Tag Archives: Adventure

Playing in the Mud

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A few weeks ago, I volunteered to go help rice local rice farmers plant their crops. Though Japan in general is famous for rice, Akita in particular takes pride in the quality of its crops. (So far I’ve learned that Akita rice and Akita sake are top notch.) This has been one of my favorite experiences since coming here, and I’m glad I get to share it at last. Rice planting or “taue” takes a lot of skill and a lot of hard work. It’s difficult to imagine smiles being part of the process at all.


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“In Japanese, ‘taki’ means waterfall. It’s why the village is named Takinomata.”

Later that day, cool mist from that waterfall tickled my face. The sharp, slippery rocks in the riverbed cut into my feet as I trekked through the frigid pool in search of anything defiling this sanctum. I can recall the moment I stubbed my toe.  My heart leaping into my throat, I grappled for anything around me. My hand brushed a tuft of soft foliage growing on a nearby stone and clung to the lush greenery before I could tumble face-first into the pool.

My group laughed. Any other day I would have hid my face, focused on the pounding of my heart or the pain in my toe, and shut myself out of their prying eyes. Instead, I reached for the massive branch blocking the flow of the river’s water. My goal. With a heave, I tossed it back to shore, flinging water and algae at the  bystanders.

“I’m just fine, guys!” I caught myself.

Earlier, I remember groaning as I trudged through a pool of mud, each step more cumbersome than the last. Sweat tickled my neck, distracting me from my work. I took a step and suddenly, I felt the world around me spin. Flailing, I groped the air, expecting some sort of miracle. And somehow I found one. Gravity righted itself before I could tumble, and life went on for a moment longer. As I neared the end of the row, I dragged my boots behind me still slower, now coated in layer upon layer of mud. I needed to wash them. I needed to rid myself of the extra weight somehow. Behind me, the rows of “rice-lets” lay scattered in an off-kilter line. I noticed an older gentleman beside me, his wrinkled cheeks raised in a secretive smile. He turned his head downward and returned to his work, back bent, rice in hand, stepping through row upon row of “rice-lets” without ever once disturbing their rest.

Perhaps with age comes magic. The weight of the boots disappears, I thought. I looked down at my own attire, splattered in mud from rescuing my lacy sunhat before it could fly off into the murky depths. As our group leader called for a break, I finished my second row and hurried towards the running water to clean my boots at long last. But then a thought struck me. I watched my group leader padding through the grass, her feet bare and backside covered in mud. She danced next to the paddy, snapping pictures of us as we guzzled green tea.

I struggled to remove my own boots. For several minutes in fact. I tugged and tugged until at last I felt freedom. I hurried back to the field completely revitalized. Perhaps it was the green tea. Perhaps it was my imagination, but as I slid my bare feet into the mud, the sweat on my back disappeared and a cool sensation replaced it. I sunk to the bottom, but I felt as if I could float on top. The rice slept quietly between my feet. The mud slid through my toes instead of clinging to my skin.

And all too soon it ended. I stood before a glorious paddy painted almost gold as the water reflected the sun’s light.  The rows seemed a bit straighter, even the ones I had planted. We huddled around the flowing water, scrubbing our feet and hands and boots and clothes. We shot pictures of the fruits of our labor and documented our fatigue. I couldn’t stop. I knew I could plant more. I could plant it all.

I caught the old man’s smile again, his gaze set on our hard work and his own friends. A lifetime of planting, growing, harvesting, sharing… He still captured the beauty of it all through the grime, the sweat, the dehydration, the fatigue.

As we returned home, the savory smell of roasting port greeted us before we could step through the door. Adorned in bandanas and aprons, short village mothers scurried through the kitchens. They chitchatted almost like birds, carrying plates of vegetables and onigiri to and from the dining hall. The men gathered in their own corner, chatting about the day’s work no doubt. My group occupied the bathrooms, changing out of mud spattered clothes, filling up water bottles, scrubbing fingernails. Again. I picked at the grime under my own fingernails and decided to keep it. A little extra minerals with lunch never hurt anyone.  I think.

I wish I had prepared myself for the pain though. Not the pain in my legs or my back or toe. That sort of pain seemed pleasant, almost like a reminder of my accomplishment, my hard work. I wanted it to stay so I wouldn’t ever forget. But the longing. I remember longing for Takinomata as I longed for Mitaka. But I longed for more than just the place. I longed for the mud, the smell of pork, the smile of an elderly farmer, the suspense of almost falling.

I still don’t know how I caught myself.

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30 Day Writing Challenge – Day 9

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Post some words of wisdom that speak to you.

I actually want to keep this short and sweet. I’ve been quite busy this week for various reasons, but I’m proud of myself for keeping this up. Here it goes!

“Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” –John 1:5

These are probably the most comforting words I’ve ever read.

Recently, I was walking to the bus stop at night. I never realized how terrifying the dark can be, especially when you’re alone. My purple suede heels teetered on the pavement. The shadows I saw across the alley could have been mine or someone else’s. The sounds I heard seemed to come from everywhere, whispering right in my ear. Disoriented, I struggled for almost ten minutes to figure out where I was despite only having took about 50 steps from my original location. Suddenly, I pulled out my phone, turned on the flashlight, and that little bit of light helped me gain my sanity again.

I think the only reason I haven’t snapped is because my faith is that little bit of light. Even when my faith is especially weak, part of me clings to it. I may struggle on a daily basis, but something keeps me getting up in the morning. Something keeps me working towards a goal that I’m not even sure of. The world is never entirely pitch black.

Figuratively, I’m lost but not quite. I have no idea where I’m going, but Someone Else does and trust me when I say that I’m beyond glad I’m not in charge of that navigation. I’d be walking in circles for all eternity.

I Was Dying to Try It

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I wanted to try something a little different for my weekly post. It’s a more narrative style. Let me know how you like it; I certainly enjoyed writing it.

~*~*~*~

“So this is how it ends…”

I didn’t see a light. I didn’t recall every moment of my life in a split-second. I didn’t have any sort of peaceful revelation about myself. But deep down I knew it was game over. Twenty-years of surviving bullies, gravity, and my siblings only to have my own desires undo me. I would have much rather gone out in a blaze of glory.

I should have known better, but the lure of something greasy overpowered my sense of reason. How long had it been? Months? Days? Years? I could have downed an entire bowl of gravy or a bucket of KFC. I could look past the fins protruding from the morsel’s crusted surface. Golden, crisp, shiny with oil…the sea creature’s siren song captured me at long last.

I sliced into its flesh with my chopsticks, straying far from the fins, savoring the crunch of the crust, the flakiness of the flesh. I didn’t even let it say its last farewells. I ravaged it, the grease of the crust coating my tongue, greeting me like an old friend. Fat. I had fat at long last. My body screamed for more, anything to remind me of home. It demanded steak. It pleaded for potatoes. It wanted to digest any copious amount of meat and shun rice entirely.

I dug in for another bite, but something stopped me. Protruding from the flaky white flesh of the fish was something white and pointed. I set aside my chop sticks and touched it. Sharp, blade-like almost. I tugged at it and from the white flesh of the fish came a bone almost the length of my thumb. Pursing my lips, I set it aside and reached for my chopsticks again. A mistake, right? The nice ladies of the cafeteria had made a simple mistake in forgetting to remove the bone.

I resumed inhaling my food, slurping miso, stabbing oranges, picking at my rice. Upon working up my courage again, I dug into the fish, savoring the greasy goodness once again. I swallowed, but as I looked down for another bite, I felt a lump catch in my throat. When I cast my gaze downward, I saw several more shards protruding from the fish’s flesh.

Angered, I ripped them out only to reveal more and more. Eventually, I pulled the fish’s spine and felt my stomach turn. I still couldn’t swallow. Every time I inhaled through my mouth I could hear wind whistling around the lump.

“You got the fish? How is it?” My friend sat down at the table across from me and picked at her bowl of soba. “I almost got it, but then I saw fins… Decided I had better not.”

“A little tricky to eat.” I gagged. I buried the boneyard underneath my napkin and engorged myself in more rice, begging the bone to shift in my throat, but it held tight. She smiled and we chatted; all the while, I said my prayers and considered scrawling a will on my grease-stained napkin.

Three bowls of rice, two sodas, and an onigiri later though, I managed to dislodge the vile thing. Never again. Never again.

FIN

30 Day Challenge – Day 5

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I’m sorry for another late post. (Well, later post.) I had a full weekend of travel in which I neglected a lot of homework! Whoops! I should study, but I didn’t want to neglect my blog entirely. (Be sure to check out Day 1 if you’re interested in catching up or starting a challenge yourself.)

List 5 places you want to visit.

I’ve never actually put a lot of thought into my “travel bucket-list.” I know I want to travel; I just don’t know where. So I’m going to keep this one a little bit vague.

1.) I want to travel all across Europe and sample bread and cheese everywhere I go. My goal is to save $100 out of every paycheck for the next 7-10 years to save money for this trip. After coming to Japan, I clearly caught the travel bug.

2.) I want to go to Disney World at least once in my life, but I want to take a small child with me. I don’t care if it’s my own child, a niece or nephew, a grandchild, or someone else’s kid. I want to be with them when they experience magic. (Okay…I want to vicariously live through them…)

3.) I want to make it to the Renaissance Faire someday. My school holds a Scottish Festival every year which is wonderful, but I want to go to a HUGE Renaissance Faire. I want to dress up in a full suit of armor and joust and rescue princesses and chill with some bards. Believe it or not, for my 21st birthday, I’m going to Medieval Times which is…almost enough to quench my thirst for adventure.

4.) I want to visit a castle. I should say “castles” instead. I actually climbed a castle today, a Japanese one. However, it was just a remodeled castle. The view was worth a million bucks though. I could see the whole city. I would love to see more Japanese castles and European castles as well.

5.) I want to visit the Globe Theatre and watch a show. I might also be content with seeing a Shakespeare in the Park show…but something about going to the Globe Theatre is far more magical.

A Few Legos Short of a Castle

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Sometimes, I wish life came with an instruction manual and not one made by IKEA either. It would love to see that I’ve arrived at Step 6, and my life should look something like Figure 9.2. And then when I get to the end of the book, I could see how everything has been built perfectly. I see some people seem to have it together as if they own their own life manual. Unfortunately, I think I came with a Lego instruction guide at birth. I look like all of my pieces are fit together just right, but in reality, I’m missing a few pieces here and there. (I’m just really good at jamming parts together.) My foundation is a health hazard in the making.

But if life did come with instructions, I probably wouldn’t have stories about how a boyfriend dislocated both of my knees at once or how cayenne is not similar in any way, shape, or form to cumin. I may be jamming pieces of my Lego castle together, forcing it to look like the picture, but my castle has something others don’t: character. And a horse in the scorpion pit. (Okay, sometimes I’m not good at jamming the RIGHT pieces together.)

One fundamental part of life I have never quite mastered is art of the greeting. Sometimes I smile too much and seem “fake.” Sometimes I don’t say enough and seem like a fuddy-duddy. I want people to remember me, but I don’t want to annoy them. I want them to think I’m kind, but I don’t want to seem as if I’m flirting. I want to be unique without being weird. It’s a very difficult thing to emit your entire essence in a few brief exchanges.

Unfortunately for you, my dear reader, I don’t have any advice on what to do about that. (If you have any advice, I’d appreciate it!) I haven’t learned any profound lessons nor have I mastered the art of the “hello.” In Japan, I’m learning all new ways of greeting someone, and I’m afraid that when I return to the US, my greetings will be more awkward than ever as I combine Western and Eastern cultures.

But fortunately, I have learned that you should never under any circumstance feed an awkward situation with a burst of spontaneity.

My senior year of high school was when I began to blossom for the first time. Prior to that year I rarely went out with friends. (Honestly, I’m still not much of a social butterfly.) But my senior year, I can proudly say that I possessed something resembling a social life. My first day, I owned the school. Everyone was beneath me at last, and I had taken my place as master of the universe (or at least my dinky Arkansas high school). I had just one more year…

I congregated with my friends inside the classroom of our favorite history teacher so we could pray over the day as we always did. We chatted about our summers and mourned the end of our sleep, and then I noticed a new face in the crowd. Someone new in the group. I had been the new kid last year. Having found my place with my group of friends, I knew I had to be the one to welcome anyone who had wandered into our midst.

He blended in with the rest of us in our drab school polos and khakis. As he shuffled between the exit and the corner away from the rambunctious crowd, I caught him. Introducing myself, I decided to ease him into conversation with idle chatter about the weather, summer, and life in general. I expected a dip of the head, a shy hello, or at the very least a smile. Instead his eyes practically glazed over with confusion as I spoke, my speech quickly moving from light conversation to rapid fire questions.

This kid wouldn’t talk back. I couldn’t even get a name out of him.

I started to sweat. I talked faster and faster. I repeated my name. I spoke louder. I asked him more about himself. Still nothing. In a panic, my fight or flight instinct told me I had to break the silence, or I was going to lose a potential friend. And what is the best way to break the ice? Make someone laugh of course! Any normal person would have told a joke, but me? No. I have to go above and beyond. Prior to my senior year, most of my social interaction occurred through the internet and with my cats. Yes. Cats. And what makes cats happy?

Yes. I petted him. Right then and there. I assaulted his “fluffy” black hair and continued to go on and on about it. I watched his eyes widen twice the size of his face, his body stiffen, his lips curl into something akin to a voiceless scream.

I will never forget that look of horror on his face.

Thankfully, we ended up circling up for the morning prayer, and I sneaked off to another spot to avoid standing next to him.

And that, my dear readers, is how I met the Chinese exchange student.

Thankfully, I did manage to show him that I’m not a hair tousling freak after all.

It’s a Trap!

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20150501_122557_Richtone(HDR)NOTE: I would like to point out that this is my fourth or fifth time trying to write this. Each time, I’ve attempted to write my thoughts out, I find out myself writing a completely different post. Here’s hoping this goes smoothly.

I’ve been fascinated with literature of all kinds ever since I was a little girl. I can’t remember the title of the first story I really fell in love with, but I do remember it was about a fox and his swamp band, and they ran into some trouble with some shady crocodiles. As simple as that story was, I remember thinking about that book for days. I imagined myself as the lead singer of the band, getting captured by crocodiles, and celebrating a victory with my animal friends. (I think Kindergarten Kat even had a crush on Mr. Fox.) At this point, I can’t remember how much of what I’m remembering is the actual plot or what I made up on my own.

For years after, I indulged myself many books, jumping from Nancy Drew to Encyclopedia Brown to Artemis Fowl and anything written by Garth Nix or Brian Jacques or Ted Dekker. I read the classics in high school and fell in love with Charles Dickens and Shakespeare, but something was missing. Sometimes I picked up a book and thought, “Well, that was good, but it could have been better.” I wanted to do better. I wanted to pour my passion for reading onto a page. I don’t remember when I started writing. I feel as if it has always been part of my life, but the oldest primary document I have in my care is an Applebee’s napkin with some scrawling for some sort of character idea. A literary masterpiece? Not at all. It’s hardly passable for fanfiction, but that marks my beginning, maybe a moment in time where I vowed to write at least one great story, not part of a fad but something that would stand the test of time and become a literary masterpiece after I died.

I wanted people to see this world blossoming in my mind. But somehow, I’ve never been able to accurately describe it. It has always been beyond my ability. I have binders filled past their maximum capacity with ideas and sketches and short stories which completely unlock the mysteries of the inner-workings of my mind, but I could never share any of them. They’re not my vision. As I entered college, I found myself writing less and less. The passion still existed. I felt it itching, but many papers, jobs, people, and my own fatigue kept me from writing. My journals remained empty.

But about a week and a half ago, I went on a trip.

“Mitaka?”

I’ve gotten that reaction a lot. During Golden Week, I traveled all over Tokyo in a few short days, but on my first day, I found myself in the Mitaka ward; it certainly wasn’t heavy on tourist traffic. I was just visiting the Ghibli Museum, home of the art of my favorite Japanese animator, Hayao Miyazaki. (If you haven’t heard of the name, perhaps you’ve heard of some of his work, including Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Howl’s Moving Castle). We arrived two hours early on a bright orange bus called the cat bus. (Sadly, it wasn’t actually like the one from Totoro.)

As we neared the museum itself, the foliage grew bigger, thicker, and greener, and I felt as if I had shrunk to the size of a pixie. The greenery wrapped about a building sunken into the ground, the walls rising out of the depths into the clouds. Gazing down from above, a metal guardian eyed the spectators with cold eyes. Watching from below, eyes etched in glittering stained glass beckoned everyone passing to view their story. I longed to go beyond the metal bars inside, but we still had two hours to kill.

We found ourselves at a crossroads of some sort, many of the paths leading through social areas deeper into the shaded foliage. We glanced at each other, and with that look we decided not to care where we went. We chose a path, and we walked, the promise of a café, zoo, or aquarium beckoning us. We traveled through the park, the canopy overhead protecting us from the sun’s rays, past people riding bikes and school children in green and pink hats. We walked until the world become silent except for the crunch of stones underneath our shoes.

Red peeked through the trees. The wind carried the smell of incense and the pond’s gentle mist toward my face. Nearby a bell rang, summoning spirits to answer a traveler’s prayer. The trees overhead swayed with the breeze, moaning underneath the weight of their age and wisdom. I became vaguely aware of the spell cast upon me; I thought I could fight it, but as I approached the gates of the Benten shrine, any power I had disappeared. My feet wandered through the gates of their own accord, and I swear my heart stopped. I had practically found the gateway to Narnia, an ancient sect of the Templars, a gathering of Ents. I waited, and I waited for Howl to sweep me off my feet, for Princess Mononoke to fly through the trees, or a Laputa to sail through the clouds above the creaking trees.

The Magic

The Magic

Somehow, the magic never wore off. Every tree seemed a bit greener on my trek back. Every step I took hurt my feet a little less. Every breath made me feel more alive, as if I hadn’t really been living for a long time. This place was fantasy I lived in my mind. It breathed with me. It wrapped its spell around me and captured my heart. It imprisoned me, and I know that if I ever want to be free, I have to return. It’s just like that time spent wondering about that fox picture book.

Getting lost in a different world for the first time in a long time reminded me that my world still exists. It still wants to be told. It still has to be told, and it has helped me start writing again. Magic exists in this world. Miyazaki has certainly created it, and it has consumed Mitaka. And now I hold a piece of that magic.

And some of it followed me home.

Magic

What to Expect in Japan Part 1: Uhm…Well, Duh!

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The Koinobori hanging up in a children’s park in northern Shinjuku.

Now originally, I wanted to write a single post with all the things one should expect to find in Japan ranging from the obvious to the not so obvious, but as I started writing, I realized I had a lot to say and a lot more to experience on my trip, so why not a write series over the next few months while specific topics were still fresh on my mind?

I have just returned from a three day trip where I and two other American students tried to cram as much of Tokyo into those three days as possible. I have felt my feet crying out for mercy since the first day, but I could not put them out of their misery until I had quenched my thirst for adventure. I have been studying Japanese language and culture in formal classes since my first year of college (about 3 years ago), but no textbook, J-Drama, or anime could have prepared me for an actual trip to Tokyo. (Part of me expected to find at least one ward in ruins from some sort of monster attack, but that was not the case) But as I said, my expectations of Tokyo were almost nothing like the ones I had formed from behind my desk (or preferably in my bed with my comfy purple back pillow) as I read and watched about culture, pop-culture, language, and etiquette.

As I said, I returned yesterday, exhausted after a 10 hour night bus ride with no sleep (because I’ve never been able to sleep in moving vehicles). I felt the same sleep-deprived relief when I finally arrived in Tokyo via night bus a few days prior. The bus driver dumped us near Shinjuku Station and sped off with the rest of the early morning traffic. Naturally, one’s first thoughts of such an amazing place should be something along the lines of, “I can’t believe I’m in Tokyo!” I took one look around and thought, “What now?” And then a few moments later I added, “God have mercy on my soul.” (It isn’t abnormal for me to have melodramatic thoughts; they just usually translate into my shoving my face full of food instead of verbal eloquence.) We had an address for our hotel, our luggage weighing us down, and no idea of how to get where we needed to be. We wandered Shinjuku Station for several hours, and then we wandered northern Shinjuku for a while before we found our hotel. During that time I did indeed shove a McGriddle, hash brown, and cinnamon roll into my mouth.

I’ve spent many summers in San Antonio, Texas with my grandmother. I’ve been to Houston and Dallas. When I lived in Arkansas, I made frequent trips to Little Rock on my own. I’ve been lost in Memphis and St. Louis as well. How different could those places be from Tokyo? Seventeen years. That’s how different it is. I’ve been speaking English for 17 more years than I’ve been speaking Japanese. With my luck, I knew things would go wrong.

I got lost.

And more lost.

And so lost that I didn’t think it was even possible to get even more lost.

Finally, I tempted fate and stopped trying to think of whether or not it could get worse. And it still did.

On our final night in Tokyo, my friends and I planned to find a few stores (and try out the world’s first Japanese Taco Bell) in Shibuya. But guess what? We found ourselves in the middle of a Cinco de Mayo festival instead. Instinctively, I bought a watermelon smoothie and churro to hide my panic. After failing to understand the map, we decided to ask for directions. Again. We scanned the crowd at the crosswalk, looking for someone who seemed to know what they were doing. Finally, we spotted a young couple behind us. I sidled over to them and told them we were lost. The young man, Gak, stared us three American girls for a moment before pulling out his phone. I bit my lip as he hmmm-ed over the Google map on his screen.

“We’ll take you there.”

His companion, Mai, giggled and instantly began speaking to me about school, jobs, and the holidays. Amused by my Japanese, a smile never left her face even when I couldn’t convey exactly what I wanted to say. She thought it was particularly adorable that I wanted to buy a yukata for an upcoming festival. Gak even smiled a bit.

We walked for about fifteen minutes, and it ended with my group safely in front of the Oriental Bazaar. Gak sidled back over to Mai, and we thanked our newest guardian angel.

“Have a nice day,” he told us in a quiet voice.

And then I asked him how to say it in Japanese.

“よい一日を!”  (“Yoi-ichinichi wo!”) I called after them.

The duo erupted into laughter and smiles once more.

The day before, I met an American couple in the elevator of Tokyo Tower. We chatted for a moment after realizing we spoke the same language. The young man rolled his eyes a bit and chuckled. “Everything’s in Japanese here. You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to order food.” My friend and I looked at each other for a moment trying our hardest not to grin too much, and we told them the words for fried chicken and fish. Our elevator ride ended, and the couple left.

Later that same day, my group settled down in an Alice in Wonderland themed café. We probably frazzled our poor waitress (who told us to call her Alice) with our questions, but we communicated enough to get our food and drinks. Another English-speaking group settled down next to us, and after several loud remarks about wasting money “paying for ambiance” (which is kind of the purpose of a themed café by the way), they fired English question after English question at Alice. When their English didn’t get through to her, they spoke even louder and louder. Alice stared at the group wide-eyed and eventually nodded in response to all of their questions before running off. After a while, another Alice returned in her place to explain about the custom cocktail menu in English.

I did as many “touristy” things as I could during my vacation. I toured a Sanrio store, explored temples, climbed Tokyo Tower, and snacked on freshly made crepes, but I didn’t come to Japan to “pay for ambiance.” I could write all day about the attractions and food and fashion, but experiencing culture is more than tasty fish and ancient temples.

As I sat in Akita Station completely exhausted from 24+ hours without sleep and one grueling night bus ride, I thought about my communication skills. Suddenly, an elder woman approached me and my friend. She told us something, and when we responded in Japanese, her face lit up. The conversation reminded me of some of my family dinners, topics weaving in and out of relevance. Houses, Zambia, my friend’s leg and its likeness to her owl wallet, something about this woman’s father and schooling. We pulled out dictionaries and laughed and winced. We tried. The woman laughed with us and lowered her head in a slight bow as she prepared to leave.

““よい一日を!”  I called after her. If you really, truly want to enjoy Japan, don’t just expect beauty, but expect kindness and patience and good conversations. Expect frustration and smiles and knowledge.