Archive for the ‘perspective’ Category

What Gives You Hope?


Lake Huron

by Keith Yancy

What gives you hope?

Stop and think about that question for a moment.  It’s an interesting question that I came across while reading Regina Brett’s book, titled Be The Miracle.  In it, she lists a variety of personal observations that give her hope.

But the question itself is worth considering — after all, it’s different from “what gives you happiness,” or “what gives you satisfaction.”  “Hope” is different — rather than the immediate “what makes you happy,” hope is more about what you look forward to or expect in the future.

So, what gives you hope?  Hope for the future?  The world?  Humanity?  Have you stopped lately to ask yourself what, beyond the typical fill-in-the-blank type reactions, you hope for?  Do you have the courage to think deeply about hope?

I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of hoping for the typical litany of outcomes our culture feeds us.  We hope for success at work.  We hope our families are safe.  We hope for good weather, good service at the local restaurant, good traffic on our commute, an enduring marriage.  We hope our sports teams win, our tax refunds are larger, our boss is nicer.

Perhaps it’s easy and safe to hope for the immediate, the easy, the next step on your path to wherever you’re going in life.  And in a hyper-publicized world, hope can sometimes seem to be easily pummeled into despair by the barrage of negative news which constantly preoccupies our country and our world.  Wars.  Ebola.  Environmental disasters.  The decline of values in our society.  Civil unrest, terrorism, scandals, corruption, partisan politics — too often, these are the main ingredients of the media diet we’re fed.  How can hope survive?  Our culture often seems fixated on its own decay and decline — how can something like hope not seem trite or naive?

With so much negativity, so much to worry about, so much to fear, its pretty easy to keep our hopes focused on the “little things.”  But aren’t there opportunities to hope for something greater?  Something beyond ourselves, or the definitions of success/happiness/achievement that we’ve bought into?

I think so.

When I think of the question “What gives me hope?”, I find myself searching for deeper answers.  Yes, I hope for all the normal stuff — a raise at work, fewer meetings, Granny Smith apples in the cafeteria — but I’m trying to aim higher.  I’m trying to change my opinion of “hope” from a naive, simplistic emotion to the powerful, profound emotion it can and should be.  Hope is more than endurance of life’s disappointments and steadiness in the face of defeat — the things we hope for should help define who we are, what we stand for, what our ultimate goals are for our lives.  Our hopes should inspire us to think more deeply, feel more profoundly, act more purposefully.

Here are some things that give me hope:

  • The glowing red sunrise above me on my drive to work, reminding me that there is always, always beauty in the world — no matter what problems I may face.
  • The knowledge that I (and everyone else) is more than just the sum total of their jobs, their looks or their possessions — everyone has value.
  • The kindness and understanding of my wife, because it reminds me that compassion for others still exists in the world.
  • Watching my daughters growing up with moral values, strong opinions, and dreams of the future.  Today’s kids are no worse, or better, than any other generation.  I believe in the idealism of youth.
  • The knowledge that our present-day challenges are not that different from the challenges of generations past.  If we can overcome slavery, the Black Plague and a host of other problems, humanity can overcome the problems that face us today.
  • The comfortingly predictable and glorious change of seasons, marked by the leaves of Autumn, the chill of Winter, the blooms of Spring, and the glory of Summer.
  • Watching and recognizing that people can and do change.  Not always, and not always permanently, but people DO have the capacity to overcome their prejudices, to fight for what’s good in the world, to become better people.
  • That an African-American can be President, that women are breaking traditional barriers in sports/business/government, that people of different faiths can respect, understand and support each other without hatred, that those who have can and do try to help those who have nothing.
  • The brilliant blue of Lake Huron, if only because of the awe it’s beauty inspires inside me.
  • The enjoyment of art, music and literature.  May they always be an escape from the everyday and give us a glimpse of the sublime.
  • The persistent, calming belief that there is, in fact, an existence beyond death and this world we live in.  That belief is sometimes a tenuous one, but it’s a lifeline of faith that remains unbroken for me.
  • The recognition that the vast majority of people, I believe, are decent, honest, and good… and as such, are rarely if ever mentioned in what we call “news.”
  • That there is purpose and meaning in our lives beyond our understanding, and that, because the human mind has limits, there will always be a need for faith.  What people choose to have faith in is their choice.
  • Loyalty, courage, integrity, faith, morality, perseverance, compassion, empathy.  In other words, the best elements of our nature.  As long as these traits exist among us, there remains hope for the present and the future — and for us.

What gives you hope?  Feel free to share your thoughts with me.  I’m sure my list can be improved.

Until next time… 🙂

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Smart Marketing: Beyond Selling Products


by Keith Yancy

Not long ago, Josh Bradley, an acquaintance of mine (via LinkedIn) sent me a message, asking me to give him my reaction to his blog post, “Can Smart Marketing Sell Anything?” (http://corporategraffiti.com/can-smart-marketing-sell-anything/).  In short, Josh argues that even poor ideas or products can be effectively marketed, if in fact the marketing strategy is smart and clever enough.  He cites several examples of smart marketing selling less-than-stellar ideas or products, including lousy movies like The Human Centipede, Bitch brand wine, and even the Iraq War.

My reaction?  Josh is absolutely right, of course.  Damn near anything can be marketed, and if done well and convincingly, someone — or many someones — will plunk down good money to buy it.  The famous quote (incorrectly attributed to P.T. Barnum) that “There’s a sucker born every minute,” is famous for a reason: it’s true.  Pet rocks, Chia Pets, battery-powered pumpkin carving knives (don’t ask)… someone will buy it, if the “sell” is effective. 

Good salespeople know this instinctively.  A good salesperson’s greatest attribute is his/her ability to determine what’s important to the customer and show how their product meets the customer’s wants and needs.  Marketing operates basically on the same principle — appealing to customer fear, or altruism, or even sense of humor.  The trick is to find the best approach and make your product stand out from the competition. 

Obviously, Josh’s position in this argument is pretty strong.  The only thing I would add to his perspective, however, is this truth really extends beyond marketing.  Josh tips his hat to this fact himself with his mention of the Iraq War, and included a description of how Colin Powell effectively “marketed” the need to go to war, despite the fact that evidence later refuted the presence of weapons of mass destruction.

Since Josh started down the road to a “broader view” of marketing, allow me to go the rest of the way: Bad ideas, cruel ideas, stupid ideas, even deadly ideas have been and continue to be “sold” to people every day.  Consider the fact that many of the “assumptions” in history were once ideas that were, in a real sense, marketed to those who would listen, believe and buy into them.  Women are less intelligent/capable than men; black people are less than/inferior to white people; celebrities are somehow smarter/wiser/better than non-celebrities are just a few examples.  The Nazis were expert marketers and propagandists of their ideology, which ultimately paved the way for millions of people to be exterminated while the local populations not only showed indifference, but in many instances, participated in the process.

At the core of all this — whether it be smart marketing or effective propaganda — is the effective use (or manipulation) of words and language.  In fact, I believe that words and language are the most powerful weapons in the human arsenal to motivate and convince others.  Just as propaganda can lead to great human failures, words and rhetoric can inspire people to fight for moral reasons (think Allies in World War II), stand up for civil rights (I read Martin Luther King’s speeches, in part, for the sheer brilliance of his writing) and champion the causes of the poor, sick, oppressed and powerless among us. 

In other words, language is incredibly powerful, and when the right combination of people, ideas and language comes together, the power of that combination can sell almost any idea, at least to some people.  Show me the greatest marketing campaigns in history, and I’ll show you that each of these campaigns were made by talented people with a powerful idea and the language/strategy to sell it. 

The power of persuasion is merely a person’s ability to sell his/her ideas.  Marketing is this attribute focused in a business context.  The best politicians, activists, and religious leaders instinctively understand this and are capable of selling their ideas to the public, sometimes with good motives… and sometimes not. 

Other factors, of course, may influence a customer’s thinking, including product placement, price, packaging, etc.  And again… these factors can apply beyond marketing to any persuasive exercise.  Leaders, prophets, and dictators understand the value of “theater” — that is, dramatic displays that underscore their message to great effect.  The next time you see a single mother or a wounded veteran pointed out at a State of the Union address, recognize that this is simply a President using examples to “sell” his ideas or policies.

Can smart marketing sell anything?  Yes, Josh, it most certainly can, and does.  Whether that “thing” is a product, an ideology, or even a point of view.  And being a “smart marketer” in any avocation — whether it be in business, politics, law, whatever — is a talent that everyone values, whether they recognize it as such or not.

Thanks, Josh, for inviting me to share my thoughts on the subject.

Until next time… 🙂

Closed, but not forgotten: faith lives and shines in Detroit


Detroit Lutheran West, my high school.

by Keith Yancy

I recently had a very eye-opening experience.  I went back to high school.

In my case, that would be Detroit Lutheran West High School, home of the Leopards.   My high school was one of many high schools in Detroit, a smaller high school that, like most others, had its highs and lows.  To an outsider, Lutheran West was just another high school; but of course, a kid’s high school is always his or her own, a place of memories (good and bad) and usually a place that has a marked impact on their lives.   Lutheran West did that for me.

But, like so many other high schools in Detroit, Lutheran West didn’t survive.

My high school closed years ago.  Another school moved in for a few years, but the forces of decay and population flight were still present, and it eventually closed too.  Like so many Detroit institutions, the problems of our area were just too large to overcome.  Nowadays, the occasional reunion and a devoted Facebook page keep the memories of my high school alive, with former graduates sharing news, renewing friendships, and trading memories.

It was that Facebook page and the pictures on it that made me decide to take a drive over to school to see it once more.  I confess, I’ve been a poor alumni.  I hadn’t physically been there for at least 20 years (class of 1985), even though it’s only a 20-minute drive from my home.  Only when I saw that the property had been sold to a land developer did I decide to visit, and on this occasion, I had my 10-year-old daughter Clara with me.

Even before I got there, I knew things had changed.  Dramatically.

Just for fun, I intentionally went out of my way to re-create the route I took to school each morning.  And while the street signs bore the same names, the trip was strange and unfamiliar; office buildings (some vacant) had replaced empty fields, old buildings were replaced by new ones; too often, those old buildings were either replaced by empty, weed-wild lots or simply boarded up.  I couldn’t help but feel slightly guilty about how long it had been since I had driven through the area.

All these strange feelings steadily increased as I got closer to where my old school was, and when I saw the familiar railroad tracks across Greenfield Road, I braced myself for what lay beyond.  (I remembered how I — and a lot of other kids — used the “got caught by the train” excuse on more than one occasion to explain why I was tardy for first hour.)  I bumped over the tracks, slowed down my car, and pulled into the parking lot of the school I had attended all those years ago.

It was a sad sight to see.

I stopped my car, and stared so long at the building and grounds that my daughter finally piped up from the backseat, “What is this place, Dad?”  I took a deep breath, exhaled, and finally said, “This was where I went to school, sweetie.”  She paused, gave it some thought, and finally said, “That’s sad.” 

We didn’t say another word while we were there. 

The front driveway. When I went to school there, the tall fence on the left didn’t exist.

Tall fences stood where once was an open parking lot.  Tall grass and weeds were everywhere.  Everything from the concrete driveway to the building was crumbling.  The forlorn school sign, still standing in front of the property, said “Faith lives and shines in Detroit.”  A playscape, added after my school closed, sat silent in a sea of overgrown grass. 

A front view, complete with abandoned playscape (added later). The gymnasium is in the background, with athletic fields behind it.

Time, neglect and scavengers had definitely taken their toll on the building.  Metal fascias had been torn off, doors boarded up, windows broken, awnings sagging.  Fences leaned back and forth.  Broken glass and peeling paint seemed to be everywhere.  The sports fields in back — where we played our games, cheered our teams, and held our phys ed classes — were now silent and empty, overgrown and abandoned.  The windows that remained gave glimpses of what I once knew as our school cafeteria, the band room, classrooms, principal’s office.  All empty, all silent.

The gym locker room entrance, located in the dark hallway toward the right of the photo. Scavengers have torn some of the metalwork off of the outside of the building here, perhaps because this area isn’t visible from the street.

Now, I’m a realistic enough person to know that my school wasn’t perfect.  We had plenty of problems, like all schools do, and while I had many good memories of high school, I have some that aren’t very pleasant, either.  I was neither popular, nor athletic, nor a scholar.  (In fact, I was Napoleon Dynamite before Napoleon Dynamite even existed.)  We had the same cliques, issues and dynamics every high school does.

But Lutheran West taught me a lot of valuable lessons, too.

Lutheran West was the place where I learned that white kids and black kids are, well… kids.  We made friends with each other, could tease each other, laugh with each other, play sports together, occasionally fight with each other, and make up again.  It was a place where I saw teachers and administrators who were characters, but who genuinely cared about the kids they taught, even if that meant running extra laps or getting sent to the back of the lunch line.  It was a place where I learned that a good education could be gained even if we didn’t have all the money and “stuff” that bigger schools had.

The baseball field. The field itself is virtually unrecognizable, except for the backstop. Like the other fields, the players helped care for the field after every practice by picking up stones out of the dirt.

And Lutheran West was, in my opinion, unique.  Instead of today’s fixation with the color black, our school colors were maroon and white — still my favorite color combination.  No one else we played had those colors.  And I don’t ever recall, even a single time, where we played another sports team called the “Leopards.”  That was us, and us only.  We knew we didn’t have as many resources as some other schools, and while we didn’t all have matching uniforms on the JV baseball team (there weren’t enough, so a few of us had older-looking versions), we loved — LOVED — when we beat the “rich kids” from the prep high school with their fancy uniforms and palatial baseball diamond.  We had our rivalries with — who else? — Lutheran East, which eventually closed also.

Religion was, of course, important.  One of the best experiences I had in high school was being required to read the ENTIRE Bible as part of the curriculum.  I’m amazed, even now, at how many Christians haven’t done that.  We studied — with respect — other religions, too, and we had chapel for the entire school every Wednesday morning, no matter what.  Though I didn’t appreciate it at the time, this gift was the greatest gift Lutheran West gave to me, and I remain grateful for it every day.

The entrance by the school principal’s office, now boarded shut. If my memory is correct, many of the older class pictures were located just inside on the walls. Several windows were broken in this part of the building, and even from outside, it was evident that the interior damage was extensive.

All those memories came back to me in a flood as I slowly drove around the school.  My daughter and I sat in my car for a long while, staring at the building and listening to the cars driving past.  The entire place seemed utterly forgotten and invisible; it was as if the surrounding neighborhood didn’t even see the school (or us) there at all.  Before I finally pulled out of the driveway to go home, I found myself looking one last time at the school sign out front.

The school sign. This sign used to have the Lutheran West logo on it, before Detroit Urban school moved in after West closed. Eventually, Detroit Urban was forced to close also. The old city school bus depot still exists in the background. Greenfield Road is just to the left of this picture.

“Faith lives and shines in Detroit.”

Whoever put that message on the sign was right. 

The building is empty, the people long gone.  Soon, I suspect, the building will be gone as well.  But the true purpose of Lutheran West lives on, its mission accomplished.  Graduates of all ages — and colors — are productive citizens, in all sorts of professions (many students went on to become teachers and pastors themselves).  Some stayed local, like me, while others moved to Florida, or Texas, or California, or other far away places.  And while it’s sad knowing that my high school is gone, I feel better knowing that the lessons I learned there live on in many other people’s lives as well.

“You can’t go home again.”  Yes, perhaps that’s true.  But maybe you can take home with you.  For those of us from Detroit Lutheran West High School, that’s what we have left: our memories, our friendships, our faith.  And those gifts are greater than any brick and mortar building could ever be.  Faith does live and shine in Detroit, and beyond. 

And no matter where I go, or how old I grow… I’ll always consider myself a Leopard.

Until next time… 🙂

Removing a Three-Year-Old Beehive: Photos From The Scene


My days of collecting bees are over.

by Keith Yancy

It’s over.

Honeybees have been part of my life for the past several years.  In fact, bees have been living in my HOUSE for the last several years.  This past Thursday, after repeated attempts to exterminate them myself (see previous blog posts) and after trying different exterminators, I finally had enough.

It may seem strange, but I was sorry it came to this.  We had fought each other for a very long time, and I had grown to respect them; no matter how many I killed, they just kept going, more and more of them, apparently oblivious to how many I had vacuumed.  I had hired an exterminator or two in the past, but nothing overcame their ability to keep up their work, and the swarms and steady stream of honeybees flying into my outside fascia continued.

But the time had come, at last, for them to go.  My wife has wanted to remodel our living room for a long time, and the bees needed to leave to get that project started.  I finally admitted defeat, found an exterminator who knew how tough a job it would be, and paid him to do it.

Below is a photographic “step by step” of the experience, complete with descriptions.

It started here.  My living room, before the carnage.  The beehive is in the upper left corner of this picture, near the picture window.  Note the “sea of beige” (it was this way when we moved in) that will eventually be replaced.

Tom, the exterminator.  Great guy who did a great job.  Taught me (and my girls) a lot about bees, beehives, and cheerfully endured my photographs and videos.  Here, he’s poisoning them before opening up the ceiling.  You could hear the bees buzzing angrily when Tom was doing this, which increased the tension level of the experience.

Tom, using a long scraper to find the hive.  It was at this moment that I realized a) he wasn’t wearing any bee suit, b) neither was I, and c) neither were my kids, all of whom were sitting on the stairs behind me.  I was proud of them — after telling me they didn’t want to be there, their curiosity overcame their nervousness, and they watched the whole thing.

Once he found the hive, Tom cut that section of the ceiling out.  A few bees few out, but what I noticed immediately was the honey dripping down from the ceiling.  A LOT of honey.  You could still hear bees buzzing at this point, but Tom was completely untroubled by this.  He mentioned — repeatedly, throughout the process — that it was a shame they couldn’t be saved.

The process gets messy quickly at this point.  Tom is looking at the honeycombs here, and you can already see honey on the walls. 

We had put a large garbage can below the hole in the ceiling, which was a good idea… the can would get full very quickly. 

Pieces of the honeycomb.  There were many.

Another photo of the carnage.  It was — and is — a gooey mess.

The hole in the ceiling.  If you look carefully, you can see pieces of the hive still there, along with marks on the flooring above where the combs were hanging.  Note that the hive extends well to the right of this hole, and down the wall.  Bees were all dead by this time.

Tom realized that the only way to get all of the hive out was to go in from the outside.  The entrance to the hive is located just to the right of the gutter, where the top corner of the board he’s pulling off meets the siding.  I killed many bees in this location.

Tom reached into the wall and handed me this comb.  He later taught me how to make a candle with it.  Tom was a fantastic guy — he regularly gives bee nests and other stuff he has to “manage” to science teacher friends.  He was genuinely sorry he had to kill the bees, and was quick to point out how social honeybees generally are. 

Whenever people ask me, “Did you get the honey?”, I always think of this picture.  This is the condition of much of the honey that came out, complete with bee guts, bits of hive, etc.  I like honey, but I like sausage too — and I don’t want to see either before it’s been prepared and packaged for consumption, thanks.  (It didn’t help matters that I had the flu during this entire experience, so thinking of eating this was not a good idea.)

Another shot of the ceiling, this time after almost all the hive was removed.  Blech.  Cleanup is going to be an incredible pain.

Three of the combs.  I put my foot next to them as a reference to their size.   I wear a size 11 shoe, btw… 🙂

The aftermath.  Not so bad, I guess, but the whole thing is incredibly sticky.  Not much of a smell, though, and thankfully, no living bees.  Now the real work begins of cleanup and repair.

The end.  It’s as gross as it looks. 

I took this last photo to show that the honey is all over the place — the door handle to the house, on the front porch step (shown here), everywhere.  Those bees were productive, if nothing else… there was, and is, a lot of honey, and a ton of cleaning up to do.

I hope this has given you a small glimpse of what it’s like to have a beehive taken out of your house.  All in all, a much better experience than I feared.  Tom from Pestmasters is an excellent exterminator — and a pretty darn good teacher to boot.  Even their prices were reasonable.  I’d recommend them to anyone.

And now, I’m going to start cleaning this mess up. 

Until next time… 🙂

I never thought these boots would last a quarter century…


Image

by Keith Yancy

A few days ago, I decided to do some yardwork, and since I knew the ground was still damp, I decided to put on my work boots.  I got them out, and decided — based on a father’s instincts — to turn them upside down first to see if anything were inside them.  (Don’t ask me why I’ve developed this habit.  Trust me — it’s justified.)

One boot contained an impressively large collection of twigs and sticks, which rained down onto the floor and made yet another mess to pick up.  The other boot housed a bracelet made out of Scrabble tiles, which I later discovered had been missing for “months and months.”  These sorts of discoveries cause me to have the same sort of resigned shoulder shrug as Ralphie’s dad in “A Christmas Story,” when he discovers his son Randy hiding in a cupboard under the kitchen sink.  No, I don’t know why that stuff was in my gross, nasty old work boots, but I’m too apathetic to try to figure such domestic mysteries out anymore.

Anyhow, I put the boots on, did my work, and took them off later.  As I was going to put them away, though, it occurred to me that these boots were pretty old.  In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that these old boots were among the oldest items in my wardrobe.  I finally realized that these boots were older than my daughters (one of which is 17), and even older than my marriage (20 years). 

Incredibly, these boots are, by my guess, almost 25 years old.  That, my friends, is a great investment.

Now, that’s admittedly a great example of how cheap I am, too.  I just never really felt like I needed new work boots.  Even when the insulated lining succombed to dry rot and crumbled into dust, I just vacuumed out the dust and insulation out and put them back in the closet.  When the left sole cracked in half, I tested them to see if the crack let in water, and when it didn’t, I put them back in the closet again.  Nope, these boots — which I purchased for about $18 at Kmart — just never seemed quite worn out-enough to throw away. 

I’ve shovelled snow in them.  Took my kids sledding and fishing in them.  Stepped in dog poop (many times) in them.  Killed bees, mowed lawns, assembled playground equipment, planted trees, remodeled a basement, even almost got electrocuted in them (a long and stupid story for another time).  I’ve spilled chemicals on them, dripped wood stain, paint (and blood) on them, had spray foam insulation, Krazy Glue and metal filings stuck to them, and through it all, they’ve held up for a quarter century.

They’ve outlasted two houses (we’re in our third house now), about a dozen “moving parties,” 8-9 different cars (I’m too lazy to remember them all), a couple of friends’ marriages, 5-6 American Presidents, and, because I live in Detroit, countless political scandals and exactly ZERO World Series or Superbowl championships.  They were around when I got married, had three kids and one open-heart surgery.  They outlasted two cats, several goldfish, one turtle, half-a-dozen uninvited mice, and a squirrel who hid in my basement for several weeks.  They saw me start a 21-year stint at my former employer, and were there when it ended.

So, these silly, beat-up boots may look shot, but I’m keeping them around.  In fact, they’re staying until they literally fall apart (or, at this point, disintegrate). 

By the way… they were originally branded as Texas Steer work boots.  I don’t know if they were American made, but I hope so.  Because they were a pretty damn good investment, in my opinion.

Until next time… 🙂

200: Another example from the city of self-destruction


Ever wonder what “major homicides and shootings” looks like? This. But only for the last 75 days. 200+ incidents, 200 protesters, 0 progress.

by Keith Yancy

Ever make a mental connection that, once inside your head, you can’t seem to forget?

A few days ago, there was an article in our local newspaper about a political rally in a Detroit park called Belle Isle.  Obviously, this park is an island on the Detroit River, and like many landmarks in Detroit, was once beautiful.  It’s now — again, like many landmarks in Detroit — largely falling apart.  Bathrooms renovated only a couple of years ago are shuttered due to lack of funds.  An aquarium that should be a wonderful attraction for tourists and citizens shuttered due to lack of funds.  Roads that lately have been used for Grand Prix racing have huge potholes and repair issues (even during the race) due — you guessed it — to lack of funds.

Well, three Detroit Council members (try not to snicker) held this rally to save Belle Isle from the state, which offered to let Detroit retain ownership while negotiating a 99-year lease for maintenance, upkeep, etc.  The local newspaper described it this way: “About 200 city residents and supporters sent a resounding message to state leaders Wednesday: Keep your hands off Belle Isle.”

What a joke.

Let me be clear: what’s NOT a joke are citizens who care, and I believe Detroiters should have a say in what happens on Belle Isle.  I can even respect the fact that 200 Detroiters oppose state intervention for Belle Isle’s preservation.  I don’t agree with them, but I respect their right to their opinion.

No, the joke here — or rather, jokes — are these:

  • The silly newspaper article, first, for declaring 200 people — from a city of around 700,000 residents — to be a “resounding message” of anything.  For the junior journalist at the Detroit News who whipped up that little puff of hot air, that represents exactly .0003% of the Detroit population — and I rounded that number UP. 
  • The utterly lame and incompetent three City Council members, second, for showing the world the power of their political and social influence by focusing their collective might to rally .0003% of the population to their so-called “rally.”  For good measure, these three — Kwame Kenyatta, Joann Watson and Brenda Jones — put an ideological cherry on top of this mess by describing themselves as the “just say no trio.”  This mentality, one that is rampant on the embarrassment that is the Detroit City Council, can be summed up thusly: “Leave your money at the door, go away and let us mismanage it like we have done for the past 40 years.  Repeat as needed.” 
  • And, finally, the complete absence of alternative ideas to save the park from further decay.  In a city that cannot keep streetlights functioning, cannot pay its bills, cannot even demolish burned out homes (with federal funds that risk being lost due to lack of use), what alternative ideas does those like the “just say no trio” have to offer?  The only one they could come up with was — you guessed it — having the state give them money and provide maintenance and upkeep while allowing Detroit politicians to have overall control.  Given their horrific track record and “it would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic” leadership, why would anyone give that Council any money for anything?

This episode is just a glimpse at the total circus that is Detroit city politics.  Multiply this in number and scale and extend it for decades, and you can understand why Detroit has such incredible problems, and why the city has fallen so far from what it once was.

So… what was that mental connection again?

It was this: just before I read this story, I found an interactive map of Detroit in the Detroit News.  A map that showed, by location, all of the “major homicides and shootings” committed inside the city between May 14 — MAY! — and the end of July.  (Is there such a thing as a “minor” homicide or shooting?)  You can see it here: http://www.detroitnews.com/article/99999999/SPECIAL01/120606001

And, by my count, for every person who bothered to endure the “just say no trio” at Belle Isle, there’s more than one shooting or murder in Detroit.  And that’s just in the last 75 days or so.

I’m still wondering why I connected these two stories, but I think it’s because I’m so incredibly frustrated with politics in Michigan and Detroit.  It’s so bad, so short-sighted, so divisive that we not only can’t seem to help each other anymore, we can’t even agree if help is needed… in a city that’s witnessed over 21,000 murders since 1969.  21,000!  Trust is virtually gone, the political parties are an embarrassment, the so-called “jewels” of the city rot and crumble while political dullards point fingers, and progress seems further away than ever before.  How bad is it?  Reading the comments in local political stories, and you’ll find a lot of people HOPING for bankruptcy, and many who sum up their despair like this recent three-word comment: “Let Detroit rot.”

Maybe that’s why I’m open to the idea of Emergency Managers — individuals appointed by the governor to have near-absolute political power in cases of municipal bankruptcy.  As much as I’m concerned about the seeming inconsistency with democratic process, I’m increasingly convinced that local governments in Detroit, Benton Harbor and elsewhere — specifically, the incompetents and even criminals elected in these cities — have failed so completely, for so long, that such a drastic “reset button” measure like an Emergency Manager appointment is the last alternative to bankruptcy court.  These politicians have failed the people, and there are no political leaders (see the “just say no trio” above) who have the vision, intelligence, courage and political independence to make the hard decisions. 

I don’t care what party they’re from, what color they are, what gender or sexual orientation they are — just find people who will DO THE JOB and be a leader.  And if it means such a person assumes the temporary role of Emergency Manager, so be it.

200 protesters.  200 “major homicides and shootings” since May 14.  To the journalist at the Detroit News: if you’re looking for a resounding message, 200 “major homicides and shootings” is a real resounding message… a message that the days of “just give us money and leave” politics is simply another verse in Detroit’s 40-year road-to-oblivion dirge.  A message that it’s time for the rotten local, regional and state politicians to — at last — drop off the political tree once and for all, and for local and state government to work together to benefit the citizens, city and state.

Stop fighting about control and ownership when you’re on the brink of bankruptcy and the forced sale of city assets.  You’re holding a losing hand in this game of political poker, and it’s time to accept it and make the deals and compromises needed to put Detroiters first and re-build the city.  Otherwise, you’ll be hearing some new “resounding messages” from an Emergency Manager, or in bankruptcy court.  And your power, what little there is, will be gone.

Perhaps — gasp — it’s even time for Detroiters and the suburbs to admit that they need each other, and accept the fact that we need solutions that help both Detroiters and suburbanites.  Wake up and smell the coffee: suburbanites enjoy the benefits of Detroit’s sports teams, landmarks (DIA!) and businesses… just like Detroiters enjoy the shopping, landmarks and businesses in the suburbs.  Anyone who thinks we’re not all mutually dependent upon each other is fooling themselves.

Until next time… 😐

What I Learned at My Daughter’s Art Exhibition


Artwork Exhibit, CCS.

by Keith Yancy

Driving down to my daughter’s art exhibition this morning was more than just another errand for me, or another family activity for my wife and kids.

I’d been looking forward to seeing my daughter’s artwork since she began her summer classes at CCS — the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.  It’s a great school, one of the many, many “diamonds in the rough” that make up the tapestry of Detroit’s decaying downtown district.  Since the very first day, she’d been inspired, excited, and motivated more than I’d ever seen her before, and her enthusiasm for what she was learning, her teachers, and the experiences offered by the program had given her a renewed sense of purpose. 

But as much as she was excited about her experiences, I’m forced to admit that I was too.  Maybe that’s the true test of parenting: taking more pleasure from your kids’ happiness than your own.  But as happy as I was to see her artistic passion and creativity blooming, my concerns about an artistic career lingered in my mind like a fog.  A life devoted to art and creativity can be a lonely one, with many unknowns; creative people very rarely have the luxury of settling into a predictable or consistent “career.”  An artist’s career can often change and take many unexpected turns, with meteoric rises and plummeting falls, and abundant measures of both satisfaction and self-doubt.

This was on my mind as I drove my family downtown, from the suburbs to the inner city.  It’s a drive that in many ways is a mirror for some of my concerns.  It’s impossible to ignore the empty storefronts, the burned out homes, the waist-high weeds and the cracked, pock-marked asphalt that make up the trip into Detroit.  The stark reality of joblessness and broken dreams marks the journey, in a way few other places in America can equal.  The broken windows, boarded-up churches and weed-wild empty lots offer a silent, constant refrain: We were the dreams of yesterday, dreams based on work, dreams of prosperity, dreams of happiness… and we are gone.  How can I feel confident that my daughter will survive in the future ahead, much less thrive?  In a world where artists, musicians, and fine arts are increasingly seen as irrelevant — or worse?

I pulled into the parking garage near campus, and we walked inside the building where the exhibition was held.  We were ten minutes early, but there were people there already, teenage students like my daughter, curious parents, bored siblings, all waiting around outside the exhibition hall.  The walls are glass, and we could see inside and see some of the artwork, but no one went in.  Mentors and teachers came in and out, preparing punch and cookies and trying to pretend like the growing crowd was both not there and not starting to grow impatient.  We made small talk in low voices, the teenaged students trying not to look nervous.  Eventually, ten minutes later than advertised, the mentor students opened the glass doors, and the families poured in, most of whom resisted the urge to bolt straight to their own kid’s art display.  People begin to politely review whatever artwork was nearby, with polite and somewhat comic expressions.  It’s hard to look like a dignified art critic when you’re evaluating the shading on an eight-eyed, purple alien model figure set up on a small stand.

The artwork was surprisingly good, albeit uneven, and ranged from very, very rough drawings to 3D-animated graphics; futuristic models and a wide variety of self-made fashions were also well-represented.  The subjects reflect both classic objects and those of popular culture: impossibly aerodynamic car models and self-portraits, skulls, aliens, and soldiers next to still life scenes, tomb-raider-esque women with outrageously exaggerated curves (and wearing the requisite tiny outfits) next to drawings of bedroom furniture.

But the common element through all the art, from those with substantial talent to those with only marginal ability, was the passion and enthusiasm of the students who created it.  As I walked through the exhibition, trying (and failing) to ignore how old I looked and felt, I could see everywhere young adults showing off their creations, explaining their creative ideas and approaches, virtually radiating excitement and passion for what they’d done.  I found myself increasingly studying the artists rather than the artwork, and as I did so, I began to recognize that their enthusiasm, their incredible drive to express themselves and their ideas, was what was really on display.  The artwork was just a by-product of that collective power of self-expression.

And I found myself worrying less about my own daughter.  Her work clearly belonged there, her talents clearly focused in a place that molds and channels such talent and makes it useful to the artist and to the society in which the artist lives.  CCS has a strong reputation both for the rigor of their programs and their ability to find employment for their graduates, and though I know the road ahead won’t be easy for my daughter, that road would be far darker — and more harmful — if it led somewhere where her heart wasn’t.  As difficult as it may be for someone to pursue a career in the arts, to want to and NOT to do so is far more difficult, and ultimately, more destructive.

And so, I now know with absolute certainty that if that’s what she wants to do, then I’ll do everything I can to support her and help her realize her dreams.  

Nowadays, a career in the arts is, in some circles, considered frivolous, unnecessary, irrelevant.  This line of thinking argues, often very loudly, that “STEM” subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) are where we should be guiding our children.  Perhaps.  But these same people are very often those who go to movies, listen to the radio, wear the latest fashions, send their children to dance classes and generally criticize those who pursue artistic careers — while being addicted to the very products those artists create.  While I hope that such critics eventually recognize this absurdity, I’m forced in the meantime to encourage my daughter to follow her dreams while ignoring such naysayers.

As virtually every culture in human history has shown, there will always be a need for artists and the arts.  Ultimately, I believe the many forms of artistic expression (music, literature, theater, design, etc) are what all of us enjoy most in life, artists and non-artists alike.  And while it may feel expedient and practical to steer a young adult toward a career in science, technology, or business, I can’t in good conscience push my daughter away from what she wants to do with her life.

I hope I’m right.

Until next time… 🙂

Frustration


by Keith Yancy

At last, some time to write… and, in no particular order, I’m sharing a few of my recent frustrations.

  1. Plane trips.  I’ve been exactly six feet, one-inch tall for the past 26 years or so, but recently, and ONLY recently, I’ve discovered that I’m becoming uncomfortably tall on airplanes.  At least it feels that way when I sit down.  The leg room on the last few flights seems to be steadily getting smaller and smaller, with more and more people jammed into the same confined space.  I know there are people taller than me on these flights, and during the last one, my knees were literally up against the seat in front of me… and that person hadn’t reclined their seat.  Higher prices, no food, and now, apparently, no space to sit comfortably.  Thanks for putting customers first!
  2. Politicians.  From presidential candidates who could be the poster guys for the “Pick Your Poison” award… to Michigan state politicians scandalized by the word “vagina”… there seems to be so very, very few political figures I respect these days.  At the very, very bottom of the political “food chain” is, as always, our illustrious Detroit and Wayne County politicians, who make stupidity and chronic bumbling a true art form.  It’s so bad, the Mayor, the City Council, and the Detroit top attorney can’t even agree on who is actually in charge.  These political cronies and hangers-on would rather argue endlessly (and collect their paychecks) than do anything to try to keep Detroit from sliding into bankruptcy.  For many, including myself, I’ve given up any hope that this collection of fools can do anything useful, and would actually welcome an Emergency Manager.  Detroit deserves way, way better than these sorry excuses they call leaders.  And all of us — across the country — deserve better choices for who is running for office. 
  3. Bullying kids, and the parents who raise them.  Bullying is a funny thing — everyone’s against it, but it sure seems to be a popular problem.  Why?  For one thing, kids are kids, and some of that is going to happen.  But I know that if I learned that my kids were bullying others, my kids would get corrected IMMEDIATELY, and that requisite apologies would be forthcoming.  Bullying others is not tolerated in my house, within my family… and my kids know it well.  Yet, there are parents out there who somehow believe that it’s better to be dealin’ than receivin’, and thus if their kid’s a bully, then it’s somehow okay.  These parents are stupid.  The recent punishment for the four boys who bullied the bus monitor (a year’s suspension from school) is a fitting one, and it was encouraging that several (not all) of the parents involved not only made their kids write letters of apology, but apologized themselves.  Rightly so.  I would have been mortified to be one of those parents.  Parents should bear the consequences, and share in the punishment, for their kids’ poor behavior.
  4. Bad manners.  Is it that hard to say “please” and “thank you” to waiters and waitresses?  Is it too much to ask to chew with your mouth closed?  Don’t you think that — by the time you’re in your 40’s with kids, no less — that trying to cut in front of others in line makes you look like a jackass?  Perhaps I’m just naive, but it still surprises me when grown-up, old-enough-to-damn-well-know-better adults display such appallingly bad behavior.  Most of the time (especially with the chewing with the mouth open one) I just suffer in silence, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let some pushy person try to get in front of me in line, like the person who tried (and failed) to do so in St. Louis.  Later, this same person — in front of her kids, no less — made some presumptive statement about people hogging all the observation windows in the observation area.  Lady, thanks for reminding all of us how not to behave… but unlike yourself, I know that already, so spare me (and others) the example next time.
  5. Paper-thin hotel room walls.  Blech.  Recently, I had the pleasure (I thought) of staying in a high-end, posh hotel for a business conference.  The kind of place that spares no expense to make visitors comfortable.  Unfortunately, the only expense that WAS spared was the one to put some insulation between the rooms of the hotel.  I was the victim of (apparently) newlywed next door neighbors, whose vocal amorous episodes were both loud and amazingly frequent.  In fact, the walls were so thin, I could actually hear their jokes… and that with both a television and an iPod turned up.  4:40AM, 5:30AM, 1:00PM, 3:00PM, 7:30PM… no time of day or night was safe from this very, very verbal couple.  I found myself feeling somehow guilty for being subjected to hearing it.  Though I never met them, their stamina and enthusiasm earned my respect, if nothing else.  But I’d rather not have heard it at all, and shouldn’t have in a hotel as high-class as the one I stayed in.
  6. Unmet expectations.  Okay, yeah, this is a pretty broad category.  But I’m talking about not living up to your own expectations, specifically when it comes to controlling one’s own worry and anxiety about life’s challenges.  Having read my Bible enough to appreciate the true “heavy hitters” of faith, i.e., Moses, David, the 12 apostles, Paul, etc., I wish I could have 1/100th of the faith those guys had.  But no.  Despite constantly reminding myself of the Almighty’s guiding hand, I could lock up the gold, silver AND bronze medal in the Worry Olympics.  I worry about everything, constantly.  And it drives me absolutely nuts.  If Daniel could handle the lions’ den, Samson kill 1,000 enemies with a donkey’s jawbone, and Paul get shipwrecked three times (not to mention amicably attending his own beheading), you’d think I could stop sweating a 30-minute business meeting in which I would suffer no bodily harm.  And yet, I worry.  I may never learn, which frustrates me even further.

Normally, I try to stay positive on this blog, but I just wasn’t up to slapping a happy face on things today.  Thanks for reading, and I’ll do my best to be more upbeat in my next post.

Until next time… : |

Decent People, All Around Us


by Keith Yancy

Maybe you are like me. 

Maybe you find that reading the news — with its inexhaustible supply of crime reports, dire predictions, scandals, and hollow “newz” about celebrities — to be relentlessly depressing.  Maybe you have issues with difficult people at work, at home, or elsewhere.  Maybe you haven’t seen close friends, or even close family, in much, much too long. 

Maybe the combination of all these factors makes you feel increasingly, inevitably more isolated, despite the frenetic busy-ness of everyday life and technology designed to keep us connected.

And maybe it takes just one small incident to shake you out of that thinking, to remind you that despite all the negative “noise” which can threaten us, there’s still good, decent people all around us.  People who, with simple acts of kindness, or a smile, or just a thoughtful gesture, tap our proverbial shoulders and show us that there are still plenty of good people in the world.

I’ve witnessed several such examples over the past few weeks.  Strangers who didn’t think of themselves first, who helped me for no real reason or reward, who went beyond a job description to “do the right thing,” when there was nothing extra to be gained by doing so.  Consider some recent personal experiences: 

The Guys Who Stopped to Help.  One night not long ago, I blew out a tire and stopped to change it.  Even though I stopped under a street light, it was still dark, still hard to see, and I drive a pretty large vehicle.  While many people drove past, two complete strangers — for no reason at all — stopped to make sure I didn’t need any help.  One even stayed and used the headlights on his vehicle to give me enough light to change the tire more easily. 

As we talked, he told me about his family (they were out of town), we talked about our jobs, and a local celebrity who lived nearby.  Despite the fact that it was a holiday weekend, and he probably had way more interesting things to do, he stayed until I finished putting the spare tire on, and — once we both laughed about how dirty my hands were — we fist-bumped a parting thanks.  He had no ulterior motive, there was nothing “in it” for him, he just wanted to help.  And he did.

The Plymouth Township Little Caesars Guy.  Ever try to get two cheese pizzas at 10:00AM?  That’s what my wife was trying to do for my daughter’s last day of school pizza party.  Problem is, there aren’t any pizza places typically open that early in the day. 

Nevertheless, my wife called the night before, and asked if they were open that early.  The employee, once he told her they weren’t, asked what she needed: in this case, two cheese pizzas (apparently, 9-year-olds aren’t strong for toppings).  After a brief pause, the guy told my wife that, even though the store wasn’t open, if she stopped by at 10AM, he’d have the pizzas ready for her.  No additional charges, no ostentatious windage about opening early, just someone going out of his way to help someone get pizzas to a school party.  And because he did, we will be customers at the Little Caesar’s on the corner of Sheldon and Plymouth Road for the foreseeable future.

The Plymouth Home Depot team.  Yes, I know, they’re trained to provide good customer service.  But it’s one thing to go through the motions, and quite another to come across as genuine.  I’m there quite often (as my house is constantly falling apart), and I can’t recall a single visit where someone didn’t greet me, ask me if I needed anything, and offer assistance when I asked.

In fact, it’s gone beyond simply acting friendly.  I’ve discussed plumbing problems with their plumbing expert, who saved me a lot of time and money with his advice.  I’ve discussed painting needs with their paint consultants, who helped me avoid mistakes.  In fact, whenever I’ve had a home improvement problem, I’ve always found someone on staff who was able to help me, even when it meant spending less at their store.  They don’t have to go the extra mile, but they do… and I appreciate it.

The “bee guy.”  Yes, I have a honeybee infestation in my house — a large hive.  Tom, who works for Pest Masters in Livonia, came out to get rid of them.  Not only did he answer my endless supply of questions with patience and insight, but he took the time to teach me a few things about honeybees (all of which were disconcerting, considering they are living in the walls of my house). 

But perhaps the thing about Tom I remember most is what he DIDN’T say about a competitive pest control company we had used previously.  Once he heard we had used them, he went out of his way to explain why a) they were a very good company, and b) their lack of success wasn’t a reflection on the company, just the severity of my infestation.  He could have easily taken a cheap shot at a competitor, but didn’t.  He took the time to explain everything, told me about his own beekeeping challenges, and offered a referral for the inevitable drywall repairs that will result from removing the bees and their hive.

I know none of these people personally.  And yes, a more jaundiced eye might see, in the case of the business examples, employees simply demonstrating “customer service.”  But I don’t think so.  I see examples of customer service every day, in which people follow the script of acting friendly and helpful while their attitude, body language and overall demeanor scream “leave me alone.”  Authenticity can be seen by going beyond the job description: going int0 work early (to make a pizza!), showing patience and kindness when no one’s watching, demonstrating integrity when it may even run counter to your own business interests. 

It’s little instances like these that confirm for me that there are many, many good people still in this world, even if they’re not covered in the news.  They’re all around us, if we choose to look for them.  Recognizing that fact reminds me that doing things for others, whether it’s helping change a tire, offering a kind word, or helping someone just for the sake of doing so makes the world that much better and brighter.

And maybe others will feel that way too.

Until next time… 🙂

Dead Fish and the Struggle to Save Detroit


Photo of Detroit skyline courtesy of Rob Terwilliger Photography.

by Keith Yancy

Senseless.

That’s the first word that came to mind when I heard the news today — that someone poisoned the fish in the Belle Isle Aquarium in Detroit.

First, a bit of background: the Belle Isle Aquarium has been closed for years.  Once a key attraction on the beautiful island of Belle Isle, a small island in the Detroit River, it had long ago been closed and fallen like so many other city landmarks into disrepair.  Recently, a small group of volunteers had worked hard to refurbish the aquarium, and had at long last returned fish to the repaired fish tanks.  All this effort was to culminate in a public viewing before the Grand Prix race which was to be held on the island June 3.

For those who had worked so hard for so long, this was a milestone event.  And then, in the news today, stories were printed (incorrectly, it turned out) that, in an act of utter senselessness, someone vandalized the Aquarium’s tanks, pouring bleach into them and killing the fish.

Before I learned that this incident was misreported, I found myself surprisingly angry about it.  After all… people had worked, without pay, to try to give Detroit back a small jewel, just one gem on a city crown virtually stripped of every precious stone it had.  It’s a small symbol of what so many people in this region hope for — a renewal of a once proud city.  And while no one expected Detroit’s crushing problems to go away with the revival of an aging landmark, it was — and is — a sign that the city can rise up from its ashes to be great once more.

To many, at least judging by the comments in the news and on social media, it felt like a punch in the gut.  It hit me the same way.  Later in the evening, however, I learned that there was no vandalism; there was a mass die-off of fish, but there was no poison, no vandals, and that the aquarium and most of the fish inside were just fine.

But before the story was refuted, I was talking about it with my 17-year-old daughter (who was depressed about the news of the Aquarium also).  It occurred to me as we were talking that this incident, while sad, paled in comparison to what goes on in Detroit every single day.  Murders that happen so frequently, people become numb to the news of them (even when infants and children are killed).  Neighborhoods so blighted and burned out that city officials are considering the possibility of not fixing the streetlights — in essence, abandoning them.  A political system that seems only to produce scandals, incompetence, infighting, and a consistent, pervasive failure to overcome Detroit’s many challenges.

When I stopped and really, clearly thought about Detroit, it occurred to me that maybe the reason I was so annoyed and deflated about a few dozen dead fish was because I had forgotten a very essential point: turning around a city gripped in a 50+ year decline takes much, much more than cleaning up fish tanks and repairing crumbling city landmarks.

It takes finding leaders that care more about the city than their egos (and their wallets).  It takes — once and for all — cutting through the endless maze of regulations and paperwork that inhibits businesses from investing here.  It takes creating neighborhoods — not just landmarks and businesses — that provide Detroit with a stable tax base.  It takes providing children with schools, teachers, and funds necessary to break the bonds of poverty and give them the high-quality education they need to truly achieve success.  It takes Detroiters, suburbanites, and the rest of Michigan’s citizens working together for the benefit of all.

Bringing Detroit out of its death spiral will be long, hard, and costly.  The work of the Friends of Belle Isle, a group of volunteers dedicated to preserving the island, is greatly appreciated by me and everyone else… but it will take more, much more, to bring Detroit back.  For every dead fish in that aquarium, there are three or four dead people every year, city residents who should be alive today… but aren’t.  For all the anger and disappointment people may have felt about this now-refuted senseless act of vandalism, there are decades of neglect, corruption and indifference that created an environment that such vandalism is commonplace.  For every landmark that today’s civic-minded activists attempt to save, there are entire swaths of land where neighborhoods lie in darkness, marked by empty, weed-filled lots, burned out houses, and rampant criminal activity.

Killing fish at the Belle Isle Aquarium, had it been true, would have been a heartless and stupid act.  Thinking back to my angry and depressed reaction to the story, though, made me realize that the forces that hold Detroit in its grip — poverty, crime, hopelessness — aren’t easily defeated.  I’m sure that the good people who worked so hard to refurbish the Belle Isle Aquarium see this as a minor setback rather than a defeat, and I’m glad that this false news report didn’t serve to demoralize other volunteers and workers who struggle every day to improve the city. 

To do so — to give up hope that Detroit can and should be saved — is the one sure way to ensure Detroit falls further into despair and ruin.  A failed, defeated and destroyed Detroit, contrary to popular opinion, is bad for the region, bad for the state, and bad even for the country. 

Thankfully, those reports of intentionally poisoned fish in the Belle Isle Aquarium were a false alarm, and that there was no crime committed.  Still, for those few hours when everyone thought the aquarium had been vandalized, those dead fish were a sad reminder that, sometimes, the good guys don’t always win.  Decades of crime, poverty and neglect can’t be easily or quickly wiped away by a small group of volunteers, no matter how dedicated they may be.  Margaret Thatcher, one-time Prime Minister of Great Britain, once said that sometimes you have to fight a battle more than once to win it.  I hope that people keep fighting, keep working, keep struggling to bring Detroit back.

The struggle is worth it.  People care.  The hope, motivation, and hard work shown by those who care about Detroit is far, far stronger and far more enduring than any single act of vandalism, and certainly stronger than a bunch of  unfortunate fish in a fish tank.

I look forward to seeing the Belle Isle Aquarium, restored, with new fish inside.  And I look forward to a renewed Belle Isle, a renewed Detroit, and better days ahead.

Until next time… 🙂