Green Day

No, I am not talking about the band.  Though, if I were referring to Green Day the rock band I’m sure my husband would have something to say about how the trio is underrated.  Today is March 17th, so I am talking about none other than St. Patrick’s Day!

Frankly, I know very little about this holiday other than what I quickly read on Wikipedia before writing this post.  I don’t really care to elaborate on its origins; what makes the day special for me is that it was Ro’s favorite holiday.  The man loved Jesus, but Christmas and Easter didn’t unearth nearly as many dollar-store items in our household as St. Patrick’s Day did.  Ro owned no “Kiss me, Jesus is Risen!” buttons, but Lord knows on March 17th the “Kiss me, I’m Irish!” button was pinned to his black and green plaid cardigan at the top o’ the morn’!

To date, Ro is the only person I’ve known who, on St. Paddy’s Day, would receive as many store-bought cards and incoming phone calls as he would for a birthday.  He was not shy about his love for the day; if his words didn’t express it, then the Shamrock sticker on his Bible sure made it clear.  One year he decorated the kitchen with green streamers cascading from the chandelier to the kitchen walls like the spokes of a wheel.  This was a day to be celebrated!

The leprechaun cut-outs Ro hung around the house were cute too, but to have a day where you are practically obligated to drink a stein of beer – I believe this cuts to the core of his Paddy’s Day passion.  Ro grew up in a Nazerene church where things like dancing, playing cards, and drinking alcohol were pooh-poohed, yet out of this strict upbringing grew a man who loved to have a glass of wine or a tall, stout beer with his blazing hot shephard’s pie – just a glass or two at a meal to give his lips a refreshing blast of heaven.  We rarely had any alcohol in the house as I grew up, so any chance for him to have a drink was a treat.

St. Patrick’s Day, 2001, Brian and Ro went for a midday green beer.  I was at my parents’ house when the phone rang – another Happy St. Patrick’s Day call for Ro.  It was his sister, my Aunt Virginia.  Ro had such a sweet, close relationship with his sister.  I also adored and loved her.  I don’t recall ever meeting her in person, but before she became too weak to use a typewriter she and I were Pen Pals.  She would send the most sincere, thoughtful notes to encourage me, pray for me, and tell me stories of her life.  Sadly, she passed away last year, the summer before Ro did.

On this particular day, Aunt Virginia and I exchanged a couple updates with each other.  I knew she wanted to talk to Ro, but I explained to her, “He’s out drinking green beer with Brian.”  She laughed.  I laughed.  But later that day I learned that we were laughing for different reasons.  She laughed because she thought I was making a joke.  I laughed because I was thinking oh, that Ro and his green beer.

What I didn’t know until after the phone call was that Aunt Virginia never knew that Ro consumed alcoholic beverages, let alone that he had an acquired taste for them.  A devout Christian and product of the Nazarene church herself, she adhered to the no-drinking rule and assumed that her brother did as well.  I know heaven doesn’t look back at Earth or celebrate our holidays or resemble life as we know it, but I still find myself creating a story in my head of Ro and Aunt Virginia together.  Ro is chuckling with a Paddy’s Day beer in hand as his sister discovers this little secret of his, and then starts to make sense of that phone call I had with her eight years ago.  Of course my little fantasy is so irrelevant for them now, for as much as Ro loved to celebrate this day, there is no holiday or event on this Earth that can come close to matching the celebration that they know now and will experience for eternity.

Thinking of you today, Ro!

One!

The March masthead came about when I realized that 1) I haven’t taken any pictures in the last month, and 2) a year ago this month we purchased a new car, a 2008 Toyota Prius.  I have never had a brand new, driven-less-than-ten-miles-when-we-drove-it-off-the-lot vehicle, so owning it has felt like living in luxury, even when I’m driving while wearing my $9.99 pajama bottoms and a spaghetti-stained race t-shirt.

When we bought the car every inch of it was so shiny and flawless, a state that I knew we’d never see again, so I drove it to a municipal park near our house for a little photo shoot. Thank goodness there were no baseball or soccer games going on at the time, because I didn’t need dirty, toothless children staring and pointing at me to clue me in to my quirkiness.  I recognized on my own that I looked strange snapping photos with such extreme detail.  But hey, at least I wasn’t shouting, “Work it!  Work it!  Look right at the camera!  Now give me pouty lips!”

Here are just a couple shots of the car as the photo shoot waned in to the sunset and post sunset hours.  Note the sunset sky reflecting on the car in the first photo and the full moon in the second.  Ooooooooo.

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I originally thought that I would use this photo as the masthead for this month…

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…because when is there any other time that your car’s engine is so abnormally clean that you want to lick it or cut fresh fruit on it? There is no other time. Further, how often do you see a lickable car engine as the masthead to a blog? Probably not too often. While I was excited about this rarity, Brian vetoed it in favor of the dashboard view masthead. In the name of love, I let his first choice prevail.

(After I added the dashboard view to the website, I tried to think of something profound that I could say about the photo, but all that came to mind was Meatloaf’s Paradise by the Dashboard Light, and the harder I tried to think the louder the lyrics “DO YOU LOVE ME? WILL YOU LOVE ME FOREVER?…” resonated in my head. Ah well, instead of thought-provoking I got memories of junior high dances.)

So I was enamored with the pristine newness of the car, but as I celebrate the first anniversary as its owner, please realize that the anniversary excitement is less about the car and more about the opportunity to count something.  I can’t help it; I was born in to a family who has a strange affinity for numbers.  My father teaches math, and my grandfather, mother, and brother are accountants.  Am I forgetting anyone?  Well, most of the rest of us without a bean-counting job title still enjoy numbers in our spare time.  We monitor baseball and football stats, count stairs, find patterns in phone numbers, take heed to random dates (e.g. insignificant anniversaries), and oogle over the odometer in the car, to name only a few examples.  Heck, even before one of my nephews started kindergarten he was counting by 11’s and playing games with people’s ages.  Just like The Count on Sesame Street, we cry if we do not get to count things and we will sometimes send letters to ourselves just so we can count the incoming mail.  Okay, maybe we don’t do the latter, but cry if we run out of things to count?  Yes, yes we cry.

Does anyone else think of their odometer as a little dial of magic?  When my brother was in high school trying to decide what topic he should choose for a paper, my grandfather told him that he should seriously consider writing his paper on how my grandfather’s car hit 66,666 miles that week.  Similarly, my mom and I will often call each other to excitedly announce that our odometer struck a number like 80,000 or a fun palindrome like 105,501.  In every car ride, a surprise awaits.

Anyway, as The Count would say about the Prius today, “One!  One anniversary!  A a a a a!”

Paper That You Can Trade In

Two years ago today, I called my nephew to wish him a happy birthday.  He had turned 7.  My sister-in-law answered the phone, and here’s how the conversation went down…

Kris: Evan, Auntie Michelle wants to talk to you.

[Evan grabs the phone.]

Evan: What?

Kris (in background): Um, how about “hello?”

Evan: Hello?

[I immediately sing happy birthday.]

Evan (monotone): Thanks.

[After a couple nice conversational exchanges…]

Evan: Thank you for my birthday car-

Kris (in background): That was from Aunt Kimmy, not Auntie Michelle.

[Evan is silent for a moment, clearly thinking through his next step.]

Evan: Well, Aunt Kimmy got me a birthday card and inside was this paper that you could trade in-

Kris (in background): It’s a check.

Evan: Well, it had a check that you could trade in for money, so I traded that in and my allowance for heelies…

***

I’d like to hear more about this paper you can trade in for money.  And whether or not they make heelies in adult shoe sizes.

Happy 9th birthday, Evan!  I’m still ridiculously crazy about you, kid!

Walker Road

February ended moments ago and if I’m going to keep up with what I’ve been doing then I need to find a new masthead for March, but before I do let me explain the current one, Walker Road.  A two-minute jog from my development, I have spent many, many hours on this road by foot, by bike, and by car.  It’s the by foot and by bike experiences that stir up a sense of nostalgia within me.  We live on the border of highly developed land and rolling country farm land.  Walker Road celebrates this close-to-country feel, so when I am out training here I love to breathe in the peaceful, simple air and enjoy the homes with yards that do not live under the rule of a developer.

I’ve even come to enjoy the company of the horse-like dog that chases me while bellowing a ferocious bark – well, that is, he chases me as far as he can on his side of the fence.  At first I was terrified by the beast, since I’ve been twice bitten by dogs, but now I pretend we’re friends, and in between breaths as I run or ride past I call to him in motherese, “Hi, Pup!  How’s my pup?  Gooood, puppy pup!”  I can tell this confuses him, like how could his prey seem so loving?  One day he will learn to jump the fence and will either eat my face or exfoliate it with a sloppy, friendly lick.  Every time I run by I wonder if today is the day I will find out if we’re friends or foes.  Mental note: start carrying steak in hydration belt.  And bear spray.

Like a no-nonsense friend, Walker Road is honest.  So brutally honest.  Without inhibition it will tell me what kind of shape I’m in, and its words have not always been kind.  There are portions of the road that are subtly hilly, and there are sections that are unmistakably steep.  The hill at the end of the road, for example, is so steep that on more than one bike ride I have pumped my weary legs at a pathetic 3.8 mph while trying to climb it.  This is so slow that my front wheel wobbles back and forth to keep me from falling over during the brief moments that I am actually motionless in between pedals.  Coming down this hill I have gained speeds over 35 mph, which is challenging in its own right.

There is a creepy stand-alone garage along the road in which I always imagine a serial killer resides, so as I run or ride by I scheme my survival, just in case I’m right.  When I hear rustling leaves on another stretch of the road I imagine a wild cat living in the woods and again I plan accordingly.  I usually moo at the couple of cows that seem very out of place in the yard of one home, and make up stories to explain why no one has ever been seen using the outdoor swimming pool at another.  The water in the ponds and little creeks looks refreshing albeit completely undrinkable.  The open fields and trees are rather simple, yet I can’t help but stare as I go past.

There’s a barn that stands against the road.  Not sure why I love it, and until I took a picture of it this past month I couldn’t even remember what color it was.  In my mind its walls are blank slates that change colors, like a mood ring varying by my emotional state.  Whatever color, the sun strikes the building perfectly and it somehow inspires me to endure or to smile or to pray or to set goals or to count my blessings.  I’m not necessarily a barn person, but have found raw, rousing beauty in this one.

Maybe that’s why I set Walker Road as the masthead for February.  February can be a doozy of a month.  It can be cold.  It can be gloomy.  But these pictures remind me that even during a hard run we can find things that inspire us to endure…to smile…to count our blessings.

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Worthy

Every Wednesday during the semester my department has Research Round Table, or RRT.  Research Round Table is a great name to describe the weekly meeting; RRT is a horrible acronym.  It may not look like a horrible acronym, but try saying it out loud.  Quickly.  You sounded like a hungry gawking seal, didn’t you?  So when I am in my lab and someone asks if I can meet with them or go for lunch on Wednesday at noon, I almost always blush when I say, “No, I’m sorry I can’t, I have RRT,” because I know the person listening to me cocks their head a little and crosses their fingers hoping that I don’t grow a flipper and slither onto the floor like Daryl Hannah did in Splash.

Last Wednesday at RRT we had a different format than the typical journal club or think-a-loud or research presentation.  Instead the graduate students threw out questions for faculty about the writing process, the publication process, and managing professorial responsibilities in academia.  The meeting was enlightening and inspiring and daunting and discouraging.

At one point, the conversation tail-spinned into a discussion on the peer review process.  When a manuscript is submitted for publication to a scientific journal, if it is deemed worthy by the editor it is sent to other scientists for peer review.  The reviewers have at the manuscript like hungry paper-eating wolves, critiquing everything that is weak and wrong in the writing, and then deciding whether or not the study is worthy of publication.  All this goes on while it is thundering and lightning outside with ominous music playing in the background, and the reviewers are throwing their heads back in uproarious, evil laughter.

In rare circumstances a manuscript is accepted with no modifications.  Although I can’t say that it isn’t a good goal to aim for “accepted with no modifications,” my sense is that the result of having such a lofty goal would be similar in result to getting on the Tilt-A-Whirl ride at a carnival, leaving your wallet on the seat next to you as you spin and twirl madly, and then expecting your wallet to be there on the seat at the end of the ride – in either case you will be let down.  Also your hair will be ridiculously disheveled.  More likely when submitting a manuscript one can expect to see “accept with modifications,” “modify and resubmit,” or “reject.”

The purpose of the peer review system admirably is to improve the quality of published articles, and likewise comments are meant to improve the conceptual and technical aspects of these manuscripts.  Perhaps on occasion this process unfolds beautifully as intended, like a budding flower opening to the warmth of the sun.  On the other hand, my beloved faculty shared one woeful experience after another about frustrating reviewers and outrageous comments.  All this from a group who I admire, who are profoundly intelligent, and who are well veteraned in writing and publishing.  They continued to explain that no one in academia has time to dwell on the strengths of a manuscript; if a paragraph or concept is not red-marked so to speak, then it is considered to be good, or at least good enough.  It’s the epitome of “no news is good news.”

I floated out of the circle of conversation for a moment to reflect on this.  There really are few moments in this profession where someone comes along, pats you on the back and says good job.  The positive feedback is not extinct, but certainly endangered.  This predicament trickles down into advisor-graduate student interactions as well.  Compliments can take on strange forms.

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Not far off from this satirical comic is a particular instance where I had emailed a paper to my advisor.  In her return email she said that I really did do a great job on the paper…and then I opened the attached document and saw an obscene amount of comments and changes.  Hard to believe the “great job” in the body of the email was written in reference to the very file that had been subjected to the dreaded advisor review.  Of course in this case many of her comments substantially improved the paper, but that doesn’t mean that the imbalance of feedback wasn’t difficult for me.  In my thirst for affirmation, I read the “great job” at least fifty times so that it felt more like fifty compliments instead of just one.  It helped to offset the three thousand comments in the paper.

So during this RRT discussion the overall message was that the critics can be harsh.  The advice on how to deal with this stark reality was 1) to allow yourself time to cool off before responding and 2) to grow thicker skin.  For a person that craves positive feedback and approval, these were grim coping strategies.  I left the meeting with angst over my future.  If I continue in this profession, who’s going to tell me “nice job,” or “well written,” or “great idea”?  With constant focus on what is wrong with my work, how am I going to feel any sense of worth?

Well, I went home that night and God decided to use my procrastination for good as I read the following post from Stuff Christians Like (a funny, inspirational, well-written blog that I stumbled upon while doing the ever popular Facebook stalking):

Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Wondering if we’re worth anything.
I interpret any two people closing any door in the entire office at work as a private meeting that is being held to discuss my imminent termination.

When I hear the sliding door sound that our cool offices make when we seal them shut, that little panicked voice inside me says, “You’re going to get fired.” When I am left off a meeting invite, I automatically think, “Why did that guy leave me off the meeting? Does he know I’m a dead man walking? Is he thinking ‘what’s the use of inviting Acuff to this meeting, he’ll be fired soon?” And I start to worry that I might be turning invisible. Like that photograph of Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future, I’m disappearing and unless someone plays “Earth Angel” and two people make out, I’m gone.

That’s ridiculous. It’s embarrassing that the running dialog in my head gallops to that so quickly like a drunken gazelle. (See, even that analogy was lacking because I’m stressed.)

But as dumb as that is, as complicated and tangled as the thoughts in my head feel, I think they come back to something I’ve written about on this site before, something that is impossibly simple …

I want someone to tell me that I am enough.

I want someone to validate that I matter. That I am valuable and important. Like Thom Yorke said in the song “Creep,” “I want you to notice when I’m not around.”

And it turns out I’m not the only one.

Two weeks ago news broke that Alex Rodriguez, arguably one of the greatest baseball players of our generation, took steroids in 2003. If you don’t follow sports, this was a huge deal. It’s the equivalent of say, Samson using performance enhancements or finding out that David had used a pistol on Goliath instead of a sling.

That a professional athlete used steroids isn’t that interesting to me, but in his confession interview with Peter Gammons, Rodriguez said something really revealing. When asked why he did it, when asked why after signing the biggest, most lucrative contract in baseball history for $252 million, he risked it all by taking steroids, he replied:

“When I arrived in Texas in 2001, I felt an enormous amount of pressure. I felt like I had all the weight of the world on top of me, and I needed to perform, and perform at a high level every day. Back then, it was a different culture. It was very loose. I was young. I was stupid. I was naive. And I wanted to prove to everyone that, you know, I was worth being one of the greatest players of all time.”

He wanted to prove to everyone that he was worth being one of the greatest players of all time. That when the Texas Rangers signed that $252 million contract, Alex Rodriguez was worth it. He wanted the fans and the owners of the ball club and people that watch him on television and journalists and anyone that ever came in contact with him to believe he was worth it.

He wanted to know that he was enough.

The unfortunate thing for me and Rodriguez is that no one on the planet is going to be able to tell us that to our satisfaction. Not a stadium full of fans, not every coworker I’ve ever had. Not a sports journalist. Not my web traffic or technorati ranking or eventual book sales.

That’s the problem with asking other people to tell us we’re enough. They can’t. They didn’t make us. They didn’t knit us in the womb or imagine us thousands of years before our parents danced at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. (That’s Back to the Future reference number two for those playing along at home.)

Even our friends and family members, the people that know and love us best can’t satisfy the deep desires of our heart because they didn’t put them there. They don’t know where they’re hidden or even know what this crazy work of art called “our lives” is supposed to look like.

And when we ask other people to tell us we’re worth enough we end up doing crazy things. Like taking steroids or lying in bed awake at night wondering why your name wasn’t on a Microsoft Outlook Meeting Invite.

Fortunately for you and me and Alex Rodriguez I went ahead and asked God if we were all worth it. He said “yes.” He said He sent His Son because He wanted us to know how very “enough” we all were. He said to feel free to ask Him that same question yourself. Go on, I dare you to. I promise that regardless of whether you’re one of the greatest baseball players that ever lived or a stay at home mom that feels invisible sometimes, the answer is going to be yes.

Duh. In my graduate student haze I momentarily lost sight of this truth.  I have tried to feel worthy by absorbing the words of others.  I have tried to feel worthy by puffing myself up with positive self talk.  But there is nothing that has ever made me feel so worthy and satisfied as the fulfilling love and promises of God.  What a timely intervention.

Being Illiterate Can Be Fun!

An undergrad that works on one of my research projects in the lab told me today that she is going to send me things “to keep me up to date.”  Wow.  Just wow.  I don’t really feel old, but for fun I like to joke about feeling old.  Sometimes, though, I do get pure glimpses of the ever increasing age gap between me and the undergraduate species. I have not been one of those young whipper-snapping undergrads for over a decade, so I am grateful that I have people like Jenna to keep me hip and in the loop and to help me take my mind off all of the things that my generation thinks about when we’re not napping – like BenGay, shuffleboard, and Early Bird dinner specials.

Today Jenna sent me a YouTube clip that apparently is “the latest thing.” (Karla, you don’t even have to like cats to appreciate this!)

Yes, any generation can adore the fresh, creative, slightly spastic mind of young, innocent children. My favorite part is “No…she’s…nooot!”  What’s yours?

The Persistence of Memory

La persistencia de la memoria (1931) is Salvaldor Dalí’s most famous painting.

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Dalí died exactly twenty years ago last month, and it’s too bad, because I would have loved to have invited him over for dinner this week.  I’m sure as we would have stood in the kitchen, sipping sangría, laughing, and wildly trilling our r’s while waiting for the paella to cook to perfection, he would have enjoyed the winter scape on our patio.  Our own nature-made Persistence of Memory.

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Groundhog Day

Scout: I saw my shadow.  Winter is over.  Let me in now, my job is done.

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Me: You have that backwards. When Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow, like he did this morning, that means we have six more weeks of winter.

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Looks like someone could use some cheering up, perhaps with a new catnip toy.  Either that or an all-expense paid trip to the Caribbean, but we’ll start with the fake mouse and see if that can’t subdue her inner cobra until spring arrives.

Hope

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The Valley of Megiddo in Israel.  In Hebrew it is called Har Megiddo, what we know as Armageddon.  It is 50 miles long and 50 miles wide.  Here is where the Bible says the battle will take place (Zechariah 12:11, Revelation 16:16) between good and evil, between Christ returned and the Antichrist.  Christ prevails in this battle (Revelation 17:14), and then in Revelation 20 it explains that after this Christ will reign on Earth while Satan is captive.

For a thousand years the Earth will have the privilege of knowing and living with a perfect government, made perfect by an omnipotent, omniscient, holy leader.  After Satan’s imprisonment during this thousand years, he will be released and will build up one last army to fight against Christ.  As depicted in Revelation 20, Satan and his army will lose this final battle and will be forever separated from God and God’s faithful followers.

Did you hear that?  Even with a perfect government in place Satan will be able to gather people who willingly choose to fight against the ruler, against Christ.  The problem has never been a poorly run government or an economic bailout or an unmerited war or an incapable leader – even in a perfect government people will revolt.  The core issue has always been and will always be the heart of man.  We are fallen and imperfect.  Our human sinful nature is in conflict with what is right and true and holy.

Today was a monumental day in our country.  We inaugurated the 44th President of the United States of America.  Today we inaugurated the first black President of this nation.  The events were impressive as usual, though there was an added flare of emotion as this marks another ‘first’ in U.S. history.

I did not vote for Barack Obama.  I do not agree with most of his policies and have a different philosophy on the role and purpose of government.  I will, however, do my best to respect him as our President.  I will try my best to submit to his rules and laws as long as they do not compromise my adherence to God’s highest authority.  I pray that the decisions President Obama makes will ultimately bring blessings upon our country.

I will not, however, join the voices that deify him.  There has been so much talk of hope around this election and this President.  I understand the desire to have a competent government that generally serves its people well, but in what exactly are we being asked to place our hope?  Hope in an imperfect government?  Hope in an imperfect man?  I can’t hope in that because I know it will inevitably leave me disappointed.  I am not trying to be cynical, but am merely acknowledging that no mere man and no one administration will ever wash away the world’s problems or the country’s problems.  Rather, my hope is in the One who can make this promise —

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. Revelation 21:4

President Obama is intelligent and well-spoken.  He will be a face of endless opportunities for children that think they have limits – they will think about what could be instead of simply what is now.  But there is only one perfect and holy One that can save me from my fallen, sinful state and there is only One that can uphold such lofty promises as offered in Revelation 21:4.  My hope is in him.

Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long. Psalm 25:4, 5

The Tide Is Coming In

The inspiration for this month’s masthead comes from the movie Cast Away (2000) with Tom Hanks.  After being stranded on a remote tropical island for five years, convinced that he would die alone on that island, a chunk of plastic from a port-a-potty washed ashore and gave Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks’ character) a sail…and hope.  He created a raft and set out to sea.  The waters were rough, but finally he was rescued.  When he returned to land and his former life, he not only dealt with the trauma of reacclimating, but he also discovered that his fiancee had married another man and had a child.  On that island he thought he would never see her again, but after the hope of the rescue and then the disappointment of reality, he lost his love all over again.  Chuck Noland said to a friend:

One day logic was proven all wrong because the tide lifted, came in, and gave me a sail. And now, here I am. I’m back in Memphis, talking to you. I have ice in my glass. And I’ve lost her all over again. I’m so sad that I don’t have Kelly. But I’m so grateful that she was with me on that island. And I know what I have to do now. I have to keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?

I love how he finds gratitude in the midst of his mourning.  Whether we order it or not, life comes with some rough seasons.  It’s a package deal.  There are times that the gloom, the pain, or the stress of life’s winters can be overwhelming.  There is not always a logical, tangible explanation for the strength that we are given to endure and overcome these hard days, and some times it seems like we aren’t even succeeding at this.  But we can, and we will.  We have to keep breathing.  For tomorrow the sun will rise, and who knows what the tide could bring?