Saturday, June 24, 2017

Do People Mistrust Introverts?

A Common Perception?

My husband and I have been binge-watching Dexter lately. We have made it to the fourth season, and Dexter is now married to Rita. A huge chunk of Dexter's time in season four is devoted to finding some precious alone-time in the midst of an overwhelming amount of marital bliss. The implication, of course, is that serial killers are all loners and since Dexter is a serial killer he needs to spend an unusual amount of time alone.

Hitting a Little Too Close to Home

It seems to be a common stereotype: that there's something unhealthy or even creepy about spending too much time alone. There's that whole "it's the quiet ones you have to watch out for" mentality that seems to be, well, everywhere. You see it a lot on TV. The guy who lives alone and keeps to himself turns out to have a freezer full of human entrails which he plans to cook and serve at the restaurant where he works. There's also the "crazy cat lady" stereotype. You know, the woman who was too nuts to be able to keep a husband, so now she lives alone in her cat-pee soaked house and knits all day. Oh yeah, and when one of her cats dies she has it stuffed so she can put it beside her bed and look at it while she falls asleep at night. There are other "loner" stereotypes out there, but I won't name them all. I'm sure your mind will be able to fill in the blanks on its own.

What bothers me about this is that I'm one of those loners. I was the kid who was always in my room playing by myself. So much so that my mom and my grandma would sit together and speak in hushed tones about how unhealthy it was for me to always be by myself in my room with the door closed. I think it was the closed door that raised the most red flags with my family. Not that I was doing anything my parents wouldn't have approved of. I was really a pretty well-behaved child. But they assumed I must be up to no good if I needed to hide what I was doing from everybody else.

The truth is I was just an incredibly private person. I didn't want my parents to see me dancing in front of my mirror to my favorite song. I didn't want them to catch me re-reading a favorite chapter from one of my favorite books for the hundredth time. I didn't want an audience while I experimented for hours on end with new hairstyles. I wanted to do all that stuff far away from the prying eyes of my family and anyone else who might be looking.

An Introvert For Life

I still value that level of privacy. I usually try to be the first one up in the my house in the morning so I can enjoy an hour or so of blessed alone time. What do I do with this alone time? Sometimes I check my Facebook feed. Sometimes I watch television. I might read. Or write. Or squeeze in a little exercise. It doesn't matter what I'm doing. The point is I want to do it alone. I need to do it alone. If I can't have at least a little bit of time in the day to be alone, it makes me feel crazy.

Society's Reaction

Have you ever been in a group of people that included an introvert? Chances are you have. They're everywhere, after all. Have you ever seen that introvert go off and sit in some quiet place all alone? Again, chances are you have. What is your initial reaction when that happens? Do you assume the person is upset or angry with you? Do you feel an obligation to go talk to that person because obviously no one actually wants to sit alone when there's comradery to be had?

Don't get me wrong...sometimes people do excuse themselves from a group because they are feeling sad, or because someone said something they found offensive. Sometimes the person sitting alone actually is hoping you'll come over and try to talk it out. But, speaking as an introvert, I can tell you right now that most if the time if I'm sitting by myself I'm just enjoying the beautiful surroundings and taking a moment to get lost in my own thoughts. And, for me personally, if I really were upset you wouldn't see me sitting by myself because I'd probably be locked in a bathroom or tucked out of sight in some other safe place where no one could see me cry. Because, again, I'm a private person and I don't want the world watching all of that.

What do you think? Does society view introverts with suspicion, or am I just overreacting to something I saw on TV?

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Overused Trope I Just Can't Get Enough Of

Not Everyone Will Agree With Me

One of the few scathing reviews I've read of the Harry Potter books slammed them for basically telling a "chosen one" story, claiming that that particular plot device has been used so many times no one wants to read about it anymore. I, and quite a few other Harry Potter fans, beg to differ. If done well, the chosen one trope can make for some pretty good entertainment.

I loved Harry Potter. Okay, so those books have a good deal more to recommend them than just the fact that they involve a "chosen one". World-building being at the top of that list. But I still like the chosen one aspect of the story. I also liked that aspect of The Matrix, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Ender's Game, and the list goes on.

Figuring Out an Ongoing Mystery

I've written multiple times that seasons 1 and 2 are my favorite seasons of Supernatural. Now I think I'm finally figuring out the primary reason why. It's because in the first two seasons of the show, Sam is the chosen one. Everything bad that's happening to the brothers is all about Sam. He was born with an important destiny. Okay, so the same idea was used throughout seasons 4 and 5 as well, but it was different. It wasn't just Sam who had the great destiny. It was Dean as well. It was like the writers felt sorry for Dean because Sam got so much attention in the first two seasons, so they gave him some great important task to complete so he wouldn't get jealous. Well it didn't work for me. There can only be one chosen one. After season 2, Sam was no longer the only one who was special, and I didn't care for that.

A Lifelong Attraction to the Trope

Maybe it's my Christian upbringing. After all, I've spent my life going to church once a week to celebrate the world's most famous chosen one. And Jesus is not the only story in the Bible of someone who was destined for greatness from the day he was born. There's also David. And Moses. Samuel. Isaac. Again, the list goes on and on. So maybe my love of these types of stories comes from my belief that God has a plan. That he calls us to do great things in the world.

I could also be wishing that I had some important destiny awaiting me, so when I see that destiny achieved, by someone who in the beginning is just an average guy, in a book or movie, I get to live vicariously through that character and that feels good. Who knows. I just know I like it.

My Own Version of It

I think this comes out to some degree in my own writing. Though I've never written the "reluctant hero saves the world" trope, still the heroes in my stories are the only people who are able to resolve the conflict. David in Amelia's Children is the only one who can solve the murder mystery because he has a psychic connection to the killer. Damian has to be the one who defeats the bad guys in Primogénito because he is the firstborn son of a firstborn son, and that is how the magic is passed down in his family. Road to Yesterday may deviate from this format a bit, but still there's the idea that the entire purpose of Alex's life is to save the life of his brother in the wake of a devastating car accident. Of course, the ending goes off in a slightly different direction, but the hint of the chosen one trope is still there.

So there you have it. My dark little literary secret. Do you have one of your own? I'd love to read about it in a comment.


Thursday, June 8, 2017

What Made 70s Movies Look So 70s? Part 2: Some Answers!

Years of Wondering

I encourage you to read the previous post I wrote on this topic, where I discussed everything I already knew about 70s movies, but lamented that there was this whole set of information out there that I had been unable to find. Basically, my lingering questions revolved around the use of cameras and film. Was there something different about the shooting process in the 70s that gave the movies their distinctive look? I had done numerous Google searches which had all turned up nothing. Then I finally stumbled upon some real answers.

Finding the Correct Search Words

I had googled every conceivable combination of words related to 70s cinema. Or at least I thought I had. But then one day I decided to type in "70s cinematography", something I hadn't thought to search before. One of the first links which showed up was this one. I'm linking to it because it contains a lot more detail than I'm ready to provide here. After all, I'm not an expert on the subject, and I don't want to put wrong information out there. Just follow the link, then scroll down to the response by David Mullen, and there you will find information about 70s movies that you never knew you wanted to know.

It Was the Film After All

No, it wasn't just the film that gave 70s movies their "look". If you read that earlier post, you'll know about some other trends that were popular in the cinematography world during that decade. But, as I stated in that article, those trends did not explain everything I was noticing about 70s movies. There was more going on, and most of it related to the film stock itself. Here are just a few things I've found.

The Death of Technicolor

Do you know what Technicolor was? Or were you like me? Did you grow up hearing that word, and seeing it in the credits of old movies, but never had a clue what it actually meant? If you already know this information, just ignore me while I show off my previous ignorance. For those of you who are just like me, keep reading. It's pretty fascinating.

Technicolor was not just a fancy term filmmakers applied to movies shot in color. It was a very specific process for making a movie. Here's an interesting link to some basic information about what Technicolor was. My understanding, and true film nerds can correct me if I get any of this wrong, is that the process employed special cameras which recorded three different light beams, one red, one blue, and one green, onto three different reels of black and white film. Then the three films were processed and made into three black and white prints. Then the prints were colored with dye which corresponded with the color light they recorded. Finally the three different color films were layered on top of each other to create a color movie.

My mind was blown. They were making color movies on black and white film? How did I never know that? How many other people out there never knew that? Does anyone who is not a filmmaker or a colossal nerd know that? Anyway, it's just about the coolest thing I've ever read. Even surpassing my amazement when I finally found out how filmmakers synced the soundtrack to the film reel, and that blew my mind too, I must say.

So Technicolor had a certain look to it. It is often referred to as "glorious Technicolor" because of the vivid hues the process was able to produce on a movie screen. But Technicolor, it seems, was crazy expensive and a royal pain in the butt. So when Kodak started putting out color film stock which looked just as good, or almost as good, as Technicolor, the process was gradually abandoned, much as shooting movies on actual film has gradually been abandoned in the past fifteen years. A big difference is that real film (or reel film, if you like cheesy puns!) has a huge entourage comprised of people who are determined not to let it die. Technicolor had no such following, and so the process was discontinued in the mid-seventies.

So my new theory, and I could be wrong because I have not had time to watch all the movies I think may be examples of this, is that the 70s movies which have that "look" I'm talking about were shot on the new color film stock, and therefore were not Technicolor. I have plans to investigate this further, but it takes time to watch all those movies, and then research which film stock and what kind of camera was used. So stay tuned. I may have more information on this topic later.

Lower Lighting

Remember that discussion thread I linked to at the top of the post? It goes into quite a bit of detail about the lighting conditions a lot of filmmakers were experimenting with in the seventies. Not that low key lighting was a new thing. Film noir had been playing around with light and shadow for decades, but 70s movies were not film noir. They were just dark. And part of that has to do with the fact that people were shooting in lower lighting than was recommended for the type of film they were using. Basically, what you see in a lot of movies from this decade is underexposed film. I had suspected this for years, but could not find confirmation of my suspicions until my serendipitous Google search a couple of weeks ago.

The Evolution of Color Film

Before the seventies, most color movies were shot in Technicolor, which made color film stock a relatively new trend. So 70s movies looked different from 60s movies primarily for that reason. But the companies that made the film stock were constantly perfecting the process and putting out new products, each of which had their own look. So by the time the eighties rolled around, color cinematography had come a long way and the movies had a different look than those which had come out just a few years before.

Still Learning

So this is my best understanding of 70s cinema. If I've gotten anything wrong, or if I've left out any important details (because I'm not aware of those details), please leave a comment and let me know. I'm always open to learning more about this fascinating topic.


Monday, June 5, 2017

Indie Book of the Month: June 2017

What reviewing indie books has taught me again and again is the need to put aside my preconceived notions of what I like to read and to open my mind to something new. The first book I reviewed on this blog was a romance. I was happily reveling in my identity as Someone Who Does Not Like Romance when a little book about a ballerina took me by surprise. Then a couple of months later I fell head-over-heels in love with a cozy mystery, a genre I had always considered too light and formulaic for my taste. Over and over again these indie books have made me revise my concept of What I Like to Read.

This time it was an urban fantasy with...gulp...vampires and werewolves. I almost rejected it outright just from reading the blurb, but my submission policy clearly states that I will at least read the sample chapters before making a decision. I wasn't expecting much. So many people have come along, in the aftermath of Twilight, trying to write the vampire/werewolf story, that I was sure nothing original could come out of the genre, but I was wrong. This month's book proved me wrong.

The Book:


Once Lost Lords by Stephan Morse.

I've stated in the past that it is often the world-building that draws me into a story. This book established its world in the very first paragraph. The very first sentence, actually, with the mention of elves and their tendency to form addictions. So while I was skeptical about reading a book featuring mythical humanoid beings, I knew from the start that this one had something different to offer.

Characters are the second thing that will hook me on a book, and I admit I liked Jay from the start. It was weird. I don't normally fall for the rugged, rough around the edges type, but there was something about him that caught my attention. It made me want to keep reading. To find out more. What's his backstory? What makes him tick? And what were the details of the frightening situation with his vampire ex-girlfriend that made him leave town and stay away for four years? I needed to know, so I read on and was not disappointed with where that line of questioning took me.

I'm also a sucker for a good mystery, so Jay's quest to find out who or what he is became my quest as well. I was a little disappointed that those answers were not fully explained in this book, but it just makes me curious to read the next installment.

So if you're looking for an urban fantasy that contains everything that made Twilight so popular, without relying on the worn-out tropes that made us all sick of Twilight after just a couple of years, check out this book. It is available on Amazon.


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

What I Learned From My 1st (Semi) Professional Portrait Session in Over 10 Years

I wrote in a previous post about my life-long love of photography. It's an art form I've pursued on an off over the years, often not going deep enough to learn all that I need to learn if I really want to be good. I think that's changing now. My understanding of things like composition, ISO, and color temperature has matured to the level that I might really be able to start accomplishing some great things. At least I hope so. Images like this one, captured this weekend at a portrait session I did for a friend, seem to promise good things:


But, amazing as that photo is, there were quite a few I'd rather forget. But I'm not going to forget, but it's the bad ones, rather than the good ones, that taught me valuable lessons about being a photographer. Here are a few of those lessons.

One: I Need a Digital Camera

If you read that earlier post, you know I'm still working with film at the moment. That is more by necessity (a new camera would be expensive) than by choice. Though I am adamantly opposed to the idea that we should just let film go the way of the dinosaur, and would love to be one of those artists out there on the front lines fighting for the survival of the medium, if I ever want to make money taking pictures, I need a digital camera. It's not just that digital photography is more cost-efficient, since there is no need to purchase film or pay for processing. There are other reasons for using digital. A photographer with a digital camera in her hands has complete control over her photo. The sun dips behind a cloud? Just change the camera settings and you're ready to shoot with lower lighting. If that happens with film, you're still obligated to finish the roll, and I found out the hard way this weekend that it can be quite the challenge trying to get that camera to behave. If you're shooting for your own pleasure, that's not an issue, but if you've got someone paying you to make them look good, full control over the final image is a good thing.

Two: Everyone Needs to Spend Time Working With Film

Did I just contradict myself? I don't think so. Just because I covet the versatility of a digital camera, that doesn't mean I can't see the value of doing things the old-fashioned way. And pretty much every serious photographer and filmmaker agrees that the lessons learned from shooting on real film are invaluable. When you're shooting film, you're basically shooting blind. You don't have that nifty little display screen on the back of your camera to tell you if the image is going to be too dark or too washed out. All you have is a view-finder, and, beyond composition and focal length, that doesn't tell you much. So if you're using film, you have to know your camera. You have to have an almost intuitive understanding of lighting and color temperature so you can make the adjustments necessary to getting a great shot, because what you see when you look through the lens isn't going to be the full picture.

Three: Don't Be Afraid to Override Your Camera's Automatic Controls

Cameras come with automated settings because sometimes they know more about taking a great picture than you do. Especially if you don't have an ambient light meter (which I don't) those auto controls can be a great asset. But sometimes your camera will make weird decisions. This weekend I was shooting in lower lighting than I'd anticipated because a dark cloud rolled in just as I was arriving on the scene and did not roll away again for the remainder of the evening. I was also using a different brand of film than I was accustomed to, and my camera was screaming in protest. Its auto controls were telling it that I needed to use a slow shutter speed to let in enough light to capture a decent image. Because of that, the first few pictures I took came out like this:


This one was a big disappointment because, composition-wise, it's probably the best shot I got of my three subjects. But, of course, good photography is about a heck of a lot more than just composition.

The fact is, there was plenty of light. I could have manually set the shutter speed and ended up with an awesome picture, but I trusted my camera instead. Lesson learned. The camera isn't always right.

Four: Always Be Prepared

So, as it turns out there was more than enough light for my photo shoot, and if I had just trusted my instincts instead of letting my camera make decisions for me, I would not have had to suffer the embarrassment of having the blurry image you see above. But what if you're shooting with an old-fashioned film camera and the lighting shifts significantly? You've just loaded a roll of 200 speed film, but suddenly what you need is 800. I could easily have adapted to that situation, if only I'd thought ahead a little better. The truth is, I own two cameras. So why the heck didn't I bring two rolls of film, at two different speeds, load one roll into one camera and one roll into the other? That way I would have been prepared for whatever the sun and the clouds decided to throw at me. I'm sure the experienced photographers reading this are shaking their heads right now and thinking, "Well, duh!" But the truth is you don't know how to anticipate a situation until you've been in the situation, so I didn't do that. Of course, if my camera had been digital, it would have been a moot point anyway.

Five: Part of Me Would Love to Try Traditional Black and White Photography

You saw the picture at the top of the page, right? Well, that wasn't the original image. This is what initially came out of my camera:


Still a nice picture, but there's just something about the high-contrast black and white version that speaks to some deep part of my soul. What I did was load the original color image into my editing software, reduce the light, increase the contrast, and add a vignette. Those are all things that have been done in the black and white darkroom for years. Doing it on my computer somehow felt like cheating.

Six: Part of Me Never Ever Wants to Try Traditional Black and White Photography

In that previous post I linked to at the top, I said that I've never set foot in a darkroom. However, I have read extensively about the process. I know the kinds of things that would be involved in getting an image like the one at the beginning of this post. I can't say I know how time consuming it is, because I really can't fathom it, but I know that it took me all of five minutes to get the picture looking the way I wanted it on my computer. In a darkroom it would take much, much longer. And that doesn't even factor in the time for cleanup afterward. So while I feel somehow cheap and dirty for taking the easy way out and manipulating my photo digitally, I still don't know if I want to actually get down and dirty in a darkroom. My stress level is going up right now just thinking about it.

Seven: Learning From a Book Is Not the Same as Actual Experience

I thought I knew everything I needed to know about lighting and ISO and shutter speed and f-stops because I'd read about them in books. Even experimented to some degree with my camera. But until you have that moment out in the field where your camera decides to go all screwy, you really have no idea what any of it even means. There are some things that can only be learned through trial and error, and I certainly experienced some trials and made a few errors this weekend. But that's okay because next time I'll know the proper way to respond.


Friday, May 19, 2017

Will Elsa Ever Stop Singing?

Elsa has been singing in my head lately. We all know what she's singing. She's singing that song the world went crazy over a few years ago but was absolutely sick of six months later. Well, I never got sick of that song. It became an anthem of sorts for me, and even a year later, after the rest of the world moved on, or wished they could move on, I was still happily listening to Elsa sing. But just the same, there are moments when I wish she would shut up, because when she gets going on letting it go, it's a signal that my mind is going in some painful directions. So I spend my life in constant pursuit of ways to keep her from opening her big frozen mouth.

My Life's Soundtrack

I've always used songs to express feelings I couldn't quite work through on my own. This began when I was a child and continues to this day. Elsa is just the latest manifestation of the little voice that speaks to me during troubling times and helps me find my way.

My First Midlife Crisis

I spent my teen years wondering if I would die at twenty because I had a midlife crisis when I was ten. Okay, I didn't seriously think I was dying, but I did think ten was awfully young for a midlife crisis. What I know now is that most kids go through something similar to what I experienced. We can all look back on that moment when we realized that the world is not as stable as we thought it was and things are not as permanent as we thought they were. It happened for me when I was ten. The trigger was my parents' decision to remodel our house.

This rocked my whole little world. All my life, the kitchen had been one color. There had always been the same carpet on my bedroom floor. The same wallpaper in the living room. Those things formed the foundation upon which my life was built. It never occurred to me that they might one day change. Then all of a sudden my parents are looking at paint colors and talking about restoring the hardwood floor which lurked under the dirty brown carpet. It was my first realization that with the passage of time comes change and that we can neither stop change nor stop time. It was my first realization that there was no way I could stop myself from getting old and dying. And there was a song that played in my mind on a constant loop whenever I pondered these possibilities. Fly Like an Eagle by The Steve Miller Band. The line that I couldn't get out of my head, no matter how hard I tried, was "Time keeps on slippin' into the future." Creeped me out like you wouldn't believe.

My First Broken Heart

At fourteen I liked a boy who did not reciprocate my feelings. In fact, he went through a phase where he pretended I didn't even exist. This time it was John Mellencamp who sang to me. "Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone."

The Defining Moment of My Life

We all have that experience that changes the course of our lives and changes us at the same time. That moment we can look back on and point to and say, "There. That's when everything changed." Sometimes it's a good experience, but I think a lot of times it's something bad. Something we have to fight our way back from. For me, it was the loss of a job. I've blogged about it a couple of times in the past. If you're interested, you can read about it here and here. A lot of songs reverberated in my head after that happened.

In the immediate aftermath of my shameful dismissal from my dream job, I desperately needed a new creative outlet, so I fled into community theatre. I immediately got a small part in a local production of the musical Blood Brothers. There were two parts of this musical that seemed to speak directly to my situation. Because I found out in October that I was losing my job, I couldn't stop repeating the lines from Blood Brothers that say, "It was one day in October when the sun began to fade, and winter broke the promise that summer had just made. It was one day in October when the rain came falling down, and someone said the bogey man was seen around the town."

I was also dealing the fact that I was the mother of two small children. My job had been part-time, which I considered the perfect arrangement. I could be a stay-at-home mom and have an identity outside of the home at the same time. When the job was gone, so was my sense of who I was. So another segment of Blood Brothers refused to let me go. "There's a girl inside the woman who's trying to get free. She's washed a million dishes. She's always making tea. They think she's just a mother with nothing left inside, who swapped her dreams for drudgery the day she was a bride. But the dreams were not forgotten, just wrapped and packed away, with the hope that she would take them out and dust them off one day." I cried a good many tears over that one, I can tell you.

Enter Elsa

It's taken a long time to get past losing that job. It's been ten years and I'm still not completely over it. I teared up just now writing about it, and I'm still trying to figure out who I am in its absence. So I've tried a little of this and  little of that in an effort to reclaim my lost identity. I was at a particularly low point when I saw Frozen for the first time, and when she sang Let It Go I almost lost it. Right there in front of my husband and kids. And I never lose it in front of my husband and kids. So I kept it together for the remainder of the movie, then went to the back of the house where I locked myself in the bathroom and cried for fifteen minutes or so.

I sang Let It Go nearly every day for a year. And I probably ugly cried every single time I sang it. Any time I found myself alone in the house I would look up the karaoke video on YouTube so I could sing it to actual music. I learned to play it on piano. I was obsessed. But the obsession was not healthy. The song affected me the way it did because it spoke to a deep longing inside of me. A longing to be noticed in the world. To be respected. To be someone. When I'm feeling fulfilled in my life, Elsa stops singing. I don't need her any more. She's been relatively quiet lately, but just the other day I got to thinking about all the things I wish I could do with my life if only I had the time and the money and the connections. And she started up again. The singing is relatively quiet right now. Really, more like humming in the background. But if I don't find an outlet for this energy she'll start belting it out and, much as I love the song, I don't want to take my heart to the place where it goes when Elsa tells me to let it go. It's not a pleasant place for my heart to be.



Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Annual Birthday Buzzkill

We all have birthdays. There's no avoiding them. When we're kids we look forward to them, not only for the party and the presents, but for the added prestige of being a year older. After all, when we're kids, being older is cool. And it brings with it certain exciting milestones. Starting school. Entering the double digits. Becoming a teenager. Going to high school. Getting a driver's license. Becoming a legal adult. Purchasing adult beverages without putting the seller in danger of being shut down for selling alcohol to an underage person.

Once we hit our twenties, some of the excitement begins to diminish. We do look forward to the day people will take us seriously in our careers, and that doesn't often happen until we get closer to thirty, but for the most part the age-dependent milestones are over. Yes, we can get married and have kids, but we can do that pretty much any time, so our birthdays have no affect on it.

Then we hit thirty, and instead of bringing us prestige and respect, our birthdays just bring us one step closer to being middle-aged. Then we hit our mid thirties and the big four-oh looms on the horizon. Then all of a sudden and with no apparent warning, we go from our mid thirties to our late thirties. That happened to me yesterday. I turned thirty-eight.

As if that is not enough of a buzzkill, once we become adults, our birthdays bring with them certain responsibilities. Car tags expire every year on our birthdays. So every year we rush down to the tag office and pay a fee to avoid getting slapped with a big fat "Happy Belated Birthday" traffic ticket. I'm depressed already.

But...speaking of cars...did you know that our driver's licenses expire every five years or so? On our birthdays? So we've just paid our tag fee, and now we have to go pay another fee so we can legally drive the car we've just gotten updated papers on. And this fee buys us a not-so-glamorous photo shoot. Seriously, what do they do to driver's license photos to make them look so darn crappy? And to add insult to injury, most of us gain weight as we age, so we have to be reminded of that as we're filling out the physical description section of the renewal form.

So we reach the end of our big day feeling exhausted, fat, and old. But then our husbands let us binge-watch the TV series of our choice and things begin to look up. Just as long as they don't bring us a birthday cake. Because we're feeling fat and cake won't help us.