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Pay attention not only to the cultivation of knowledge but to the cultivation of qualities of the heart, so that at the end of education, not only will you be knowledgeable, but also you will be a warm-hearted and compassionate person.

~ HH the 14th Dalai Lama


Typing vs. Writing?

In my composition classes, we've had several conversations about the difference between typing our drafts and handwriting them. As romantic as I tend to be about writing--and as much as I love my little journals and notebooks--I have become a convert to the keyboard to such a degree that I almost can't think unless I'm typing. A lot of my students agree, but that may be a generational thing; some of my students, for instance, seem unable to think unless they're texting. But there are a few hold-outs, a handful of traditionalists for whom writing necessarily involves a spiral notebook or a yellow legal pad. So we've had a few discussions in my classes about what difference our method of writing makes on our texts.

Some of us--myself included--prefer typing because we have trouble making our pens keep pace with our thoughts (to say nothing of the atrocious script our frenzied writing produces), and we enjoy the satisfaction of seeing our text already "in print," as though the bulk of our work was already finished. It's a delicate self-delusion, because most of us are aware that a draft is a draft no matter how we produce it, and the hardest part--revision--still lies a long way out in front of us; but for us, this happy delusion sometimes works.

Others prefer the handwritten draft for much the same reason: because the pen slows down the writing, they argue, it also slows down their thinking, and they find their prose has a more deliberate, carefully considered air. They get to do a lot of the initial revisions--word choices, premise developments, and so on--in their head while they're waiting for the pen to catch up.

Also, these writers fear the printed page because, even on screen, the typed text feels too final, so that their mistakes appear indelible and all the more a mar to their writing for that; they feel typing removes the excuse of poor handwriting and fast scribbling for the errors they naturally commit in drafting.

I was reminded of these conversations today as I opened my iGoogle homepage on my office computer. One of the "gadgets" I've added to that page is a daily literary quote, and today's comes from Dylan Thomas (one of my favorite poets): "Don't be too harsh to these poems until they're typed," he writes. "I always think typescript lends some sort of certainty: at least, if the things are bad then, they appear bad with conviction."

I'm fascinated by Thomas's ability to synthesize our conflicting perspectives; he has acknowledged both the strength and the frightening finality of a typed text, and he has made both appear positive, an empowering sort of excuse.


¡Feliz Dia de los Muertos!

sugar skull
To learn more about this holiday and others like it, check out this Wikipedia article.


A good omen

That's right, I believe in signs. I'm speaking in the written sense, mostly: Whether they're manifested messages from some divine authority or inidicators of universal synchronicity a la Jung or just psychological revelations based on a personal symbology, I enjoy finding coincidental meaning in seemingly mundane events.

In my novel, the narrator spends much of her spiritual journey rambling around the afterlife in a beat-up white Dodge Ram touring van. It's how she begins her journey immediately after death, and while she abandons the van in a fit of independence, it makes its way back into her journey through "coincidence" and becomes the literal vehicle for her descent into a nightmarish "hell" and evetually is the scene of her rape. When she kills her rapist and wanders into a desert alone, she finds the abandoned van broken and stripped, and she leaves it where it is to rot in the desert, so ultimately, it comes to represent her soul.

This morning, when I walked outside my motel to look at the dreary rain here in North Texas, I found a beat-up white Dodge Ram touring van parked in the parking lot. Scrawled with a fingertip on its rear windows was the message, "Hi, Elijah!"

I couldn't have written a more convenient spiritual metaphor, and I'm hoping it serves as a sign that the universe is conspiring in favor of my defense.


My new grading policy

This was my "Buddhism quote" on my iGoogle homepage today:

"Wise men don't judge: they seek to understand."

Pretty much sums up the ways I grade and the reasons I don't like assigning grades. As a writer who insists on treating students like fellow writers, I don't want to "judge" their work--I want to understand it.



My sister has this life-long friend who grew up on a farm. Raised cows, learned to drive a tractor at age 6, showed pigs at the county fair--the whole bit. She once described to us the process of delivering piglets, an ordeal my sister got to participate in. Third-grade arms deep inside the pig, little fetuses squirming to get out, blood and muck everywhere. When I saw Billy Crystal deliver a calf in City Slickers, I had some idea what it must have smelled like, thanks to my sister's friend.

Birthing Revising my novel feels a little bit similar. I'm up to my elbows in the gory mess of my own words, and just when I think I've got hold of something, the walls constrict, grip my arm so I can't move, and whatever I thought I had slips loose.

And everything stinks.




I've been contemplating my role in the classroom, and I decided--not as definition but as meditation--to explore the origins of all these labels we apply to ourselves. While I acknowledge that most of these etymologies have evolved to have entirely different connotations, I enjoy examining the beginnings of words as a way of unlocking or re-examining how we use them today. Some of these terms are more common than others (I, for instance, am a "lecturer," but I am no longer a "tutor" in the conventional sense), but I'm including anything I can think of related to my role in education so as to better consider what exactly I'm doing. I've arranged them in three sections of "non-Sams," "middlings," and "Sams," according to how I feel the etymologies reflect my views of education, but I don't want to insist that my views are "correct" in any way--there are plenty of teachers whose preferred teaching styles fall into what I'm calling the "non-Sams"; I value their teaching and I'm glad there are different teaching styles to choose from.

  • Educator: From a Latin root for “to rear up” or “raise”; also related to a Latin word for “to lead.” To educate, then, is to raise up a younger student to a knowledgeable adult; also, it suggests that such knowledgeable adulthood is out there, somewhere, and the educator must “lead” the student to it.
  • Guru: Sanskrit for “weighty, grave, dignified.” While I revere gurus in general and while, if I had any formal gurus, I would revere them specifically, I have to include this in the non-Sams because it is the stereotype of the haughty professor who reviles students as pesky novices and who considers him- or herself as the all-knowing font of wisdom to which students must grovel for information.


  • Instructor: From a Latin root meaning “to build, erect, or prepare.” To instruct someone is prepare someone for a life (see “educate”), but the structural uses of the root also suggest that there is in the student an innate foundation on which to “erect” the knowledgeable adult.
  • Lecturer: From a Latin root for “to read.” In essence, to lecture is read to our students, but there does not seem to be anything inherently instructive or interpretive about the act. We would simply be presenting information for the student to hear.
  • Tutor: From a Latin root for “to guard or watch”; a tutor, then, guards a student's education. I like the protective aspects of this, as though we sincerely have our students’ best interests at heart, but I cringe at the implication that we are guarding not the student but the curriculum—that we are protecting the student against going down the “wrong” path in their education. Even this has its advantages, of course, because in protecting students against their own follies we are helping them effectively navigate their education, but I still worry about the judgmental aspect of “guardianship.”
  • Edifier: From Latin roots that, combined, mean “to make a dwelling.” To edify, then, is to build a house of knowledge, a kind of mental safe haven (see “tutor”). This is related to “instruct,” but by specifying the home as that which is being built, there is a simpler, less elite, and perhaps less imposing connotation here. If it were clearly collaborative, I’d list “edify” below in the “Sams”; since it is unclear who is doing the building, I’ll leave it here.
  • Faculty: From the Latin for “power, ability, opportunity” (see “guru”) and for “resources, wealth”; related to the latter definitions, it is also a form of the Latin for “easily” (see “school”). Much as I enjoy the adage that “knowledge is power,” I abhor the lordly suggestion those with knowledge should enjoy a power over others or over knowledge itself. I also dislike the reference to education’s early (or, okay, continuing) socio-economic elitism. But those are the only reasons this word rests here in the middle. I also like the acknowledgment of accomplishment and opportunity available in education, and I prefer to interpret “easily” as “in one’s own fashion” or “without undo outside pressure to conform.” It’s a loose interpretation, but I’m sticking to it.

  • Teacher: From an old Teutonic root for “token,” meaning something shown; as a verb, it connotes showing or giving, but it is also linked to a conjugation akin to “taken,” as in something received. To teach, then, is both to give and to receive knowledge.
  • Professor: From Latin roots meaning “to put forth” and “to declare”; in this sense, to profess is to make a declaration, as though of the truth. However, in its early religious usages, it meant “to make a public confession,” a connotation I prefer, as it suggests I am admitting to my intellectual biases as well as stating my views.
  • School (the verb, as in "I schooled you"; archaic, but interesting, though I have resisted using the nominative "schooler"): In a very roundabout path through Latin, German, and various Scandinavian languages, from a Greek root meaning “leisure”; as a verb, then, it suggests taking one’s leisure through study, or to have enough leisure time to engage in study. Much as this might support the long-standing elitism of education (only those rich or powerful enough have time and means for study), I enjoy the verb origins of this as an excuse to give my students leisure enough to study in their own way or to explore their own ideas, and to let them enjoy their studies.
  • Mentor: The proper name of a Greek poet; etymologically, it contains references to words for “advise,” “counsel,” “remember,” and “think.” As a “guide” through my students’ education, I prefer this word above all but the next one.
  • Student: From the Latin for “zeal and affection” and the verb connotations of “to be zealous,” “to seek to be helpful,” and “to apply oneself.” I wish my students were in fact more zealous in the pursuit of their education, but I include this here because I consider my role as a student as essential to—perhaps indistinct from—my role as a teacher, and I adore that part of this definition that encourages us to “seek to be helpful.”


More metta to Maynmar

I'm sorry to say things have gotten worse in Burma (Myanmar).

UPDATE: Things have gone from worse to deadly. Reportedly, even monks have been killed. For more information, please visit the Democratic Voice of Burma.

Even more than before, I still fervently hope the Burmese people and the governments of the world can find a peaceful, nonviolent way to intervene and prevent more violence.


Metta to Myanmar

Thynn Thynn, the woman I consider my first formal teacher in Buddhism, is from Burma (technically, Myanmar, but she refers to herself as Burmese). I've since shifted my focus to Mahayana practices (and some studies in Vajrayana), but I continually return to Thynn Thynn's teachings on mindfulness when I feel a need to sit, to settle into my roots. So I've been following with some concern the recent protests led by monks in Myanmar. So far the government has kept its response relatively peaceful--thanks, ironically, to pressure from China--but tensions are building.

I write this mostly as a means of supporting, however meekly, the monks in their actions. I know too little of the politics in Myanmar to comment on the reasons for protesting, but I admire the monks' quiet but insistent resistance, and, like a good friend of mine (who phrased this better), I am amazed at their willingness to leave their internal contemplation to march on behalf of largely secular concerns, just to help better the lives of the laity. May the protections of my newly-hung lunga prayer flags speed on the wind to help the monks and the Burmese people.

UPDATE: Tensions are reaching the breaking point. I can't believe I'm writing this, but I'm rooting for China to hold back the Burmese government from acting against the monks.



The other day, I introduced my students to freewriting and its more structured cousin, looping. As I always do when making my students write in class, I brought my own notebook (a smooth black thing with a red-ribbon bookmark and a folding magnetic flap embossed with a Japanese kanji for "joy"), and I wrote with them. I thought it might be amusing, and maybe instructive, to share some of those wild entries--unedited--here:

Freewriting isn't free--it costs words, lots of words, and effort, finger-cramping, backaching, mind-mushing effort. I don't know why I'm writing in this way. Perhaps I'll post it to my blog (I nearly wrote, Perhaps I'll die, like the old lady who swallowed a fly). Arm-aching: It's been too long since I've done this, despite writing w/ the teens this summer. My forearm aches, that little pinch of muscle just below my pinky is starting to cramp. This is not fun. I should be writing about my dissertation. I should be editing it, writing new scenes I meant to write the first time around.

And now my bicep hurts.

The pain of writing--the physical as much as the mental struggle of composition--is lost to us now. I wonder at those older scribes, the Marquis de Sade, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Cervantes, and I think of them with pens--quills, even--in hand, and I wonder if they had massive forearms, overdeveloped hands, the thick pad of their palm near the thumb bulging like a knotted oyster(?). Popeye was a writer, I'm sure of it.


I want a gong, or at least a gong tone--mechanical might be better, timed if possible, like a Zen clock, so I can meditate w/o thinking, so I can pretend these writing sessions--or hell, any writing session--is an act of meditation, which, from a certain perspective, it is. I have written a fairly long sentence. I wonder why. I like the long sentence as a reflection of stringy thoughts the way I like the short sentence as a punchline. So there. Have they written enough? No. Have I written anything productive today? No. Not immediately so. But we'll get there.


"What about the deer being evil?" [a comment a student made between classes]

Why What about the deer being evil? What about the deer being evil? What about the deer being evil? Why is the deer evil? Dear Evil, what about you being? What about the deer is evil? What is it about the deer being evil? What is evil about the deer? Tartlets ... and so on. It has lost all meaning. I mean: It has lost. Meaning I am lost. I miss LOST.


No one writing

On my Google homepage, I subscribe to a series of quotes that change day to day. One is a daily Thoreau quote, one is a general literary quote, one is a daily Jon Stewart quote, and so on. I also receive daily quotes from Buddhism (the service applies the term a bit liberally, often ascribing Buddhist ideas to Taoist writers or even modern psychologists, though I do enjoy the illustration of Jung's "collective unconscious").

Today's Buddhism quote, allegedly from Wei Wu Wei's The Tenth Man, is, "I have only one object in writing books: to demonstrate that there could not be anyone to do it."

Today, I'm finishing (for now) the scholarly preface to my dissertation, a novel narrated from the afterlife--by a dead narrator. How weirdly appropriate, then, to find this quote awaiting me this morning.


Audience analysis

I'm listening to an audio recording of teachings on the Garland of Views that HH the Dalai Lama gave in Miami in 2004. About 45 minutes into the second recording, His Holiness talks about how to explain the diversity of teachings in Buddhism:
If we were to ask what is exactly the Buddha’s own final standpoint—why did Buddha teach such diversity and sometimes quite opposing, contradictory teachings in his scriptures—so the Buddha’s own final standpoint may, from the point of view of Madhyamaka, be that of the Middle Way philosophy, but it is also a fact that Buddha did teach [the foundations of many other schools of Buddhism]. So what we see here [...] is recognition of how the Buddha’s teaching of the dharma really has to be understood in the context of its appropriateness to the given audience. So in a sense Buddha is not a case of an enlightened being who only wants to reveal one truth to everybody. It is a case of Buddha having to select what is most beneficial and what is most effective, what is most suitable in a given context and a given situation.
In other words, the Buddha taught a variety of lessons in a variety of contexts in order to reach a variety of audiences--each lesson, even if it seems to contradict an earlier lesson, is customized to meet the needs or expectations of a particular audience.

How wonderful to have discovered this example the day after I taught audience analysis in my freshman comp classes!


The art of revising

Tonight, while discussing the new film Becoming Jane with my wife, Jennifer, I was struck by a thought about writers in film in general. The past several years, I've been keeping an informal, mental list of films featuring writers (or, at least, the films I've enjoyed)--films like Finding Forrester or Wonderboys or Stranger Than Fiction--even, in a pinch, Under the Tuscan Sun. Becoming Jane is the newest film on my list, and it does a fair job of showing Jane Austen writing: The iconic scene is her sprawled across a small table, pages scattered everywhere; she's dressed in her nightgown and leans on one hand, gazing softly at her elegant, romantic penmanship, a perfectly picturesque country scene shining through the wide picture window before her and illuminating her and her work in a milky cool light. But it's not my favorite scene: for that, I much prefer her jumping from her chair to pace the room, biting her pen or wringing her gown in a frenzy of wordsmithing, then collapsing onto the piano bench to pound out a few notes and play away her creative fury until--eureka!--the ideal words spring to her mind and she rushes back to swirl them onto the page, dark ink soaking into the thick cotton paper in a weightless but serious script, and she smiles almost postcoitally. (My second favorite--and the most accurate in terms of writing craft, I think--is a brief scene in which Austen, just returned from a stroll and about to greet guests, suddenly and rudely slips to a nearby bench to scribble a phrase in her little notebook.)

Still, tonight I found the scenes frustrating, and what occurred to me was that films almost never portray the most important act of writing: revision. All we ever get are the long moments of deep concentration, writers waiting like saints for a vision from some Literature-God. If we don't get that, we get frenzied dashes of quirky, frantic behavior, the chain smokers and binge drinkers, the writers who have to wear their socks inside-out or bang on pianos or count the cracks in a sidewalk just to get their ideas flowing.

These are, of course, acts of writing, at least for some. I certainly have done my share of staring wistfully out windows, the hard glow of a blank computer screen winning our staring contest; and I certainly have my quirks, writing best at 2 a.m. and spending hours compiling "soundtracks" for my stories and novels. But even with these brief scenes of pain--the furrowed brows and the self-destructive habits--the movies have made writing look easy. All we have to do, it seems, is gaze long enough, think hard enough, or be weird enough, and the writing will take care of itself. When a colleague (who doesn't write) learned I was writing a novel this summer, she brushed aside my effort by saying, "Oh, well, that shouldn't be too hard--all you have to do is write a few words each day and you'll be done in no time." If only it were that easy! I could--and sometimes did--simply "write a few words each day," but what I want are the right words, and finding them takes a lot more effort than staring into space or drinking seventeen cups of coffee.

I have the front of an old birthday card stuck to my office door on campus; it shows Winne-the-Pooh tapping a pencil to his chin, a sheaf of papers tucked under one arm, and below him the card reads, "The hardest part about writing, thought Pooh, is finding the right words." A long time before Pooh, Mark Twain commented that "the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter--`tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning." Too true. But I tend to view writing a bit like sculpting, except harder: In sculpting, you have a choice between adding on wet clay to build up a piece or chiseling away raw stone to reveal a piece. In writing you have to do both, adding on loads of wet, raw words, and then chiseling away at the excess to reveal the beauty within. That's what it takes to find the right words. That's what good writing is about. That's called revision, and we almost never get to see it on film.

Jennifer (who, if she weren't so much like her mother, could be the love child of Nancy Pearl and Robert Osborne) pointed out tonight that writing in general is a pretty lonely act, with the writer often sitting motionless in a chair, only the fingers pecking at a keyboard or a typewriter, and except for a few iconic seconds to get across the idea of writing--Angela Lansbury punching in the title words for Murder, She Wrote, for instance--we really don't want to see the act of writing, because it's pathetically uncinematic. There's not any action to put on film, Jennifer said; everything is internal, the old wheels-turning-in-the-head gag. With revision, it's usually just more of the same, with the occasional addition of a scratch-out or an erasure, a scribbled note in a margin, maybe a highlighter or a sticky-note once in a while. Not a very pretty picture. Certainly not cinematic.

Still, I yearn to see the meat (or, in my case, the soy beans) of writing portrayed realistically and seriously, just once, just to see what it's like. I want more of the writing process on film, the way we get to see it for songwriting in Music and Lyrics or for screenwriting in Adaptation. Enough, really, with the old Hemingway-and-Faulkner routine: No more of the brooding craftsman who "would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame," who "would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, 'Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence." (All you have to do, Hemingway? I wish it were that simple!) And no more of the flippant, alcoholic madman, toying drunkenly with language just for the sake of it and letting the unpolished rough draft relax in the glory of its originality instead of stand on the merits of its expert prose. (Faulkner once said in an interview that "all the trash must be eliminated in the short story, whereas one can get away with some of it in a novel." It's fine that you let yourself get away with "trash," Faulkner, but did you have to dump all the garbage in my bookshelf? Couldn't you have tried in all your novels to be as tidy as you were in As I Lay Dying?")

Truman Capote said, "I believe more in the scissors than in the pencil." There, ladies and gentlemen, was a true reviser. There have been two recent, highly acclaimed films made about Capote, Capote and Infamous, and I somehow have yet to see either of them. Now I'm thinking I must, and soon, because perhaps there, at last, I'll get to see revising on film.


Madeleine L'Engle

Madeleine L'Engle has died.

When Kurt Vonnegut died on April 11 of this year, I kept silent most of the day and mourned the rest of the week. Vonnegut had a huge impact not only on my early fiction-writing but also on my early philosophical development: In both areas, he taught me not to take anything--especially myself--too seriously, but at the same time he always hinted at this wry but sublime sense of wonder and seriousness. I loved that man as much as it's possible to love a stranger. Still, while I did have the splendid good fortune to have heard him speak, at Trinity University in San Antonio some dozen years ago, I had never actually met him.

I did meet Madeleine L'Engle. She autographed my copy of A Wrinkle in Time, and that same day, I was lucky enough to have interviewed her for my college newspaper.

Okay, to be honest, it wasn't entirely luck, since I was managing editor of the paper and had arranged it so I would be the one to write the interview, because I understood even then what a huge opportunity it was to meet the woman, to speak with her face to face. But I blew the interview, I think. Standing on the auditorium stage after her lecture to the campus, I felt overwhelmed just by her presence, the profundity of her lecture and then, alone with her, the enormity of her fame. My memory of the interview is pretty thin--I remember stammering a few times, and my voice seemed uncharacteristically small, my questions too vague and too few--and the article we printed in the paper, while adequate, is no shining example of award-winning journalism.

But tonight, this is beside the point. I met the woman. I shook her hand. I spoke to her, and she spoke to me. She listened.

I've met dozens of authors since. It became a regular part of my graduate studies, and it remains a regular part of my professional life. I meet them, I drink with them, I talk about our craft and about their experiences, I coolly pretend I am on their level as I nod along with their ideas. It's the game we writers play.

But sometimes I meet a writer worth fawning over, worth doting on, worth dropping pretense and unabashedly saying, "I think you're brilliant, and I'd love to hear you talk about writing." Of these, Madeleine L'Engle was the first for me. And now she has died.

In her most famous book, A Wrinkle in Time, a trio of kids travel through space and time, across the universe, even. L'Engle calls it "tessering" in the book, as in, "They tessered across the universe."

In our small paperback copy--my college girlfriend's, if I remember right, but since I married her, the copy is ours--Madeleine L'Engle, aged already, wrote in her shaky hand, "for Sam & Jennifer tesser well" and signed her name. For all its obvious, self-referential simplicity, it remains one of my favorite autograph-epigraphs. And I'd like to offer it back:

Tesser well, Ms. L'Engle. "I'm sorry we don't have time to say good-bye to you properly."* I hope you get where you're going quickly, and happily.

* This is one of the final lines in A Wrinkle in Time. I hope she doesn't mind that I've borrowed it.


A note about the profile photo:

My profile photo is of Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. Poor student of Buddhism though I am, the study is important to me, and Tsongkhapa is among my favorite Buddhist poets and teachers. He is considered an incarnation of Manjushri, the Buddha of Wisdom, who is in turn usually considered the bodhisattva of writing, poetry, and knowledge. Which is why I included him here--another reminder to myself of the things I value.

Also, it's hard to see, but he's using the teaching mudra--the position of his hands, which here symbolizes that he's teaching a lesson, in the same manner that early icons of Christ show his hands in various teaching, blessing, or judging postures.


The Introduction

I can't predict how often I'll post to this blog. I might write daily, or every day I hold classes, or once a month, or never again. But I certainly hope I post with some regularity, if only to keep myself writing.

Most of what I plan to post will be related to the craft of writing, to my philosophy of teaching, and perhaps to my philosophy in general. Perhaps I'll write comments about my doctoral dissertation, which I'm near to finishing; perhaps I'll comment on new ideas for the classes I teach, or new ideas about teaching in general, things I've read or heard on the radio; perhaps I'll just wax meditative, noting a scrap of Buddhist poetry or the most recent Thoreau quote to pop up in my Google homepage (today, it's "Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something"). Some days I may surprise myself with accidental profundity. Mostly, I expect this will wind up at least as mundane as the rest of the blogosphere, just another tiny voice in the din of the online planet, another set of opinions foisted onto the world and easily ignored.

So be it. The point is only to write, and to let my students see me writing, because I walk into my classrooms every semester and tell them I believe in this--in the importance of writing, impactful or not, and in the freedom to write useless, unimportant drivel just for the sake of practice--and I'd like to demonstrate that.

The name of this blog, "Beginner's Mind," refers to the first chapter of Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, in which she discusses her "beginner's mind, the first way I thought and felt about writing." It's a book I returned to a lot this summer, as I taught a teen creative writing workshop at the library and as I rushed to finish my novel. Goldberg's is as much a Zen reference as a writing reference, which I like, so I'm putting it here on my screen as a constant reminder to enjoy this blog, to write loose and for fun the way I should be writing always, and also as a subtle reminder to hold onto those other kinds of mind I value: Buddha mind, quiet mind, metta mind.

But that's just me. You can have whatever sort of mind you want.

So, enjoy.

Or something.