Mating Season

[WP] A boy asks a girl out. It’s high school. It’s awkward. Narrate it from the point of view of a nature documentary.

Mating season has never been a sophisticated affair for those involved, especially for the members of the species Homo sapiens. Now, if you zoom in, we can witness a female Highschoolus Juniorus in her pack’s territory: the “cool kids” lunch table. Her packmates surround her, whispering and giggling amongst themselves. This can only mean one thing: a possible mate is approaching.

These two specimens are no strangers to each other – they have Chemistry together. But now, it’s time to examine if they have the other kind of chemistry together.

The male holds a bouquet in one hand and a teddy in the other: the traditional offerings given to females during courtship rituals. This particular specimen has all the traits of a beta male: by no means unattractive, but not remarkable either. He’s no domineering, charismatic alpha male. However, he possesses a certain earnestness that has the potential to win the female over despite his shortcomings in the species’ gene pool.

He extends the teddy bear to the female, hands shaking nervously. Crikey! That’s the reddest face I’ve ever seen! From behind him, his fellow packmate holds up a giant sign that reads: I’d be bear-y happy if you went to homecoming with me.

The female’s face lights up as she embraces the male, a sign of affirmation that yes, she would love to be his mate. Her packmates erupt into a fit of laughter and cheers, congratulating her on her newfound mate. The other males surrounding the area look at the newly-mated male in reverence – he has accomplished the unthinkable.

To witness this couple engage in a traditional Homo sapiens mating dance, tune into our special segment: Homecoming. This Thursday night at 8/7 Central.

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The Kids Aren’t Alright

“Kids these days.”

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard an adult mock teenagers and young adults, I’d be rich enough to pay off all of my future student loans. I can’t understand the criticism, personally – adults might say we’re too young to understand, but I think they’ve forgotten what it was like to be a teenager. Not to mention, times have changed dramatically since back then. Numbers don’t lie: statistically, baby boomers are better off than millennials, and will still be better off than Generation Z – the current generation – if the trend continues.

Kids these days – what’s that supposed to mean? If it means staying up until ungodly hours doing homework and studying for tests, consuming half of your body weight in caffeine, being conditioned to believe that your worth depends on your GPA, the gradual decline of college acceptance rates, and the constant reminder that this matters for college apps – then yes, absolutely, kids these days.

Being an adult is undeniably hard, but being a teenager is hard too.

In a survey conducted by the Princeton Review about student life in America, fifty-six percent of high school students report being happy on a typical day – which seems fine at first and all, but quickly becomes unsettling: what about the other forty-four percent? Close to fifty-percent of high school students aren’t happy on a typical day, a near 1:1 ratio. Sixty-six percent of girls and fifty-four percent of boys report being stressed – more than half. It’s a ratio that shouldn’t exist.

But reality is harsh, and this is the kind of world that we live in: a world where we trade in sleepless nights for better grades. A world where success is measured in numbers and not happiness. A world in which our youth is left to waste away.

Though, it wasn’t always like this. Nowadays, it’s hard to believe, but there was once a time when we amounted to more than a collection of letters and numbers. There was once a time when we weren’t bogged down by stress. The chime of the recess bell has long vanished from my memory, but I’ll never forget what I felt when I was dangling from the monkey bars. I’ll never forget how I felt when I ran as far and as fast as my tiny feet could take me during an intense game of tag.

I felt like I could live until infinity and beyond.

Now, I don’t feel much of anything.

Flashback to freshman year biology: at this instant, anyone breathing – whether it be their last or first or everything in between – is alive. We’re all composed of cells, growing exponentially by the nanoseconds. We’re all growing and developing, our hearts thump inside the cages of our chests to remind us that we still physically exist. Scientifically, we’re all alive.

But only a small percentage of us are actually living.

Day in, day out, we go through the same routine: wake up, go to school, do homework, go to bed. On occasion, we have some free time to spare, but oftentimes, that’s not the case. There’s no rest for the weary.

We’re so caught up in our troubles and the almost suffocating pressure to amount to something that we forget how to truly live. We’re slowly going under, drowning in a vast, unexplored ocean.

Living is more than just being alive. Living is waking up and being ready to face the new day. Living is allowing yourself to be human and relax. Living is finding joy, no matter how big or small, in everything you do – and February 7th, 2018, Global School Play Day, allowed me to do just that.

In that moment, my troubles melted away under the sweltering heat and dissipated into nothingness. For one hour, I wasn’t thinking about my grades or tests or anything. I was just there, living in the moment, unconcerned about the immediate future and more concerned about potentially drawing an Exploding Kitten in Exploding Kittens. I saw similar thoughts in my classmates’ posts. “Usually I’ll think about the rest of my day and worry over how I’m going to do everything, but all I could think about was how I can destroy others at Uno,” Safa wrote.

Something about seeing my classmates so relaxed sparked something in me. I’ve known most of these people for more than a year, so I can say without uncertainty that they’re all high-achieving honors and AP students set on the path for success. But Global School Play Day reminded me that behind the honors student facades, we’re all just kids at heart, trying to make the most of our youth while we still can. Fifteen is a far cry from adulthood, after all.

Whether they played a riveting game of Uno, pursued their dreams of being a surgeon in Operation, or engaged in friendly competition during a handball game, there was nothing but pure joy on their faces. You could easily discern it from the way the corners of their mouths perked up and the glimmer in their eyes.

This. This is what it means to live.

To feel like you can live until infinity and beyond.

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In all honesty, I wish I did more during Global School Play Day. I wish I had mustered up my courage and asked to join that almost excessively large Uno group – because living is taking risks, big and small. I wish I had remembered to bring my deck of playing cards. You don’t truly appreciate what you’ve got until it’s gone, and although I had plenty of fun that day, there was also so much more that I could have done.

“You only live once.”

I always thought that it was a cheesy phrase, but Global School Play Day gave it a whole new meaning in my eyes. Even if we only did it as much as twice a year, during one period, that would be enough. Even a one hour reprieve from schoolwork to play is enough to alleviate a good chunk of stress.

If we live our lives without play, it’s like we haven’t lived at all. Through play, we ignite the spark of curiosity and learning for the sake of learning – and who says you can’t work hard and play hard?

Over the course of one period, I took back my stolen childhood that previously slipped through my hands and embraced it, in all of its worry-free nature. If we incorporate play on a more regular basis, there’s a good chance that anxiety and depression rates in high school students will decrease.

Through the power of play, maybe the kids will be alright again.

Footprints on Your Heart

There’s something powerful about reading good writing. You can feel the surge of electricity in your brain, the gentle thrum of your heartbeat in your ears. These words have transcended their paper barriers; they’ve reached deep into your chest and tugged at your heartstrings.

There’s also something vulnerable about good writing – like the author took a paint brush and dipped it deep inside their soul, painting their words with raw emotion. It’s the kind of writing that resonates with you and leaves footprints on your heart.

I hope that someday, my words can leave a mark on someone’s heart, too.


(L)on(e)ly Child

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My brother is so annoying. I hate it when my sister makes me do her chores. I hear those words on a daily basis from my friends, but those complaints have never come out of my mouth. I don’t have anything – or rather, anyone – to complain about in the first place.

You’re lucky, they tell me, I wish I were you.

If they knew how cold the house felt when I came home, they wouldn’t. If they saw my mother’s dark circles, her tired, veiny hands, her shoulders weary from supporting my grandma and I by herself – they wouldn’t. If they knew how I found solace in a computer screen, in people I’ll probably never meet – they wouldn’t. If they knew how I used to beg Mom for siblings when I was younger, and how she’d smile momentarily before saying ask Santa for Christmas – they wouldn’t.

I asked, and they never came. Was it because I did something bad? Was it because Santa hated me? No. There were tears in her eyes. No, not at all.

You’re lucky to be an only child. You get everything you want.

They don’t realize that you can’t spell lonely without only.

Head in the Clouds, Feet on the Ground

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I used to soar at lofty heights on flimsy paper wings, held up by childish notion that yes, you could be anything and everything you wanted to be.

I was the princess of some faraway kingdom concocted by my imagination, sipping on high tea and letting my subjects eat cake. I was an undefeated lawyer that dominated the courtroom, shooting down every opponent with conviction and ease. I was a scientist pouring potentially toxic substances into test tubes and beakers, creating explosions that blew up in my face. I was a doctor that disease itself feared, whose brain held the panacea to every illness. I was the victim of dreams bigger than my brain could hold.

Now I stand on a pedestal of broken dreams, shorn wings at my side.

I was everything and nothing all at once. I was. I was.

Speed Demon

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Nothing ever moved fast enough for eight-year-old me.

Whether it was a car driving on the freeway, or my cousin sprinting across the field to catch a football in mid-air, in my eyes, they all moved at a snail’s pace. But even so, they all seemed to move at the speed of light compared to growing up.

There was nothing I wanted more than to step on the accelerator, speeding through life at one-hundred miles per hour. I always told my mom that being a kid was too stressful, that I couldn’t wait to grow up because teenagers and adults have it so easy.

But like most things little kids say, that was a bunch of nonsense. I laugh when I look back on it, but that laughter is mirthless.

Now I can’t put on the brakes. I’m spinning and spinning, everything whizzing past me in blurs of color and madness.

Everything moves too fast for me now, and one day, one day – I’m going to crash and burn.

Shark in the Water

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Family vacations came once in a blue moon, but when they did, we always ventured to the unfamiliar – well, as unfamiliar as you could get for suburbanites. Once the school year finished and I was free from that prison in disguise called my second-grade classroom, we boarded a flight to Oahu, Hawaii with some family friends. Naturally, I was ecstatic to frolic around with dolphins under the sizzling sun rays and gorge myself on Dole Whip. Like a typical seven-year-old, once we arrived on the sands of Waikiki Beach, I immediately took a running start towards the water and jumped into the deep blue.

Like a good parent would, my mom dropped everything and frantically ran after me. I was picking up mounds of wet sand, clumping the grains together into balls with my small, chubby hands. Cẩn thận, con, my mom cautioned, motioning towards the vast blue ocean, don’t go too far. There are sharks in the water. I don’t want you to get hurt.

I whined and stamped my feet, creating small footprints in the sand, but I obeyed her. Mother knows best, after all, and after thinking about it, the ocean seemed scarier than I first thought. Now, seven years later, I’ve learned that she was half-right.

There were – no, are sharks in the water.

They’re nipping at my arms, gnawing on my flesh before I go up to present my project to the class. I feel their presence when I’m alone in bed at night with nothing but demons to keep me awake and keep me company. They’re swimming around my head when I’m trying to make friends with someone new, taunting me, waiting for my tongue to slip and say something that I’ll regret. When the doorbell chimes or the telephone rings, they’re there, beckoning me to answer, you coward. They are the thoughts that wreak havoc on my brain, a downpour of negativity. Laughing, taunting, mocking me. Water floods my lungs, drowns me in blue.

I’m suffocating.

(They’re always there, beneath the surface.

And they wait, and wait, and wait.)

Memento Mori

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First, it was my grandfather – then my cousin, then my dog, then my best friend’s brother. My mother stood in front of the open casket, dressed in all-black as she stared down at my grandfather’s shut eyes. He had never looked so peaceful. Don’t cry. We knew it was going to happen. He’s in a better place now.

I wonder what that place is. I wonder how she knows that it’s a ‘better’ place. Is it paradise, overflowing with colorful creatures and vivid greenery? A place where the sun never sleeps?

Or is it the comfort of a cozy armchair, in front of the warmth of the fireplace, a warm cup of hot chocolate on the coffee table?

Maybe a barren landscape with wilted flowers and nothing but the silence to keep you company.

Or perhaps nothing at all?

“No, Where Are You Really From?”

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“Your last name is Tran, right? What kind of Asian are you?

At first, I couldn’t process the question I had just been asked. With wide, confused eyes, I looked at the girl in front of me, who was silently waiting for an answer. Trying to refrain from sputtering, I choked out a small, “I’m sorry, what?”

“You know, like . . . where are you really from?”

America, quite obviously, but she expected a different answer. Something along the lines of yeah, I’m from Vietnam even though my birth certificate said otherwise. So I held my tongue and curtly responded, “I’m Vietnamese.”

But to you, I am Ling Ling. Or maybe I’m just another face in the crowd because all Asians look the same. I am the girl with a clean record and straight A’s across the board. I am the petite and submissive girl wearing an áo dài and a nón lá perched on my head. I am the banana, the karate expert, the bad driver, the rice farmer, the dog-eater, the model minority, you name it – but you don’t know me.

You don’t know how my grandpa was put through re-education camp by the Việt Cộng, nor how he managed to escape Vietnam by boat. You don’t know how he was separated from the rest of my family for a decade, sponsoring them to come live in the States with him.

You don’t know how many nights my mom stayed up poring over TOEFL prep books to earn a near-perfect score on the test. You don’t know how she took on a job while overloading herself on classes because she wanted to get through college as fast as possible. You don’t know how her co-workers laughed at her for ordering ice cream for lunch at a fast-food joint, and you don’t know that she was too embarrassed to attempt pronouncing “hamburger” in heavily-accented English.

You will never know how much it hurts to have your accomplishments undermined just because you’re Asian, you’re supposed to get good grades. You will never know how much I wanted blonde hair, blue eyes, and white skin when I was young because I was taught to believe that yellow is ugly, white is beautiful.

And you want to know where I’m really from?

I’m from the flesh and bone of my ancestors. I’m from incense smoke and a family torn apart by the unforgiving, calloused hands of war. I’m from immigrants who didn’t know much English, apart from greetings and “Where’s the bathroom?” when they first arrived in the States. I’m from my parents’ blood, sweat, and tears, from sacrifice and scars that never healed.

I came from the fire and I can’t be extinguished.

Until I’m Black and Blue

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We’ve never visited our next-door neighbors, but I can picture what their house might look like: flowers strewn across the ground in a puddle of water. Shards of broken glass on the marble floor. Smashed, dirty dinner plates littering the sink. Empty bottles of alcohol, too many to count. Shredded photos torn down the middle, ruining what was a lovely photo of a smiling couple. A fist-shaped hole in the wall created during a particularly violent night. There’s a difference between a house and home and this is not home.

Seconds after she starts screaming, all the windows in the neighborhood collectively shut. She yells at her boyfriend, loud enough for her shrieks to ring in his ears even hours later, because real men don’t cry, and even if you told someone, no one’s going to believe you.

And no one does.

She will wipe away his tears on her sleeve in the dark of night, nothing surrounding them but the suffocating silence, whispering I love you over and over again like a twisted mantra. I love you. I never meant to hurt you. I love you. It’s all inside your head.

And he believes her, knowing that tomorrow, she will love him black and blue once more.

Writer’s Block

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Sitting in the corner of the living room is a black bookcase, where dust has settled on its ebony shelves. When my collection grew exponentially large and I was forced to resort to stacking all of my Harry Potter books on the floor next to the bookcase, Mom bought a new bookcase and repurposed the old one into a shrine. On the first shelf, next to a photo of my grandpa, is a dull-colored photo of my mom and her sister – my aunt.

I’ve never met my aunt and I never will.

When my mom talks about her, she wears a smile tinged with sadness. She says she’s moved on, but I don’t think she fully has, even nearly thirty years later. It’s not something you can easily forget: the sight of your sister’s limp body in the driver’s seat brains blown out on the headrest, her ex-boyfriend’s body on the cold, hard concrete outside, gun clenched in his fist and a gaping, bleeding hole in his chest.

She was beautiful, my mom told me once, talented, too. She was just like you, you know. You would have loved her.

When I light incense in front of the shrine, I always glance at the picture of my mom and my aunt, her enigmatic smile withholding a lifetime of memories.

Her ash box holds a thousand stories, ones I’ll never read. She is a sentence fragment, a story stopped at its climax. I blame writer’s block – it happens to the best of us. Even God.

Happiness is(n’t) Seconds Away

According to a rumor from centuries past, famous painter Vincent Van Gogh ate yellow paint, believing that it would make him happy. As most rumors go, the story is – mostly – false. The Van Gogh museum states that he drank turpentine and consumed paint (if it was yellow or not remains a mystery), intending to commit suicide.

Today’s yellow paint looks a bit different.

Unlike Van Gogh’s, our yellow paint isn’t quite, well, paint. It takes a different form for everyone, but one thing remains constant: it makes us happy, even though it hurts us. Some might ask: if it ultimately hurts people, why do they keep it around like they’re stuck in a sick, masochistic, downward spiral?

It’s simple: human nature is to crave happiness, no matter how unattainable. Whether their yellow paint is alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, a toxic relationship, or something else completely, their brains are wired to believe that it’s the only path to happiness. It’s a vicious cycle of dependency and delusion that’s near-impossible to break free from. It’s like being a modern-day Prometheus, chained to the Caucuses, an eagle devouring his liver each day.

But we are different. Unlike Prometheus, we are not immortal; we cannot regenerate what the yellow paint destroys. Instead, we are slowly killing ourselves.

True happiness is too difficult to achieve, so people exchange it for instant but temporary happiness. They fill their insides with yellow paint to replace the emptiness, taking what they can get, believing that temporary happiness is better than none. They streak it on their skin, dying themselves in artificial sunshine, wearing their masks of joy. Once they start, they can’t stop. People do say that old habits die hard. Instant gratification is a dangerous game to play. It’s far too easy to give in, and far too easy to get in too deep.

The thing about yellow paint is that it doesn’t have to be dire in nature. It can be as simple as the chips you stuff your face with while chugging down can after can of Coke. It can be as simple the leftover chocolate cake from last night, still chilling in the freezer. It can be the Netflix series you really shouldn’t binge-watch on a school night, but you still do anyway, because sleep is for the weak.

But when its nature has the potential to grievously harm you, it becomes a concern.

Alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, and toxic relationships – the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. All have the potential to ruin a person who keeps them around, but it’s hard to get out when your mind is clouded with paint fumes and your skin is covered in a thick, dull coat of yellow. The demons holding people back are stronger than they are. Just as happiness isn’t instant, recovery isn’t either. As a gradual process, it takes more time than some people have the patience for. However, guilting someone into quick recovery will never help.

Understand where they’re coming from; try to communicate with them as much as possible. Stand by them throughout recovery, no matter how much time it takes. Keep a clear head and don’t let them persuade you into joining them. Remind them that recovery, while an arduous and daunting process, is never impossible.

Don’t let yourself – or them – succumb to the fumes.

After all, one day, the paint will start to chip away.

(There is a bucket of yellow paint at my door, an ugly, mustard hue. It beckons me to come closer. Temptation, the devil in disguise, sings to me – you can be happy again, you can be happy again, even if it’s just for an hour, a minute, a second.

I take out a match and strike it ablaze.

Tossing it onto the floor, I walk out and shut the door.)

Taking Back the ‘F-Word’

The way some people say feminist, you’d think it was the F-Word.

You don’t need to be good at reading people to see their distaste – not when it’s as clear as day. The way their lips quirk up in mockery. The way their eyes roll so far back into their heads that only the whites are visible. The way they spit out feminist like it’s a dirty word, like it’s poison on their tongue.

Call me presumptuous, but I think that if feminism’s vocal critics actually understood what it stands for, they’d be singing a different tune.

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Known for being one of the most polarizing and contentious concepts of our time, feminism has gained an unsavory reputation – and just like politics, you wouldn’t want to bring it up at the Thanksgiving dinner table. The sad thing is that for the most part, its infamy is unwarranted.

One of the greatest tragedies of this generation is how we’ve defamed feminism, mutilating its intentions and dismissing the movement’s supporters as ‘delusional, men-hating feminazis.’ You have celebrities advocating their support for women’s’ rights, but then quickly contradicting themselves by saying, “but I’m not a feminist” – because this generation has taken feminism and turned it into an insult.

The root of the problem is that most people don’t understand what feminism really means – not even some of the people who call themselves feminists.

Feminism is not about hating men, nor believing that women are superior. It’s not praising working women while shaming those who stay-at-home. And contrary to popular belief, it’s not just for women.

But feminism is, by the dictionary definition, is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes.” Or in short, gender equality – what a radical idea, isn’t it? Men and women, although intrinsically different, being treated as equals on a political, social, and economic basis. It’s about women being given the same opportunities as men. Women being paid not necessarily more, but equally as men for the same amount of work.

It is about shedding the stereotypes and expectations associated with gender. Femininity has long been associated with weakness, shown by phrases such as, “You fight like a girl!”. Masculinity has always been more valued, setting up a heavy burden for men. If a man doesn’t fit the constricting mold of masculinity, he’s shamed for not being a ‘real’ man. Feminism discards the harmful notion that men can’t be victims of sexual harassment, abuse, and rape – these are not issues exclusive to women, and to treat them as such would be ignoring reality.

And most importantly, it is for everyone – you can be a feminist regardless of your gender, sexuality, race, religion . . . the list goes on. You don’t have to be a woman to be a feminist. You just have the common sense to know that women and men should be treated equally.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a famous Nigerian writer, said it best.

“A feminist is a man or a woman who says, “Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today, and we must fix it. We must do better.”

Yes, I am a feminist. I don’t hate men, because feminists who hate men are misandrists, not feminists – nor do I make a habit of burning bras, as “meninists” would have you believe.

I am a feminist because I believe that women and men, while not fundamentally the same, shouldn’t be discriminated against on the basis of gender. Feminist may be a taboo word today, but I – and several other girls, boys, women, and men – have chosen to reclaim it. Being a feminist, standing up for gender equality and bringing down a system that favors the patriarchy by putting men in positions of power and women to the side – is not something that you should be ashamed of.

I’m taking back the F-Word.

For women. For men. For everyone.

For equality.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

People often say, “You are what you eat.” If the saying rings true, then I guess I’m a banana: yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

At least – that’s what the older Vietnamese generation seems to think of me and my peers.

I’ve always been battling a constant war against myself: my Vietnamese identity and my American identity. Several other Vietnamese-Americans, including myself, have been caught in the crossfire between two vastly different cultures with vastly different values. According to our parents’ generation, we’re uncultured, too Americanized (which, to them, is synonymous with disrespectful); some might even say whitewashed.

Through the years, I’ve laid witness to several scenes: my friends and I were criticized by our other friend’s father for not greeting him properly. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard an elder criticize me or someone else in Vietnamese, with the assumption that we can’t understand what they’re saying, I could buy myself a one-way ticket to Vietnam.

More than just slightly annoyed at how much my parents’ friends undermined me – a feeling that still lingers to this day – I was determined to make them eat their own words. So, in an effort to prove them wrong – and of course, to “immerse myself in the culture” and whatnot, I took up a Vietnamese class two years prior. The awe of my parents’ friends when I was able to keep conversation going brought me almost tangible satisfaction.

Then I went to visit my relatives in Australia, and whatever confidence I gained was crushed with steel-toed boots.

“Just speak English,” they told me. My face was scarlet and my voice trembled with insecurity. It was like my knowledge had gained wings and taken flight right then and there. I fumbled with my words and switched to English mid-sentence, desperately ransacking my brain for the words that escaped my memory. Was it all for nothing? Am I truly Vietnamese-American when I still struggle to speak the language after practically knowing it since I could walk? My dad even told me, “You speak Vietnamese like a white person.”

My brain processed it as, “You’re whitewashed and should be ashamed of yourself.”

I saw myself as a disgrace to my parents. The times that I tried to express myself in Vietnamese but came off as utterly nonsensical, to the raucous laughter of those around me, are burned in my memory. The look of disapproval on my elders’ faces when I forgot to greet them are faces I will never forget. I craved their validation.

I craved their validation, and that’s where I went wrong.

Half of my diet consists of rice, and when my family goes out to eat, it’s usually Vietnamese food. At home, I speak (sometimes broken) Vietnamese with my grandma and mom. When Tết season arrives, I stuff myself with bánh chưng and struggle to squeeze into an áo dài when I’m done eating. Every night before bed, I burn incense for my ancestors, watching plumes of smoke waft from the tip and through the air. Did doing any of those things make me a better Vietnamese than anyone around me?

I am Vietnamese-American, the bridge between two opposing cultures. A coin has two sides, yet it’s still a coin through and through. Why should the case be any different for me and the rest of my generation? Just because we were raised differently from our parents doesn’t make us any less Vietnamese. Even though the elders will criticize me for “not being Vietnamese enough,” I will take pride in my identity.

I am just as Vietnamese as I am American, and nothing will ever change that.