, followed by the dumpster sitting in my driveway after that. Now, we’re just back to the small pile of mulch at the bottom of the driveway, with several small trees growing out of it.

Hey, what can I say, that mulch pile was several feet high at the start of the summer. That’s what I call progress! So, even though I appear to be “that neighbor,” I’m really an extremely upstanding citizen wholly focused on saving the world, starting with absolute bedbug elimination.

Here’s one from the Bible:

You adulterous people! Do you not know that
friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a
friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

(James 4:4 (ESV))

Ignore the first part. It’s just a pithy lead-in to the meat. What this quote really means is that I am VERY close to God. I now despise my worldly possessions. Every time I throw a new load in the dumpster, I both curse AND say a little prayer. No matter that it mostly focuses on a swift death to all bedbugs in my near vicinity.

To further emphasize my hatred of my worldliness, all of my earthly possessions are now encased in giant trash bags, so that I cannot even tell what they are. It’s now as if I own almost nothing. I am no longer a friend to the temptations of acquisition. Less is more, because it means fewer bedbugs and less hassle for me.

I’ll admit that I have felt a bit like Job with this bedbug business. Why me, God? I didn’t do anything (seriously) wrong!

Much like Job’s protests, mine haven’t done anything to change my circumstances. Life happens, and it’s up to us to figure out how to deal with it. For now, apparently the best course of action is to downsize.

(P.S. Out of sheer curiosity, I did check for Biblical and Buddhist references to bedbugs and found none (although a host of other insects, including white ants, do crawl into certain verses). But I did find this interesting commentary on whether or not Buddhists are permitted to kill bedbugs. The post also explores some interesting thoughts on what it means to be reborn as a bedbug. Wow.)