Saturday, December 22, 2012

Controversial Classics: 8 Banned Books to Give for the Holidays

Support literacy and give challenged novels to your friends this Christmas.
by Suzi Parker

            The history of banning books dates back to 450 B.C., when Anaxagoras wrote about the sun and moon and his critics thought he was insulting the gods. Challenging the written word certainly hasn’t stopped through the centuries.
            In the 1870s, a wave of book censorship occurred when Anthony Comstock founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Its mission was to curb obscene material, especially dime novels that could taint the minds of youth. But even now, challenging books still occurs, although the U.S. Supreme Court, through myriad cases, has attempted to balance personal tastes with intellectual freedom.
            According to the American Library Association, 326 challenges were reported to its Office for Intellectual Freedom in 2011.  If you're looking to get a family member or friend a book for the holidays, think about choosing a challenged classic.

Here are eight favorites.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
            J.D. Salinger didn’t start out to write a book for teenagers. Instead, The Catcher in the Rye was written for adults, but teens quickly embraced its themes of teenage angst and alienation. The story of Holden Caulfield still resonates in the 21st century as much as it did in 1951, when it was first published.
            From 1990 to 1999, The Catcher in the Rye was the tenth most frequently challenged book for a myriad of reasons, including vulgar language, blasphemy, and lack of morality, according to the American Library Association. Holden has often been cited as a poor role model for teens because he drinks, smokes, and lies. Regardless of its controversial nature, the book has been listed as one of the best books of the 20th century on various lists.
            Stephen Chbosky’s coming-of-age story centers around teenager Charlie and the awkwardness of being a freshman in high school. Quickly becoming a modern-day classic, The Perks of Being A Wallflower is told by Charlie in a series of letters to an anonymous stranger.
“So, this is my life,” Charlie writes as he starts to tell his story. “And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I'm still trying to figure out how that could be.”
            Charlie often cites popular banned books such as To Kill A Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby and makes references to 1980s band The Smiths and cult film The Rocky Horror Picture Show. While pop culture weaves its way through the book, the story, which takes place in Pittsburgh in the 1990s, centers on Charlie’s family life and his two new friends, Sam and Patrick. The book is often challenged because of teenage sex, homosexuality and drug use, but in 2012, the film version, directed by Chbosky, was released.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
            It’s amazing that more than 80 years after it was first published, Brave New World continues to be a challenged, and banned, book in the United States. Still, the Modern Library ranked Brave New World fifth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century in 1999, making it a solid classic.
            Aldous Huxley attempts to describe a utopian future where “humans are genetically bred and pharmaceutically anesthetized to passively serve a ruling order.” Perhaps it was because Huxley so accurately described the future that it still terrifies people. After all, Huxley—as if peering into a crystal ball—predicted much of what is now part of our daily lives, including drugs to fight depression, babies born in laboratories, and overpopulation.
            Poet and writer Maya Angelou covers a lot of ground in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first volume of her autobiography, published in 1970. Writing from her experience as a young girl who finds herself in the small town of Stamps, Ark., battling prejudice and parental abandonment, Angelou addresses racism, rape, literacy, and women’s rights in a male-dominated world, and in the process creates a book that everyone should read.
            Continually challenged in schools, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has often been praised for its honest depiction of rape and racism and the institution of organized religion. Angelou, now 84, calls herself a “global renaissance woman,” and is known as America's most visible black female autobiographer. Nominated for a National Book Award in 1970, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings remained on The New York Times paperback bestseller list for two years.
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
Now considered one of the best young adult novels of all time, The Chocolate War tells the story of Jerry Renault, a teenager who attends Trinity School, a fictional Catholic high school where he struggles with teenage angst and a secret society of teenage pranksters known as the Vigils. Because of Jerry’s sexual ponderings, this book is often challenged.
            When the book was released in 1974, The New York Times wrote, “The Chocolate War is masterfully structured and rich in theme; the action is well crafted, well timed, suspenseful; complex ideas develop and unfold with clarity.”
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
            To Kill A Mockingbird was the only book that the reclusive Harper Lee ever published, but she captured a complex era in the Deep South of racial inequality and poverty. Every teenager should read the story of Scout Finch, her brother, Jem, and their widowed father, Atticus, during the Great Depression in Maycomb, Ala.
            First published in 1960, the book received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961 but has often been banned because of its plot concerning a black man accused of raping a white woman.  The book is a perennially challenged classic also because of racial slurs, profanity and other controversial content.
            Published in 2007, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was quickly challenged because of its content—alcohol, bullying, poverty, sex, and profanity.
The novel tells the story of Arnold Spirit, Jr., a promising cartoonist and a Native American teenager, who lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation and his decision to attend an all-white, public, off-reservation high school. The novel contains 65 comic illustrations that intertwine with the plot centering on Arnold as he straddles his two lives: dealing with the school’s rich bullying white students and his family’s poverty on the reservation.
The Color of Earth by Dong Hwa Kim
            A beautiful black-and-white graphic novel, The Color of Earth is the first in a trilogy about a girl named Ehwa coming of age in rural Korea during the 19th century. Dong Hwa Kim, a male writer, superbly captures the life of a teenage girl and her trials and tribulations with boys and her body in this Korean manwha, or comic book. The two other books in the series, The Color of Water and The Color of Heaven, are equally as compelling.
            In 2010 The Color of Earth was the second most challenged book on grounds of its sexual content, nudity, and suitability for age group. Calisa Brill, senior editor at First Second Books, which published the series, says, “These books are about what it means to grow up—and it’s impossible to have that conversation honestly without dealing with love, and sex.”

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Friday, December 14, 2012

California King

Kendrick Lamar reinterprets Compton’s legacy

          The twenty-five-year-old rapper Kendrick Lamar's c.v. is a perfect combination of classic and trendy, which he makes clear on the cover of his major-label debut, "Good Kid, M.a.a.d City." It's a Polaroid of Lamar at age five, on the lap of an uncle who is flashing a gang sign; two bottles, one of malt liquor and one of baby formula, sit on a table in front of them. Symbolic, and a little too pat, the photograph was taken in Lamar's childhood home, in Compton, California, a place that rap made famous, in a way that wouldn't have been possible for Miami or New York. In the late eighties and early nineties, groups like N.W.A. and solo artists like Snoop Dogg made Compton a kind of shorthand for both gangsta rap and violence. Compton's favorite son, the producer and rapper Dr. Dre, has now closed the circle, signing Lamar to his Aftermath label. But Lamar's story is not primarily about gangs or gangsta rap. Instead, it is about a generational shift that he and similar artists like Schoolboy Q and Danny Brown embody-their music is omnivorous. Unlike earlier hip-hop innovators, they haven't killed their idols to move forward-they’ve eaten them. This hip-hop is full of all the other hip-hop, which makes it both satisfying and confusing. Lamar claims Compton, and uses its legacy, but that doesn't tell you much about what his album sounds like.

           Lamar has repeatedly cited California's martyr, Tupac Shakur, as his favorite rapper, which seems perverse, considering how many m.c.s he can ably mimic. In fact, he never sounds like Shakur, who was agitated even when pausing, a breathless and fierce enunciator who piled up threats like kindling. Lamar sounds a great deal more like a calm, resonant m.c. whom he rarely mentions-Ishmael Butler, who was in the nineties trio Digable Planets, using the name Butterfly, and is now in Shabazz Palaces, as Palaceer Lazaro. Like Butler, Lamar has a low voice, which moves at an even trot. But Lamar also emphasizes his nasal high end, giving words a hint of sarcastic resignation, which is a very East Coast quality. (California drives with the top down; the East Coast shrugs its shoulders.)

          By any measure, "Good Kid" is a triumph, which is no shock. Since "Overly Dedicated," Lamar's 2010 mixtape, which was a digital-only release, Lamar has sounded preternaturally well rounded and professional. His follow up, "Section.80," from 2011, was widely praised, and slightly easier to find than his previous records. (It did particularly well on iTunes.) "Good Kid" fulfills an implicit promise from his earlier work to revive Compton and to update its sound.

          Lamar's music is rarely as rough as his scenarios. This keeps him in the tradition of West Coast G-funk, as Dr. Dre helped establish it, in the early nineties - it was smooth music for listening to in cars about what happens when you get out of the car. The voices of singers like Nate Dogg and rappers like Warren G blended with each other to make even the harshest lines sound harmonious. While much of eighties hip-hop depended on a James Brown-style locomotive rattle, the mother lode for G-funk was plangent R. &B. by artists like Leon Haywood and William De Vaughn.

          A song like "M.a.a.d City' is in that tradition, a diptych that begins with anxious synths and long-tailed kick-drum sounds before moving into a cracking drum sample that recalls the feel of "Lyrical Gangbang' from "The Chronic," one Of Dr. Dre's-and Compton's-foundational albums. To make his link to the past not just clear but precise, Lamar chose to feature MC Eiht of Compton's Most Wanted-he's not the best-known sovereign, we have to come up with some more hopeful understanding of what people are like, and how they naturally interact with one another. For John Locke, later in the seventeenth century, that meant a strong belief in a • natural law that human beings could apprehend and which governed their actions even in the absence of a state. For Hegel, it meant seeing history itself as a process with a goal, the achievement of a free and equal society governed by a rational bureaucratic state. For Marx, it meant a faith that human beings, liberated from the reign of private property and exploitation, would be able to live together in spontaneous harmony.  

          As Ryan approaches the present, rivals to liberal democracy drop out of the running--above all, Fascism and Communism, each of which gets a searching treatment. The book starts to home in on the challenges that face our kind of society. Since 1945, he writes, we have lived in a world where "there was no alternative to liberal democracy, but liberal democracy aroused no enthusiasm." As an admirer of Mill and Tocqueville, Ryan focusses on the danger that both of them saw in a mass democratic society: the likelihood that individuality will shrink before the onslaught of mediocrity and conformity, that we will settle for a "Persian" prosperity instead of demanding a "Greek'' politics of active participation. The nineteen-sixties, Ryan argues, was the last time when a mass demand for more participatory democracy could be heard: one of the most recent documents he discusses is the Port Huron Statement, issued by the Students for a Democratic Society in 1962.

          This emphasis might lead one to expect that Ryan would sympathize with Occupy Wall Street. Yet the political tradition that values personal independence and civil society above regimentation and the state can also give succor to conservative politics: it is no coincidence that the Tea Party draws on the republican imagery of the American Revolution. Indeed, one of the valuable functions of a history like "On Politics" is to show how narrow a slice of the intellectual spectrum American politics currently fights over. It took two thousand years for universal suffrage to become even thinkable; today, anyone who challenged it would be considered silly or insane. It took centuries of religious war before the West arrived at a consensus on the separation of religion and politics; today, the party of the Evangelical religious right can coalesce around a ticket made up of a Mormon and a Catholic. Such consensus is a precious achievement, but it can also curb our sense of political possibility. If we are political animals, as Aristotle said, then we can't understand ourselves without thinking about the way we have lived and might live politically. In that sense, "On Politics," like the great works of philosophy it examines, constitutes a powerful brief against the unexamined life.

Review by Sasha Frere-Jones
The New Yorker magazine, 5 November 2012

Gary Clark jr. – Blak and Blu

A Texas young gun beefs up and branches out on an uneven, occasionally thrilling LP

Review by Jon Pareles 

          How can a serious bluesman thrive in the age of Auto-Tune? That's the question Gary Clark Jr. grapples with on his major label debut. Since his teens, Clark has been the young titan of Texas blues, coming out of Austin in the early 2000s with a smoothly long-suffering voice and one hell of a mean guitar tone, playing solos that claw and scream their stories with ornery splendor. He's a full-fledged guitar hero of the classic school.

          And that's all he would need to be, if he only wanted to spend his career playing for roots music die-hards and recording for his own Hotwire Unlimited, the Austin label that released his albums from 2004 to 2010. But Clark, 28, has a different trajectory and a much larger goal: to reach his own generation, the one that grew up on hip-hop and R&B.

          Clark spreads his musical bets on Blak and Blu. Instead of having one signature sound, he tries a dozen, delving into modern R&B, retro soul, psychedelia and garage rock. A handful of the album's songs are cherry-picked from Clark's Hotwire catalog, remade in studios that make everything sound bigger and tougher. Abetted by producers Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre, Fiona Apple) and Rob Cavallo (Green Day), Clark is clearly aware that young listeners have heard the Black Keys, Prince and the Roots. Although most songs have a live, hand-played flavor, a few of them- including the title track- tilt toward the static, loop like grooves of hip-hop.

          The album's core is still the blues. Clark dips into the historical timeline, sampling a juke joint's worth of 20th century styles: from the rural slide-guitar picking of "Next Door Neighbor Blues" to the desolate tidings and incendiary lead guitar of "When My Train Pulls In" to the Cream-y riffing and layering of "Glitter Ain't Gold." But Clark won't be genre bound. "Ain’t Messin' 'Round" is pushy, updated Stax-Volt soul with Clark's fuzztone leading the charge of a horn section. "Things Are Changin"' makes another Memphis move with a fat Al Green-style backbeat.

          As an album, Blak and Blu makes for a bumpy ride. The roaring, distortion-soaked blues of "Numb" - which sounds something like Stevie Ray Vaughan tackling "Come Together" - upstages the falsetto croon and string arrangement of "Please Come Home." The souped-up Chuck Berry boogie of "Travis County" collides with "The Life," which has Clark ruminating over woozy, echoey keyboards: "Can't go on like this/Knowing that I'm just getting high." Clark and Warner Bros. clearly expect listeners to carve their own playlists from the album's 13 tracks.

          Outside the structures of the blues, Clark is still a journeyman songwriter, sometimes settling for easy rhymes and singsong melodies, as he does in "Blak and Blu," which aspires to the thoughtfulness of Marvin Gaye, wondering, "How do we get lifted/How do we not go insane?" Give Clark credit for striving to be something more than a blues-rock throwback and singing from a troubled heart. And hope that he gets through the narrow portals of pop radio. But on this album, it's still his blues that cut deepest.

Rolling Stone magazine, 10 October 2012

Serena Williams

          The United States is rife with improbable, up-by-the-bootstraps tales. We like to believe we have a corner on the market, though surely there are some inspirational success stories in India or Brazil or anywhere other than North Korea or Venezuela.

          Very few would top Serena's, though. The journey taken by Serena (and to only a slightly lesser degree by her sister) is truly unprecedented.  An African American girl trained on the public courts of Compton, California, by a conspicuous whack job of a father becomes the most enduringly dominant athlete of a predominantly Caucasian sport? Come on.

          Yeah, yeah, superficially, one could compare Tiger Woods to Serena. Both began their domination in the late nineties; both continued through the first decade of this century. But at that point their paths diverge.  Three long years into his decline, Woods's dominance seems short-lived compared with that of Serena, who thirteen years after the first of her fifteen Grand Slam singles and thirteen Grand Slam doubles titles-is still entirely, overwhelmingly ass-hipping nearly every competitor she meets.

          There are blips, of course.  Unexplained absences, family members murdered, unusual injuries, the most curious family box at all the slams. As all intensely famous and intensely insulated people are, Serena is weird. But unlike most of the rest of women's tennis, Serena is not crazy. Unlike the best players in her sport, Serena does not have a crippling mental block that prevents her from serving effectively. Unlike the best players in her sport, she has never suddenly lost the ability to play. No. Serena just attacks.

          At age thirty-one, with two more singles Grand Slams and a couple Olympic golds won in 2012, Serena is still rising.

By David Granger
Esquire, December 2012

The Parenting Trap

Forget all the advice. Forget the special tutors, camps, coaches, and therapists.  A father of four argues that the biggest problem kids face is the byzantine education-industrial complex known as school, which ruins the most carefree and memorable years of their lives.

By A. A. Gill 

            Under no circumstances are you to cut this out and stick it on the fridge door. Or put it in the file marked "Kids' Stuff." There's nothing here for you. Nothing to do, nothing to act on. No consciousness-raising or attitude-flipping. No strategies or slogans. There is no help. And absolutely no solace. Because, really, what the world doesn't need now is any more advice on raising children. We're done with the finger wagging and the head patting. We've tried everything and we've read everything. We've asked, tweeted, blogged, prayed, and read it all. We've sat up at night and commiserated with other parents when we should have been having sex or at least paying off the sleep deficit. We've done everything, and still it's like a cinnamon-and-lavender-scented Gettysburg out there.
            Why don't we just stop trying and do nothing? Because nothing can't make us and the kids feel any worse than we feel now.
            I have two lots of kids, a boy and a girl and a boy and a girl. They neatly bookend my responsibilities as a parent. The elder girl is in her last year of college. The youngest two are just starting the times table and phonetics, and the older boy is somewhere in Southeast Asia, on what he calls his "gap life," collecting infections and tattoos of what he thinks are Jim Morrison lyrics written in pretty, curly, local languages but in fact probably say, "I like cock."
            Having spent a great deal of money to educate the first two, I realized along the way that I've learned nothing. But then, none of us have any idea what we're doing. That's right, none of us know anything. I stand at the school gates and watch the fear in the eyes of other fathers. The barely contained panic as they herd their offspring, already looking like hobbit Sherpas, carrying enormous schoolbags full of folders and books and photocopied letters and invitations to birthdays and concerts and playdates and football and after-school math clubs. You know my younger kids carry more paperwork than I do? And my job is paperwork. And they can't read.
            In the 100 years since we really got serious about education as a universally good idea, we've managed to take the 15 years of children's lives that should be the most carefree, inquisitive, and memorable and fill them with a motley collection of stress and a neurotic fear of failure. Education is a dress-up box of good intentions, swivel-eyed utopianism, cruel competition, guilt, snobbery, wish fulfillment, special pleading, government intervention, bureaucracy, and social engineering. And no one is smart enough now to understand how we can stop it. Parents have no rational defense against the byzantine demands of the education-industrial complex. But this multi-national business says that they're acting in the children's best interests. And we can only react emotionally to the next Big Idea or the Cure or the Shortcut to Happiness.
            No, scrap happiness-we'll settle for success. We gave up on happiness at about the age of six. Childhood is a war of attrition, like some grisly TV game show where the weak and the kind and the quixotic and the dreamers and the gentle get dumped at the end of each year. Only the gimlet-eyed and the obsessively competitive and the driven make it to the finish line.
            Over-achieving Hillary Clinton smugly told us that it took a village to bring up a child. Oh my God. If only. If all it took were some happy, thatched, smocked village, we'd all have bought villages, have bought 10 villages-we'd have adopted a village. But no dusty, higgledy-piggledy, clucking, mooing, sleepy-town hamlet is going to get you into the only pre-school that is the feeder for that other school that is the fast track to the only school that is going to give your child half a chance of getting into that university that will lead to a life worth living.
            Oh no, we need far more than the village. We need au pairs who speak three languages and musical nannies and special tutors and counselors and professional athletes with knee problems to coach hand-eye coordination. We have to have orthodontists and yoga teachers and voice coaches and judo masters. There have to be camps for creative writing and tennis and swimming instructors and exam strategists. We need analysts and nutritionists and speech therapists.
            We need to stop all this. I can't do it anymore. I can't face the next decade of having conversations about extra-curricular activities and tutors. And I can't go on with the phony, smiling interests in other people's kids' achievements and the seething resentment at their success and the hidden Schadenfreude at their stammers and alopecia. Or the self-deluding midnight belief that my own children are late starters or slow burners. I gave a talk at an educational festival in England this year. They asked me in the way that Methodists glean godliness by exhibiting hopeless recidivist drunks in tents-I am a chronic and inspiring example of academic failure. I asked a roomful of teachers if they'd enjoyed their own school days. About half put up their hands and said they had. Not actually a great average. And then I asked that half if the things that made school fun had happened inside or outside a classroom. And only two said they'd enjoyed being taught. The rest liked school despite schooling. They remembered their friends and getting drunk and feeling each other up and laughing till they were hunched over with hilarity. There is of course the old chestnut of the one teacher, the magic one, the one who let in the light. Introduced us to Keats or Darwin. But that's not much for 15 years, is it? A couple of odes and some finches. 
            If you want to see the absolute proof that we've got it all wrong-that education is really about the fear and guilt of parents projected onto their children, then go to your own school reunion. Obviously most normal people would rather attend a naked consciousness-raising workshop. But do it once and you'll see what the Adonises and the Venuses of your halcyon days actually did with all that promise. The boy who was captain of everything, who strode the halls like a young Alexander; the girl with the glistening hair who memorized poetry and whose golden limbs danced across a stage as a Juliet no one would ever forget. Well, they're both sorry, seedy never-wases now. Their finest moments are behind them. Everything after that brilliant year at school or college was mediocrity. Nothing good ever came from peaking too early. The interesting adults are always the school failures, the weird ones, the losers, the malcontents. This isn't wishful thinking. It's the rule. My advice to any child reading this: If you're particularly good at the violin or math, for God's sake don't let anyone find out. Particularly your parents. If they know you're good at stuff they'll force you to do it forever. You'll wake up and find yourself in a sweaty dinner jacket and clip-on bow tie playing "The Music of the Night" for the ten-thousandth time in an orchestra pit. Or you'll be the fat, 40-ish accountant doing taxes for the people who spent their school days copping a feel and learning how to roll a good joint.

Vanity Fair, December, 2012.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

8 Ways to Keep Your Student Loan Debt From Crushing You

How to manage loan debt so you don't run into trouble
By Kristin Kloberdanz

Whether you're signing up for your first student loan, trying to manage payments as you move on with your career, or have just realized you're in danger of default, student loans can be overwhelming.

In an interview with TakePart, Lauren Asher, the president of the Institute for College Access & Success, which runs the nonprofit Project on Student Debt, shares her tips for staying out of student loan trouble. She says:

1. Know your loans. “Know what you owe and to whom,” Asher says. “Know what kinds of loans you have, how much you owe and where you are supposed to send your payment. It sounds simple yet it is not for many people.” If you have a federal loan or loans, stay on top of your loans with their online management sites. If you have a private loan or loans, make sure you are aware of all of their rules, which differ greatly from federal. “Federal loans have protections and forgiveness while private lenders aren’t required to carry any protections.”

2. Stay in touch with your lender. “If they send a bill and you don’t get it, you’re still responsible,” Asher says. “It’s on you so they know how to find you and you’re up to date. People move a lot and change addresses and phone numbers. Staying in touch with your lender will really help you stay out of trouble—trouble you may not even know you’re in.” If you have several loans making this difficult, check with an advisor about possibly consolidating them so they are all in one place for one payment. However, Asher says, never consolidate your private loans with federal because you will then lose your federal protections!”

3. Review your repayment options. “The faster you pay your loan, the less you’ll pay in interest,” Asher says. “But if you pick a payment you can’t manage, it will send you down a bumpy path.” A great place to look at repayment options—specifically ones that are income based—for federal loans is, a site created by Project on Student Debt.

4. Contain the cost of your loan. Asher recommends talking to your lender about lowering the principal. You can do this by including a written request to your lender every time you pay extra to make sure this extra money is being applied to the principal rather than future payments (which include fees and interest). Keep detailed records and make sure the overpayment was diligently applied. If you are able to pay off a loan, pay off the most expensive first as well as the private ones, which will generally have a higher interest rate. And always check to see if your profession offers loan forgiveness.

Stay out of trouble. Asher says the best way to do so is simple: Make sure you pay on time. 
If you're concerned about making a future payment or if you've missed a payment:

1. Talk to your lender: “Before it gets any worse, be upfront with your lender,” Asher says. “There may be options you aren’t aware of.” There is information on the federal sites, and you may be able to temporarily suspend your payment (although beware of the costs) or replace with a more manageable loan plan.

2. Explore other options: Look beyond what the lender tells you. Asher recommends checking out and to make sure you understand the full range of options available. Also check out reports from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to see if there are any specific complaints about your lender so you can handle the issues upfront.

3. Time is of the essence: “If you are delinquent on a federal loan but haven’t yet defaulted, there is time to get out of delinquency,” Asher says. “Once you have defaulted there are fewer options. And your credit rating can be ruined, and it can be hard to get an apartment and car loan or even a job. You can see your wages garnished, your tax refunds claimed and eventually your Social Security may see a bite taken out of it if you default on a federal loan. It takes nine months to default on a federal loan, so talk to your lender as soon as possible before you crash and burn.”