Your Fuss-Free, Anti-Judgemental and Totally Fool-Proof (Not) Guide to Being Awesome in 2016

New Year’s Eve is fast approaching. Are you gearing up to go on a detox yet? Considering which feat of athleticism you’re about to tackle? Trying to decide which charity will hold you accountable? Are you trying to come up with a catchy blog name as you read this, finding the right blend of playful and serious, so that you can document your journey for all to see?

These last few years, I’ve grown to detest New Years resolutions. So this post is as much a reminder to me as it is an invitation for you to pause and consider, before you set out your goals for 2016, if you really are doing it for yourself or not.

I’ve been on the Internet for a long time. One might even say I “grew up with it”, or on it, depending on where you look. I’ve been on this dog-and-pony show, and I’m really fucking sick of it. Sick of it, because I hate how easy everyone makes it sound to turn your life around.

No, there are no 16 steps to perfection, 5 to wisdom, or 33 to God Mode. No the gym membership won’t solve your relationship problems, your book will not write itself just because you went on a juice cleanse, and you will not find enlightenment on a yoga retreat. You know why? Because unless you want the gym membership, the juice cleanse, or the yoga retreat, unless it makes you 100% excited to think about these things, then they will not help you. At best, they will be an expensive way for you to sink your money.

What are resolutions, really? They could mean different things for different people, but as a former business studies drone, someone who spent months writing marketing plans for “healthy living”, and someone who genuinely embraced the fitness-and-diet industry at one point in her young life, let me tell you something:

Resolutions are a means to an end. That end is usually for us to get what we’ve always wanted.

Unfortunately, there are several huge industries that make their business of displacing our wants, or rather, tricking us into thinking that the fastest route to getting what we want is through their products. And it’s bullshit, because how can anybody know what it is that you truly want? Brands don’t aim their considerable resources to only capturing 1% of the population (unless they’re going to make them pay through the nose for it), they go for demographics. Target audiences. They assume a one-size-fits-all approach to a group of people that might only have one thing in common.

Yeah, can’t imagine how this might not work for some people. *snark*

What do you really want? I don’t know – I’m not gonna sit here and tell you either. I don’t even know what I want half the time. But more often than not, here’s what my basic desires boil down to: love, recognition, safety, freedom, happiness. Sometimes money can buy it, but unless you keep paying for it indefinitely, sooner or later you would have to do the hard work of cultivating those things for yourself.

So let’s cut through the noise and the bullshit. If you’ve made your resolutions list, look at it now. If you haven’t, consider what you might do. Then shut off your phone, find a place to sit down, undisturbed, and think, really hard:

What is it that you want?  Really, really want? What do you see when you close your eyes? What do you dream about? Take your time. Maybe you have several fantasies you need to get through. Maybe they have a common denominator. Maybe they don’t. Think very hard about what makes those fantasies work for you, and then think if this is your own heart speaking, or someone else.

What’s stopping you from getting there? Is the thing you want illegal? Immoral? Unsafe for you to do in your present society? Unavailable because you don’t have funds or moral support?

If it is illegal or unsafe, maybe you should consider what is it that makes you want it so badly and find ways of addressing that. If it isn’t illegal or unsafe, and you lack the resources, perhaps it’s time for you to consider how you might get them.

And for the rest: FUCKING GET OUT THERE AND DO IT!

Can’t do it right now? Make plans to do it. Use those fancy flowcharts or planners everyone’s going gaga over to break that thing down into doable steps and then do the steps. Do a step right now. Make the commitment, and make the commitment because it’s something you want, because it makes you so giddy and so sick with anticipation that you can barely sit still.

That can be a marathon or it can be a 10-minute walk every day. It can be taking a French cooking class. It can be a new language. It can be reconnecting with your mother. It can be making a dating profile and going on a few dates without dropping X pounds/changing your hair/getting a makeover. It can be anything you fucking want.

But don’t do it because “everyone else does it”, or because “it’s the done thing”, or because “that blogger in the ad had really clear skin”. Don’t do it if you’re feeling meh.

Don’t do it to impress anybody else.

Don’t do it to impress anybody else.

Don’t do it to impress anybody else.

They won’t be. So just don’t.

Do it for you. And if it doesn’t align with whatever marketing campaign is doing the rounds on YouTube, fuck it. It was clearly not meant for you.

Your Holiday #WriterProblems Thread

 

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Hosted by a pair of horses. Credits: deathtothestockphoto.com

It’s that time of the year again: Everyone’s packed up their stuff from work and gone home to enjoy some quality brain drain. If not, they’re gearing up to do just that come 17:00 today. The fairy lights are up, the gingerbread is in the oven, and only the most masochistic of freelancers are making plans on how to work over the holiday period.

Well, unless you are one of those really organized folks that really work regular hours, even if they’re their own boss. I haven’t been able to crack it yet, me. I might set it as a goal for 2016, but that’s another post altogether.

If you’re like me, this is the thread for you. I’ll start:

  • I want to be able to enjoy quality time with my family, except I keep thinking about this article I’m supposed to be writing.
  • This article is not commissioned.
  • I’m also editing the weekend project again, trying to get it done by Jan 2 on the off chance an agent asks to see a full MS when they come back from work.
  • I have no-one to complain because everyone I know is in a gingerbread-and-eggnog induced food Nirvana.

Your turn, you lovely lot.

 

The Terror of Being Vulnerable Online

me

credit: Me, showing off expert selfie and MS Paint skills

“I was born with Klippel-Trenaunay syndrome, and ever since I was diagnosed, I’ve been fighting with myself about what I should or shouldn’t do. Then I fought with myself over not doing enough, and nearly did myself in while I did so. I honestly can’t tell you which is more demotivating: telling myself I can do anything, as if it wasn’t an option already, or thinking that I might have wasted my best years doing nothing, perhaps, maybe, but there’s no actual telling, because even specialist doctors can’t tell me about this illness I have. 

Running long distances is a big deal for me. It’s not about being “healthy”. It’s not about being “inspirational”. It’s not even a big one-finger salute to the rare jackass telling me not to even bother. It’s me, with every doubt and every fear I have about running (and, more to the point, about having a seizure on the side of the road), and doing it anyway. And I’d like this to bring meaning to something other than myself.”

I posted this, along with a bunch of other stuff, on my fundraising page. (Not this picture, though. This is a picture for the fundraising campaign last year, for a different charity. I spray-painted over the irrelevant bits.) Why did I write something so personal? Oddly enough, so that I’m not embarrassed about my digital footprint in 12 months’ time.

Let me explain.

There seems to be this idea that the Internet is this scary place that saves all your past mistakes and blunders, and if you went viral for the wrong thing, your reputation is pretty much ruined for all eternity. The best way to go, according to this idea, is to micro-manage all your channels and err on the side of caution when it comes to what you should share. And while I agree that we could do with better privacy filters, I also think that “saving face” doesn’t have to be our main priority when interacting with our friends or talking about things that we are passionate about.

Because sometimes we have a private language that we only use with our friends, and which only our friends are allowed to use with us. That’s not greedy or selfish, that is human nature – forging social contracts, creating informal spaces, where you are allowed to say things and do things without being judged by your peers.

Because sometimes, the things we are passionate about are also things others would rather ignore. Because we all have one, or several things that make us profoundly uncomfortable, if not viscerally terrified, and we choose to engage with them in different ways.

Because, regardless of how strange or difficult we find certain aspects of our personalities, we still need to express them, and we make ourselves vulnerable doing so.

It is my belief, more from experience and less from my reading, that we could be kinder, more generous with others and with ourselves online. And man, generosity is scary. Kindness is terrifying. I mean, what if we are the only ones? What if others take advantage? What if we are fools, or worse, naive?  What if we are giving away the most precious parts of us for free?

The irony of the Internet – everything is free, unless it’s your heart.

Well, let me tell you about my heart: it’s small. It bleeds more than it is healthy for it. There are too many cracks in it, and I do a piss-poor job at patching it up. I won’t let anybody else take a look at it, to help me help myself mend it, but if anybody throws a rock, I turn to give them better access. Given all the abuse I’ve let it take, the poison I let it soak up, I’m surprised it hasn’t shriveled up completely.

This heart isn’t hidden away because it’s priceless. It’s hidden away because I’m afraid nobody else would find it so.

Unfortunately, without it, I’m an incomplete picture. I’m a non-entity, a person so formless that they might as well not be there. If my motivation is hidden from others, I might as well not have one at all.

You can’t do good while also keeping yourself hidden. At one point or another, you have to step out and make yourself vulnerable.

That applies to fundraising, and it applies to Internet culture. It applies to writing. Hell, it applies to life.

And what if I really am a fool? Well, at least I’m in good company.

Graduations

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This is my: “OMG, I hit someone with my hat” face. Image courtesy of my Dad

Captain Awkward has an essay on graduations. Read it. 

 

Dear Sugar also has an essay on graduations. Read it now. 

I’m writing essay on graduations. Read it after you’ve read the other two. Please.

I handed in my Masters dissertation only a few short months ago, and yet it feels like it’s been a million years. Since then, I’ve barely spared it a thought – when I got my feedback sheet, I looked through it, but I had already forgotten what I’d written about. When I got my examiner’s board results, the strongest emotion I felt was a minor dissatisfaction that I wrote so many essays where the final mark did not factor in my overall score. (I know. I know. How middle school, right?)

Perhaps it will come as no surprise to you that I was planning on just having my Masters degree mailed over.

Back when I was an undergrad (all the way in 2014) I still entertained a wildly romanticised version of what a graduation was. I thought it’ll be emotional and exciting and leave me buzzing. At the end of the day, though, I felt tired and rushed and seriously let down. To add insult to injury, not only is there photographic evidence of the day, but my family (not just my parents, my entire family) insists on displaying my graduation photo for everyone to see. (You know, the one in which no-one looks good in.)

Yes, of course, graduation (like prom and birthdays) is a social convention that is more about the family than the actual person involved. I wish I’d realized that sooner because maybe I wouldn’t have had such a miserable day last year. Luckily for me, now I know better.

So, instead of telling you all about how miserable I was in the lead up to this year (another 50 quid for cap-n-gown, Jaysus!), here are a few ideas as to how you, future potential graduates, can make this easier for yourselves:

  • If your family is coming over, go out for dinner. The trick here is to do this LITERALLY ANY DAY OTHER THAN THE ACTUAL GRADUATION DAY. Why? Because you’re not the only person graduating, which means that finding a place to sit down and eat on the day will be impossible. If your university is a big one, and has to stretch its graduations over several days, I highly recommend booking a table in advance.
  • Go out with your friends. Before family arrives or after they leave, ideally both. Or, if you are not big on going out, throw a movie night/games night/ hanging out and eating pizza night/all of those things at your place.
  • Or, if you’re more introverted, give yourself a you-night the day before and after, because graduations can be mentally exhausting, and you can reach your social limit really fast (believe me, I know.)
  • Self care! Haircuts, facials, manicures, new clothes, a nice long shower, or a bath, a hot meal, a walk in the park, giving yourself permission to browse your favourite bookstore for as long as you want – whatever it is that works for you, do it.
  • The Zen approach to pictures –  basically, accept that you will not like any of the shots and be pleasantly surprised when a few come out right. There are tons of posts on the Net with advice on how to pose, what products to use, how to smile and whatnot, but let’s be real here: the pictures are not for us. You can post them on FB and your friends will like them in passing, somebody might even comment, but really, a week later they will be gone and forgotten in the duster servers.
  • Do you live close to where the graduation is taking place? Is there a way for you to nip off to your room between picture-taking sessions, diploma-handing, and gown-picking?
  • If you don’t live nearby, is there any way you can bring some music along? Have a walk with your headphones on? Play Tetris on your phone? Or Sudoku? Or Chess? Or read? Or check your email? Or upload a post on social media?
  • In fact, if last year was any indication, graduation day involves a lot of waiting, either sitting or standing, so distracting oneself is pretty much a survival mechanism.
  • Graduation speeches! If the speaker at your college is not up to your taste, have no fear! There are tons of commencement addresses on the Internet. In fact, if you are so inclined, why not write your own? You can read it out to your friends or just bin it – but if this is something you might like to do, go for it!
  • I didn’t write a graduation speech, but I did take one of my photos and made a scrapbook collage where I drew on it and added all sorts of captions which I thought gave a more… honest account of my undergraduate experiences than the photo suggested.
  • Do the things you like to do – in the weeks leading up to it, and afterwards, don’t stop doing the things you like. Some activities you will leave behind, but others you will carry with you. Just because you got your diploma doesn’t mean you have to immediately transition into the next Adult Mode, whatever that is.

And listen to Sugar and the Captain. They know what they’re talking about.

I’m going to be brutally honest here: both of my graduations, I was depressed as absolute fuck. I wasn’t happy, and I hated everything. I despised having to put on a face, and posing for pictures, and acting like I had roses and rainbows waiting for me on the other side. Self-care only got me so far. As I write this, I’m in my pajamas, nursing a pounding headache and a cold, and trying desperately not to panic about writing assignments.

In the end of the day, graduation was a painfully accurate rendering of life as I expect it to be: I won’t be enjoying myself all the time. I’ll be putting on a smile for others most of the time. Moments of pure happiness would be small, unexpected, totally random and highly appreciated. And at the end of the day, when Imposer Syndrome prevents me from hearing other people’s praise, the best I’d be able to say is that I made it in one piece. And the most commitment I can make for the day after, and the day after that, is that I’ll do my best to survive them, too.

Duty of Care

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source: deathtothestockphoto.com

A casual look around Instagram and Bloglovin’ tells me (at least when I log in as a female user that seems to follow a lot of beauty/lifestyle blogs) that we all have a responsibility to look after our bodies. We also have a responsibility to live our lives to the fullest. It’s a nice sentiment, until you realize that the way to do that is often to go on expensive trips, chase new experiences (regardless if you have the spoons for it), take arty photos of yourself from behind (how? How do people do that?), drink tons of raw juice, and exercise without somehow breaking a sweat.

(Some people go for a run and they come back looking as fresh as a daisy. I go for a run and fall into the canal.)

I have a slightly different definition of what duty of care means. Two things are, I feel, relevant in my case: one, I do Jiu Jitsu, a Medieval Japanese martial art; and two, I live with Klippel-Trenaunay syndrome, a congenital disorder that has *knock on wood* so far been good to me, but which might or might not get worse in the future. It’s not something I think about often – because, let’s face it, I consider morbid subjects way too much as is – but there is always that thought, at the back of my mind, as I go for a run or train or walk for hours around a cobbled city: a thought that one day, I may not be able to do that.

You would think that such a thought would spur me to do even more of these things, make me enjoy life to the fullest, drink as my cup runneth over… yeah, no.

Sorry, Fear Of Missing Out, I don’t care for your brand of Kool-Aid. (And not just because you are an ableist concept.)

There is more to life than a series of short sprints. (Indeed, speed running is my least favourite type of drill.) The trick, when it comes to long distances, is to make sure you maintain a pace and last for as long as you can with what you’ve got.

Another example: The reason why jitsuka rei when they enter a dojo, when they get on the mat, when they start a session, when they select each other for an exercise partner, when the sensei explains something to them, it’s not just a formality. It’s a statement. I’m ready to train. I trust you with my body. Thank you for helping me learn.

We have a duty of care to each other. We accept that duty of care, to learn safely and respect each other. There’s nothing fancy to that.

We’re just making sure we’re okay at the end, that we will come back the next day, and the next.

I would not have gotten anywhere in life or in sport if I ran myself into the ground. I don’t know anyone who ever has. My responsibility is the duty of care I accept towards others and myself, to do no harm.

That’s it.

Dead Tide

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source: deathtothestockphoto.com

“Don’t tell them that your weakness is perfectionism; everybody says that now. When you tell that to a job recruiter, they basically learn nothing about you.”

Well, dang, I think as I attend my umpteenth careers talk in the past 5 years, they want me to be honest, but the one thing I am 100% certain about is off the table. 

Apparently, my generation is constantly anxious about getting things right. That, or maybe everyone thinks perfectionism is a safe bet. Who doesn’t want an employee so fixated on their work they would literally steamroll over their colleagues, underlings, maybe even their boss, to get their way? Or someone who would stay on the job, sacrificing free time, lunch breaks, their own health, for the sake of a project? Someone who pins all their self-worth on the next task, and the next, and the next, without thinking twice about what they’ve done so far, what they’ve accomplished, or what they could do in the future?

All my life, I’ve had my managers telling me to lighten up. To stop being so frustrated when things don’t go my way.

How can I? I’d think. When my job is precarious to begin with?

I’m not going to pretend that the job market is the only problem, or that society at large is glorifying Type-A overachievers, because that’s not really how it works – I know, because as a perfectionist workaholic, I made a very careful effort to surround myself with people and media that echoed my values back at me, and tuned out anyone telling me otherwise.

Until – crash! – I couldn’t hold my defenses up anymore, and they came tumbling down, taking along my foundations, leaving me open for the tide of dissenting voices to wash me away. Suddenly, I am far out into the sea, and the land feels very far away.

I’m an accomplished swimmer. I can do the forward stroke for hours without stopping and getting tired. But to swim in open sea is not like swimming in a pool. The tides are especially treacherous – sometimes invisible from the surface (dead tides, we call them at home) they can grab you and drag you under.

If we reject perfectionism, where does that leave us? Where will this dead tide take us?

I’m a big fan of faking it till you’re making it, myself. Of swimming along. (Dunno if that’s a good strategy for tides. From what others say, if it gets you, you’re pretty much done for.) (I have no control over my own metaphors.)

The trick, if you want to call it that, is to never, ever, let yourself think about it.

3 Alternative Gifts For This Holiday Season

It’s that time of year again. John Lewis produces a masterpiece of an ad, designed to get as many tears from us as possible. Every large retailer gets their best 3 for 2 signs ready. Chocolate sales skyrocket. Diet book sales overpass them. And everywhere you turn, you get the same message:

Our Lord and Saviour has been born. BUY STUFF!

The #GiftFace ad hit a particular nerve with me – not because I think a certain department store will give me the answer to my troubles, but because it made me realize exactly what the last few Christmases have been for me – exhausting.

If you don’t know what to do this holiday season, if your family already has everything, if you seriously just want to make someone happy but they won’t tell you what shiny bauble they want, here are three suggestions that might work for you this holiday season:

#1 A donation to a charity CHOSEN BY THE PERSON

This is very important. Don’t just donate to any old organization – firstly, not all registered charities are actually charities, just like not all registered churches are actually churches. Ask the person which cause they support – not only will they be sure it’s legit, but you will avoid that super-awkward moment when you donated to a cause they not only not like, but are in direct opposition of.

And yes, I know, it’s not a surprise. But it’s the thought that counts, and believe you me, if they care enough for social justice for you to consider this as an appropriate gift for them, they will be a lot more touched by you making the effort to support something they care for, than, say, a new pair of GHDs. Or a video game they don’t even have the console for.

#2 Take the load off

Got a relative with lots of kids, or someone whom you know struggles getting stuff done over the week? Maybe you live nearby that person. Maybe, after you talked to them about it (again, just being thorough) you can offer them free babysitting/housekeeping visits for, say, three months or however much time you can offer.

Again, this depends on time and availability, and obviously, you need to have the spoons for it, but wouldn’t it be nice to give your aunt Janice a break from the housework for a bit, just until she settles in her new job? Or take care of your friend’s kids once a month so that she can have some time to herself? Ask the person what they need and then see if they like the idea.

#3 Bury the hatchet

Depending on circumstance and spoons, once again, but if you have an estranged friend or a family member whom you feel like you can make up with, now is the time to reach out. Or maybe you cannot help but concern-troll a younger relative, or a friend-of-a-friend, and that has led to some tension.

Ask yourself, in two-three-five years’ time, do I really still want to argue over this? Do you want to have a good relationship with that person? Do you want to move on? Then reach out to them. Don’t come out and say: I won’t say how concerned I am about your liberal arts degree anymore (unless you think the person would be amenable to that) but ask them about how they’re doing, and then listen non-judgementally. Make them feel comfortable. Ask good, neutral questions. Let them talk to you.

And then, if you feel like this is not enough, get them a thoughtful present too. Something you know they care for. Maybe ask them if they have a charity they care for especially. Or they need a favour done.

Or check out the 999+ gift guides for every single personality type there are online. That’s just me.

The Lying Hindsight

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Source: Deathtothestockphoto.com

I feel as if  am one of the lucky ones.

It took me over 3 years before I stopped seeing university as something more than an extension of school.  Three years of frustration, staving off loneliness, and taking a half-hearted stab at part-time dream chasing. But I am also one of the people who can crow from the rooftops that they finally got on the right track, discovered their passion, and found fulfillment. I am an active participant in one of the meta-narratives of success.

(Today. Here. Now. In my economic subgroup. Such distinctions matter.)

Some people might call me an inspiration. Others might remark that 3 years is a lot of time to find your passion, although if it saved me from a quarter-life crisis, one might say it paid for itself. This blogpost is about neither of these things, but it exists within their context.

(And context, reminds us Ana Mardoll, matters too.)

I should point out here that fulfillment to me might be something completely different from what it means to you. It also meant different things to me at different ages. Back when I was a child, for example, fulfillment was getting praise for my art portfolio, and I was very fulfilled for a few years. Then, I moved to a regular school where we did not have art every day, we did not have special tutorials on clay work, we did not illustrate books of fairy tales, and my passion made me into a ‘teacher’s pet’ rather than ‘good at art’. Fulfillment started to mean ‘to survive the day without much taunting’.

Before I came to Uni, I had a very specific idea about what I wanted and did not like that I wasn’t able to pursue it directly. I did the work grudgingly, on the side, and spent a lot of time resenting the people who were much further ahead than me, and not enough time looking around at the people who were actually around me. A read-through my old Goodreads reviews yields the repeat usage of a certain phrase, or variations thereof:

“How could this [insert expletive here] have gotten published?”

The implication being, of course, that I could have done a much better job at it.

Sad to say, my ability to empathize with others hadn’t really developed back then. (Some might say it still hasn’t.) I’d grown up on the Internet, graduating from fan forums and fanfiction sites to book reviewing and blogging, riding whatever wave I caught and finding a supportive community everywhere. I loved it, and it made me feel validated. What I did not do is turn my critical eye onto myself, and look at the way I used these networks. I didn’t think about my place in the wider context of things.

The truth is, I had been feeding my own ego without necessarily having the chops to back it up. I had found communities where I fit in, and my behaviour was according to norm, but I hadn’t necessarily found friends. I didn’t have anyone who challenged me to get better (while dispensing some much needed encouragement) or who asked some very important questions. Questions such as: Are you ready to stop talking about writing and actually put your money where your mouth is?

A few years of modest fanfiction success does not a writer make. Not the way I did it, anyway. I had no concept of revision and editing, and I had no qualms about sending early drafts to my friends to “review” (read: fawn over) even though I understood on a basic level that there was much work to be done. I had read author’s blogs and followed a book from draft to publication, but I had no experience of actually doing the work, and when it came down to doing that work, I faltered because, of course, it was harder than I ever thought it would be.

Meanwhile, I did pretty well on most of my courses, made one friend, and attended a couple of events, which only exacerbated my dissatisfaction. How is it that I struggle so much with something I am passionate about, and excel at something I seriously don’t care for? It felt like a cruel joke.

Because now I have the Power of Hindsight (TM) I can say that mine was a case where I “lacked perspective” (yep, another meta-narrative). Perspective, however, is a fickle power. It’s not so much a genie in a bottle as it is a fruit-selling goblin, constantly misleading you and trying to get you into a poor bargain. Sitting here in the comfort of my present, I can tell my old self what she could have done better, how she could have changed her life, how she should have grabbed the bull by the horns earlier…

But perspective makes you view the past as a string of events, as if your old self was merely a character whose fate was mapped out for them. It doesn’t remember what it felt like to be there. It doesn’t taste the bitterness and frustration, or choke back the angry words that threatened to spill (and sometimes spilled out nonetheless). It doesn’t have ink stains and aching fingers from writing angry journal entries, and no less angry blogposts. It might read back on what was written, but it would be detached, cold, clinical, unable to process how this person was you once upon a time. It doesn’t remember the fear – that cold, visceral feeling that settled in my guts, kept me up until late at night, turned me into an anxious, perfectionist robot.

We look back to the past, but we do not live it. We may say we did X, Y, Z and felt U, Q, W, but we do not draw the link between the two. Sometimes, this is a very hard epiphany to make.

Harder still is to forgive ourselves. But we have to. Otherwise, how do we move forward?