What’s with the insistence on the reality of reality?

855238_1318607051730_fullWhat’s with the insistence on the reality of reality? What if the only reason people don’t achieve fairy tale feats is because of having fallen prey to the limiting cynicism branded as realism? What evidence is there that a pragmatic way of living leads to greater fulfillment than an idealistic way of living? There’s billions of data points on this earth to suggest that ordinary lifestyles yield ordinary results. But what of the extraordinary people out there? How many people who are living their dreams got to where they were through ordinary means?

What is the Gospel of Jesus Christ (and most every religion) but an insistence that the fairy tale world is the real word and the world around us the illusion? Without rejecting the meaningful opportunities presented to us in this world, what if we lived by the logic of the fairy tale world? That is, what if we really believed that true love conquers all, and good will always overcome evil, that divine assistance will aid heroes on their quests, that true power is virtue and bravery?

It’s typical to dismiss fairy tales as out of touch with reality. But if this is true, why do our souls connect so much with fairy tales? What if our souls were trying to tell us something? As Plato illustrated, if we had spent our whole lives wandering in a cave, we might assume that the whole world is the cave, that we know the ins and outs as well as is possible to know. Of course, we’d be dead wrong.

On the other hand, it wouldn’t make sense to base our lives on an exterior reality we know nothing about, ignoring the reality before our eyes. So, one might ask, what’s wrong with accepting the reality presented to us for what it is? My response is that God is in the details. From superficial glances, we may think reality has everything to do with commutes to work, social media, and kitchen sinks. But if we’ll call upon our other faculties, i.e. our hearts, we may also discover that the reality we care most for has everything to do with swashbuckling heroes and beautiful maidens. And in comparing the findings of our various faculties and sorting by priority, we may then discover that there is, in fact, a practical means for achieving the mystique of swashbuckling heroes and beautiful maidens. We may indeed discover that our failure to live the fairy tale life is in fact a failure to see reality for what it really is.

As far as I’ve been able to perceive reality, this much I’ve concluded: the soul is immortal. Goodness will previal. Wrongs will be rigthted. Love really does conquer all. And the universe is absolutely amazing. So amazing, in fact, that there’s no god reason — no reason at all — to make tomorrow’s chapter of your fairy tale anything less than fantastic.

A Family Drama and a Happy Ending

Tonight there was some epic drama in the house of Gashler. When it was bedtime, six-year-old Ariah insisted that she had to sleep in the tent (a little play house we bought them for Christmas). The problem was that there wasn’t enough room in there for three-year-old Aspen, and Aspen didn’t want to sleep in the bed all by herself. I asked her why not, and my heart throbbed as she explained, in her tender three-year-old way, her fear of the darkness. I tried to convince Ariah to sleep in the bed with her sister, but Ariah insisted that she needed a break from Aspen, who followed her everywhere, and who unreasonably insisted that Ariah follow her upstairs or downstairs when no one else was there because of her fear of being alone. After all, Ariah reasoned, she was a growing girl and needed some privacy!

I tried to mediate, to get one party to compromise with the other, but neither would bend. Finally, to my dread, I realized that the only solution was to allow little Aspen to sleep in mommy and daddy’s bed. Nuts. Meanwhile, six-month-year-old Percy squealed with cold indifference toward the whole affair, spouting nonsense and flailing his limbs for no reason whatsoever. How could he be so callous amid this crisis?

I transported a contented Aspen to my bed, where I issued cold orders to sleep and be quiet (bed time often spans hours of delays an diversions, requiring parental militancy), then proceeded to clean the house before Teresa came back from work. My hope was that Aspen would soon fall asleep, and I would be able to secretly transport her back to her own bed (Percy adds enough grief to our sleeping arrangements without an extra body taking up space). About ten minutes later, I heard Ariah calling me from the stairs. I was about to bark my usual, “What are you doing out of bed?” when I noticed the tears in her eyes.

“I miss my sister,” she sobbed.

And so the two of us returned to mommy and daddy’s bedroom, where Aspen, feigning snoring, eagerly threw off her covers. The sisters happily embraced, then returned to their own bedroom. Oh, the drama.

I Duel My Wife

G251_ppTonight Teresa and I had our first real duel. Our weapons were wooden rapiers. Teresa wasn’t fond of the idea to begin with, as it was past 10:00pm, and she was ready for bed, but fearing that she would fail a test if she said no, she humored me. At first she was stiff and entirely defensive. I confess that I was going easy on her. But as I let her take some jabs at me, and her confidence grew, the wheel suddenly turned around, and I was on the defensive. I’d never seen her so aggressive. The fight grew much more intense than I would have possibly expected, and there were times when I was genuinely afraid of her whipping blade.

By the rules of our duel, she was the first to score ten hits. While we caught our breaths, she said with a smile, “I think I’m finally open to the idea of coming home at the end of the day and having you leap out from concealment, tossing me a sword, and shouting, ‘Have at thee, coward!’ ” This was music to my ears. There’s nothing I’ve ever wanted more than a wife who will battle me. My boyish dreams are finally being fulfilled!

After all, the truest of love (as we learn from the movies) is only to be found following the truest of violence. Couples that stay together, slay together.

I Duel My Wife

Tonight Teresa and I had our first real duel. Our weapons were wooden rapiers. Teresa wasn’t fond of the idea to begin with, as it was past 10:00pm, and she was ready for bed, but fearing that she would fail a test if she said no, she humored me. At first she was stiff and entirely defensive. I confess that I was going easy on her. But as I let her take some jabs at me, and her confidence grew, the wheel suddenly turned around, and I was on the defensive. I’d never seen her so aggressive. The fight grew much more intense than I would have possibly expected, and there were times when I was genuinely afraid of her whipping blade.

By the rules of our duel, she was the first to score ten hits. While we caught our breaths, she said with a smile, “I think I’m finally open to the idea of coming home at the end of the day and having you leap out from concealment, tossing me a sword, and shouting, ‘Have at thee, coward!’ ” This was music to my ears. There’s nothing I’ve ever wanted more than a wife who will battle me. My boyish dreams are finally being fulfilled!

After all, the truest of love (as we learn from the movies) is only to be found following the truest of violence. Couples that stay together, slay together.

The Peformer’s Itch

rock_starTeresa and I are both getting the performer’s itch. We want to get out there and blast our guitars, light up the stage, and feel the energy of the crowd.

Of course, as my wise older brother once related to me, if everyone was at complete liberty to do whatever they wanted in life and be financially sustained in doing so, chances are there would be many more rock stars in this world than PHP developers, and with an overabundance of rock music that no one wants and a lack of office software that everyone needs, the economy would crash. Thus it seems the real world has a way of compelling us to fulfill its needs, whether through nagging wives, hungry children, or sheer pride. And boy have I felt this cold, stiff hand of compulsion.

I don’t resent it. Though it’s been a path I wouldn’t have chosen on my ideal road map, I think I’ve actually been fulfilling my calling, in part, by learning to use the left side of my brain over the last few years, i.e. by having real jobs. But having thus invested in my dues to the world (I’ve at least made a down payment), I’m feeling the time is drawing nearer when my yang will be complete, and I’ll be at liberty — that is, compelled by conscience — to reinvest in my yin. Teresa’s feeling the same.

It probably doesn’t help that we’re reading Cary Elwes’ new novel As You Wish, which is fueling the hair-brained idea that if he could make it big, we could too.

Anyone else having delusions of grandeur? Or have you come to grips with being another brick in the wall?

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Classical

The Book of Life
Jane and Sue
Queen of the Flies
Edward and Rhubarbra's Dream
Edward's Dream
Buffalo Wings
Super Goat
Rhubarbra's Dream
Washing Machine

Classical-Rock

Love, Love, True Love

Dance

Lost in Your Beat

Disco

I've Got Magical Powers

Funk

Sylvester Stallone

Jazz

Boring, Serious Business Man
Forget About It
Bums
Edward Versus the World
The Kingdom of the Dwarves
Big, Big City

Rock

Runner in the Rain
Half-eaten Burger
I Like Myself

World

Theme
Weck
The Wisdom of Weck
Endless Night Instrumentals
Interlude

Thoughts on “The Woman in Black”

The Woman in Black

In which Harry Potter takes on a homicidal ghost lady with a brilliant sense of dramatic tension

I feel like writing a review. Teresa brought this one home from the library, saying a coworker had recommended it. I’ve never been big on horror films, (1) because the genre has always seemed a little too … evil … for my tastes. (2) (this is the real reason) because Watcher in the Woods traumatized me as a child, and after I saw The Others as a teenager, I found myself literally afraid of the dark. So why purposely give one’s self PTSD?

However, I’ve since come to appreciate horror as an art form, and having also since studied film in college (a very demystifying process), I seriously doubted any film’s ability to actually scare me. I watched the film with this attitude, and I’m not sure if it was the attitude or the film itself, but I was right. Not scary. Funny.

One of the first realizations I had was that there are few things ghosts can actually do in movies. The instant a ghost comes out of obscurity and starts throwing knives at you is the instant the ghost has lost its status as a supernatural unknown and has reduced itself to just another physical danger. And the instant this happens, you no longer have a ghost story but a mind-numbing action film. Thus ghosts are required to stand at the end of hallways, partially obscured, making subtle noises, jumping out at you, then promptly disappearing, looming everywhere but not actually being anywhere. In other words, they’re all moonshine.

While this realization may ruin the fun of a good horror film, I found it enlightening, because (1) I guess I don’t like feeling vulnerable and, perhaps as a self-defense mechanism, I view horror films as a challenge, and (2) if the opportunity ever arises to claim an old, haunted mansion by spending the night in it, a la The Ghost and Mister Chicken, I intend to show up the paranormal by exposing their cheap tricks for what they are.

And speaking of ghostly tricks, this woman in black was the queen. In mortality, she must have been an accomplished magician with a masters in filmmaking. She knew how to compose each shot, placing herself just around the corner, standing where she knew the protagonist would glance, then vanishing as the suspense began to mount. To add to the ambiance, she dressed her set with all sorts of bizarre, custom-made toys with unbelievably scary faces, ominous music boxes, and wind-up dolls that no child would ever touch. Most impressive of all, she got her entire ensemble of murdered children to work with her in standing in opportune places with ghostly looks on their faces while not actually saying or doing anything. To think how she could have so masterfully orchestrated such horrific art without betraying it all by communicating something intelligible is beyond me. But then, I guess that’s how ghosts work. It’s their jobs to remain aloof, anecdotal, and strictly unquantifiable, lest someone were to disprove their existence.

And yet … come one. Is the afterlife really so dismal to explain one’s only pastime being sitting around in an empty house for decades on end, crafting spooky, yet subtle encounters with the living? How in the world are these haunting dead not bored out of their minds and moving on to something new? Among the living, I doubt even the most guilty mass murderer with “unfinished business” could bring himself to sit around for decades bemoaning himself. So what’s going on in the hereafter that makes so many so pathetic and tolerable of tedium?

What’s fun is when you realize the rhythm of a horror film like this. Camera tightens on protagonist. Protagonist looks around in uncertainty. Feelings of vulnerability increase. The strings are all over the place. Somebody’s playing a hair-raising waterphone. Three … two … one … AGH! Is it the ghost? Of course not, because the ghost can’t actually reveal herself until we approach the climax of the movie, which will happen at about 110 minutes, and we’re only at 35, so you can rest with 90% certainty that it’s a false alarm. And the cycle goes on. And on.

I’m not talking down this movie. It was well made with beautiful cinematography. I’ll bet the crew had a blast with nearly every shot. “Let’s see, what would be scary here? Oh! How about an eyeball!” It’s just that this movie has helped me realize how stilted, silly, ridiculous (and fun) cinematic horror can be. Now I would be lying if I said the movie never made me jump (a little bit) or afraid of the dark (slightly) afterward. One can’t expose himself to two hours of intentionally traumatizing material without feeling a little PTSD.

On the other hand, I’ve come to realize that there’s something valuable in horror. It can be good for the soul to experience fear in a safe environment so that we can learn from ourselves how to deal with it. And if I ever have to deal with a psychotic woman in black from the other side, I know just what I’ll do. I’ll sit down with her and talk cinema.

Ghosts.

Not scary.

OK, maybe just a little.

Timpanogos Hauntings Contest 2014

If you’re in Utah County, you should come to the Timpanogos Hauntings contest tonight. I’m one of six finalists that will be competing for the title of spookiest storyteller. The event starts at 7:00 at the Orem Library and is free. More information here: http://timpfest.org/events/hauntings-contest-2/

Thoughts on Disney’s Maleficent

Disney's MaleficentThis is another post I started months ago (at least in my mind) and am finally getting around to finishing.

I probably wouldn’t have seen this movie had not family members insisted that Teresa and I needed to see it, offering free babysitting services so we could do so. As anyone with kids knows, one does not turn down such opportunities lightly.

If you read my review on Disney’s Frozen, you’ll understand my reticence to see this film. My patience for stories about misunderstood witches who are really good when an ignorant society as branded them as evil, has grown ever thinner. It seems that such stories have become an emerging genre in themselves. I mean, first we learn that the Wicked Witch of the West isn’t actually wicked. Then we learn that the Snow Queen isn’t actually wicked. And now we learn that Maleficent, the very queen of the night, isn’t wicked either? Are there no moreĀ wicked witches in this world?

The opening sequence was delightful. What’s not to like about a beautiful fairy girl in a beauty fairy world? I will tell you, though, that such high fantasy always gives me cognitive dissonance. That is, I like what I’m seeing, but my rational mind immediately exploits the impossibilities, which kills my suspension of disbelief. For example, I have no problem with fairy girls with ram horns. But when there’s only one fairy girl in the entire fairy world, I wonder, “Where are her parents? How does she brush her teeth? What does she use for toilet paper? Where did she learn English? Who does her immaculate makeup each morning? And why would the giants and dwarves submit themselves to her whims?”

I could look past all this, because the story had the tone of a fairy tale, and as far as I’m concerned, fairy tale logic, in its simplistic beauty, transcends actual logic. But the thing about fairy tales is that they’re just that: tales. Without the tools of cinema or theatre, fairy tales allow a storyteller to easily connect with an audience by compressing the complexities of life into digestible themes of good and evil, kings and peasants, love and hate. On the other hand, when you have the luxury of showing your stories, unless done very stylistically, the fairy tale convention can be at odds with the realness brought by the actors. Thus I thought the film was developing nicely until suddenly the narrator said something like, “Stefan told her it was true love … but it was not.”

I mean, I could see the characters with my own eyes. I could hear their voices. I could make my own judgements. It really bothered me when the narrator told me that what I was seeing was not what I thought I was seeing. From this point on, IMHO, the film shifted gear toward the didactic agenda I was dreading.

There’s nothing uncool about the theme of “judge not that ye be not judged.” In fact I’m quite fond of that theme, which, perhaps, is why I fell in love with Wicked when it first came out. The thought of discovering the untold back story of a misunderstood person is exciting. Paradigm shifts are fun. But after the film, Teresa made a keen observation. She said something like, “It’s ironic that the filmmakers press this theme about not judging the person you formerly thought was the villain. But in order to advance this theme, they think they have to create a new villain.”

She said it well. What was up with the villainous King Stefan? I mean, if the filmmakers were creating this story from scratch, it would be a different matter, but because this was a retelling of a classic fairy tale, one can’t just take a completely benign character and make him pure evil while taking a completely evil character and making her benign, without implying a certain point. At first you would think the point is that “no one’s purely evil, so don’t judge until you know the full story.” But that wasn’t the case with this film. As far as I could tell, the point was only that “Maleficent wasn’t pure evil, whereas King Stefan was.” So what are we supposed to learn?

In short, the filmmakers simply reinvented melodrama. But unlike Disney’s original Sleeping Beauty, where you can root for the good guys and boo for the bad guys, this new-age melodrama insists on being just stilted enough to be nearly void of philosophical content while still ambiguous enough to confuse one’s emotions.

As if the unwarranted villainization of King Stefan wasn’t enough to preach the theme that “your traditional concept of ethics and values are backwards,” we discover that the “good” fairies that take Sleeping Beauty under their wings are ignorant, dopey, and pathetic. We discover that every “evil” action Maleficent takes is only half-hearted and traceable to justified feelings of betrayal, and that, when she comes to her sensibilities, she has every intention of undoing her mischief. In short, we learn that good is actually evil, and evil is actually good … or that no one’s actually good, while some people are definitely evil.

What bothered me were the list of contemptible things Maleficent did that the audience was expected to dismiss. For example, there was a scene where some of King Stefan’s knights discovered the location of Maleficent. With the raising of her eyebrows, she proceeds to fling these guys into the air, play with them in sadistic ways, conk their heads together, then hurl them huge distances that, in real life, would almost certainly be lethal. These guys were just doing their jobs. They probably had wives and kids. How many daddies won’t be coming home tonight, because Maleficent thought it would be funny to conk their heads together and throw them a few hundred yards?

When Maleficent herself enlists on the adventure to sneak into the castle, knock out more guards, and rescue the princess, for me at least, the film reached the point of absurdity. The prince, of course, has no useful function in the rescuing of the princess. That would be sexist. Next, Disney’s new anti-cliches about love at first sight and kisses of true love no longer working like they used to … are becoming cliche. Though in fairness, I did think the kissing scene was clever enough and almost beautiful … in a deranged kind of way.

Lest I’m coming across as cynical, I really did enjoy the movie for the most part. Overall, it was fun, and I guess that’s good enough. I say overall, because, as with just about every melodrama, I hated the action scenes in the third act. So stilted. So devoid of meaningful ideas. So unreal. So boring. Yes, action puts me to sleep. I’m weird like that.

At the end of it all, while I don’t really have a problem with switching things up for the sake of a good story, in the case of this film and its associated fairy tale, there are unavoidable implications in doing so. When the closing credits began to roll, I found myself feeling utterly confused, almost amazed. The song for the closing credits (a downright creepy remix of “Once Upon A Dream”) was a perfect closure to it all. Love, we learn, is no longer innocent. People can no longer just fall in love and get married. It’s all infinitely complicated and mysterious. If you walk out of this theater feeling wholesome and inspired, then we have failed to burn our message into your cranium. Life … is … bizarre!

Disney’s original Sleeping Beauty, in all of its clear-cut melodrama, brings tears to my eyes. A good knight stands up against an evil dragon. It’s simple. And yet it speaks to my soul. It makes me want to be a better person. This modern retelling, on the other hand, which seems so indicative of modern culture — I’ve said it before, but I don’t know how else to say it — confused me.

My Adventures at the National Storytelling Conference

I wrote the bulk of this article months ago, but what with money to make, houses to clean, meals to cook, films to finish, musicals to write, parties to throw, and babies to entertain … well, is there really a need to finish this sentence?

On August first, I flew to Arizona to attend the National Storytelling Conference. I’d been invited to perform there for a showcase.

The first tragedy was that my good wife took it upon herself to teach me a lesson in responsibility. She warned me months in advance that she wasn’t going to take care of my travel and lodging accommodations. But I’d heard such idle threats before and had always seen her come through in the end. I knew that her sensibilities for planning and security would overcome her self-restraints — especially as deadlines approached — as my lackadaisical intolerance for such minutia would drive her crazy.

Only this didn’t happen. Less than a week before the conference, I realized that my plane hadn’t been booked yet, and I said to her, “You’re really not going to do it for me?” – “No!” she exclaimed. I couldn’t believe it. We were supposed to look out for each other! I hope she was happy as I paid a premium price for my tickets. I hope she knows the hundred plus dollars we could have saved by booking earlier will come directly out of her flowers and chocolates fund. At least I learned a valuable lesson: hire a real secretary.

The second tragedy was that the TSA folks necessitated the disposal of my beloved key chain pocket knife. So how was I supposed to fight off the terrorists? Oh well. Nothing spells security better than the disarming of law-abiding citizens, right?

When I picked up a rental car at the airport (thankfully, there were a couple rental cars that hadn’t been reserved … boy am I irresponsible), the clerk asked where I was going, and I told him about the conference. He asked what it was all about, and I explained, “Well, people come from all over the nation to tell stories.” – “And then what?” he asked. – “Well … they also talk about how to tell stories.” – “And?” – “And … that’s it.” – “Are these kids?” – “No, they’re adults.” In the silence that followed, I reflected with him on this bizarre phenomenon.

What was I doing with my life?

I was already down so much money (the conference itself wasn’t cheap) that, for sustenance over the remainder of the trip, I picked up a box of imitation Oreos. Thankfully, when I got to the Hilton hotel, where the conference was held, I discovered little hors d’oeuvres with which to supplement my diet.

Because I also don’t have time in life to read schedules, I learned that the last event for the day had just ended when I’d arrived. This whole affair was turning out to be quite silly. Though I guess it was okay, because I’d only actually paid for Saturday. I was just hoping to hang out with some cool people on Friday evening, not defeat any system … at least not entirely. Oh well.

The third tragedy was that, despite my every attempt to wing this whole thing and thus enjoy an exciting night as a bum on the streets of Phoenix (which I’d done before and had fond memories of), Teresa had actually come through in one regard. She’d reluctantly called her aunt the day before and arranged a room for me to stay in.

Well the thought of spending the rest of the day at her aunt’s house was too depressing, so at least I could still do some bumming for a few hours at the hotel. I picked up my attendee lanyard, because the lady at the booth hadn’t yet closed shop for the night. I discovered that the words “Saturday Only” were written on the lanyard with big ink letters. They didn’t have to spell it out for everyone to see. And as far as I could tell, I was the only one there who had come only for Saturday. I hid the shameful lanyard in my pocket.

After stuffing myself with more cookies and hors d’oeuvres, I did, in fact, find some cool people to mingle with as they ate dinner. I tried to appear too posh to stoop to buying dinner at a rundown place like the Hilton.

From our conversations, I learned that there was actually one more event that evening: the “story slam”. Apparently this was a competition that people had been looking forward to all year, and it came with a fair amount of clout. I was intrigued, but I was a Saturday only attendee …

Still, this wasn’t exactly a Fri-day event … it was just one little evening thing. I mean, I wasn’t planning on this. They wouldn’t want me to leave, would they?

To make the story short, the devil won the argument, and with the lanyard still cleverly concealed in my pocket, I went to the event. There were hundreds of people in the large conference room. The many contestants put their names in cups. Everyone was given the topic of “Fire and Light” for their stories. I actually wasn’t planning on competing, as I didn’t have anything prepared. But in the last minute, as inspired by a bit of peer pressure, I went over to the cups and added my name.

Throughout the event, some twelve to twenty names were drawn. As the competitors began to perform, I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do if I was called on. What stories do I have about fire? I thought of the story I’d told at the Utah’s Biggest Liar contest, about my adventure down the Mississippi river, in which I’d spent a sleepless night without a tent or a sleeping bag, hunched up by a campfire. It was an okay story, but I hadn’t won anything at the contest with it, and now I was up against national storytellers. Some of these people were the celebrities I’d admired year after year at the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival in Utah. I was feeling inadequate. I knew I didn’t have what it took.

Just kidding. I’m not in to the whole self-doubt thing. I know I’m awesome. If anything I suffer from overestimating my abilities, which had gotten me into some embarrassing predicaments in the past, and I did wonder if this would be a similar instance.

Though it didn’t matter, because storyteller after storyteller was called up but never me. I admired the great and their spectacular performances. Only that’s a lie too. I was far too preoccupied with rehearsing my story, which I hadn’t told in many months, lest I were to be called on.

Finally, the emcee announced that there was only time for one more performer. “And that is …”

Everyone sat up in the edge of their seats.

Hearts were pounding.

Fingernails were chomped.

“… Stephen … Gah … ler.” (Only it was pronounced worse than that.)

I knew it. Okay, if it hadn’t have happened, I’m sure I wouldn’t have said I knew it, thus indicating that I didn’t actually know it, and yet … I knew it. This was clearly the doings of fate, and I knew the mischievous little man well. And now I had to win. The pressure was on.

I told my story. And here it is:

If you listened to the recording, you’ll know that the emcee spoiled my dramatic narrative by telling you that I won first place. Oh well. The fun part was when the judges announced that there had been a tie for first place, and the audience insisted that there be a recount. After the recount, the judges announced that they did, in fact, have a winner by a significant number of points. When the second place winner was announced (one of the national celebrities I’d often seen at the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival), she got pretty mad (in a fun kind of way) that there had been a recount. Then finally the emcee called me up. “Stephen … Goo … ler.”

And so that was that. For the rest of the conference, I enjoyed celebrity treatment. Some people invited me to lunch the next day, probed with questions, and eagerly ate up my advice, though I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t know what I was talking about. My Saturday performance went well, though it certainly wasn’t as exciting as Friday night had been.

Anyway, if the National Storytelling Conference Story Slam is any indicator, I guess I’m the #1 storyteller in the nation, at least until next year. If anyone else wants to give me celebrity treatment, I’m sure we can work out something.