This is my body

April 27, 2013

I am nervous about this post because I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to name names. But let’s edge up to it, shall we?

Last weekend I was “My Angry Vagina” in Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. It was a local production benefitting Middle Way House. I first heard about Vagina Monologues many years ago when Ensler was here to perform it. I remember the furor around town that the word “vagina” was emblazoned big and bold on the billboards promoting the event. But that’s kind of her point.

The Monologues are just that: A series of monologues based on interviews with hundreds of women about their bodies, particularly their relationship with their vagina. The writing quality varies, but there’s enough to make you laugh, to make you cry, and a lot to make you think.

I auditioned with “Because He Liked to Look at It,” which chronicles how a woman goes from hating her vagina and being ashamed of it to being in love with her body, all due to her sexual encounter with the innocuous vagina connoisseur “Bob.” I liked it because it had a lot of range. They also had me read “Cunt,” which is about reclaiming the word. I didn’t like that one as much, not because of the content, but because it was more like riffing on poetry rather than doing something dramatic.

So I was cast in everybody’s favorite bit, the ranting vagina. Jenny Gibson gave a legendary performance of it last year and she left huge shoes to fill. I worked with the divine Diane Kondrat to get inside the piece.

The first time I read it, I was a little uncomfortable. After all, I would have to say “vagina” multiple times. And “pussy.” These are Things We Do Not Speak Of. I read through it again and warmed up to it. By the third read I was like, “Piece o’ cake, now how do I break this down into beats?” Maybe it’s because I swear like a sailer, but the mysterious words no longer had power over me. From then on it became a dramatic exercise.

At the evening performance, Lara and I set up some chairs behind the curtain onstage so we could listen to the show. This is the only time I’ve heard the whole thing. It was a great experience as a feminist celebration of womanhood. All these words that we’re not allowed to say being reclaimed. Being said so many times they lose their unsavory connotations. Released into the light to become just another aspect of ourselves to celebrate, like our creativity and our intelligence and our compassion. Brought out of the darkness.

The play opens with a rundown of euphemisms for “vagina.” They are hysterical. “You need to air out your pussycat” is one of my favorite lines from the show. But when I was growing up, I didn’t have euphemisms. I didn’t have anything. I had no words. Not even “down there.” There was just nothing in my head, so it was like this whole part of my body didn’t exist.

Until he came. The first Bad Man. The worst Bad Man. There would be many others over the next twenty years but he was the worst because he was the first, the most trusted, the most ruthless. I stopped trusting men after him.

His name is Ron Hampsten.

{breathe}

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I have never said his name publicly. I have rarely said it all, even to therapists. But to name a thing is to have power over it. Or so say the traditions of my religion. He was the father of my best friend.

I was somewhere between eight and ten when it started. We only know this because it was about this time that I began beating up boys. I stopped beating up boys when I was about 15, when I had been told by every authority figure that it wasn’t “feminine” and I “couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be a boy or a girl” and it was time to “grow up.” So I started cutting my wrists. That was acceptable. That was feminine.

In 1990 when I was 22 I stood in the library of Nottingham Polytechnic in England, my hand poised in the air for what felt like hours. The book I was reaching for was on recovery from sexual abuse. But to pick up that book—to touch it—would mean it had actually happened to me. That it had been real. But I was determined to heal. I sobbed quietly and picked it up.

A few weeks later I went through a mindfully constructed series of rituals to name what had happened to me, acknowledge its influence on my life, and begin to heal from it. I had my friends in the States sending me energy and I had a wide variety of guardians and guides as I went on my way through realities and memories. And I was amazed at the smart, resourceful little girl who was then known as Carol.

I have bits of memories, nothing linear. I was in the pool with his four children and he was beckoning me to him, telling me he was going to teach me how to float. He had done this before so this time, knowing what was in store, I said, “No!” big and loud. But he insisted, smile on his face. When he did what he did to me, I gasped, “Ow!” but he did not stop. He took turns with all of us in the pool. His wife, “Mrs Hampsten” (my sister probably remembers her first name; I don’t) was 15 feet away, cooking hot dogs on the grill. Did she know?

There were a variety of episodes but there’s one that’s bifurcated. I have two equally clear memories. I was lying next to my friend, asleep, when he came into the room. The light was pouring in from the hallway. I became aware of him over me, pulling up my nightgown. I had practiced a million times what I would do if robbers or monsters broke into my home, so I did what I had always done: I pretended like I was sort of waking up and rolled onto my side. He dropped my nightgown and backed out of the room.

Or did he? The other clear memory is that Mrs Hampsten came down the hallway behind him and whispered, “Ron!” He then dropped my dress and hurried out.

Which is true? I will never know.

Somehow I told my best friend what was going on. I don’t have any memory of telling her, but I do remember a walk we took one night some time after he’d stopped abusing me. In the darkness, she confessed that he had been sexually abusing her every Thursday night while her mother was out bowling. Now he was starting in on her younger sisters. It wasn’t enough that he was hurting her—she was only spurred to action in order to try to protect her sisters. I told her she had to tell her mom. I have no memory of what happened next.

Because I had no name for the body parts he was raping, I had no way of conceptualizing what was happening. It never occurred to me to tell my parents. We didn’t talk about such things. I knew my body was dirty and sinful as a daughter of Eve but I was very hazy on the specifics. Like so many victims, I blocked all memory of the episodes from my brain.

When I was 15 or 16 I was setting in church and the priest was giving a sermon on sexual abuse. Like a light slowly dawning, I realized, “That happened to me.” And I was grateful that I’d forgotten. Why? Because in the intervening years I was a manipulative liar and I knew that if I’d had this in my bag of tricks I would have used it against some unsuspecting bystander. I was glad that I remembered at a time when my soul was purer and more noble. I was glad there had been no repercussions.

No repercussions. None at all. Like the fact that when similar things happened with other men later, I always froze or at best tried to misdirect their attention. I could not defend myself, even after I’d gone through the deep healing process of serious ritual at the center of my spiritual universe. There, in the core of my being, I gave myself permission to kill anyone who tried to touch me against my will again. Two years later, in a peaceful English graveyard, a man in his sixties kept calling me “me duck” and tried getting his hands all over me. And I froze. Again. Perhaps I always will.

It’s a miracle to me that I had a wonderful sex life as an adult. All that ritual paid off in one sense, at least. I never had any flashbacks or anything like that. But I always trusted my partners absolutely, too. They were all good men.

In 1997 I went through a revolutionary healing process that completely changed my life. I still celebrate Rebirthday. I truly came into my own. I wasn’t afraid anymore. I trusted myself. I loved myself. I knew I could cope with anything that came my way. My mental illnesses would be with me, but they’d be manageable. I’d never fall so far as I had in years past. This healing wasn’t about sexual abuse—it was about every aspect of my life, particularly mental illness, and it totally transformed everything it touched.

But then on 2 January 2000, something catastrophic happened to me. I know it and I name it in my head but I will not name it here. It happened. And everything given to me and earned by me in Rebirthday was swept away.

Eve Ensler was here the other night to give a lecture at the IU Auditorium and she talked about being dissociated from your body. I kept crying. I know exactly what she means. She talked about not knowing when we’re hungry, not knowing when we’re sleepy—treating our bodies as machines. This is exactly what my relationship with my body is like since the catastrophe happened.

I never get hungry. I eat on a schedule. I get dizzy if I go too long without eating, so it’s convenient to eat at 2 and 8. I drink milk and water to keep me full in the meantime.

I never get sleepy. I have shiny medications that put me under in 20 minutes, and on the very rare night when I don’t immediately fall asleep, I pop an Ambien and away I go.

During the recession my alter ego’s business almost collapsed. I somehow lost weight. Then I lost more. Then I lost more. I ate half a turkey sandwich for lunch. I ate a quarter cup of granola for dinner. Sometimes I would vary it by having a bowl of plain, air-popped popcorn instead of granola. I was taking in fewer than 1,000 calories a day. I got down to 110 pounds. My clothes were falling off me. Friends and family expressed concern. But at business events, all I heard was, “You look great! Business must be doing really well!” Note how the two things go together. If I could just get thinner, I would look more successful, and then maybe someone would give me some work.

At the urging of my therapist and psychiatrist, I went to see my GP. She was very calm and said she didn’t want to see me lose any more weight but she wasn’t going to freak out and make it worse. She changed all my vitamins and supplements so I could start getting better nutrients. I decided I would stay at 110—109 meant I had anorexia, 111 meant I was fat. 110 EXACTLY was where I would stay.

I stayed there for two years. Then somewhere in the haze that is my life I began gaining weight. And I couldn’t stop. Now I’m at 135/140. And I’m totally out of control of my eating. Or more accurately, I’m constantly trying to control my eating. I alternate between starving and bingeing. I lost three pounds this last week. So I made brownies today and will not be able to stop eating them. I will gain the weight back. I will hate the treadmill and the elliptical and most importantly myself that I am so weak and I will go back to turkey and popcorn for a few weeks. Then more bingeing. Back and forth it goes. My GP says I need to slow down and really taste my food and my eating will come into balance. But I don’t want to taste it. I don’t want to eat at all. I just want my body to do what it’s supposed to do and shut the hell up. I am living Fatso.

The woman who cuts my hair has several daughters. From a very early age she has taught them to refer to their genitals using the proper terms. When her eldest reached menarche, Alicia took her to a fancy Indianapolis hotel, got them mani-pedis, and then explained sex in very matter-of-fact terms. Her daughters know their bodies. They understand their bodies. They are friends with their bodies. They are reliable and strong and pliant. They are fully integrated with all the other aspects of self.

I hate my body. I hate the chronic pain. I broke my back when I was fifteen and was never taken to the hospital so it didn’t heal right. I have been in multiple car accidents that left me with soft tissue damage. My hips and knees ache. I have carpal tunnel syndrome. I hate my fat, uncontrollable body. The way it won’t stay satisfied with plain popcorn. The way it betrays me when I need it to be strong and resilient.

And yet I’m grateful that it thwarted some of my abusers. I love my body when I dig my feet into grass or sand or rest my aching back against a tree. I love the feel of the earth between my fingers as I work in my garden. The medications I take for my mental illnesses have robbed me of much of my ability to dance, but when Lotus comes around, I can count on my body to celebrate. The days of pain afterwards are worth it! And now I’m grateful for the words that I never had as a child—vagina, vulva, labia, uterus—that remind my dried-up self that I still have the potential for passionate creativity. No man was ever able to take that from me.

My relationship with my body has careened wildly throughout my life. As a child it was strong and resilient with a dark continent of no-thing-ness in the middle. As I grew older and damaged it in accidents and sports, it became something to fight against. In Rebirthday it became something to celebrate and rejoice in. And now it’s a millstone around my neck, a ravaged record of every broken promise made in sickness and in health.

I am grateful to Eve Ensler for giving me the means to reclaim some tiny island of peace amidst the raging seas of self-loathing. I have a long way to go.

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How women support patriarchy

April 27, 2013

Well, that’s a big title, but all I want to do is record a passage from Eve Ensler‘s thought-provoking book, Insecure at Last: Losing It in our Security Obsessed World. It relates to my “Feminism by any other name” post.

She talks about her time in Kosova (I don’t know why she calls it Kosova, I’ve always heard it as Kosovo, but she’s the one writing books about it, not I). She has been interviewing women to learn their stories and to give them the space to begin to heal. She is returning to a bombed-out home with supplies to help a small family of women which has been hoping against hope that its menfolk will return. And lo and behold:

Her son Agim was a big man, strong, muscular, dark-haired, in his forties. He seemed paralyzed—unable to move or talk. Maybe it was our arriving at that moment and being witnesses, maybe it was his hearing I was from the United States, but for some reason he looked at me, threw his arms around my neck, and started weeping. No, it was more like wailing. I have never heard a sound like that. He would not let go. The wailing grew louder. I sat down in order to hold him better, and he buried himself in my arms. Then this weeping wailing began to build and release. It could not be controlled or stopped. It resounded through the neighborhood. People from the village began to gather around.

I held onto Agim, but inside, honestly, I wanted him to stop. All these years I had told myself I wanted men to be vulnerable, to have their feelings, to cry. All of a sudden it felt like a lie. I did not want this man to be so destroyed, so out of control. I wanted him to have answers and be tough and know the way and make everything work out. I understood how part of me was afraid of men being lost, how I needed them to be tough and sure. I understood how many years I had carried their invisible pain so I wouldn’t have to see them weak or ashamed. This weeping liquid man in my arms was my undoing, pulling me out to sea in the wild waves of his crying.

The wailing went on. His body shook and thrashed about. It was as if I were holding the secret story of men in my lap. Centuries of male sorrow and loss, centuries of unexpressed worry and doubt, centuries of pain. I suddenly understood violence and war. I understood retaliation and revenge. I understood how deep the agony is and how its suppression has made men into other things. I understood that these tears falling down Agim’s face would have become bullets in any other case, hardened drops of grief and rage directed toward a needed enemy. I saw how, in fighting to live up to the tyranny of masculinity, men become driven to do anything to prove they are neither tender, nor weak, nor insecure. They are forced to cage and kill the feminine within their own beings and consequently in the world.

I remember once in the long ago, when I was walking down to the post office with my once-upon-a-time fiancée, I was criticizing this and that about him. Nattering on and on, digging and digging. With this perfectly wide open, vulnerable, beautiful face, he turned to me and asked, “Why do I always have to be the strong one?” I was speechless. As so often happened with him, he raised a mirror to my faults and gently allowed me to recognize and correct them.

In my case, I was actually trying to protect him, in a twisted way. I don’t remember what we were talking about before that, but it was clear to me on a subconscious level that his comments expressed his vulnerability on the issue. On cue, I responded like I had since I was a child: Attack the vulnerability and eliminate it before higher powers notice it. My siblings and I used to do this to each other—cut each other down before our parents could notice our weaknesses and do greater damage. It was our way of looking out for each other.

I have never forgotten what he said to me that day, or how he said it, since it threw into such stark relief how I viewed his role as a man (and how different his self-conception was). I was plenty strong for the two of us; I didn’t need him to carry me. He had a different strength, a gentler strength, deep and passionate but not tinged with violence and sheer pig-headedness as mine is. And I had not made room for it. As much as I decried patriarchy, I was demanding that he take on a patriarchal role—one that hurt us both. It is a mistake I hope never to repeat.


Why Hamlet still resonates

April 9, 2013

I posted this thought on Facebook last night, but the only response I got was from Scotty Southwick, who referred me to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, which did not exactly give me the emotional closure I was looking for. So here I am.

I’ve been watching this PBS series Shakespeare Uncovered which is absolutely fabulous!!! and last night’s episode was on Hamlet. It was presented by David Tennant, who did a marvelous job in a sometimes marred-by-weirdness version for the RSC and then the BBC about three years ago.

I adore Hamlet. I’ve read it and watched several filmed versions (Branagh’s four-hour epic several times) and have seen it live. I’ve read whatever criticisms I could get my hands on. But as I watched the episode last night, I got this insight which I haven’t seen anywhere else. Not that no one’s thought it before, just that I haven’t seen it elsewhere, and I think it’s a good idea (look who’s telling me that), so I shall sally forth.

Hamlet has been in almost continuous production for over 400 years. There are always new interpretations of it and it continues to fascinate. Why? What could a play that’s been done to death possibly have to say to us sophisticated, jaded denizens of the twenty-first century?

The answers are many, but my new insight is that I think we identify with Hamlet as a wannabe hero.

There he is, Hamlet, miserable about his father’s death and his mother’s hasty remarriage. He’s plodding along through life as any one of us would do in a similar situation. Then he’s suddenly confronted by his father’s ghost. Bam! But that’s not all—his father hands him an heroic quest: “avenge my murder at your uncle’s hands.” Cue dramatic music! The stakes have been raised!

Now Hamlet has a larger-than-life purpose. He’s been lifted out of everyday dross and set on a course to become heroic. But he keeps backing off. Why? I think, among other things, it’s because he’s simply not a hero. He wants to be, but he’s not.

I think of the many hours I used to spend role-playing with good friends. Everyone always wanted to play an elf or a thief and have magical powers and slay dragons, but their ordinary lives were lived without flare or panache.

We all imagine what we would do if we were confronted by pure evil, say, Hitler. We like to imagine if we were hauled up before Joe McCarthy we would resolutely refuse to name names. We would resist the always unexpected Spanish Inquisition. But the truth is, most of us cave. Because we’re human. We’re simply human.

A slight regression: since Freud, actors have been faced with the question of how much of an Oedipus Complex Hamlet has for his mother. Olivier played it straight out, kissing his mother on the lips. But it’s known as the “closet scene” because it was originally staged in an antechamber to Gertrude’s bedroom, not in the bedroom itself. I loved Tennant’s interpretation where, in the big showdown with his mother, they fly at it hammer and tongs but then have this moment where they’re just a mother and son, suddenly at odds over a major issue, when previously there had been deep love and amity between them. And that love is still there. It was played in a tender way which I found very touching.

So, back to our main thread: If we accept that Hamlet truly loves his mother (and maybe has something of a complex, but I don’t buy it as his only driving force), when he finally kills the king at the end, I think he does it in reaction to his mother’s poisoning, not as his father’s avenger. After all, he’s had a thousand opportunities to kill the king, including coming across him alone at prayer. It’s only when circumstances become extreme and force Hamlet to some kind of action that he does, finally, act. But he doesn’t drive his sword through his uncle’s chest, as an heroic figure would do. No, he forces the king to drink the last of the poison—the poison which has just killed Hamlet’s mother. In that act, I think Shakespeare is setting up the final reveal of Hamlet’s character. He could not be a hero for his father, but he could, when forced, out of sheer desperation, take revenge for his mother.

Why does this matter to us? Because we’re with Hamlet all the way through (except in Branagh’s version, where three hours in I’m going, “Kill the king already!!”) and we feel that catharsis with him at the end. And we are perhaps relieved that Hamlet dies immediately after. Being a hero in this play means becoming a murderer. It means crossing a line that cannot be uncrossed. Hamlet is faced with moving beyond the normal bounds of human experience and becoming a killer. He continually shies away from that until the very end, when he’s as good as dead himself from Laertes’ poison.

And this relates to us in our very human way because we dream of being like Hamlet and taking heroic revenge but at the end of the day we’d prefer to lie on the couch and watch TV. We go to the grocery store and get gas in our cars and Do Our Jobs and drink and smoke and take care of our kids and blah blah blah. We rarely “stand up on our hind legs” and Do Something. We are human. Not heroes. In extreme circumstances, when pushed, we will leap into the river to save the drowning child or step in the way of a bullet meant for our buddy, but for the most part we just muddle along. Just like Hamlet. Sighing, crying, laughing, dying.

And so it goes.


Loitering with Intent

April 7, 2013

I’ve been reading Peter O’Toole’s autobiographies, both of which are titled Loitering with Intent. The first one, subtitled “The Child,” covers his childhood growing up in the wartime years. It is a dizzying ride of prose, very Irish-stream-of-consciousness, punctuated with extremely lucid passages about Hitler. Exhilarating stuff.

I’m now onto “The Apprentice,” which covers his years at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. It is absolutely fascinating to get this inside peek at the training “real” actors get. I love his analysis of Shakespeare and Shaw. It really gives me the acting bug, especially as I consider my increasingly shattered singing voice.

Of course, it’s not all about acting. A fair share of it is a “life and times” account of friends, pubs, alluring women, austerity, hilarious accounts of a Mini named Humphrey, and a touching bit about a secret spot near willow trees where he spent the next thirty years studying and memorizing lines.

O’Toole almost bit his tongue in half during a rough game of rugby and consequently had what he called a lisp. One of his instructors declared it was simply “lazy tongue” and gave him this exercise to do twice a day:

Amidst the mists and coldest frosts, with barest wrists and stoutest boasts, he thrusts his fists against the posts, and still insists he sees the ghosts.

One of my favorite stories so far is his account of nearly being electrocuted while trying to toast marshmallows.

Curious looking animal. Two sharp prongs, long shaft, wooden handle. Bit devilish. Here are the marshmallows. Great load of them on a large plate.…Toast the marshmallows. All right. Uncertain whether or not I’ve ever before seen a marshmallow. Round fat little white jobs. Never eaten one, that’s certain. Hang on. Maybe before the war. It’s possible. Yes, perhaps fourteen years ago I did. Or was that Turkish Delight? Doesn’t matter. Never toasted a marshmallow. Definitely not. Never toasted anything. Not a slice of bread. That’s what’s normally toasted, surely. Bread. Toast the marshmallows. All right. Try one neat. Dissolving rubber. Sweet. Sticky. There are better things in the world, are there not, Lord love you, to chew, than a marshmallow.

…Shove one little bugger on one prong another little bugger on the other prong. Hold steadily before the hot red element.…Toast the fucking marshmallows.…Hot, smoking, sickening pong. Consider yourselves toasted. Get on that plate. Emprong a further two. Hold steadily before hot red elements. Have mercy on me please, will you please have mercy on this sinner. Nina Van, whom God only can love for herself alone and not for her yellow hair, is come slowly walking through the room, the long form of her curving and moving under a white silk robe. Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! I’ve stuck the fucking fork into the fucking element. It’s true what’s said. I can’t let go. It’s punching driving ramming battering through my hand up my arm into my body brains head being! Jesus!

The Son of Man heeded my sincere entreaties. He made arrangements for me to disconnect myself from the dread power of the voltage thudding into me through the media of electrical fire, marshmallow and pronged toasting iron by encouraging me to launch myself into a spectacular, high arching back-somersault whose terminus was reached when the top of my head landed into a tidy right-angle made for me by a skirting board and the dogshelf. The rest of me, of course, followed hard upon; the display ended when I lay sprawling and concussed on the carpet in the corner of this sitting room in which I had diligently squatted at my task. The Daughters of Women were around me when consciousness returned. Concerned young women, lovely girls, and, no, a doctor won’t be necessary, yes, please, a brandy would slip down a treat, what?, an ice pack on the nut, certainly, thank you, from the refrigerator?, I’d like to see that, seen a few in stores and shops but never before in the kitchen of a house, yes, we’re a bit behind here in domestic gadgetry, hand is fine, not burnt, bit of gyp, ice on that?, certainly, another brandy, I’m sure, would work wonders, does look pretty, doesn’t it, sparks and marshmallows and buckled prongs, yes, a minute or two on a bed would turn the trick nicely for me, thank you, yes of course I can walk, whoops a daisy!, groggy, that’s all, come here to me then, I’ll wrap my arms around you, support away, my beauties, support away, this is great, through here?, right, thank you, here we go, you’re very nice girls, you’re very kind, this will do a treat, I’ll be right as ninepence, again, thank you, see you shortly.

Isn’t that great? You have to hang on when reading his sentences because it’s so long from the start to the finish, but it’s no different from novels written before the 20th century and it’s well worth the ride.

There’s another story, touching, addressed to Edmund Kean, a nineteenth century actor who was one of O’Toole’s heroes. Kean’s father killed himself at age 23 when Kean himself was three or four. He was taken in by “Aunt Tid,” the former mistress of the Duke of Norfolk, who now had “permanent employment as walk-on with the odd word to say in the company at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.”

Just around the corner, Sunshine, Old Drury, Aunt Tid will be here to mind you. You’ll find that her loving will at first mean agony for you. You will be taken to a hospital where you will be starved of food and drink for two days and nights. On the third day you will be given all the milk that you can gulp and the milk will have been heavily laced with gin. The surgeons do it to anaesthetize you. When you are practically senseless, the surgeons will grip the young bones of your bent legs and will stretch and shove and pound and twist at those crooked limbs until they are straight. Thick iron rods with hinges and joints forming them into long splints and heavier than your body is will then be clamped on your legs, from thigh to ankle. When the surgeons are satisfied with the alignments of both limb and splint, the heavy iron rods will be hard screwed into firm place. Night and day for five years you will wear leg irons, Ned, and at first your suffering will be much. However, in time, you’ll find them just bearable; in time, they will hardly hinder you from a prank; in time, you will for good and all be rid of them and at that time when you will be nine or so, you will for the first time know a miraculous sense of freedom such as few of us on earth can ever know. Yes, King Bloody Dick, you’ll become such a frisky little prat that Aunt Tid will wrap a brass dog collar round your neck saying, “This boy belongs to 12 Tavistock Row. Please bring him home,” and sometimes you’ll go home and sometimes you won’t and at all times you’ll be chatting and tumbling and singing and dancing and scrapping and thieving and reciting and boxing and fencing, laughing, cursing, tight-rope walking and saying why not.

See? Marvelous. I’m halfway through “The Apprentice” and can’t wait to dive back in.