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Where were you on the evening of December 3, 1979?
I was in a living room with a brown shaggy rug, tangled curls flying, rag doll clutched under my armpit, enormous headphones clamped around my toddler ears. I was dancing, my mouth plugged by my right thumb. A stretchy black coil connected the headphones to a cord, which ran to the wooden wall unit, which held my father’s record player. A 45 spun round, the needle’s gentle connection to the grooves sending the sound—maybe the Eagles; the Bee Gees; Earth, Wind and Fire—back through the wire to my ears. My parents sat on our nubby couch smiling, looking on. This is where everything begins, and where everything ends.
Where will you be on the morning of March 1, 2018?
Probably hiding. My book, California Calling: A Self-Interrogation, comes out that day.
When I first told people that Call Me Home was slated to be published, friends and acquaintances kept asking me, “Is it funny?”
“No,” I would say. “Not even a little bit. Not even for a second.”
This makes me laugh, but it’s true. I think I can be decently funny in person, on a good day, and I respect (and am fairly jealous of) anyone who can be funny on the page, but I’m not a humorous or light writer, often to a fault.
Silver, Idaho 2010
The belated Easter party was to be held that Saturday night at A-frame A, the most complete of the new houses. Just a few beers, and then the Longhorn, according to the much-circulated plan. Who had an Easter party? Jackson didn’t care. He was going to see Don. He hadn’t seen him since Honey brought him to the East side on Tuesday; each day that Don’s truck didn’t appear, Jackson tried to pretend he wasn’t disappointed. Now he shaved in the pocket mirror, the one he’d stolen from Lydia, and put on a clean shirt. He did everything slowly, meticulously. He drank the rest of the bottle of wine. What a girl he was. He thought again about the lock of hair he’d given to Chris. In his imagined, more perfect life, he discarded sentimentalities. Into the trash with the birthday cards, faded photographs. A better Jackson would scorn them all.
Freak accidents ran in the family. What else was Mimi to think? First Fitzy, now Shirl. What happened to lingering diseases? What happened to people dying in their sleep at eighty-five? The world was as reliable as patio furniture in a hurricane. It was so awful it made her laugh. The day after it happened she called in sick. She was convinced if she went to work, on the twenty-first floor of a building on Sunset Boulevard, the FitzHenry luck would bring on an earthquake. Mimi and Mouse were ten and nine when their father, Fitzy, was run over by a dolly.
March 01, 2012
A Very Minor Prophet, James Bernard Frost’s second novel, succeeds at many things. It renders a sense of contemporary Portland at a time when the public at large seems genuinely interested in our bike-riding, rain-and-coffee soaked, Voodoo Doughnut milieu. It’s both literary and illustrated, and somehow this offers no contradiction. It’s the first novel I’ve read that takes the reader back to 2004, addressing the political and religious divides of a time when most liberals were choking on their tofu at the thought of four more years of George W. Bush. Most importantly, AVMP is its own thing, which is the first requirement any reader can ask of a writer’s work. I got a chance to chat with Frost about AVMP, and how he feels about bringing Portland to life in such a, well, Portland-y way.
February 20, 2012
Rhonda Hughes is the powerhouse behind indie publishing sensation Hawthorne Books. More than a decade old and located in the Pacific Northwest, I had heard of Hawthorne only vaguely until a couple of years ago, when suddenly they seemed to burst as a force to be reckoned with onto the publishing scene, with highly assertive and competent marketing, beautifully designed books, and the kind of wider distribution that seems, to many small indie presses, only a tantalizing dream. They’ve also developed a stable of writers from whom they put out more than one title in fairly close succession, in an old-school publishing model that favors loyalty and cultivating talent/brand above constantly trying to throw All Things New against a wall to see what sticks. Plus, they have a whiff of Chuck Palahniuk cool about them, which doesn’t hurt! Amidst her busy schedule, Rhonda was able to talk with me about what makes Hawthorne tick—and thrive—and some future exciting projects on their list.
Tell us about yourself.
I was born in a little log cabin in Kentucky in 1822.
As long as I’m “often described.”
Yes, two true-story collections and two novels. Things I Like About America was my first and most popular non-fiction work. It addresses among many other things, losing my virginity with a psychopath, wrestling on a porch in the rain with a junkie, battling crack addiction, and finding a friend of mine in Mexico who’s been dead two days. God Clobbers Us All was my second book with Hawthorne: it’s a death, surfing and LSD novel. Then came Decline of the Lawrence Welk Empire, a tropical island love triangle with obeah damnation and a sexy but sometimes headless jumbie. My last book was 501 Minutes to Christ, where I hop a freight train to France, try to kick meth, and talk about what it was like to lose a multiple book contract with Houghton Mifflin, though I never actually use the words Houghton or Mifflin. My Dutch isn’t that good and it gives me the hiccups.
Basically it goes like this: the newly arrived math professor from our state college in Chadron, Nebraska, a terribly nice fellow who lived two blocks away from my family, disappeared one day without a trace. Ninety-five days later he was found burned and bound to a tree in the remote hills about a mile south of campus in what was then an incinerated prairie forest. A number of news teams, law enforcement officers, and bloggers, including psychics and ghosthunters, exhausted themselves in the so-called investigation, but this case remains unsolved, a profound mystery. Since I knew almost all the players, the police, the Sheriff, the math professor and many of his colleagues and friends, and every last one of the “suspects,” I became the natural repository for this story. Love and Terror is also about my quaint High Plains small town, its eccentric residents, my rocky marriage to a beautiful Mexican woman, and my exceptional, purportedly autistic son, who was four years old at the time.
“Twilight Zone Shit,” is what my friend Sheriff Karl Dailey calls it, and though I don’t pretend to know, I do include the body of forensic evidence and the full spectrum of possible scenarios, including prairie dragons and space aliens.
I don’t even have a degree. I was cleaning floors at Safeway at the time.
I try to write four hours every day, mornings if I can. Most of what I write is discarded. Jack London used to set a goal of a thousand words a day before he gave in to the first of his twenty-six drinks. I might get down six thousand words, I might record twenty-two. I don’t force things because the next day I know I’ll just have to throw it away, and I’m not pressed by the need for a drink, wealth, or legitimacy. Production in writing is often about the acceptance of moving backwards. I am developmentally slow and usually have to go through at least ten major versions of whatever I’m working on before I start to see the gleam. I’ve been working on Love and Terror now for five years, and I thought it was done three years ago. One thing I’ve learned through the “creative process” is that most of the time you don’t get a say.
Extensively. I have about a hundred notebooks arranged in such a manner that I can never find what I’m looking for.
I write as fast as I can, which is why I like a computer.
No, ink pens had just been invented and most people were switching over from papyrus. I teethed on a Royal manual typewriter, then moved to an electric Smith-Corona, followed by an IBM Selectric (also an electric typewriter), then it was a 286 clone (a computer I bought in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1989). I had a ThinkPad for a time. For many years I composed whole pieces including novels in longhand, but I can’t write fast enough to do that anymore.
My earliest influences were John Steinbeck and Pauline Kael.
Yes, I learned a good deal about structure and atmosphere from her movie reviews.
Raintree County by Ross Lockridge, All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, Mockingbird Wish Me Luck by Charles Bukowski, Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West, The High Window by Raymond Chandler, Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy, The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham, Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan, Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather, The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson.
Yes, I don’t read a lot of new books. I don’t have the time to sort them out.
Don’t just watch the river, jump in.
I am easily bored and not much of a joiner. In Mexico, by the way, I lived on three hundred a month.
Bukowski derived from Henry Miller, who I’m also occasionally compared to, and there are similarities. Both men came from working class backgrounds, both started and published late, both traveled widely and lived lustily among the poor, wrote with humor and heart, worked a number of mundane jobs, were totally ignored for years by the mainstream literati, and both rejected convention and academia. I’m also often compared to Kerouac (another disciple of Miller), I suppose because he traveled.
I have two stories upcoming in the Sun magazine, a story in the 2011 Spring edition of Ecotone, Love and Terror is slated for 2012, following that a novel in 2013 called Rodney Kills at Night, about a Lakota Indian boy who accidentally kills his stepfather and flees the reservation to become a standup comedian in Las Vegas. Al Saperstein just finished a great documentary on me, “Poe Ballantine, a Writer in America,” available soon. I’ve also just made a big pan of chicken enchiladas. You’re welcome to as many as you like.
The difference between the writer and the person who wants to write can be reduced to one word: work. The devotees have significantly better odds of success than the dreamers whose mouths never close. Luck, timing, passion, courage, and talent all play a role, too. So does a complete investment in the truth. I wouldn’t for a moment recommend that you pursue literature, since it’s been replaced for the most part by visual media, but if you learn to trust your instincts, if you give everything you’ve got, if you don’t quit, if you really love what you do, if you’re willing to put your ass on the line, you might produce a work of note or at the very least learn something valuable about yourself. Good luck, however, avoiding the nervous breakdown.
April 28, 2011
“Given a choice between grief and nothing, I choose grief.”
I wasn’t prepared for this memoir, this baptism by fire that Lidia Yuknavitch pours out onto the pages of The Chronology of Water (Hawthorne Books). I was aware of the controversy about the exposed breast on the cover, the grey band of paper wrapped around the book to appease those who can’t stand to see such obscenity. I was lured in by the glowing testimonials of authors I know and respect, people like Chuck Palahniuk, Monica Drake, and Chelsea Cain (who writes the introduction), her close-knit group of fellow authors, her workshop, support group, therapy and champions. But no, I wasn’t prepared for her voice—the power, the lyrical passages, and the raw, crippling events that destroyed her youth, but made her the woman she is today: fearless, funny, honest, and kind. By not being prepared, the opening lines hit me hard, and I in fact stopped for a moment, realizing that this was going to be bumpy ride, a dark story, but one that held nothing back. So I took a breath, and I went under:
On December 8, 1984, south of Coupeville on Whidbey Island, the FBI surrounded Robert Mathews’ Greenbank farm house. Mathews had founded The Order, a white supremacist group connected to twelve armed robberies that netted over four million dollars, a wounding of a police officer, and the murder of Denver talk show host Alan Berg. In a Coupeville classroom a few miles north my classmates and I were informed that school busses to Greenbank had been cancelled. That day Mathews would die in a fire after a cache of explosives detonated during a shoot out. All I knew about Mathews, thirty-one at death, was that he was a “bad man”. The crimes of murder and armed robbery I could understand, but not white supremacy. What motivated Mathews to make the sacrifice? Why join The National Alliance, The Aryan Brotherhood, Neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan or found a group such as The Order? Are white supremacists caricatures of evil or simply misguided? Who would be willing to kill and die for these beliefs? Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead: Frank Meeink’s Story (Hawthorne Books, Spring 2010) confronts these questions, as does the film that parallels his life, American History X. Frank says the film and his story, though, are not just about him, but, “Every kid who got sucked up into the white supremacy movement and had a change of heart.”
Meeink became accustomed to violence early, in part due to lack of a structured family. When he was an infant his father left, and his mother remarried an abusive man as she escaped into drugs and alcohol. Meeink, alone on the streets of Philadelphia, often truant from school, descended into a world of bullies and victims and immersion in gang life. He was raped at gunpoint, and began carrying self-hatred and a desire for vindication. The perfect recruit for the “movement”, he succumbed to skinhead indoctrination and rose quickly, eventually recruiting others and putting needle to the skin to show his allegiance: a swastika on his neck, a portrait of Joseph Goebbels on his chest, and S-K-I-N-H-E-A-D on his knuckles. He celebrated Hitler’s birthday on April 20th, feared the ZOG, or Zionist Occupational Government, and poured over literature such as The Turner Diaries. Arrested multiple times for violent and petty crimes, finally, after almost killing a person, he went to prison for felony assault. There his life turned as he befriended black inmates.
Soon after his release the Oklahoma City tragedy stunned our nation, and troubled Meeink to the point he went to the FBI. This led him to the Anti-Defamation League, to speaking out against racism, and to Jody M. Roy, Ph. D., a chair on the board of directors for SAVE (The National Association of Students Against Violence Everywhere) and author of Love to Hate: America’s Obsession with Hate and Violence (Columbia University Press 2002). Their friendship led to the collaboration of Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead.
As for Robert Mathews, every year young Frank Meeink types held death anniversary vigils at South Whidbey State Park. Anti-racist protestors resented their presence, snipers with BB guns hid in the woods and peppered the skinheads, and a police presence became necessary. When the state began closing the park every December the skinheads moved to a nearby location on Smuggler’s Cove Road, their most recent ceremony a footnote in local news.
Caleb Powell: What did skinheads offer you that was lacking in your life?
Frank Meeink: I would definitely say it started with the security. I liked having a family, belonging, all the stereotypical things that make gang members gang members. I liked hanging with my crew; having my own scene.
I hated a lot. Self-hatred, violence, the anger within, was like a shaken up soda bottle and someone just took the tap off and directed it, and the someone…they happened to be the skinheads. I think I wanted to believe this stuff already. So it was easier to except. They said the right things at the right time. I don’t think they planned it, they weren’t that sophisticated, but when I was at the right low point they said things that gave pride in my being white and male. I felt completely worthless and they said you are not worthless, you have this calling, this job, and that job is to support the white race and be a white soldier, an Aryan Christian soldier.
Powell: You describe your rape in Autobiography. It is a crucial and honest moment. What was it like to reveal this publicly?
Meeink: I told Jody the story while we’re driving in a car one day…‘cause I thought she was going to hear about it from my dad. I told my dad right after it happened, and I knew she would read the police reports and the psychologist’s notes from prison, so she’d find out anyway. I wanted her to hear it from me. I just said, “Hey Jody, there’s something I want to tell you about. So, um, this guy made me perform oral sex on him, he pulled a gun on me, um – I was hitchhiking and left myself open. And Jody told me she heard all this nasty stuff about me before she met me, and then she heard this. She later told me, “I wanted to hug you that day.” She asked how it happened, and I remember reliving it with her, telling the story.
Six months later she’s writing the book, and I told her I didn’t want it in, and she said, “You don’t even understand how this makes you human. It pulls people back to knowin’ what a fucked up kid you were. You were a really fucked up kid and fucked up things happened to you all the time. So I’m going to say that I strongly want it in, but if you don’t want it in then we’re not going to put it in.” I said, “Can I sleep on it?” So I went home and I told my wife, and she said, “You think people are going to think about you differently. They’re not. You know, it’s not that big a deal. You were a kid.” I thought, hey, I’ve got to put in everything that happened. It’s the truth, it is what it is, it happened.
When we interviewed my dad he said one of the worst things he ever did to me was not to be there. I mean, I told him immediately after it happened, a half hour later, and you know what he says? He pours me a shot and says, “Shit happens.” I’m his son, I’m coming to him, major upset, and I’m hoping he’s gonna say, “I’m going to find that guy!” I told him in detail what happened, and he just said, “Hey, Frankie, well – bad shit happens, Frankie.”
Powell: How do skinheads organize?
Meeink: They’re actually unorganized. Very unorganized. Many factions. All the websites fight with each other – power struggles and so many chiefs. There’s no grand movement or plan. In fact, scary thing is, without it being organized it’s harder to crack some of the cases. Leaderless resistance is a new term, as they try not to use their names, or pinpoint where leaders are. So there are a lot of racists out there acting alone.
There are people like Robert Mathews, he’s like a God to the movement, everyone respects him…he became a martyr to the cause. Then there’s Ruby Ridge and Randy Weaver, a low level guy with few connections, or Timothy McVeigh, they are all at different ends of the spectrum. There are separatists that don’t want anyone telling them what to do, and then there are guys who want to overthrow the government.
Powell: Skinhead ideology is nonsense. Voltaire said: “Those who can make you believe absurdity can make you commit atrocity.” Do you agree?
Meeink: You believe stupid things because you fear. Belief comes from fear. The people that believe in racism, that have this hatred, have the same two components, namely fear and ego. They think, “I’m afraid they’re going to move into my neighborhood, and there are going to be mixed babies.” Things like this drive the racist movements. You join these groups because you fear something. With racists they make you believe you’re joining because you have love for the white race – pride. But everything you associate with goes back to Hitler, and all these other negatives, it’s a mental illness. When you’re really mental you don’t know that. You think you’re okay. We are all just human beings, but racists judge humanity from what continent someone comes from. Now imagine if Martians came down, they’d all see us as one race.
I was in the airport in LA and I came across this guy from a group called P-9. That’s the name of the gang, it’s called P-9 Death Squad.
Powell: Penis Death Squad? Penile Death Squad?
Meeink: No, the letter ‘P’ and the number ‘9’. Anyway, we’re talking, and he said he got away from it because they were getting more and more into hatred, and he had no hatred, he just had this white pride, and that’s why he joined. P-9’s rhetoric was full of hatred, but he still thought the root values of P-9, the foundation, was a good thing. So I say, “You think the foundation is good?” And he says, “Yeah.” And I says, “You call yourselves ‘Death Squad’. That’s your foundation.” And he looked at me and goes, “You gotta point.”
Powell: You have said that you committed over 300 acts of violence. Do you relive those acts? Do they haunt you?
Meeink: I do think about them. I think about them differently, and when I look at myself back then I look at myself in third person. When I tell you a story of me when I was twenty-three it’s as me, first person, because I’m already way out of the movement. But when it’s the “me” of that racist stuff it’s a different person. I think “him”, not “me”. And I’ve tried to make amends to people who I’ve personally harmed. I try to seek them out. I’d love to make amends to everyone, if I could. But it’s not those people from my past who hate me so much – the people who still can’t forgive me for the violence are ones who never had anything to do with it.
Powell: If racism and hatred were so deeply seated in you, how did this change? What happened in prison?
Meeink: In prison I started realizing that it has to do with girls, and having and dealing with a girlfriend on the outside. Black inmates my age had this overwhelming thought: “I hope she doesn’t cheat on me.” And I happened to be going through the same things with my girl. No matter how much of a thug you are, you still want that ultimate love from a woman, but no matter what color, you still had that same insecurity: if she cheats on me it’ll break my heart. Across every continent it’s the same – there’s gay men, of course, but the majority of men across the world want a girl, a family. There’s nothing so common in a human, in a male, than a broken heart, it’s one of the common bonds we had that made me realized that we are so the same.
Powell: About prison, you once said, “I learned to become a man in there.” What did you mean?
Meeink: I learned how to shave. For the first time. Like really shave. I always had peach fuzz, I dry-shaved as a kid, but I never had to shave or trim up my beard, and a guy showed me how to do this, and I remember thinking, “This is something your dad is supposed to teach you.”
I learned not to fear men. I used to fear men, especially older men. When I got to prison I learned you couldn’t fear – if I didn’t stand up for myself, if I cowered, I would have more regret. I learned that my word was my word, my bond. You stood by what you said.
After I got out there still was my stepfather. I still was afraid of my stepfather ‘cause he always beat the crap out of me. He’s this big guy, six-two, wiry, skinny, and he was a navy boxer so he knew how to hold his hands. And he beat me up whenever he could. I got home from prison and he was sitting on this couch. One of my cousins comes in and asks, “How you doin’ Frank?” And I said, “I’m doin’ great.” ‘Cause I was. I’m out of prison, I’m not a skinhead anymore, I had friends, yeah, I was doin’ drugs, of course – anyway, my stepfather says, “Oh yeah, he’s doin’ real good, he’s a loser. He lives in my basement, he’s a fuckin’ cellar dweller.” So I’m like, “Ha ha, funny, cellar dweller.” And I was a cellar dweller. I lived in the basement. Then he said it again, and I’m like thinkin’, “This guy isn’t jokin’, he’s in one of his fightin’ moods.” He gets up, and my little sisters were there. Bad situation, and I’m like, “That’s enough, you’re not funny.” He says to my mom, “You better get in here, I’m gonna whip your son’s ass.” I stood up, and I’m built ‘cause I just got out of penitentiary. He throws this lame-ass hook, and I just ducked it and came up and he left himself wide open and I hit him with one of the greatest right hooks I’ve ever thrown. I’d never hit someone so hard and had it feel so gooooood. Family’s screaming, sisters are mad, everyone’s mad. My sisters are eleven and thirteen years younger than me. Bad situation, fast forward – years later he’s really mean to my sisters, calls them whores, and these were his daughters.
He was fifty when he died, died in a different neighborhood, went unclaimed in the morgue. My sisters were sad, but he wasn’t much of a dad, just a drug addict. I’m more of a dad to them, my sisters are doin’ good. Both young with kids and tryin’ to make it in this world.
Powell: Tell about the process of getting rid of your tattoos.
Meeink: I had a swastika on my neck, skinhead on my knuckles, and I tried to get a job. Employers see this and they think ‘these ain’t good people skills’. I had to get rid of ‘em. There was a Jewish woman who lost family in the Holocaust. She called me up and said, “I heard you want to get your tattoos taken off.” I said, “Sure.” She said, “Come see me.” She was this bigwig doctor at the University of Pennsylvania, a great hospital, and she started telling me her story. Her family died in the Holocaust – and she’d be more than honored to help me take ‘em off, but would I mind having resident doctors do it. I remember her joking, “If they miss, it’ll hurt.” I said, “I don’t care if you use a belt sander, as long as it’s sanitary get it off.” And when I went in the doctor told me her story.
Now, I was never a Holocaust denier. I wasn’t one of those people. I believed it happened, but I just didn’t care. I guess that’s how we felt, the skinheads. Jews were evil and we wished Hitler had killed ‘em all. Then, to have this doctor telling me her story, man. In the movement, in my stupid process, I’d think anyone, like that woman, that she’d be just telling her story for charity or sympathy. But this woman told me the history of her life, and she rolled with it. She told me, “It happened, and I’m going to move on, and I’m going to get that swastika off your neck, and that’s my pleasure.”
I remember seeing Schindler’s List. I was a skinhead the first time I saw it, and I ranted. I just didn’t get it. Then years later I watched it again. The first time I thought, “Oh, typical, Jewish Hollywood’s putting out this movie, putting down the Aryan Race, Nazis are bad, they’re all bad guys, yeah yeah yeah.” Second time it was a great movie, about Schindler and how he helped.
Powell: Were you surprised that Obama was elected president?
Meeink: I voted for Obama. You know, I’m a McCain guy, too. I liked them both, and I was asking myself who was going to take us into a different direction. They both had good ideas, and then when McCain went out and got Palin I was done. Done. Obama felt right.
Here’s the thing, everyone’s screaming about how Obama’s so far left. You hear this from the far right. He’s the anti-Christ, we’re going to hell, all that. Here’s the deal: the middle voters, the undecided, the independents, people like me, if you don’t get us you don’t win. That’s the way it is, I’m a middle voter. Obama takes us in the right direction. We need to be at peace with the world, internationally we weren’t looked at as good, and Obama helps our image. And I’m for universal health care. I am. We all have these things, and I think when people look back at America I want them to say, “They took care of the people that didn’t have anything.” That’s our job. People don’t have anything so we have to take care of them. Call me a socialist if you want, but I’m for that. It takes a village. I’m strong on that.
Powell: What do you think of interracial relationships? What if one of your children wanted to date a minority?
Meeink: They do. My daughter is dating a black guy, and my son dated a black girl. As long as a guy treats her right, or a girl treats him right, I don’t care. This guy my daughter’s with, he’s actually mixed, he’s black and white, but he looks black, and she’s white, and he’s a great kid. When I met him I gave him the dad talk, “Don’t hurt her, be good to her, if you hurt her, you know, I’ve been to prison and I don’t mind going back.” Same thing I’d say to any boy that’s dating my sixteen-year-old daughter. I mean, if my kids want to date who they want, fine. I mean, if one of them was gay, they could come out. I’d rather they be happy than stay in the closet and be depressed.
The things I teach my kid are age-appropriate. I’m an addict. So I give ‘em the drug talk, the sex talk, the alcohol talk. My thirteen year-old son and I just went over the sex talk, I’ve given the drug talk to my sixteen-year-old daughter, I’m about to give that to my son – about drugs, how it’s in my blood, it’s in my parents’ blood, and it’s hereditary. Be vigilant, I say. But every kid experiments. I don’t say it’s okay, I just say, “Watch yourself, and you know that you can always talk to me about it.” If I find drugs in my house then there will be consequences, but if you come to me and say, “I tried it,” then I’ll say, “Let’s talk.” Just like with anything, I’ll say, “Let’s talk about it.”