This post features depression! Anxiety! And, bonus! a picture of the late Rocco!

The last month or so has been really difficult for me. I’m not one to share too much in a public forum, but basically I ended up having a mental/nervous breakdown. There was uncontrollable crying, panic attacks, inability to eat, and the urge to self-harm. It lasted about 5 days and it was the death of my brother’s–and my–dog, Rocco, that sparked it. He was 13, but had just had eye surgery and was able to see up to 50% so he was happier. His seizures, and consequent death, were sudden. He was a good pup.

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With the support of a daily Xanax pill and my friends, I was able to get through it without harming myself or causing any other damage. I did make some big changes in my life because of that, including leaving a job that I didn’t like and reenrolling back into the PhD program with a new director for my dissertation. My short time at the new job reminded me that I want to be in front of a classroom–that’s where I can actually help students and that’s where I feel the best. These changes, along with my breakdown, mentally and physically exhausted me. I’m lucky enough to have awesome parents, cause they bought me tickets to come home for two weeks to relax and refresh before going back to the academic world.

This experience made me think about my mental illnesses. I’ve been diagnosed with depression and general anxiety disorder. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not much. While I wrote this my first thought was “who isn’t diagnosed with one of those?” During my breakdown, I was still going to work and it was one of the hardest things I had to do. I kept thinking, “If only my illness was physical, then I would have a legitimate reason to go home and take care of myself.” Now that I’m out of the fog, I’m angry. I’m angry at myself for thinking like that and I’m angry that the society I live in does not see mental illness as “legitimate.” I have three really good friends who have physical illnesses that affect their daily lives: one has rheumatoid arthritis, another has Hashimoto’s, and the other has had brain cancer since 2013 (in remission since 2014). Don’t get me wrong, these women are badass, but I’m also thankful that I don’t have to deal with what they do. Then again, I also deal with my depression and anxiety every day. Some days, getting out of bed and moving to the couch is all I have energy for. Some days, I’m fine and happy, can see a positive future. The next day, I have no energy and can’t see anything good to look forward to. It affects my physical health; it affects if I can do my job; it affects how I interact with others. I (we) have been conditioned to see mental illness as something completely different from physical illness. It’s something that can be “cured” if you just think positively, work out more, do yoga, cut out gluten, just be happy! Except it can’t be cured. It can be managed through meds, therapy, and, for some people, exercise, if they have the energy for it. It can be managed the same way one manages an autoimmune disease. It won’t be cured, no matter how often I’m in down dog.

I do wonder how if someone like me, who suffers daily, has a hard time accepting that I have is an illness that is just as legitimate, just as scary, and just as exhausting as any physical illness, how can someone who doesn’t have it understand? Even my parents, who have both been on anti-depressants for a time and have suffered from the occasional panic attacks, can’t understand the difference between me being depressed, or in a bad mood, and having depression. I try not to lose my patience when explaining to them that I will be on my anti-depressants forever, that therapy is not the same as talking to my friends, and that sometimes I need a pill to function.

I don’t know when the next breakdown will be. I haven’t had one for almost 4 years and the first one was 2 years before that. Neither were as bad as the one I just had, and this time I am on the highest dosage of Celexa I’ve been on AND have been going to therapy regularly. This wasn’t supposed to happen, but it did. Some days accepting that you have such an illness is just as difficult as dealing with that illness. I’m pretty damn lucky to have close friends who take mental illness seriously and are always ready to ask what I need instead of telling me to “buck up,” while others don’t have that support. I don’t know how mental illness will be taken more seriously. Sure, awareness is important, whether it’s sporting a green ribbon or urging people to read Hyperbole and a Half, but I’m guessing larger change can happen when most of us who have mental illnesses can acknowledge that we have a legitimate illness. Unfortunately, the nature of most of those illnesses mean we’re too exhausted to fight that fight, even with ourselves.

Click here for Allie Brosh’s comic on depression.

 

 

Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History’s Most Notorious Women by Elizabeth Kerri Mahon

I’m super behind on reviewing books, but that’s ok cause I’m also in a reading slump and haven’t been able to focus on anything, even my beloved Jane Eyre. I’m slowly getting through Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology now. Since it’s been a while though, this review is going to be short.

Mahon’s book, Scandalous Women, is based on what started as a blog. It’s categorized by “Warrior Queens,” “Wayward Wives,” “Scintillating Seductresses,” “Crusading Ladies,” “Wild Women of the West,” “Amorous Artists,” and “Amazing Adventuresses.” Mahon covers famous (and infamous) women such as Boudica, Zelda Fitzgerald, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Calamity Jane, and Frida Kahlo. Mahon’s writing is simple, clear, and funny. It’s like she’s talking to you and gushing about how cool some of these women are. I read some reviews on Goodreads where some people were annoyed by the tone. Personally, it’s why I enjoyed it. I don’t need my nonfiction to always be academic — I did enough of that reading for the almost 7 years of graduate school. Mahon’s book is a great way to learn some history and learn about some amazing women. Even if you know some of these women, you’ll learn some new things about them. If it wasn’t for some of the sexual aspects, I was ready to give this to my friend’s 11 year-old daughter who is a burgeoning feminist. However, this is a great book for some youngsters to read and learn more about some of the top players in history that tend to be ignored.

My next review will be of The Light Between Oceans. That review might be a little longer since I remember more of it! I’m also thinking about watching the movie, though I haven’t heard great things. Meanwhile, back to Gaiman and the Norse gods!

 

Why I’m leaving the PhD program

This is my last week at Marquette University. I’ve been thinking about quitting for a long time — at least over a year now — but it’s been a difficult road to that decision. How much of my unhappiness was from regular ol’ imposter syndrome and how much of it was from sincere unhappiness of my life decisions? I’ve spoken to a lot of friends, trusted professors, strangers online, and my therapist, and I realized that the thought of leaving makes me happier than I have felt in a long time. I feel free now. While I’m nervous about starting my new job as a student services specialist,  having to start paying down my loans, and worrying about the possibility of regret, I’m also excited for the first two. I read several personal blogs about why people left their Ph.D.s and I wanted to share my reasons in case it resonates with people in the same position.

For a long time I’ve been struggling with my dissertation. I imagined my dissertation to look a certain way. I know that how you imagine it in the beginning is never how it turns out; I was ready for that. What I was not ready for is being told that the argument I wanted to make wasn’t enough. I lost interest in my own dissertation. If I didn’t care anymore, why should anyone else? Also, how can you write 200 pages on something you aren’t interested in? A seminar paper is easy enough. I’ve had to bull shit those for years, but you can’t do that for a book. I am passionate about my topic and hope to pursue it in other means — blogging about it, for example — that won’t give me the same grief as my dissertation, but still satisfies my need to share my thoughts and ideas about some amazing books and women with the public. So that’s one reason.

In the last few years, I’ve also seen friends with PhDs unable to get jobs. A few have gotten tenure-track positions (some right after graduation and some after a few years of adjuncting), but in places I would never want to live — Alabama, Georgia, Iowa. Where I live is more important to me than the job, because I need to love where I live. I know that a lot of people can live anywhere, but I am not that person. I want to be close to my family, I want to live in a blue state, I need mountains and relatively quick access to an ocean. Friends who didn’t get TT jobs either ended up having to adjunct in several places to make ends meet (and this obviously means no benefits) or have part-time or temporary jobs (again with no benefits). I hate to sound like a capitalist, but I would like good health benefits, pay down my loans, and be able to travel occasionally. If that’s the life I want, then I need to change my situation in order to get it. The priorities I want have become clearer and I’m lucky enough to be responsible only to myself so that I can make the changes I need.

My third reason, which some (like my therapist) can argue should be more important, is that mental health has deteriorated since I’ve started. Since I’ve been here (August 2012), I’ve had to increase the dosage of my anti-depressants and the frequency of which I took my anti-anxiety medicine. For the first time in 10 years, I considered cutting as a way to alleviate my pain/frustration/anxiety/whatever I was feeling that day. That alone scared me and made me face why I was feeling the way I was. Being in therapy has luckily saved me from resorting to old and bad habits, but it also made me realize that I was unhappier than I was willing to admit to myself. I need to refocus my life and figure out what makes me happy — or at least content instead of miserable. Reading is one of those things that I loved and has been sacrificed (ironically) because of this path. I’ve missed free time when I’m not racked with guilt. While I still read for fun, it’s usually for half hour a day, some days. I miss reading things I actually want to read. While I hate the cynicism of this statement, I do think that loving literature and loving reading are not enough reasons to pursue a graduate degree. And I’ve realized I miss enjoying reading. It might seem trivial, but it’s time to focus on what makes me happy.

There was a lot of thought and talk about me “wasting 5 years here,” except I don’t see like that. Since 2012, I’ve taken classes in which I’ve learned new things; I’ve discovered literature that is never or rarely discussed; I’ve gone to conferences to hear some fantastic speakers and presenters; I’ve worked as an editorial assistant for a literary journal which introduced me to a new side of academic publishing; I’ve taught to some amazing (not not-so-amazing) students; and, I’ve made lifelong friends. It’s been a great experience. Now it’s time to move on. I used to hate it when a professor here would discuss the Ph.D. as if it was a job, but it really is. And if you’re unhappy with your job, you leave. So my decision came down to this: I’m unhappy at my job, I’m getting paid next to nothing for it, and I’m getting into more debt. If no one is dependent on me having this job, then what is stopping me from quitting and finding a better job? At the end, this logical break down made my decision easy.

Meanwhile, as a forever emo kid who swears by the power of music, this song perfectly encapsulates my life right now.

N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

I’ve never read “high” fantasy. I know Tolkien is considered high fantasy, but his writing is so heavily influenced by medieval texts and culture so it’s easy to understand the rules of the world he has created, much like George R.R. Martin. I purchased the ebook of N.K. Jemisin’s The Inheritance Trilogy (not to be confused with The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini) on a whim before traveling to Europe for 2 weeks. I always assume I’m going to read a lot more than I actually do when I’m traveling. However, I didn’t actually start the first book till this year… March 1st, to be precise. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was a little difficult to get into because it was so unlike the other fantasy books I’ve read (namely Tolkien, Martin, and Rowling). It took a while to understand the world Jemisin created. By the end, I could say that I really enjoyed this book, but am not in a rush to finish the trilogy.

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Source: Goodreads

It was a slow start for me and I was never in a rush to get home and pop open the book. I can’t pinpoint why — maybe because while it was really interesting, it wasn’t captivating. The story follows Yienne Darr, a young woman from a warrior tribe. She is the child of a high-born heir to the throne of the Arameri kingdom (the highest of all) and a Darre man. Summoned by her grandfather, Yienne learns that she is a pawn in his game to determine which of Yienne’s two cousins will be the next heir. Besides dealing with a psychotic (I think it’s very fair to use this term here) cousin, Yienne also has to deal with four gods — or beings that were gods, but were imprisoned by another god. The backstory of the gods (there are three main ones) unfolds slowly and is very interesting. Yienne is an outsider not just by race (her skin is darker, implying the difference is racial and not only ethnic) but also culturally. In her tribe, women are the rulers and politics are a lot more clear cut. At Arameri, however, there are multiple alliances to consider.

Like I said, the story is interesting once you get into it. The world Jemisin created is unique, though I still would have liked to see more world-building. On the whole, I enjoyed Jemisin’s writing, but I could do without one thing she did pretty frequently: character’s eyes did a lot more than I thought eyes were capable of doing. Yienne was always able to see the true feelings of a character through that character’s eyes, something akin to “I could see in X’s eyes that he was doing his best to stay calm.” I don’t mind this once or twice, but it happened enough for me to notice and, eventually, get a tad annoyed. I learned later that this was Jemisin’s debut novel, so I could see an editor calling her out a bit on these in the later novels.

I go back and forth on Jemisin’s main character. It was understandable that Yienne feels and is helpless when she first arrives to Arameri. She’s been isolated from this part of her heritage and she’s only heard about this kingdom for her mother. It becomes clear she is a pawn and while we see some instances of the warrior queen she is supposed to be, on the whole, she seemed lacking in agency. Ultimately, Yienne comes to her own by playing by some of their and some of her rules, asserting some agency in a situation in which she isn’t allowed any. The entrapped gods have also taken away her agency in a way I can’t explain without spoilers. When Yienne does take control it almost seems accidental. That being said, I really liked the conclusion to Yienne’s story. I was concerned about how Jemisin was going to end the novel and I was pleasantly surprised.

On Goodreads, I gave this book 4/5 stars. I am curious about the 2nd and 3rd books, because I do like the world Jemisin created, but I’m thinking of reading The Fifth Season first. Anyone have their own suggestions on whether to finish this series before checking out The Fifth Season?

Writings on another blog

One of my jobs at Marquette University is copywriter and editor for the Digital Scholarship Lab blog. On this blog, I write about using digital media in the classroom and highlighting some of our students’ work. I’ve also covered topics like copyright and accessibility. To see some of that work, you can go here.

I’m behind on two book reviews — N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and Elizabeth Kerri Mahon’s Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History’s Most Notorious Women, but job hunting is demanding too much of my time! I hope to write and publish those soon. Meanwhile, I’m reading M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans.

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

I’m not one who willingly picks up a book that takes place in the American South. I usually read books that help me escape my reality, not remind me how awful the present is. My reason for picking up Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound is pretty shallow. Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan, two actors I’m big fans of, are starring in the adaptation and I’m the kind of nerd who needs to read the book before watching the movie (I still haven’t watched PBS’s Wolf Hall because that book is on my shelf waiting to be read). I have no idea when the movie is coming out, but I borrowed the book from a friend so it moved up on the list. I wasn’t expecting to love this book, merely read it as part of my nerdy desire to know the book before the adaptation ruins it. Well, you can probably see where this is going…I absolutely loved it. I read it in one sitting during my 7 hour shift at the library. Don’t get me wrong–this isn’t a happy, feel-good book. This is the book that will wrench your heart out and make you eat it. Which is why I loved it.

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Mudbound takes place in post-WWII South. Jordan brings to life not just the blatant racism against black Americans dominant in the South, but also the hypocrisy of sending out black men to fight for a country that rejects their humanity. Jordan writes about two families: the McAllens (white farmers) and the Jacksons (the black tenants). Laura is 31 when she meets Henry McAllen, a 41 year old engineer who uproots her from her comfort in Jackson and moves her to a farm in the middle of nowhere. Henry was cheated out of a house he rented so the family of four with Henry’s awful father in tow have to live in a broken-down house on the farm. Jamie McAllen and Ronsel Jackson are WWII veterans who face different realities when they come home. Both traumatized from their experiences, they struggle finding their place outside the war. Ronsel, who was in an all-black division that actually fought (most all-black divisions were forced to do manual labor), had an affair with a woman in Germany. Here is where Jordan highlights the complexity of race. In WWII Germany, a place not very welcoming to non-white, non-Christian people, a white German woman could be seen having an affair with a black American soldier. Jordan shows a black soldier being treated better in Germany than at home. The book is not for the faint-of-heart; there is an attempted lynching, which while the character survives, he is maimed. This is a man who fought against fascism, but is not shown the civility and honor of the white veterans. As someone interested in trauma theory, I was also enthralled by Jordan’s depiction of PTSD. With just two characters who suffer from war trauma, Jordan manages to show how trauma affects people differently and how those who didn’t experience the war first-hand react to the broken men who return. While the novel is relatively short, it is complex in its themes and depictions of its characters. 

Jordan presents the narrative from each main character’s perspective. I’m personally a fan of that technique; it’s probably why I enjoyed A Song of Ice and Fire and Dickens novels while many of my friends got annoyed. By weaving through the past and present of the characters, Jordan builds up the story slowly. You kind of know where the plot is headed, but the journey is just as important as the climax. Typical to the multiple point of view narrative technique, you sympathize with each character. Henry is the 1940s version of the “good” slave owner and while you still hate his ideas, Jordan makes it clear that he is the product of his times and you end up pitying him. In fact, I ended up pitying all the characters, just for different reasons. I think I loved this book so much because both the plot and the characterizations worked so well that I was lost within the text. It’s not easy reading a plot taking place in the late 1940s and realizing not much has changed in 70 years, but Jordan wrote such a beautifully-crafted book that the sad realization didn’t stop me from enjoying the novel. 

Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman

In need of what I knew would be a heartwarming story, I picked up Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman. Having read A Man Called Ove and My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry (in which Britt-Marie makes an appearance), I knew Backman would be able to make me feel, something not all books can do. Like Ove, Britt-Marie is not a new story. In Ove, we get the foreign, “colorful” woman bring life to a grumpy old man; in Britt-Marie, a recently separated woman finds herself (and purpose) in a small town devastated by the recession. While these stories are not exactly original, Backman has a way with writing characters that it doesn’t matter. All his characters are interesting and multidimensional.

britt(Source: Goodreads)

In Borg, the fictional small town in which Britt-Marie finds temporary employment as a caretaker of an abandoned recreation center, we meet the characters who feel love for their town and a hope that things might get better. The town’s love for soccer seems to be what gets them through. Backman writes of orphaned children who are more resilient than anyone their age should be; an older brother caught halfway between being parents to his younger siblings (and, as Britt-Marie points out, puts his cutlery in the correct order and therefore must be a good man) and protecting his criminal best friend; a crippled woman who runs the pizzeria/grocery store/post office; and a cop who loved to paint and make sushi (I imagined him as Louis CK’s character from Parks and Recreations). Britt-Marie gets caught up in the town’s love of soccer and starts understanding how the townspeople see the world (who you support says a lot about you). All the characters are captivating, whether they are funny or tragic.

Britt-Marie’s struggle as she tries to make sense of a world that she never understood and her grief over her sister’s death so long ago makes the reader care for and respect a character who was so annoying in My Grandmother…. Her fear of being found dead days after her death, possibly chewed on my dog/cat/rat, drove her to find a job for the first time in 40 years. Her logic was that if you don’t show up for work one day, someone will know something is wrong. She left behind her cheating and abusive (to be discussed later) husband, but could not let go of the comfort of having a clean home and balcony. Backman’s descriptions of her internal struggle of living by her own, possibly obsessive-compulsive rules, and learning to adapt to a new life can resonate with anyone who has had to be outside their comfort zone for the first time.

The story gave me the warm feelings I was expecting when I picked it up, but there is one aspect that bothered me. Britt-Marie’s husband, Kent, was verbally abusive. Britt-Marie recalls being told that she’s not “socially competent;” he would regularly dismiss her opinions and mock her openly in front of others. As someone who has witnessed verbal abuse and the damage it can do to one’s psyche, I felt that this aspect could have been dealt with better. When he comes to Borg to try to get her back, the others can see — through his actions and his preferred soccer team — that he is a jerk. But no one tells Britt-Marie that his treatment of her is wrong. Throughout the text, Britt-Marie blames herself as well Kent for their marriage falling apart. It is typical for the victim of abuse to blame herself for “deserving” the abuse, but we don’t get a clear cut moment of her realizing that none of it is her fault. While the maybe-not-as-ambiguous-as-it-could-have-been ending implies that Britt-Marie realizes her own worth, I think — in response to such a toxic relationship — a more clear-cut rejection of Kent was necessary.

Despite my annoyance of the treatment of Kent, this was a very enjoyable book. Again, it’s not a new story, but Backman writes in a way that it doesn’t matter. The plot doesn’t need to be very original, because the characters and narrative are. Plus, she gives a rat snickers on a plate and provides it with a napkin. What more does one need in a story?

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

As a fan of WWI novels, I was excited to read The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson. I have Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand–have had for 4 years now and haven’t read it yet, story of my life. There are some very positive aspects of this book. I think Simonson, by describing the countryside and country living, captures the idealism of the idyllic summer of 1914, or at least as it has been romanticized since the beginning of the war. An older woman (Mrs. Kent) sunbathing naked in her backyard, garden parties, and pageants all work to capture the peace and tranquility felt by the upper- and upper-middle class in that June and July.

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(Source: Goodreads)

Simonson writes some interesting characters. The main character, Beatrice Nash, is newly orphaned and comes to the village  of Rye to be the new Latin teacher. She is stereotypically a New Woman: she rides a bike, she’s more educated than any woman of her class “should” be, she’s independent, and she’s a suffragette. If the story focused solely on her, I think I would have enjoyed the book more. Instead, we get the view points of several characters: Mrs. Kent, who fights to get Beatrice a place at the school; Hugh Grange, her nephew, who is a medical student and goes off to the war as a medic; and Daniel, another nephew, who is an in-closet gay poet and joins the Front Lines when his lover dies in a flying accident. Other characters include Mr. Tillingham, an American author who lives in England (based loosely on Henry James), a couple of Belgian refugees, two “radical” women hinted at being lesbians, and an obnoxious Mayor’s wife. In trying to paint a picture of the village through these viewpoints, Simonson ended up diluting the substance of these characters. We get hints of depth in these characters, particularly with Beatrice and her history, but the pacing of the book (another issue I have) prevented me from getting attached to or feeling anything for the characters.

The pacing was a bit rushed. About 85% of the book was before the war and the last couple of chapters deal with the Front. We are given glimpses of the horrors of the war through Hugh and his surgeries. At the end, we get the romantic ending Simonson was leading us to, but it felt hollow. We do see the growing friendship between Hugh and Beatrice and some moments of attraction, but the lack of depth in both characters–and the knowledge from the beginning that this will happen–wasn’t enough to make me love this book. I know the book is considered “chick-lit”* so that’s not what disappointed me, but it was the lead up to it.

At the end, I gave this 3 stars on Goodreads, 2.5 rounded up because of my weakness for WWI books. From the reviews I’ve read of Major Pettigrew, I’m looking forward to reading that…eventually.

*I hate that anything with romance is considered chick-lit, but that’s a rant for another day.

Rereading Harry Potter in the Age of Trump

I didn’t think I was a fantasy fan when I was in high school. I read all of Oscar Wilde’s plays, Crime and Punishment (I blame my father), Count of Monte Cristo, and other such classics. When a friend of mine suggested we go see this movie about a boy wizard I was hesitant, but we went with our small group of friends after school on Friday to see it. It might have taken 10 minutes, maybe 20, before I was hooked. Castles! Magic! Ghosts! What was there not to like? Needless to say, I left a fan and purchased the bundle of books 1-4 in paperback the next day. In about two weeks, I was done with the books. I still refrained from calling myself a fan of fantasy. Those covers are weird! Which is why I also refused to read this book my cousin’s husband kept pushing on me; it was a little known book at the time called Game of Thrones. I’m still ashamed that I didn’t read it till 2011, but that’s also around the time I admitted to myself that I like fantasy. But I digress…

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(Source: barnesandnoble.com)

I’ve read the last three HP books at least 5 times each, but it had been a long time since I’ve read the books in order. After the farce of the election I needed some comfort and while Jane Eyre is my usual Christmas time reread, I decided it’s time to revisit the books that got me into fantasy. It’s the perfect escape. At least, it used to be.

What changed this year as I reread the series this time is my understanding of Voldermort. It’s not hard to draw some parallels between the rhetoric of fear and othering used by our President-elect and those used by the Dark Lord and his followers. Keeping a registry “mudbloods” isn’t very different from a registry of Muslims. To be honest, it’s scary. Voldermort wanted power for the pure-bloods while being a half-blood himself; Trump speaks out against immigrants while he is the son of one. Voldermort used harsh and insulting language to differentiate between himself and those who disagreed with him; Trump regularly takes to Twitter to insult anyone who speaks out against him, be it a civil rights leader or one of the greatest actors of our time. Voldermort is clearly depicted as a fascist leader (based on Hitler) and Trump’s positions certainly come off as fascist. Once the connection was made (while rereading Philosopher’s Stone) it was hard to ignore. My plan to escape into fantasy failed. I’m continuing with the reread of the series for the sake of nostalgia, but it is now tainted as I see more similarities between Voldermort and my new president.