Marginalisation and Anger

Last week Several months ago because half of this post got buried in my drafts folder for ages before I decided to resurrect/finish it this week, Patrick RichardsFink published a post called Dear Straight People. It was about, among other things, microaggressions and the reaction of straight people to queer anger and frustration- which is, of course, something that can be expanded to speaking of any relatively privileged person reacting to the anger of any relatively marginalised or oppressed person. It sparked off a long and involved conversation over on Facebook, and, to be honest.. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. I feel a lot of things about it. It seems to me that when we talk about this- and this is not the first conversation I’ve had this month on the topic- we talk past each other. We all speak from our own pain, reacting to the unfairness that we experience, and it’s tough to listen to others. Especially when, as we’re talking about anger, people are on edge. This post won’t be a conclusive statement or a manifesto on how we should all act towards each other forever. It’s about exploring what I see as some of the different threads and conversations going on, and trying to get to a place where we’re talking about the same things at the same times. I’m bringing in quotes and perspectives from earlier, not because I necessarily agree with all of them, but because I want them to be part of the conversation. Oh, and one note, before we start: Please don’t assume someone’s orientation or identity from what they write, unless it’s specifically stated in the text.

Do marginalised people get to express anger?

This is the most obvious question. Nobody disagreed with this: everyone accepted that marginalised people (we were largely talking about queer people but some referred to other experiences they have) get to feel upset, frustrated and angry, and that attempts to force us to be constantly polite are damaging and oppressive. Here’s Mona:

This actually applies to lots of minority issues, on different levels. (And I hope it is not perceived as disrespecting the original topic to mention this.) Many minority language cultures, for example, would do well with a bit of rightful anger, but all too often they are expected to remain polite in the face of everyday contempt and ridiculing.

And Maria:

This. I have a right to be angry. My anger is a perfectly natural and reasonable reaction. Why do my friends think I’m ‘too involved’ in something I literally cannot avoid, something I live every single day? I am allowed to be angry!

Okay. So we get to be mad. We get to have real feelings- that aren’t always pretty- about things that, as Maria said, we are forced to live with every single day. And as Mona said, it’s not just that marginalised people are expected to be polite. We’re expected to be polite when others are not. It is not okay that others get to ridicule us, hold us in contempt, spread lies about us, and make simple parts of our lives significantly more stressful, without backlash. Anger, then, isn’t just something that is ‘okay’. It’s a predictable response to intolerable situations. Constructive anger is fuel for our efforts to change things. And as for the anger we don’t or can’t channel into something productive, right then? I’ll leave you with Aoife B (yes, by the way, there are more Aoifes. Ireland is full of us):

People hurt, people get angry, people say things that they don’t mean, or don’t mean in that way. That’s being human. And we’re all human.

With that, let’s look into anger when it’s not necessarily constructive: anger as venting, anger as outbursts. Uglier kinds of anger. One thing before we go on: this is about anger. Not abuse. Not violence. Just anger and frustration. At no point am I going to condone any form of abuse by anyone. I don’t care how oppressed you are, you don’t get to be abusive, and you don’t get to use any kind of nonconsensual physical violence. Ever. End of story. Before we move on to the next question, let’s take a look at microaggressions, because this is where things start to become tricky. RichardsFink’s original post was about microaggressions and our responses to them, so let’s start from there for a little context:

Part of the experience of being marginalized is microaggressions — ambiguous situations where discrimination happens in ways that are not cut and dried. It’s been shown that these situations have a serious negative effect on us. It’s like walking around with the top layer of your skin abraded away, where something that wouldn’t bother you if it happens once in a while stings like a yellowjacket precisely because it keeps happening, over and over, and if you react to it, people who don’t deal with it all the time wonder “what’s their problem?” …People need to vent. People need to blow off steam. People in marginalized populations sometimes say things about the dominant culture in less than perfectly tactful ways. Say things like “many straight people suck, man.” Some even say things like “I hate straight people.” …if you say something like that in public, it makes straight people uncomfortable. And God forbid we should do anything that makes you uncomfortable, even for a moment, even if there is absolutely no way that anything we say can possibly cause you any damage whatsoever beyond that instant of minor discomfort.

Let’s summarise that: If you’re in a marginalised group, then you are likely to have to deal with all sorts of things every day that, taken individually, are fairly minor. When they don’t happen once, but ten or a hundred times, though? They become a big deal. If you’re wondering about the kinds of things I’m talking about, read a few of these. And then read a few more. And a few more. And more. If that doesn’t work? Picture yourself at work. You have something to get done. Someone pops to your desk for a moment to ask a question- no big deal. You answer and get back to your work. Now imagine that someone comes to ask you a simple question every five minutes for your entire work day (yes, I know this isn’t exactly far-fetched). A bit different, eh? Let’s move on to a tricky question.

Do marginalised people have a responsibility to ensure their anger is always proportional, directed at the right people, and fair?

Microaggressions can wear you down. They don’t call it the straw that broke the camel’s back for nothing, y’know? If someone has been dealing with microaggressions- be that constant questions at their desk, or constant comments about their appearance from strangers- all day, it’s not unheard-of for the 10th (or 100th) person to get snapped at. Even if they’re doing something entirely unrelated. And if you’ve been getting hassle almost exclusively from people of one group- say men, or straight people, or white people- it’s not uncommon to lash out back. Is this fair? Is it okay? Honestly, I don’t know. Katie says absolutely not- that while you need a space to vent, you’ve got to keep innocent bystanders out:

basically ….just because every person who has come into the office today has been rude to me. This does not mean I get to shout at the next person who comes in to the office and if all of those people just happened to be Men .. I am not going to assume that all of mankind are to blame I know they are not but some are the select few who were in the office today. When I go to vent about it later on de interwebs it is important to make that distinction for myself and others. Everyone has anger and I am not saying the authors anger is not justified I just don’t like the way they have chosen to deal with their anger by using it to defend their sweeping generalisations.

Lucy has a similar perspective:

While I fundamentally agree with the idea that the minority group has every right to be angry, I disagree that this fact gives anyone a free pass to say hateful things about another group. I am queer. I would never say that I hate straight people. I might say “I hate when people do XYZ, which tends to go along with straight privilege,” but I’m not going to say I hate a group of people, and I can’t support those who do say things like that.

It seems that for both Katie and Lucy it’s important to acknowledge that even when acting in a particular oppressive way is associated with membership of a certain group, group membership isn’t destiny and we need to point out that privileged groups aren’t oppressive monoliths.

This ties into a closely related point: oppression is not a thing perpetuated solely by the people in a powerful group against those in a marginalised one. Oppression is a thing perpetuated by society as a whole. It is internalised by people regardless of group membership. Sexism, for example, is not defined as a system in which men and only men oppress everybody else. It is a system where men are privileged above not-men due to both overt and subtle ubiquitous forces and tendencies. The patriarchy isn’t men. It’s all of us. That’s one hell of an academic distinction, though, when you’re the one dealing with the patriarchal (/kyriarchal) bullshit.

I think that there are two conflicting responsibilities here. Most of us are marginalised people in some way. We’re going to get angry. While it is not always possible or practical (anger is messy!), channelling that anger towards worthy targets is a good aim.

Expressing anger, however, does have another function.

Anger as Visibility

Anger is visible. Remember how I said that oppression is a thing perpetuated by all of us? One of the ways this happens is by our common denial that we have anything to do with it. Homophobes are the WBC, and I’ve never stood on the street telling queers they’re going to burn in hell. Racists wear white sheets, and the only white sheets I have are on my bed. Sexists are… you get the picture. Extreme forms of discrimination are easy to see. We’re nothing like that.

Except, of course, that extreme forms of discrimination have to be nurtured somewhere, and I’m afraid that that somewhere is, to one extent or another, everywhere. When the status quo is oppressive (it is), then staying neutral just keeps things as they are.

The status quo needs shaking up. Anger- even messy outbursts of I CAN’T FUCKING DEAL WITH THIS SHIT ANYMORE WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU PEOPLE DOING- shakes things up. Anger is a sign that someone’s been stressed to a breaking point. Anger reminds us that something is rotten. It knocks away a little of our complacency.

Of course we all should try to direct our anger in productive ways as much as possible. It’s not a disaster, however, when that doesn’t happen. And remember: this kind of anger doesn’t come from nowhere. It’s a response. As for dealing with that response..

What are the responsibilities of allies?

Let’s get one thing out of the way: I despise the word ‘ally’. Don’t like it. I’ll go into why in a lot of detail in another post, but in short: supporting marginalised groups you’re not a member of is a thing you do, not a thing you are. That said, (almost) all of us have some privilege, and if we’re working against that we’re likely to encounter anger sometimes. Ugly, messy, lashing-out anger. Let’s not sugarcoat this. Receiving anger hurts. But that hurt doesn’t happen out of context. Sean had this to say:

Someone from a minority making claims about white, straight, able-bodied men might still do emotional harm but it’s not very likely to contribute towards further discrimination. I admit I do get offended when people make sweeping claims like “I hate straight people” because I do my best to be open-minded and inform myself on issues that minority groups face but I guess at the end of the day I can put up with the odd comment like that because society isn’t exactly oppressing me. (Italics are mine)

While as oppressed people it’s often a good idea to focus our anger at appropriate targets when we can, when we are privileged it’s our responsibility to.. deal with it. Take some breaths. If we need to stew and simmer (we’re only human!), be careful about where we direct that hurt. Understand that whatever anger we’re receiving is magnified many times by the other crap the person has had to deal with. Accept that it’s not fair. It’s not fair for anyone involved. Understand that the hurt and outrage you’re feeling is happening because of all the unacceptable things that the person lashing out at you has to deal with. Direct your hurt and outrage there. The more privilege you have in a situation, the more responsibility you have to not lash back. On this one, I’ll leave you with Ernest:

Immediately reacting to an understandable-if-hyperbolic-and-ill-considered outburst of “AAARGH GROUP X ARE REALLY ANNOYING TODAY” by immediately asking “you don’t mean me?” or “not ALL…” pretty much means that you are now included in the subset of Group X who are annoying them today. If The Generic You feels it’s necessary to pull someone up for something they’ve said while angry, do it when the urge to strangle has died down. If for no other reason, they’re much more likely to listen.

Let’s get intersectional

This is where it gets complicated. If the world were divided neatly into privileged and oppressed, we could all portion out how much anger we can take (and from who) and how much venting we get to do. It’s not, though. It’s messy- messier than our anger, messier than the hurt that leads to that anger or that results from it.

As people who are hurt and angry, intersectionality, I think, reminds us that other people could be dealing with things as opaque to us as our experiences are to them. There’s no such thing as the Last Acceptable Prejudice. All prejudices are the Last Acceptable Prejudices. While they all hurt us in different ways, the fact of that harm is always there. Vent if we need to, but understand that not-in-my-group doesn’t equal never-hurt, that not all things are visible to bystanders, and that this person might have a load of microaggressions of their own tipping them over an edge you never knew existed.

But I think that can be a positive thing, as well. If we accept both the specificity of our own experiences and the almost-universality of forces that grind away at our edges, it makes absorbing the righteous anger of others easier. We know what it’s like to need to lash out, and we can use that understanding to respond with empathy, solidarity and support.

Most of the time, anyway. I hope. It’s complicated.

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Medicating the Jerkbrain and the Single Story of Mental Illness

Over at Greta Christina’s blog, there’ve been some.. interesting.. conversations recently around dealing with having mental illnesses that will probably need indefinite medication, and the responses other people have to that. Last week I talked here about my own experiences with having been on meds for my own jerkbrain and the things that allowed me to more-or-less recover.

I’m lucky. I don’t have to take meds anymore. But I can tell you that I’m a happy, drug-free person because I took my drugs when I needed them. I spent, all in all, the better part of a year on Lexapro, and while I’m glad I don’t have to deal with side-effects anymore (did you know Lexapro can make you need to pee all the damn time? Now you do.), those little pills gave me the leg-up I needed to get out of the worst of the maelstrom I was in and sort my shit out. I would not be in the place I am now if it weren’t for many things. One of them is those little pills.

It’s a crutch!

People talk about jerkbrain meds saying things like “it’s just a crutch”. They’re right. They’re a crutch. They prop up bits of your brain that aren’t working right now, just like a physical crutch stands in (seewhatIdidthere) for your leg when it’s too broken to take your weight itself.

Sometimes crutches are temporary. You’ve broken something badly and after a few weeks or months, a cast, and some moderately unpleasant physiotherapy you’re able to put it away and walk unaided. This is great!

Sometimes crutches aren’t temporary. You actually, really, genuinely, have a leg that is (now) intrinsically not able to hold you up while you walk, or that would lead to excruciating pain or balance difficulties or injuries if you did so. So you use the damn crutch, and you get from where you are to where you need to be, and that’s also great.

Sometimes jerkbrain meds are less like crutches than they are prostheses, correcting for things that your brain simply doesn’t do, bits that just aren’t there or don’t work the way you’d like them to in ways we can’t fix. And yeah, having a prosthesis is probably a lot more of a pain in the ass(/leg/arm) than having a limb that does the stuff without having to think about it. But that prosthesis? Is great.

The Single Story

There’s a lot that we, as a culture, don’t get about mental illnesses. We act like depression is the same as feeling down in the dumps, describe ourselves as ADD if we’re distracted one day, and bipolar if we’re hangry and need a snack to get back on the level.  One of the biggest things that we do, though, is act as if each of those labels actually describe just one thing- as if depression is like the measles, a specific thing that we can isolate and treat.

They’re not, though. I didn’t get diagnosed with depression after a bunch of blood tests and scans with fancy machinery. My doctor talked to me for a while, asked me a lot of questions about my life and how I was feeling, and ascertained that I was definitely suffering from the symptoms that we clump together with words like “depression” and “anxiety”. Having those words meant that I had a name for what was going on, and that we (me, my doctor, and the therapist he made an appointment for me with right there in that office, knowing that people you’ve just diagnosed with anxiety might not be people who are good at making scary phonecalls in a timely fashion) had a variety of tried and tested options to choose from for helping me to feel better. That was all.

There isn’t a perfect depressed person sitting in a vacuum in the Smithsonian. We’re not all shadows of the ideal depressed person flickering on the wall of Plato’s cave. Depression’s just a word we use to describe a phenomenon where some things happen together, and it varies as much as the people living with it.

It’s when we decide that mental illnesses (and for that matter, many physical illnesses) are one thing, that we start making harmful assumptions about what to do about  them. We all either are or know someone who had an unpleasant bout with a mental illness that they managed, after a hell of a lot of work, to get past. That doesn’t mean that all mental illnesses can be overcome with bootstraps and gumption, any more than it means that amputated limbs can be grown back because broken bones can heal.

Sometimes bones or minds are broken and heal up fine. Sometimes they can’t.

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Frozen’s world full of men

LE Frozen Dolls

LE Frozen Dolls (Photo credit: pullip_junk)

I love Frozen. I really, really love Frozen. I’ve watched the film… more than one time… subjected people to god-knows-how-many different versions of Let It Go, and the soundtrack to the film is the new soundtrack to my apartment.

I think that the message about true love is wonderful. I love how the primary relationship in the film is between two sisters, no matter how many others try to distract from it. I love that one of the major points the film makes is that even with the best intentions and a pure desire to care for and protect others, with the wrong perspective you can still mess things up horribly. And I love that the arc is all about figuring out who you are, embracing that, and learning how to temper the destructive aspects of your nature while bringing out the creative and powerful. I even adore Olaf- that walking, singing proof that underneath all of Elsa’s pain is someone warm and loving.

There’s just one small problem. Aside from Anna and Elsa, how many named speaking characters in the film are.. women?

I counted. Of the other (wonderful!) characters in the film, almost all are (snow/troll)men. There’s the loveable, grumpy Kristoff, sun-loving snowman Olaf, the obligatory prince Hans, the Duke of Weselton (who I only realised yesterday was played by Alan Tudyk!), Grand Pabbie the Troll King, canon-queer-character and shop owner Oaken, and the loving but misguided King of Arendelle. That’s seven, by the way.

Named female characters? There’s Elsa and Anna’s mum, the Queen of Arandelle. And there’s the troll Bulda. I can’t think of anymore, and neither can Wikipedia. Of those two, only one- Bulda- has a personality or lines that I can actually remember. As for the Queen? I had to watch it again, because I couldn’t remember a thing but knew she must have said something since Jennifer Lee’s down as playing her. I found three words: “She’s ice cold!”, but throughout the intro to the film, it’s the King who takes centre stage. He knows where to go to heal Anna. He speaks to the trolls- who, by the way, upon seeing the family simply say, “It’s the King!”, and never exchange words with the Queen. He shuts the castle down, and helps Elsa learn to conceal her powers. The Queen.. holds onto Anna and has some facial expressions.

Bulda, of course, is awesome. Even if she technically takes second fiddle to the Grand Pabbie when it comes to dialogue, Fixer-Upper is all Bulda. And let’s face it- it’s the songs, not the dialogue, that you’re going to be humming along to for the next few months.

That’s all. Aside from Anna and Elsa, the only women we hear from are their mum (who says three words in the entire film and is dead by the end of the second song), and Kristoff’s (delightful) adoptive mum. In this film all about the relationship between two sisters, men get to be princes, kings, fathers, dastardly dukes, snowmen, shop owners, ice traders, and even reindeer. Women? Women can be princesses and mothers.

It’s sad that even in a film like Frozen, with its wonderfully positive story based on two very different women, two-thirds of the characters we see are men. It’s also sad that it this is such an ordinary thing that I didn’t notice it for weeks after watching it for the first time.

I wonder why the world of Frozen is so overpopulated with men? Is it because the writers felt that people wouldn’t watch a film, even one primarily about women, without a background full of male characters? That the only way to get men and boys to watch a film is to have the majority of people in it be men? Or was it far less deliberate- simply that the default for any character is male, and without a good reason to do something else, that’s how they’ll stay? Either way, it’s sad. Not just because of Frozen- this is just one story after all, and it would be ludicrous to expect every story we write to have precisely proportionate numbers of people from every group we come from. It’s more because this is one small drop in an ocean where we are so used to half the world being grossly underrepresented both in numbers and variety that we don’t even notice it happening anymore. Even in a story that’s all about that half of the world.

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Cherry trees.

I walked home lateish last night after a couple of drinks in the local with my derbywife. It was a warm enough night that walking home felt comfortable. We split up at the river, I set off down my road.

I don’t feel scared walking at night anymore. I don’t feel scared in the daytime, either. Walking home last night I realised two things. I am happy. I was not happy before.

Two years ago my life felt impossible. I was still reeling from the losses of the months before, spending my days in a job that felt pointless and that I didn’t have the money to leave. I would wake up in the night in terror- not from any nightmare, but from the idea that I could be stuck. That my life wouldn’t get better. That five or ten or twenty years from then, I wouldn’t have escaped, and that I would have wasted these only years I’ll ever get. I woke up in the night in tears because I knew there was so much more joy to be had in life and I felt myself hanging of a precipice of never experiencing it.

It feels overdramatic, really, but there you go. That was real, for a while.

A year and a half ago my attempts at making things better- studying for another qualification, finding another job, dragging myself out of the pit I was in, grasping for something- left me one morning sitting on the floor of my apartment, finally giving in after the tension and the terror had built up enough that I couldn’t eat, sleep or even keep water down for long. My desperation to get out had me feeling that this one chance was the only chance. I had to grasp it and take it or else I’d be trapped again, falling back into that utter pointlessness and drudgery and I couldn’t take it and in the midst of this another death, this time of someone far too young, and that morning it became too much. I quit.

I quit, and my friends were there to catch me. Even though I had failed. Even though I was someone who patently couldn’t cope with my life right then. That morning, a friend of mine was there to hold me and to tell me that it was okay to fall apart. That evening, two. I’ve never known so suddenly that I had made the right decision. My friends plonked themselves down next to me on the sofa. My family talked to me on the phone. That was the week I found an incredible therapist who coached me through the next year of my life. I had no idea what I was going to do next, but for the first time in so long, I felt something close to safe.

I think that was the moment when I realised that being an adult doesn’t mean never needing help.

A year ago, things were getting a little better. A lot better, in fact. After I quit my job (a few weeks before the lease on my apartment was up), another friend offered me her spare room to live in for six months. Those months and that space meant the world to me- every day I knew that I was loved and cared for and that the people in my life felt that I was worthwhile. We would curl up on the sofa with TV box sets and a bottle of wine and share our days and in those moments my loneliness and tension started, oh so slowly, to dissolve. I started to write again, blogging almost daily, words and ideas and enthusiasms that actually seemed to connect with others in a way that I have never stopped feeling astounded by.

Six months ago.. six months ago, another decision just for me. I moved out of the city into this town for no good reason other than that I wanted to and that the friends moving with me were people I thought I’d be happy living with. Turns out that making decisions purely because you think they’ll make you happy can work out pretty damn well. I knew the internship I was working on was going to end soon. I knew that I wanted out of that- that I wanted to be paid for the work that I do, to be able to volunteer my time as I saw fit, and that I wanted to live somewhere with room, sky, the sea, and green.

And yesterday night I walked home and knew that right now, I am happy. I live with people who are not only wonderful, but who are compatible with how I live my home life. I wake up in a bright and spacious room with the sun streaming in my window, in a home that feels comfortable and safe. I have a job where every so often the hours I’m at work provide the highlights of my day. I spend my evenings with incredible people working my ass off in a sport that builds me up and fills me with inspiration, love and power. And.. and now, I have time to write again.

Two years ago, I was terrified, plagued with nightmares of dying at the end of a pointless life and the plodding, dreary decades in between. Now? I look to today, to next week and see every day filled with meaning and joy. I got here. It’s okay. I’m okay.

Shouldn’t you be happy if guys are paying attention to you?

From I Once Had A Guy Tell Me:

I never really got much attention from guys in high school. They either made fun of me or just ignored me. When I started college,I started getting catcalled a lot on the street. I told my best guy friend that it made me uncomfortable and his response was was,”Why? Shouldn’t you be happy that guys are finally paying attention to you?”

There’s a premise in that statement, and it’s ugly.

You see, we don’t (need to) seek attention from people who we see as equals. If we are equals, we pay attention to each other. Or we don’t. It’s not a big deal either way, unless we’ve a preexisting connection. The people we (need to) seek attention from? Are those who, in one sense or another, have a higher social status than us.

If I need to talk to my boss, I make an appointment. If my boss needs to talk to me, they just pop over to my desk and say hey.

The idea that women should always be happy if men pay attention to us, regardless of who those men are? Would be utterly meaningless if we were seen as equal.

It’s a little icky.

Hey there people!

Just a quick update to say: sorry for the hiatus! I have some real life things going on at the moment- all good stuff, by the way! With a new job and derby taking over my life and leaving me an exhausted, happy mess at the end of the day, I’m taking a break from writing for a few weeks. 

See you all on the other side!


Sports and the Death of Impostor Syndrome

Here’s something I love about the whole doing-sports thing I’ve gotten into lately: it completely wrecks your impostor syndrome.

Like most mortals out there, I suffer from a sometimes-paralysing sense that, unlike everyone else in the world, I’m just making it all up as I go along, flying by the seat of my pants, and someday someone’s gonna find out I’ve been faking it all this time. If you told me that everyone reading this blog is in fact my mother, logged in from a shedload of different locations, and maybe some people who just showed up to laugh at my terrible writing? A little part of my brain would believe you. Sounds legit, like.

I’m no expert (not even pretending to be) but it seems to me like impostor syndrome is fed by two big things: the fact that you can’t hear the uncertainties in everyone else’s head, and the way that the validation we get for most of the things we do is so fuzzy. Take here: I know some people read this. I know how many people read it. I haven’t a clue what the vast majority of you actually think of it, ’cause we don’t live in a world where people grade every article they read on the internet.

Sports are different. There are skills I can do (most of the time, at least) today that I couldn’t do a month ago. I know that I can do those things, because I try and do them and don’t fall on my ass. Or I try and do them and only fall on my ass half the time. At the gym, I know I can pick up heavier things than I used to be able to pick up, because when I go to pick them up, they actually leave the floor. I can skate eleven more laps in 5 minutes than I could this time last year, and I know that ’cause I skate as fast as I can for 5 minutes and count my damn laps.

It’s real, concrete, physical skills, and physics doesn’t lie. I can’t tell myself I’m faking those abilities, ’cause I know I don’t have a hidden mechanical exoskeleton or a cunningly disguised extra system of weights and levers helping me along.

And that’s a really nice thing. I’m not sure how much it translates to everything else- if after a while, your brain gets used to the idea of actually being able to do the things you can do, and quits worrying about whether everyone’ll find out you’re faking the stuff you aren’t faking at all. But it’s still nice.