Kids today, I tell you whut…

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As part of a class I’m taking this term, I recently found myself spending an hour outdoors in the company of a largish class of local sixth graders. Their teacher decided we would spend a chunk of this time playing “The Name Game”. Everyone gathers in a large circle and you go around the circle a couple of times, with each kid calling out their name. Then one kid is handed an object, and they call out the name of some other kid in the circle and toss the object to them. That kid then calls out someone else’s name and tosses the object to them. The game was new to me, but it seemed like a reasonable ice breaker for a rowdy group of adolescents.

The only problem was that the teacher didn’t seem to have an object to toss around. As it happened, I had a Frisbee, err, umm, sorry, “a flying disc” handy and offered that up. The teacher happily accepted and I handed over the disc.

I was stunned, shocked, even flabbergasted to discover that not a single one of those kids knew how to throw a frisbee. (There, I’ve decided, that’s a generic term now.) Not a one. Never once did the frisbee land within even 10 feet of the intended target, and that’s being generous. I nearly wept!

I don’t wanna be one of those curmudgeonly codgers crying (I love me some alliteration), “You damn kids need to put down the vidya games and go outside and play!”, but…

You damn kids need to put down the vidya games and go outside and play!

Really! Give it a try. When you consider the specs, the real world has a pretty compelling feature set. Stereo sound, 3D graphics, haptic feedback and interaction, fully immersive… It’s a shame more kids don’t check it out.

Southern Boys and Breakfast, part deux

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The other day, a friend and I had breakfast at City State Diner on NE 28th. I’ve only discovered them in the last couple of months, and in my opinion they have the best biscuits and gravy in Portland. Hell yeah!

Sandwich board sign outside City State Diner. "Bacon Served All Day"

So anyway, I ordered the biscuits and gravy, and asked for my eggs to be over easy. Our waiter asked if I wanted grits or potatoes. Hmm, I’m not usually a big grits fan but… sure, grits, why not. He vanishes, I enjoy strong black coffee and chat with my pal.

A cook comes from the kitchen and delivers our plates, and I do a double-take. What?! What was delivered were two triangular slabs of dense corn meal cake, about an inch thick, with a slight sear on it. That’s not corn meal, that’s polenta! I wasn’t upset, I like polenta, but I was more than a little bewildered.

In a couple of minutes, the waiter stopped by to ask if everything was okay. I said, “I’m not upset, and I don’t want to send anything back, but… are these really grits? Because I’d sure as heck call this polenta.” My waiter immediately sounded apologetic. “Are you maybe from the South? ’cause I’m from Memphis, and yeah, there’s no way we would call that grits either.” I immediately broken into a grin. “No way, you’re from Memphis, too?! What high school?” We swapped pedigrees and exchanged a terrorist fist bump over having escaped from Memphis.

I then told him to prepare to be green with envy, because my old man had sent me real, honest-to-goodness pulled-pork barbecue from Memphis for Xmas. I said, “You know, I like Russell Street BBQ well enough, but really nothing quite compares to real Memphis barbecue.” His ears perked up. “What? Portland has barbecue? Where? What’s the name again?” So I got to clue him into a local BBQ joint, which made me happy.

Southern Boys and Breakfast

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A new tradition has emerged with the living arrangements at the new house. One (and sometimes both) morning of the weekend, after the first press of coffee has been consumed, I’ll make a good, proper breakfast. Eggs scrambled for Bobo, eggs over easy for me and mags, bacon, toast. More coffee. Sometimes potatoes, sometimes a quick sauté of diced veggies, sometimes chilaquiles. I like the ritual of sitting down together at the table for a proper breakfast. I like the feeling of family and household. And at a certain level, I think I like it because it reminds me of my Grandfather.

From the general ages of ten years old to fifteen, I spent the majority of my weekends at my grandparents’ cabin on the lake in rural Mississippi. Two of my cousins were always there, and my aunt, and of course my grandmother and grandfather. Granddad always woke at the crack of dawn, started the first pot of coffee and drank most of it while reading the paper. At the leisurely hour of 6:00 am, he would start rattling pans in the kitchen. Bacon or sausage or country ham, sometimes two outta three. Homemade biscuits. Milk gravy, or red-eye gravy if he’d made country ham. Oatmeal. A big bowl of scrambled eggs. Coffee, milk juice. Both of my grandparents grew up on farms, where breakfast might be the only meal you get until 5:00 pm, so it better be hearty enough to last you the whole day.

It never occurred to me to be surprised that it was him cooking, instead of my grandmother. I accepted it in that unconscious way children do; Granddad made breakfast, that’s just the way that it was.

And now here I am, the gray-haired old man of the household, the early riser who likes the bit of quiet before everyone else is awake, time to read and enjoy that first cup in the morning stillness. And the one that makes a big grand southern breakfast every weekend.

That’s a damn fine cup of coffee!

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I’m excited about going to a Twin Peaks-inspired burlesque show tonight, but I confess that I don’t really know what to expect.

Will there be a dancer who comes out wearing a brown cardigan and carrying a log in her arms? Will there be a dwarf performer who snaps her fingers and talks backwards while stripping? Will there be a blond dancer with very pale makeup and wearing a wrap of plastic sheeting?

The mind fairly boggles. But I am so there.

Addams Family Values

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I just found the original 1964 Addams Family television series on Netflix On Demand and started watching a couple of episodes. Two things have jumped out at me:

1) Ye gods, laugh tracks are the absolute worst!

2) Think about this. The Addams Family are presented as being deviant and abnormal in every way, mentally, physically, socially… and yet, one of their defining traits is the absolute love within the family. Gomez and Morticia are deeply in love and even have a considerable physical passion for one another. They both adore their children, love to spend time with them, and consider them to be highly accomplished. And there’s no sign of familial discord with the live-in Uncle Fester and Grandmama. All of this strikes me as being in stark contrast to other sitcom families I can think of. I wonder what that says about the mind-60s, that those traits are associated (intentionally/consciously, or not) as odd-ball and deviant.

I wonder if the original Addams Family comics were inspired by Charles Addams’ experience with a family of Mormons? 🙂

Hallowe’en on Two Wheels

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These past few years, Hallowe’en always seems to be wrapped around math midterms, which tends to sap my time and attention and prevent me from really getting into the spooky, scary spirit. But i finished with mid-terms yesterday afternoon and really wanted to rally for the night. Mags had put together an amazing Día de los Muertos costume and face paint. I didn’t have my act together to have a full costume, but mags painted my face in an appropriately ghoulish fashion, and I out on a skeleton hoodie to contribute to the look. I added my leather kilt and heavy stomping’ boots to the outfit and we headed out the door to meet up with an early Hallowe’en bicycle ride.

We weren’t early enough to join the start of the ride in North Portland. Instead we headed to the Lovecraft Bar where we had a few drinks and waited for the bike riders to descend upon us. And they did, in a fabulous array of costumes. There was a matched set of Anubis and Bast that looked amazing! There was an investment banker with a gaping headwound, a mummy and a Joker. There were a flawless Gomez and Morticia Addams and a very victorian Mr Hyde. Before long the bar started filling with artificial fog, flashing lights and lasers and we had a dance party raging. Part of me loved the energy and fun of the scene, but I wasn’t up to dealing with the small talk and I really wanted to be riding. So mags and I left the dancing, happy people and headed out to ride home.

Or that was the plan. Once we got back on bikes, I was entranced by the night. The inner neighborhoods of east Portland were dark and quiet, with drift piles of leaves blowing through the streets. There were few cars on the road, and roaming clusters of people walking about trick-or-treating, or just out enjoying the night. Plenty of houses had flickering candles in jack-o-lanterns, and twinkly orange and purple lights strung about. We biked aimlessly for an hour or more, soaking in the evening. We rode past the Lone Fir cemetery,with throngs of people following tour guides past the tombstones and paper bag luminaries. We stopped to watch a house that was using a large video projector to broadcast dancing ghosts on the side of the house across the street, twenty feet tall and luminous.

We took a brief break at the Hawthorne Cart Pod to refuel and then decided to track down a bike ride that was allegedly gathering at Col Summers Park. The crowd there was already fairly large and festive. Music was blaring from a cargo bike sound system, folks were dancing, talking and laughing. I joined a group playing dodgeball on the tennis courts for a few rounds. After what seemed like a terribly long time, people saddled up and started riding down the streets. There were something between 100 and 200 riders, almost all in some form of costume, bikes festooned with blinky taillights, flashing LEDs in spokes, electroluminescent wire. We rode through the neighborhoods for a bit and made our way to Hawthorne where we stopped in the parking lot of a convenience store for a beer run and more music and dancing. I’m not much of a dancer (and that’s a serious understatement) but I love that I live in a city where dance parties can spontaneously break out in a convenience store parking lot. I bounced up and down to the Violent Femmes, stomping in the heavy boots until we were ready to ride again.

Finally we got everyone back on bikes, weaving down quiet back roads. Dark, rolling laughter would occasionally break out from one rider or another and fill the streets. A girl rode up behind me as I was laughing and she said quietly, “That sounds positively evil.” I laughed more and said, “Actually, that was pure glee. It does not suck, being me right now.” Though it is hard to take malevolent cackling seriously when it is accompanied by bits of chatter between thoughtful riders. “Why are you stopping?” “Everything okay?” “Got the tools you need?” Though I only knew the names of maybe ten people in the entire crowd, I just felt a wonderful sense of community, biking in the dark with a bunch of other crazy people who refuse to fully grow up. One girl quietly called out in a sing-song voice, “Don’t kill me.” As an ethos, that’s not a bad starting point.

We eventually rode up to a ghost bike and had a very solemn moment. Everyone stopped and stood astride their bikes, silent, while a couple of people repaired some vandalism to the bike and touched up the white paint. The mood was only broken when headlights washed over us and the word started drifting through crowd. “Car.” “Car back.” “Make room, car coming.” I couldn’t help but wonder if the ghost bike was due to some fatal interaction with a car, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one sharing that thought. Sobering.

After more cruising through the neighborhoods, we finally came up alongside Laurelhurst Park, where ghosts and ghouls emerged from the edge of the park and hooted and called to us as we came up the curb and into the paths leading into the park. Eventually our ride came to a stop for the night and started the music and dancing again. I was a little surprised to realize it was midnight; I think I would have been ready and willing to ride for even longer, but I was done with the dance scene for the night. Mags and I mounted bikes yet again and started the quiet ride back to the Casa.

Such a wonderful, lovely night. My deepest thanks to all the people who rode and danced with us.

Grumble, grumble, AT&T

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After enduring an older model phone for far too long, I finally ordered a shiny new iPhone 4S from AT&T on 10/7, shortly after the new phone was announced by Apple. AT&T responded promptly, letting me know my order had been received and I was first in queue when the new phones were available.

And there my order sits, waiting. Still. For the past couple of weeks AT&T’s website lists my order as “processing” and says that status was last updated on 10/11. Meanwhile, over 4 million phones were sold in the first weekend it was available. But not to me. I don’t know if this is true, but I’ve read that AT&T is using its inventory to satisfy new customers, and existing customers who are replacing older phones will just have to wait until AT&T has signed up as many new customers as possible.

Thankfully, I learned a trick from a fellow at one of the Apple Stores. Each night, from 9 pm to midnight, a customer can log into Apple’s website and attempt to place an order for a phone. Supplies are limited, so they might all be gone by 10:00 pm, so try pretty close to 9. If you get a reservation, your phone can be picked up at your local Apple Store the very next day. Which very much doesn’t suck.

So yeah, I’ve got a reservation and should pick up my new phone today. At which point I’ll cancel my order with AT&T. I can only hope buying the phone straight from Apple screws AT&T out of some money somehow.

And by the way, here’s that link on Apple’s website, if you want to try the same.

My favorite Steve Jobs story

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Today, Steve Jobs stepped down from his role as CEO of Apple, Inc. I thought I would commemorate that with my favorite SJ story.

Once upon a time, I worked in the building/floor where Steve has his weekly meeting with the interface designers of the OS X operating system. Like Darth Vader walking the corridors of the Death Star, The Steve would stride down the halls with a pair of minions in his wake, while employees nervously avoided eye contact and drifted out of his path. SJ and minions would enter the meeting room (hilariously named Diplomacy) and leave a couple of hours later, followed by interface designers and engineers who were either crushed or elated, depending on how that day’s presentation had gone.

On one of those days, I happened to be in the bathroom in one of the stalls. The door to the bathroom opened and I heard the footsteps of people entering. They were mid-conversation, and I could immediately place one of the voices as Steve’s, and the other belonging to his Smithers (of that era).

Smithers was talking about some speech demo he had seen (I don’t know if this was from Apple or on the intarwebs or what), where a speech synthesis engine was generating speech using a variety of accents. He gushed, “People love British accents! Those are so sexy! You should get Madonna or Gwyneth Paltrow to do a speech synthesis voice!”

And Steve, in his most condescending, patronizing voice said, “Madonna. Isn’t. British.”

And I’m in the stall, clutching my sides with stifled laughter, trying my very hardest not to shout, “And neither is Gwyneth Fucking Paltrow, ya morons!”

But I wasn’t quite ready to quit. Yet. That’s a different story.

Razors and Lasers

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Preface: This is an older piece of writing that I thought was in my blog, but apparently wasn’t.

I first starting thinking about LASIK in April of 2000. I had a girlfriend who was going for an eye exam and consultation for LASIK and so I decided to tag along to learn more. The doctor’s office seemed thorough and competent, and I was over-due for an eye exam myself, so I made an appointment for myself soon thereafter. Primarily, I was interested in finding out if my glasses prescription had gotten any worse and to check on the health of my eyes in general. However, there was this small part of me that was interested in finding out if my deplorable myopia and astigmatism eliminated me as a candidate for the procedure.

The exam showed that my eyes were as bad as I thought, but at least they hadn’t changed significantly since my last exam. Roughly, my left eye was -6.5 diopters and my right eye was -8 diopters. If you’re used to the older 20/20 scale, -6 diopters translates to 20/800 vision. In other words, I was as blind as justice. The whole eye chart experience usually starts with me saying “What chart?” I was surprised to find out that I was still within range of being an acceptable candidate for LASIK. Of course, no guarantees are made of results, but they had a long list of referrals of patients with much worse vision who had been corrected to 20/20. And no one had ever gone blind from LASIK, so my worst fear was allayed.

So the exam was reassuring and informative, but I was still pretty apprehensive. Let me explain what the LASIK process is like. LASIK stands for “laser-assisted intrastromal in-situ keratomileusis”. That doesn’t help much, does it? In short, they give you a mild muscle relaxant and some eye drops to numb the eyeball itself. You lie down in a chair and they slide a large mechanism into place above your head. A doctor applies a spring clamp to hold your eyelids open and uses a fancy razor to slice off a flap of your cornea (the “lens” of your eyeball). You stare into a laser while it burns away parts of your eye until you have a rounded surface of the right shape and height, and then the corneal flap is flipped back into place. The corneal flap is smoothed and patted into place and the next eye is done. The entire procedure takes less than ten minutes.

I should explain that I am extremely squeamish about having my eyes touched. I briefly tried contacts when I was a teen, with miserable results. Because of my astigmatism, I had to use what were euphemistically called “semi-soft” contacts, which is to say they felt like shards of glass scraping across my eye. But, primarily I failed at wearing contacts because I just couldn’t stand jabbing my finger into my eye to put the contacts in or take them out. Despite my best efforts, deep breathing and guilt over the expense, my eyelids would spasm uncontrollably every time I brought my finger within range. Sigh.

So, LASIK basically scared me stiff. The thought of eyeclamps being installed evoked memories of A Clockwork Orange, real horrorshow. So, the exam was interesting, but I had trouble working up any enthusiasm for actually following up on it.

About a week later, a co-worker had the procedure done, and was thrilled with the results. He waxed rhapsodic about the ease of the procedure, the trivial recovery and the glorious results. He couldn’t recommend it enough. Within a week, my girlfriend made her appointment for the procedure, so I got to see the process up close. As a long-time contacts wearer, she was somewhat more comfortable with having her eyes touched and probed. Still, razors and lasers are another thing altogether, so she had her fair share of pre-op nervousness. The Valium didn’t do much for her, but she walked into the surgery room like a good soldier, endured the surgery and walked out again in about four minutes. She could tell immediate results, but her eyes were pretty sensitive to light and basically she wanted to get home and to curl up in a ball for a while. Once she was home, the pain started to grow and she took a Vicodin and waited for it to kick in. She had a couple of hours of tearful pain before she finally fell asleep for the afternoon. I woke her up for a round of eyedrops and the worst had passed. Her eyes felt a little gritty and abused, but things improved rapidly from there.

As luck would have it, I broke my glasses frames that weekend. Great, just great. Finding frames that fit my massive skull is a huge pain, and they tend to cost a small fortune, and new frames almost never fit the old lenses, so I would need to have new lenses made, and the polycarb lenses I get take about a week to get made… this was not good. Or… did I dare think about it… I could bite the bullet and get LASIK done. I decided there would never be a more perfect time, I would never have a better excuse. So I made the appointment.

In the three days leading to the surgery, I kept pondering the same question, like some Zen koan. With insufficient drugs and no physical restraints, what could possibly keep me lying in a chair while some quack took a razor to my eyeball and started shaving off a slice? I had visions of leaping up from the chair mid-procedure and running away, corneal flap flapping in the breeze. Shudder. The three people I knew who had gone through this before all assured me it would be fine, but rational comfort doesn’t do much against irrational fear.

The appointed hour came and I arrived at the clinic. To hell with stoicism; I made sure every receptionist, nurse and intern I encountered knew I was close to full-blown panic and not to mess around. I was given 15mg of Valium, which I was told was a stout dose. The nurse came over to administer the first round of eye drops and got a first-hand glimpse at the challenges ahead. I couldn’t keep my lids open for the drops, despite my best efforts and her experienced hands. Somehow, she splashed enough drops on my face that some trickled into my eyes, and then she happily retreated to her station to wait for my Valium to kick in. And waited. And waited. Every ten minutes or so she would ask me “How are you doing?” I would answer nervously, “HowamIsupposedtobefeeling?Ican’ttellany difference.Whatshoulditfeelike?DoIseemmorerelaxed?” She looked at me grimly, we wrestled with another round of eye drops with roughly the same results, and she went to fetch the doctor. The doctor looked me over and said “Give him another 5mg of Valium.” As the nurse handed me another pill, she said “This makes 20mg. That’s the same amount we gave the Oakland Raiders linebackers when they came in for this.” Great, I’m not sure if I was supposed to be proud or embarrassed. I settled back and waited for this extra dose to take effect, and the nurse starting sending other patients into the operating room ahead of me. “I don’t think he’s ready next; let’s let this other patient go ahead.” The clock ticked and I couldn’t feel any change from this drug at all.

After 45 minutes of waiting, I finally stood up. “This isn’t going to get any better. Let’s just do it.” I was prepared to grit my teeth and try my best to simply suffer through it. She took my chart back to the operating room, and then led me back.

The room where the procedure was done was small, but rather full of people. One person led me to a fully reclined chair like something from a dentist’s office and I stretched out flat. The chair was swung around to bring my head to position under a bulky device, which I assumed was the business end of the laser. The box hung about 14 inches from my face and I found myself staring at a small red light like HAL’s “eye” from 2001. Oddly enough, the light was comforting; it was close enough that it dominated my field of vision and so I wasn’t nearly as aware (and frightened) of all the other things that were happening in the room. One of the people in the room took position at my hip and held my hand for comfort.

The doctor taped a small shield over my left eye and carefully moved the laser so that it was directly over my right eye. He adjusted a small beanbag under my head and then talked to me about staring directly into the light, not flinching, not moving my head, not looking away… At this stage, I would have gladly paid double the price if the procedure could have been done while I was unconscious.

The doctor settled one device against my lower eyelid and then smoothly settled a clamp in place between my eyelids, keeping them pried so far open it hurt. Drops were added to the eye and I got an additional admonition to stare at the light. I felt a gentle tugging at the surface of my eyeball and just about the time I realized that was the shaving of the corneal flap, it was done. The doctor cautioned me that the light was going to fade, but that didn’t mean I was going blind, and that I should still try to stare at where the light used to be. He made a gentle motion and the corneal flap was peeled back and everything went dark. Panic was just beginning to set in when my other senses suddenly got enough activity to keep me distracted.

The laser started burning. In the background I could hear some rhythmic mechanical thudding noise that had to be related to the generator feeding the laser. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Much closer, I could hear a static/sizzling noise, like a cross between the rasp of an arc welder and the sound of frying bacon. I was practically holding my breath trying to be as still as possible, but I took a shallow gasp and could immediately smell an acrid tang in the air. The sounds and smells were of my own eyeball burning.

After the first couple of seconds, the red light came back, fuzzy and scattered and flickering, but I could at least see something. There was a dancing bluish glow around the edges from the burning of the laser and I tightened my grip on the hand of my designated comforter. The doctor would calmly pronounce numbers as this happened “37 16” to have them echoed by some other person in the room, “37 16”. After 12 hours that lasted less than a minute, the laser went quiet and the burning smell faded. The doctor brushed my eye and my vision flickered as the corneal flap settled back into place. My eye was flushed with more drops and the flap was brushed smooth and the edges were gently tamped into place around the edges of the slice. More drops were added and then the clamps were removed from my eyelids. My lids fluttered and spasmed for a second before gratefully closing shut. The shield that had been taped over my left eye was removed and gently taped into place over my right eye. The laser mechanism slid a small amount to the left and the doctor again started his mantra about keeping my head and eyes still. I took a deep breath, flexed my hand for a moment and resumed my death grip on the hand of the anonymous saint of the surgery.

The left eye was done in the same fashion as the right. I’m not sure if I was more scared because I knew better just what was happening at each stage, or perhaps more at ease because I had survived it once. The sizzling sounds and smells had one more chance to be etched into my brain and then it was all over. My eye was awash with drops, the clamps were removed and I could luxuriate in closed eyes, safely hidden behind lids that were content to stay closed for a while. The taped shield was removed from my right eye, and I was guided to sit upright and handed a pair of wrap-around sunglasses that were three sizes too small, to keep things dark and to help me resist the urge to rub my eyes. Someone took my arm and led me out of the room, total elapsed time under five minutes. Probably the hardest five minutes in my life.

Even as I was being driven down the street away from the clinic, I was gingerly opening my eyes and noticing all the things I could see. “I can read that license plate. I can see the prices at the gas station. I can read that billboard. I can read that sign.” I was strongly reminded of my experience when I got my first pair of glasses at 11 years old and could tell for the first time that trees actually had hundreds of thousands of tiny, distinct, discernible leaves.

Thankfully, my recovery afterwards was trouble-free. I didn’t have any appreciable pain. My vision fluxuated a bit but was always enough of a remarkable improvement that I couldn’t help but be pleased and amazed. I learned a new technique for putting in eye drops that worked even for my twitchy lids. I had a brief follow-up exam the next morning and despite some blurriness, both eyes tested at roughly 20/20 and I got a card from the doctor that said I was legal to drive without glasses.

It’s been a week now and I’m definitely glad I did it, even considering all the trauma. My vision is probably better than it ever was with glasses, and I’m pleasantly surprised when I catch myself reaching for my glasses in the morning or moving to push up my glasses at work and I find that there’s nothing there. My vision feels a little blurry at times, and I have very definite halos around bright lights at night, but these things are expected in the first month of healing. I’ll get checked again in a month, and then again two months after that when they expect all healing to be fully completed. At that time, they’ll decide just how close to 20/20 we got and whether any follow-up surgery is suggested. I’m trying not to think of the prospect of doing it all again.

I bought my first pair of sunglasses in twenty years.

Footnote: A few people have read this and had a response like “What a nightmare! I’m never doing that!” I didn’t write this with the intent of scaring anyone away from the procedure. I really am happy that I did it and I’m pleased with the results. The “horrorshow” had more to do with my own fears and neuroses. Really, if you think you might be interested, go in for an exam, talk to a doctor about it. A number of clinics will even let you watch surgeries through a window or over a camera broadcast. Don’t get scared away on account of me.