The Midlife Monster

More Birthdays = More Birthday Cake

“You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.” ~George Burns

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Slightly younger me

Midlife is weird. You never think about it until you’re in it and by then you don’t know what the hell hit you. Right around the time I turned 40, I began feeling this sense of urgency, like life was heading into its final stages and I was running out of time. I became stressed out by the act of aging. Every day I would notice something new in my body, a twinge of pain in my wrist or a soreness in my toes as they hit the floor in the morning. I wasn’t so much young anymore. My body was in slow decline, and it became the focal point of my attention. So, I went at life like a bat outta hell. I had things to accomplish before it was too late and I was too old to do all the things. I put exercise and eating right at the top of my list and became so concerned about them that they morphed into a job rather than something to enjoy. I would compare myself to others my age to see how I was holding up. It was all about not looking or acting my age, as if my age were a brick wall I was swerving around. And, in that fog of temporary insanity, I traveled through ages 40-46, too busy crossing things off my to-do list to be in the moment and too tired from doing all the things to enjoy every other part of my life. I missed tuning in for some of the best years of my sons’ lives by being too focused on silly, self-imposed goals that in the end didn’t bring me as much satisfaction or joy as I expected they would.

Partially because of the disappointment of not finding what I was looking for during my furious race to be everything I was supposed to be in my early forties, around age 46 I entered the who-gives-a-shit-because-I’m-just-gonna-die-anyway phase. During this phase, my husband and I started sharing complaints about our bodies and how they weren’t acting the way they used to. It went from a general noticing into a full on festival of physical misfortunes. Despite our constant complaining about them, our aches and pains weren’t getting any better and our sharing these details (while making us at least momentarily feel better in our not-aloneness) kept our focus on them. This, in turn, led to a depression of sorts. If the period between 40 and 46 was my Bust-It-Out phase, the two years between 46 and 48 were my Give-It-Up-Already phase. I mean, it’s not as if twenty-somethings couldn’t tell by looking at me that I was old, at least by their standards. I wasn’t fooling anyone, so why bother? I swung right from busy and focused on outward appearances to sluggish and apathetic about everything. I ate too much, drank too much, and checked out, trying to come to terms with the knowledge that I would in fact die at some point, whether or not I had everything checked off my bucket list. And who the hell would care about what I had accomplished or not accomplished anyway?

I’m 48 and midlife crisis is mostly finished with me now. My friends who told me I would feel much better on the other side were right. The shoulda-coulda-woulda thoughts are gone. I’m not wasting another minute feeling bad about something I want that others think is inappropriate. I’m on the precipice of IDGAF, which is pretty freeing. I’m not running around trying to accomplish goals, nor am I just sitting around thinking my best days are behind me. I’m living my life where it is now, grateful for the opportunity to do just that. What I’ve learned in the past eight years is that midlife crisis is an evolution. If you’re lucky, you go through it all the way and don’t get stuck either too busy with the future or too depressed about the past to live life in the present.

I’ve been observing older people recently, looking for those who model what I would like to become now that I’ve emerged through the rebirth canal of midlife. What I’ve found is that, like most things, aging largely comes down to attitude. If you think you are old, you are. The minute you start putting labels on what you can or should do at your age, you are screwed. Age is a number. What comes with it, a natural slowing down and some measurable physical changes, is unavoidable. But how you approach those changes is a choice. I have seen 65 year olds who seemed 85 and I have seen 85 year olds who would pass for twenty years younger. The older people I admire most are grateful for their journey. They work at seeing the good around them. They don’t take themselves too seriously. They aren’t afraid to try new things. They don’t care what anyone else thinks. They take care of themselves but they don’t obsess over it. And they never put unnecessary limits on themselves. They are comfortable in the wrinkly, saggy skin they’ve earned by treating their body like the soul vessel that it is and they don’t let its appearance stop them from putting on a swimsuit and getting into the surf. They know life isn’t over until it’s over.

These days, I find I’m not as concerned about the number of candles on next year’s birthday cake. I’m just excited about the possibility of cake. img_2535

Un*#@% Yourself

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Me back in the days before I had self-awareness

Un*#@% yourself. Be who you were before all that stuff happened that dimmed your *#@%ing shine.

If you’re lucky, there comes a time in your life when you wake up. I mean really wake up. And it’s the kind of wake up that comes at the end of a nightmare where you are falling into an endless abyss or your children are drowning before your eyes while you stand powerlessly nearby or you are being crushed under a collapsing building and your lungs begin to burn with suffocation. It’s the kind of wake up that leaves you shaking and stunned and mind blown and sick to your stomach. It might happen from one singular event (“I’m sorry, but you have cancer”) or, as in my case, it might happen over time as the weight of a lifetime filled with little injuries finally snaps something inside of you. Some people never wake up. But, if you’re lucky, it happens, and you can start living consciously.

I went back to therapy yesterday for the first time in nearly a year. I went with the idea that, at forty-eight, it is finally time to get over my obnoxious lack of self-esteem. So, I told her that I need to get my head on straight about myself. I do not see myself as others see me. I self-sabotage my own potential for success. My stinking thinking has got to go. I need tools, I told her. To gain some insight into where we should start, she conducted some basic reconnaissance work.

Her:  What if you won an award? What would that feel like for you? What would you think?

Me:  *head tilt with impressive pensive expression as I tried to imagine facing success*

Her:  I’m guessing you would feel it was undeserved? 

Me:  Ummm….yeah. But that is not the worst of it. I would assume there had been a mistake.

Her: *consciously trying to keep a neutral countenance* 

Me:  I would be thinking that they must have run out of other people to give the award to.

Her: *noticeable eyebrow raise* 

Me:  I would assume I was their last choice.

Her:  Wow. Okay. We have some work to do. 

Being me, my next thought was that she was making a mental note to determine if my insurance would cover enough therapy sessions to help me out because that, my friends, is how deep my internal negativity goes. I am appallingly cynical. It would make for great sitcom dialogue.

After a little more chatting, we came up with some strategies. I need to write a letter saying goodbye to the person I am now and all the baggage she carries that is unhealthy. I need to define who I think I really am underneath all the old junk and what the new me looks like inside. I need to make a list of things the old me would not have attempted because of fear and negativity and then start doing those things to reinforce positive behaviors. I need to decide on a mantra I can use to replace the old thoughts when they creep in and start messing with me. I need to surround myself with positivity and people who support my goal. And I need to be willing to talk about this journey without judging it or myself, which is why I am writing here today.

All this makes my head hurt. A lot. But, it turns out that the copious amounts of wine I have been imbibing and augmenting with generous servings of Ben & Jerry’s are not helping me feel better either. Trust me. I have tried that therapy for a year. It’s possible that only because that therapy didn’t work I had to go to real therapy. (Well….that and an increasingly obvious waistband issue.) I now have no choice but to do the hard work. My desire to change has finally exceeded the ease of staying stuck in the miserable same. It’s a weird place to be.

Putting yourself out there is rough. It’s hard under the best circumstances, but it’s harder still when what you’re putting out there is a shameful something you’ve spent your lifetime ignoring. If it weren’t for the waking up, though, I wouldn’t be sure it was worth it. If it weren’t for the annoying headache brought on by mental overload, I wouldn’t know for sure I am more awake today than I was yesterday. Admitting you have a problem is the first step, right? Well…I’ve done that. Now it’s time to get to work. I am cautiously optimistic that I will like the new me. I think she’s a good kid with crazy potential.

Good Enough

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Me and three of my favorite things

The seven and a half years between when I turned 40 and today have been the best seven years of my life. They have not been the easiest. During this time, I learned my oldest son has ADHD and my youngest has dyslexia, and I struggled to gain acceptance and create a better situation for them at school and in their lives. I had a devastating falling out with a person very close to me that caused years’ worth of complications in my family. I began experiencing the unpleasant side effects of early perimenopause. I was depressed for a while. And I went into counseling for the first time in my life as I wrestled with the external changes messing with my reality and the internal battles being waged in my head as a result of aging and staring straight into the face of the midlife beast. As a result of all these things, however, I am more at peace than I ever have been. I live in the moment. I have greater perspective about what is important to me. And I couldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t trudged through the quagmire of muck that now lies behind me.

This morning I saw a meme that riled me up. It said, “Addicted to Bettering Myself.” I’ve seen that saying before, but it has never elicited as strong of a reaction from me as it did today. Today it just didn’t sit well. So, I have been reflecting on it, and I think I finally have it figured out. When I turned 40, I was concerned about being 40How in the heck did I get so old? Is this the beginning of the downhill slide that comes with being over the hill? How can I make 40 better? What do I need to do before it’s too late? I was consumed with answering these questions. I became addicted to bettering myself. I became more concerned about my physical appearance as I noticed more readily the effects of having lived 40 years. I became intensely interested in physical exercise. I monitored my workouts and chided myself when I fell short. If I put on weight at the holidays, I hated myself. I took classes in things I thought I teetered on the edge of being too old for, and I did things that were out of character because I thought my time was running out. I expected more of myself at a time when the events in my life were requiring more of me as well. I stressed myself out racing against a clock I could never stop.

Then an amazing thing happened. I let go. I can’t say when it happened or why, and it doesn’t matter. Suddenly I was grateful more often than anxious. I was tuned in more often than tuned out. I stopped letting others tell me what was best for me. I stopped taking myself and everything around me so goddamned seriously. I chose to let go of control more often. And I stopped looking outside myself for acceptance. I decided that trying to be “better” was more harmful than helpful to me. I accepted that my existence has power, worth, and value even if I never do anything other than breathe. It sounds Stuart Smalley of me, I know. But I decided I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And, doggone it, people like me.

I am positive my friends who have escaped the clutches of the midlife monster are nodding their heads knowingly at me now. You were right, Leanna. Things did get better. I’ve let go of the situations, misconceptions, and lies that tortured me for years when I felt time was running out and I needed to be more (whatever that means). I’ve learned to not give a flying fig about most things because most things are background noise we choose hear over the symphony we could be enjoying if we let ourselves.

I don’t mean to belittle people who are addicted to bettering themselves. We’re all on our own journeys, and there is no right or wrong way to travel our individual path. And there’s something to be said for making the most of the time you are given, for being restless and ambitious, for wanting to age with grace and in good health. I have zero intention of going gentle into that goodnight myself. The Grim Reaper had best be prepared for a wrestling match when he comes for me. The difference for me at 47 than me at 40, though, is that he’ll be coming for a woman who doesn’t want to leave because she’s too happy to step out and not a woman who feels she can’t leave because she’s not finished becoming something she never realized she always was…good enough.

Magic Mirror On My Wall

Magic Mirror versus Mean Mirror

Magic Mirror versus Mean Mirror

There are a lot of dated features in our new, 1964 home. Terracotta-colored ceramic tile covers the walls in the full bath. The living and dining rooms both showcase half walls connected to the ceiling with carved, wooden spindles meant to open things up while still keeping them appropriately and decorously separated. And the dining room light fixture, which is a perfect cousin to the hallway wall sconce, is an antique bronze monstrosity with frilly, white, opaque glass covers over the bulbs. As I walk by these outmoded design relics now, I cringe with the realization that everything has a time. Someday, the updates we give this home in 2016 will look as garish to a family circa 2056 as these 1964 features appear to me now. To everything, turn, turn, turn. Nothing is immune. Well, almost nothing.

There is one piece left behind by the original owners that I have no intention of removing. At the end of the bedroom hallway upstairs, there is a full-length mirror held in place by wall brackets mounted flush with the top and bottom of the mirror. It is a simple piece, glass encased in a quiet, wooden frame with curved sides and a hint of metal for adornment. When we were originally looking at the house as it was staged for sale, it was one of the few accoutrements that I genuinely appreciated in the interior. I hoped the sellers wouldn’t take it with them and was glad to find after closing that they had left it for us. I realize now it would have been a bear to remove, which is probably why it was left behind. Besides, who wants to risk breaking a large mirror right before signing the final sale documents, right? A mirror that size has to be worth at least 14 years of bad luck.

It wasn’t until we had taken possession of the home and I began spending time there working on plans and painting that I came to fully appreciate this mirror that I walk by daily. You see, it’s a magic mirror. Just like the one the Wicked Queen kept in her castle in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it tells me what I want to hear. In it, I feel nearly the fairest of them all. While waiting for the wifi installer one morning, I took a photo of myself in that mirror and shared it with my husband hoping for validation of my discovery.

“Look. It’s a skinny mirror,” I told him handing him the photo.

“That’s what you always look like,” he said, unfazed, while handing back my phone.

I looked at the image again.

“Nuh uh. This is NOT what the mirror at home makes me look like. The mirror at home is mean. I look bigger in that mirror. This mirror makes me about 5’7″, I figure.” (I am actually a statistically shorter-than-average 5’4″.)

“The mirror at home is the liar. This mirror is how you really look,” he said, adding, “I’ve been telling you for years that you look much better than you think you do.”

My mouth twitched sideways while I considered his words, which of course were well intentioned but totally wrong.

“I don’t think so. I think this is a fun house mirror. It stretches you. I am sure the mirror at home, mean as it is, tells the truth. I like this mirror a lot better, though. It makes me feel good. It shall be mine forever,” I resolved.

Now, it wouldn’t matter if the mirror was held in a god awful, neon pink, plastic frame that clashed with the muted and modern decor I have planned for our new home. I would still keep it. Every time I walk down the hall, I marvel at how good I look for 47. That mirror is a gift at a time when gravity is not my friend and wrinkles and gray hairs appear with increasing speed and unkind ferocity. That mirror does something no one else has ever been able to do for me; it makes me feel good about myself one hundred percent of the time. Without make up, with unwashed hair, in sweatpants and a baggy t-shirt splattered with wall paint, I still look fabulous. I have pointed the mirror out to every woman who has entered our house. They have all agreed that it is a surprisingly flattering mirror, and this proves that my magic mirror is a bit of a fibber. I mean, when do women ever look in a mirror and feel happily satisfied with their appearance? Almost never, that’s when. It is, without a doubt, a magic freaking mirror.

I have spent most of my life battling poor self-esteem. I have never felt like I was good enough, smart enough, talented enough, or pretty enough. After years of self-flagellation and denial, I’ve started therapy and I’m working daily to appreciate my positives instead of focusing on the negatives. I’ve put some distance between myself and situations that only fostered greater self-doubt. I am operating from more of a “why not?” posture instead of a “who are you kidding?” stance. And, little by little, I am feeling better.

I’m not sure why the previous owners left the magic mirror behind, but I am grateful. Everyone should have a mirror that reflects their best. We all deserve that daily affirmation. As for the mean mirror in my current house? I’m walking by it with my arm outstretched these days, telling it in my sauciest tone to talk to the hand. I’m not interested in its nasty temperament. It will stay with this house when we move because I’m not packing that shit with me. I’m moving on, lighter, happier, and suddenly three inches taller.

The Silence That Gave Me A Headache

 

When five days became five years…

 
I dropped our boys off for summer camp high in the Colorado Rockies this past Monday. It was a first for all of us, their first time going away alone (although they did have each other) and our first time being home without them for a week. When I drove down the dirt road away from them, it was bittersweet. I was excited for their adventure but already aware of the hole their absence was creating in my life. For fourteen years, these two beings have comprised the entirety of my reason for living. I hardly recall who I am outside the mantle of motherhood. And it’s at times like these that I feel most vulnerable and exposed. Who the hell am I anyway?

I enjoyed an oddly silent, solo lunch and a peaceful ride home without constant chatter about Halo and Mario Kart. I stopped at the store and bought groceries for two, cooked a meal for grown ups without having to omit ingredients, and enjoyed a drink with dinner. Hubby and I slept uneasily that night in a house that was too damn quiet, as if we noticed the missing heartbeats of the two neighbors who usually reside in the next room. I spent most of my week cleaning like a woman desperate to reclaim her once spotless home. Over three days I made a sizable dent in the clutter and bit by bit the house began to look like no one lived in it. It was a hollow victory. The cleaner it got, the emptier I felt. And that’s when, for a split second, I pondered my loss, not having a career to fill my days and fulfill my life. To derail that train of thought to nowhere good, I popped the cap on a bottle of hard cider because, well, I don’t have a job and 2 pm is 5 pm somewhere, and I smiled for my good fortune.

Big changes are on our horizon. The boys will be heading to a new school in 2016, which means a move back to the city for us. While I am dying to escape the suburbs and the HOA and the insipid neighborhood banter I never felt comfortable around, there is melancholy in my soul as we prepare to sell the only home our little family has ever known. And directly behind the gate we will walk through as we move forward, the gate through which all the possibility and potential of the future exists, lies the burial plot of things we’re leaving behind…sandboxes, playgrounds, slip and slides, and snow forts. Saying goodbye is part of moving on, but I have always been better at hello.

It’s been a rough week for me as I cleaned house physically, mentally, and emotionally. I am glad to be leaving some things behind, happy to explore new options and reinvent myself. Some things I thought I could count on, though, have evaporated while I stood in disbelief, grasping as they morphed from liquid to gas before my eyes like water vanishing of a scorching, summer sidewalk. I am better and stronger for this trial experience of life, once again, without children. Steve and I have talked about cashing in on our house and using the money to travel more with our sons before they move on to their own life adventures without us. The past fourteen years have been a blur, and we want to eradicate any potential for a Cats in the Cradle ending in this family. I will miss the things that are no longer part of my life, but I am curious what I will concoct to fill the vacant spaces going forward. 

We will claim our handsome, capable sons on Saturday and be grateful once again to have a disorganized house filled with bedlam. The time for permanent quiet is not long off now, and it’s approaching much more rapidly than I ever could have anticipated in June 2001 when Joe was born. But before it hits I think I will buy Luke that electric guitar he wants. I might buy that drum kit I have always wanted too and knock percussion lessons off my lifetime to-do list. If there’s one thing I have learned this week, it’s that silence leaves me way too much time to think. I should probably focus on doing things as noisily as possible from now on. Maybe I can get some pointers from our sons?

These Weirdos Are My Tribe

These weirdos are your tribe.

Weirdos preparing for the polar plunge on a 4 degree day.

“When you find people who not only tolerate your quirks but celebrate them with glad cries of ‘Me too!’ be sure to cherish them because those weirdos are your tribe.” ~Anonymous

I am a writer. I am also socially inept. I’m not sure if the social ineptitude is a result of the writing or if I write because I want to appear less socially inept. Either way works, I guess. Let’s just go with the notion that I’m awkward. I’m not in tune with other people’s feelings. Blame it on my being INTJ. Blame it on my ill breeding. Blame it on the aliens who abducted me as a child and conducted sloppy experiments on my brain. All I know is it is what it is. In forty-six years, I haven’t been able to outgrow it.

Every August, our sons’ school holds their annual Back to School Night. They host a tastefully catered meal for parents to enjoy while they go over school policy minutiae before sending us off to our children’s classrooms to receive more information that we of course will promptly forget. I’m sure many people look forward to these type of social events, a chance to get together again with friends from last year and to meet new people. Frankly, I’d rather have my spleen removed by a 10-year-old surgeon wielding a teaspoon as a his primary implement. I have to drink two glasses of wine before I go simply so I will be somewhat comfortable making small talk. Small talk stresses me out. Small talk is never small talk. The amount of effort small talk takes makes it big talk.

This year, we arrived at the dinner and found out that it was not going to be out on the lawn because of the threat of rain. They had the dinner set up inside the gym. I prefer the outdoor setting because it’s easier to flake out when you are in open surroundings. Still, we went inside, like socially weird teenagers, praying we’d get in and get out without being guilted into signing up for any random committees we’d rather die than be on.

We weren’t in there long before a couple we remembered as the parents of one of Luke’s friends from the previous year approached us. We didn’t know them very well, but I sensed they wanted to be there about as much as we did. We exchanged some pleasantries and they asked us to come join them at their table. Having fairly successfully avoid social interaction at the school during the previous year, we had no one else to sit with so we dragged our paper plates to their table. I tried my best to be cordial, but holy cheeses that is hard for me. At some point, I notice how weird that thing I just uttered was and then I begin to spiral clockwise in a whirling toilet flush of social doom. One way or another we got through the dinner, and Steve went with them to Luke’s class while I ducked out to sit in Joe’s classroom in my girl-in-the-plastic-bubble-of-pitiful-but-comfortable-silence sort of way.

On the way home, Steve and I had our usual debriefing about the night’s events.

“I think Lynne is trying to make friends with you,” he said.

“No. I don’t think so. They just didn’t want to sit alone. You know you’re always looking for someone you sort of know so you don’t end up with the new crazies you don’t know at all. Lesser of two evils,” I retorted.

“She came right over to you,” he replied. “Maybe she likes you.” What is this? Third grade? I started wondering if he thought she was trying to pass me a note. I played it off.

“Only because she doesn’t know me,” I said. “There’s a reason I don’t make friends easily.”

“Yes. It’s because you don’t know when people are reaching out.”

It’s true. I’m obtuse. I have never been successful at discerning when people are being nice because they feel they have to be nice or when they are being nice because they truly want to. I’m simultaneously suspicious, pragmatic, and cautiously optimistic. I tend to assume the worst, expect the mediocre, but subconsciously hope for the best. I’m complicated. It’s no wonder I don’t make friends easily.

Over the past few months, Lynne made a concerted effort to set up a couple of opportunities for our boys to get together. Her initial efforts made it much easier for me to insinuate myself into her life like a fungus. And it turns out we have a lot in common, like introversion, yoga, a penchant for expletives, a taste for fine vodka and any kind of wine, a troubling addiction to internet memes, and a gift for dry sarcasm. In other words, we’re awesome, something she was intuitive enough to ascertain before I did.

In so many ways, I remain the dorky kid who walked to my first day at a new school in third grade in handmade clothes feeling like an anomaly in a sea of popular and normal. The friends I’ve made over the past few years have all reached out to me first, which is a good thing because otherwise I’d still be standing stiffly in the corner, gazing at my feet, wondering why no one likes me. Every day I cherish these friends who made the effort and who have been able to recognize that my crazy is simpatico with their crazy. These weirdos are my tribe.

 

Work In Progress

Five year old me

Five year old me

I am my harshest critic. This I know. I am more cruel to myself than anyone I’ve ever known. No flaw escapes my notice. No misstep is not cataloged for future self-flagellation. I never turn a blind eye to my foibles. If there is minutiae to scrutinize, surely I’m already on it. My husband has threatened to remove all the mirrors in our house to keep me away from myself. I rarely worry about what others think of me because I know it can be no worse than what my mind already accepts. I assume that this incessant self-investigation and castigation comes from a lethal combination of being an overachieving first born, having a natural proclivity towards analysis, and growing up in a household where anything less than your best was, frankly, not good enough.

For years I’ve been working to relax my relentless self-criticism. Turns out I suck at it. Really. I’ve honestly made very little progress in this arena. I haven’t been able to remedy my pessimistic thoughts with therapy, self-help books, or yoga. I’ve tried reducing the negative input in my life. I’ve stared at affirmative statements pasted to my mirror until they’ve been burned into my retinas. They haven’t helped. This whole blog, this journey toward zen, was also meant to help move me toward peace. At times, it has helped. At other times it only made me further question myself, my skills, my sanity. Most days I’m unsure if I’m any further along on this trip than I was when I started seven or eight years ago. And in the midst of all this emotional work, the hormonal changes of midlife have not helped one iota. I feel like a ticking time bomb. The best I can say is that I’m aware of the problem, and acknowledging the problem is the first step toward a solution, right?

This morning I was standing in my bathroom when it hit me. I was looking in the mirror (which, so far, has not been confiscated by my husband), noticing the extra holiday pounds, and I heard myself say, “I’m a work in progress.” Holy crap. Where the hell did that come from? I almost turned around and looked behind me. I let that sentence roll through my brain a few more times. I’m a work in progress. Could it really be that simple? Is that all I need to let myself off the hook for everything? The more I thought about it, the sweeter it got. All this stressing over every detail, every imperfection, every gaffe…could it all be alleviated by considering things on a continuum? For so long I’ve looked for and compared myself to a desired end result. What if I stopped worrying about where I end up and work each day on where I am today? The thought was intoxicating.

Because I’m a realist, I know this new mantra will not solve all my self-abuse problems. They are deeply ingrained, and I haven’t had much luck ridding myself of them to date. But I am going to try to start thinking about myself differently while I work toward a better me. Maybe I am a bit heavier after a rough-ish year last year. So what? I don’t need to beat myself up over it. I’m a work in progress. I’m going to start thinking of myself on an evolutionary scale. Right now I might feel like something that just crawled out of a swamp on four legs, but sooner or later I’ll be upright. And that will be progress I’ve earned.