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Category: Elegant Life

You Guys!

Earlier this year, I decided to see how long it would take me to expunge the phrase “you guys” from my daily vocabulary.

The experiment started in February. Here’s the funny thing: I often bristle when someone includes me in a group addressed as “ladies,” but I’d been resisting the complaints I’d been seeing about “you guys.” I found myself saying things like, “I don’t mean it in a sexist way when I say it. It’s just a phrase.”

Ah. “It’s just a phrase.”

Most people don’t say sexist (or any -ist) things with the conscious intent of being sexist; they say them because those phrases are woven into the fabric of their speech. The very fact that they don’t think about those phrases is part of the problem. Sexism is a systemic problem, not necessarily a problem of people sitting at home twirling their moustaches or lady-staches or whatever and scheming up ways to piss off an entire demographic. (Although apparently there are people who do sit at home scheming ways to piss off entire demographics. These people are not likely reading my blog.)

So I decided to see if I could do it, to stop saying “you guys” altogether. And here I want to digress for a moment, because in order to understand some of my deep-seated resistance to language policing in any form, you have to understand my quirky personal history.

As kids raised in a very conservative Presbyterian house, we weren’t allowed to use profanity, or anything that hinted at profanity. Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” etc. etc. So no “oh my god” or “jesus christ” or “good lord” (or even “Jesus H. Christ in a handbasket,” which genuinely impoverished my speech for many years). “Goddammit” was out, and so was just “damn it” because “only God can damn.” (When you believe in the eternal flames of hell, these issues become much more pressing.) Euphemisms were no good because they made you think of the original phrase, so no “gosh” or “golly” or “gee” or “darn.” (One time I got in trouble for saying “darn it” because I had to leave a Christian death metal concert early. This is 100% true.)

Unlike my Mom’s generation, we were allowed to say things like “oh my goodness” even though “goodness” is an attribute of God and so really, saying “oh my goodness” is questionable. Profanity by proxy, or some shit like that. Oh yeah, definitely not allowed to say “shit” or “piss” or “fuck.” Also, no “butt” or “booger” or “that sucks.” And for good measure, we weren’t allowed to say “shut up” or opine that we “hated” something. “Hate” is too strong a word, you see. You should say you “dislike” it.

Good lord but I fucking hated those rules. And I’ve been swearing up a storm ever since, in large part because I can, and no one can tell me not to anymore, goddammit.

Where was I? Oh. Right. “You guys.” So yes, despite my resistance to “not being allowed to say” a particular phrase, I decided to ditch the default American plural second person. Except this time I wasn’t changing my speech because someone had commanded me. I wasn’t sanitizing my speech because some deity would be offended, or because it would get me in trouble. I was changing it because a phrase that has no actual purpose to me, beyond its convenience, can cause actual living human beings to feel excluded. Unseen. Erased.

And that shit doesn’t fly with me.

So. I set out on my mission to de-you-guysify my speech. I thought it might take a month or two to see a significant change.

animated GIF of the Dalai Lama laughing

 

Yeah. Funny.

Nine months later, I’m finally seeing consistent results, but it’s been a slog. I know I used “you guys” a few times in September. In October, I’m pretty sure I haven’t used it once. At some point this fall, the neuronal connections to “you guys” finally atrophied enough that I just don’t say it anymore.

In general I now use “y’all” or “folks” or “everyone.” I sometimes get a little more flowery, especially when I’m teaching: “beautiful people” or “brilliant people” or “amazing folks” or things along those lines. (This seems like an upgrade. I’m happy the experiment has opened me up to more creative ways of speaking.)

Factors that seemed to make it more likely that I would revert to using “you guys”:

  • Speaking to a small group of people, most especially a couple. I wonder if my brain interprets “y’all” as too big for just a couple of people, while “you two” feels weird to say. Now I generally say “both of you” or “you both” or just “you.”
  • Speaking to people I know well. On the one hand, for a while I was more conscious of a sense of “I’m changing my speech patterns, will they notice? will they think I’m a weirdo? I mean more of a weirdo than they already think I am?” And on the flip side, I was more likely to relax into existing patterns with people I know. With strangers or acquaintances there’s already significant verbal filtering happening, so it’s relatively cheap to add another filter.
  • A stressful situation. (Ah, stress.)

Some things I’ve noticed along the way:

  • When I first started the experiment, I focused on just noticing when I said “you guys.” And I realized: I said “you guys” all the time. Like, constantly. Way more than I realized. Also, everyone says it. All. The. Time.
  • I had a lot of resistance to saying “y’all” in particular. There is a certain social stigma to phrases that sound “Southern” (which is a whole other topic). Eventually I got over it. I still favor “folks” but “y’all” is a perfectly serviceable gender-neutral plural.
  • I’m not one to address a group as “ladies” or “girls,” so I didn’t have the added burden of training myself out of other gendered terms for groups. I imagine for someone who often says things like “ladies” or “girls” or “gals” (or “boys” or “dudes” or whatever), this exercise might be even more challenging. (Note to the interested: I’m not a fan of being addressed as “ladies.” Especially by male-identified people. Unlike my overall neutral feeling about “you guys” earlier this year, this is a hot button for me, for reasons that will be explored in a separate post. If you’re male-identified in particular, please stop saying “ladies.” If you’re female-identified, at least start paying attention to how and when you use it; is it possible that the people you’re addressing feel a sense of dissonance that you’re not aware of? If you’re non-binary-identified… we should hang out.)
  • The less I say “you guys,” the more I notice other people saying it.

The experiment was even more fruitful than I expected. And as “you guys” fell out of my vocabulary, it exerted a gravitational pull on a lot of other gendered language and pulled some other phrases out of use. Things like “sir” and “ma’am” and “mister” and “lady.” This wider language shift feels even less like I’m policing my own language, and more like a natural consequence of taking off the ubiquitous gender filter. Which is just as well; mine was blurry anyway.

Which is a whole other topic. For now, I just want to thank you folks for reading.

Waking Up

On February 23, 2015, I wrote this in a blog post draft:

It’s the end of February, and I slept with the windows open last night. A gorgeous Florida night: cool and humid, followed by an unusually gray morning filled with birdsong.

I sit here, preparing for the week, and wonder what it will be like to wake up in Portland.

It’s now May 0f 2016, over a year later. It feels like maybe 8 years later; the past year is a water-drenched sponge, expanding beyond its natural density. A gift of a year.

My blog posts, sparse as they are, have been consumed with processing my father’s death. One of the seeds that grew from the scorched earth of that grief has been this move to the Pacific Northwest. And now I can report on what it’s like to wake up each morning in Portland.

This morning I woke up, after being away for a couple of nights. I was worn out last night, so I zonked at about 9:00pm and woke shortly after 6:00am. It was quiet; my white noise machine was whirring. I hadn’t bothered with earplugs. It was quiet; the occasional sound of a truck on 21st, but otherwise quiet. No rain, no crowd at the stadium, no passersby.

Quiet.

My heart was not so quiet. Jumpy, worried. Concerned about work, about lovers, about friends. My brain turning over on itself.

But.

At my core, things are settling. My self-trust is growing. My capacity to process life is increasing. If you’re not a person who’s ever been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of life, this won’t make sense; but if you are, this probably resonates, this feeling that “I can handle this.” Either you’ve found it, or you’ve hoped to find it. And to you I say: it’s possible to live a big life with a quiet core. It’s possible to be bold and sensitive. To be brazen and hesitant. It’s possible to navigate life with joy even if your wounds tug at you daily. I want to broadcast this backwards, to my own self a year ago, five years ago, twenty years ago. To assure her that everything she hoped could be is in fact possible. Not assured, no; but possible.

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Just about two years ago, I wrote a blog post about pursuing an elegant life. I had this idea that I would blog about this process, and that by now I’d have a couple dozen blog posts about my experience.

Uh. That didn’t happen.

But what did happen was that the handful of posts I did write (about cultivating attention, releasing obstacles, and reducing debt) seemed to take root. And now here, two years along, I have a shit ton of work left to do, but the work I’ve already done is paying off.

Last night I sat on a panel about diversity in tech, and someone asked a heartfelt question: “How do you overcome the fear to do these things you’re talking about?” And I instantly ached, because I knew where this question was coming from, but I was also thrilled, because I knew that asking that question — “How?” — is the first step towards succeeding.

My answer was this: increase your window of tolerance. Find the thing you can do now, the thing that feels scary but is small enough that you can do it, and tackle that. Don’t set impossible goals. Don’t stretch so far that you collapse back in on yourself. “Easy does it, but do it.”

Because that’s what got me this far. When people told me I needed to move faster, I stopped listening. When people told me I needed to move slower, I stopped listening. I shut out everything but the still, small voice inside — the voice that I spent years learning how to hear — and I followed my own instincts into a crazy new life. I moved 3,000 miles across the country because the conviction grabbed me, when I was sitting in the Boise airport, that I was going to move to Portland, Oregon. I took a job at the most inconvenient possible time because I knew it would make my life better if I took the leap. Next week I move into a bigger apartment because getting bigger seems to be the thing to do.

And most importantly, every day I work on showing up honestly to the people I respect in my life. I work on being more transparent, kinder, funnier, gentler, bolder. I work on connecting better to my own wild, vulnerable self so that I can show up in the ways that matter to the people that matter to me.

A year ago, I wondered what it would be like to wake up in Portland. Well, here I am, and every moment of every day, I’m waking up. I’m waking up in Portland, and it’s just grand.

Life, Death and Haircuts

Sometimes hair symbolizes life and death. Sometimes it stands in for our hopes and our fears.

Sometimes it’s just hair.

I got my hair cut last Saturday, and the experience has highlighted my three principles of an elegant life, about which I am shortly to pontificate. But first, a comment on the power of writing (in general) and blogging (in particular).


This past summer, a Brad Feld article triggered my blog reboot. I wrote several blog posts, including one announcing my intention to pursue an elegant life, and one post each to outline the three principles I intended to follow. Within two months, I had put in motion a drastic change from my previous plan — instead of moving from Clearwater across the bridge to Tampa, I’m now moving from Clearwater to Portland, Oregon. 25 miles vs. 3,000. The why’s and wherefore’s of Portland shall be discussed in another post, but I credit this shift in no small part to the power of stating my intentions clearly to myself and announcing them boldly to others.

“I write to think,” Brad Feld wrote.

Light bulb. I’ve been writing to think, and damned if it isn’t working.


So. Back to hair. My experience of getting a haircut profoundly changed after I had cancer. I didn’t mind losing my hair because of chemo; quite the opposite. I had always wanted to shave my head, and now cancer had cut through my hesitation. Bzzzzzz. I never wore a wig, and I wore hats more to keep my head warm than to disguise my baldness. But after treatment, once it grew back, I understood that hair is not an inalienable right. Hair is a privilege. A privilege of health.

When my hair first grew back (and it grew back quickly), it was deliciously curly. I loved it.  “Your hair is growing back!” friends would exclaim. “And it’s curly!”

“Most expensive perm ever,” I would joke.

As is so often the case with those post-chemo curly tresses, mine eventually began to grow back in the way it used to: still thick, but almost completely straight. I saw what was happening, but I didn’t want to lose the curly bits, so I just let my hair grow… and grow… and grow…

A year ago, I had it cut to shoulder length. It was lovely, but then a lot of other things happened, and I didn’t bother with my hair for many months. In part, I just didn’t have the energy for it. In part, I didn’t want to put scissors to the symbol of health and life. Lymphoma took my hair once. Lymphoma took my father forever. I had hair. I didn’t have lymphoma. Let the talisman remain untouched.


To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.
-Mary Oliver

On Saturday, I got my hair cut, by the same wonderful stylist who, four years ago, had shaped my newly grown post-chemo curly hair into the best haircut I’ve ever had in my life. This past Saturday, Bryna looked at the pictures I’d gathered, and worked her magic on my now-very-straight hair, and I was instantly in love with the new style.

The next day I got up and did my normal routine: wash my hair, rub in some product, forget about it. An hour later, I looked in the mirror to check out my amazing new haircut.

I abhorred it.

Awful, awful hair, that made me look like a dweeb and feel like an idiot. I spent the day in a savage mood.

This unexpected outcome of my vanity check brings me back to my three principles of elegant living:

  1. Release obstacles. I’d done this on Saturday by letting go of the old hair, the tired old look I’d defaulted to for the past several months. The security blanket. But I hadn’t yet begun to…
  2. Cultivate attention. My long hair was a hassle: time-consuming to wash, impossible to style well, annoying when I wanted to do yoga. And constantly shedding, so that every day I would have to pluck out one or three or five long hairs, embedded in my clothing, that were tickling and annoying me. No more! I had to give my hair some attention. Monday morning, I broke out the hair dryer and tried reproducing Bryna’s magic from Saturday. It didn’t turn out as well as her handiwork, but it looked good. Very good. Great, in fact. I was in love again.
  3. Reduce debt. As I’ve explained, my understanding of debt is broader than money alone. In this case, I was “saving” money and paying elsewhere: my energy and confidence were sapped by feeling unkempt, sloppy, and unattractive. Better to support a local hair stylist every couple of months and take pride in myself than to save a few dollars and avoid mirrors. (Reducing debt, for me, is all about doing the hard work up front so that you reap more benefits in the long run.)

So there you have it. My guiding principles, applied to coiffing. And as merry as that seems, there’s another force at work this week, deeper than these intellectual exercises…


Coda

Wednesday would have been my Dad’s 64th birthday.

In February, his hair had begun to grow back in, thick and dark, and the day he died I rubbed his head affectionately. His post-chemo hair was straight, whereas before it had always been curly. His hair cheered me, that day at the hospital, and I thought, surely he’ll get better. For a while. Surely. His hair is so thick.

But sometimes hair is just hair.

Reduce Debt

You can’t always get what you want.
You can’t always get what you want.
You can’t always get what you want…
But if you try sometimes,
You just might find
You get what you need.
– The Rolling Stones

Forget that old-time religion. This Stones song is one of my favorite scriptures ever.

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Debt. Financial debt, technical debt, social debt, sleep debt.

The third and final guiding principle that I’ve adopted for this year of pursuing an elegant life is to Reduce Debt:

  1. Debt: “Something that is owed or that one is bound to pay to or perform for another” (via Dictionary.com). Debt is a very large umbrella. Credit cards live under it; so do social favors, buggy code, unwashed dishes, and parties you promised to go to. Debt is any place you’ve traded something you want today for something you must do tomorrow.
  2. Reduce: I deliberately didn’t say “eliminate.” With a definition as broad as mine, it’s defeating the purpose to try to eliminate debt entirely. Instead, I want to focus on reducing the excess debts I have: financial, yes, and also projects I’m behind schedule on; favors I’ve promised; exercise I’ve skipped; a thousand other ways I’ve pre-allocated my future time and energy.

Finances are the first thing that spring to mind when we say “debt,” but I’m not terribly interested in financial debt at the moment. It was foremost on my mind until I got my finances into better shape; now that my debt reduction plan is on track, I have the energy to look at debt in a broader sense. And I begin to see the more fundamental pattern, which is what led to my financial debt in the first place. I’ll repeat my definition of debt:

Debt is any place you trade something you want today for something you must do tomorrow.

So what does “reducing debt” look like for me this year?

  • Washing my bowl. Yes, it’s a Zen slogan; it’s also quite literally an important habit for a person who loves oatmeal with flax seed for breakfast. Have you ever tried washing a bowl with caked-on oatmeal and flaxseed? This stuff could be used for industrial construction. Wash the damn bowl right away.
  • Making promises judiciously. And by “judiciously,” I mean “not unless it’s life-threateningly necessary.” Making promises is a horrible form of social debt with me. The trade-off: I want a person to like me / respect me / think I’m a good person / think I’m a competent person / just not hate me for dropping the ball on my last promise. So I make a promise. Usually ill-considered. And usually I’ll then drop the ball on that promise, leading to promise inflation. It’s exhausting. I don’t want to do it anymore.

And that’s it. Those are the two focal points. Doing things that need to be done, the moment they need to be done; and ditching the habit of mortgaging my future energies.

Easier said than done, as with most things (with the possible exception of visiting a Welsh village). But I’m counting on cultivation of attention and releasing obstacles as powerful allies in changing those old habits.

The biggest challenge for me is making promises. This is such a sneaky form of debt. “I’ll get that to you by the end of today.” “Sure, I can help you with that.” I want people’s good opinion, or I want to get off the hook of doing something now by promising something bigger later, or I want to avoid the acute discomfort of saying “no.” No I’m not capable, no I don’t want to spend my time on that, no I don’t really want to do that.

As with any debt reduction program, the first step is to stop the bleeding. I’ve already got a pile of things I’ve promised to do and failed to deliver; fine. I can continue working on delivering (late) or renegotiating the agreement. In the meantime, every time I’m tempted to promise something, I stop and ask if the commitment is truly necessary.

Just this morning I wrote an email and was tempted to say I’d send a follow-up report on Monday. Then I realized: that’s not necessary. Either send the follow-up report on Monday, or don’t. But you don’t need to create a debt by promising it. Backspace backspace backspace.

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Back to Mick’s sage words: “You can’t always get what you want… but if you try sometimes, you just might find… you get what you need.”

That song has always spoken to me at a basic level. Even when it’s incredibly painful to not get what I want, this song reminds me of the cosmic inevitability of disappointment, while carrying a subtext that not getting what you want really isn’t the worst thing in life.

For years, I’ve been trading what I need — my deepest desires — for what I want — the things that feel good (or dull the pain) in the moment.

This year, it’s time to flip the ratio.

Cultivate Attention

If I were a superhero (and, let’s face it, that’s a proposition I’ve spent more time and energy considering than the average person), my archnemesis would be a nefarious duo; one villain in a bland gray skinsuit, the other in a chaotic swirl of color: Depression and Anxiety. D. and A. They would alternate attacks to render all my amazing superhero powers as useless as Clark Kent chained to a hunk of kryptonite.

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Depression. Anxiety. They’ve become buzzwords. In certain circles, it’s almost cool to have them. In this circle you medicate, in that circle you meditate, in other circles you CBT or tap or yoga or clear chakras or Reiki or raw food or some combination thereof. What to do do do to get rid of the stuckness, the incoherence. To move on.

Many of those things are great. Many of them are in my toolbox and have helped me.

But.

Both anxiety and depression, for me anyway, involve a collapse of attention. Anxiety strikes; my attention collapses into frenetic, mindless worry, a constant ringing of alarm bells. Depression strikes; my attention collapses into dull paralysis, a walking coma. Both feel awful.

Getting rid of Anxiety, getting rid of Depression: these become ways of pushing through, instead of releasing obstacles. I don’t want to look at them; I certainly don’t want to sit down to tea with them. I just want to blast my way in, guns blazing, and eradicate them from the multiverse. Wipe them off every planet, every timeline.

This is the normal way. It’s the way I’ve been operating ever since I stopped ignoring their presence entirely and acknowledged their existence and power. But Pema Chödrön — a superhero in her own right — explains another path:

The peacock eats poison and that’s what makes the colors of its tail so brilliant. …the poison becomes the source of great beauty and joy; poison becomes medicine.

Whatever you do, don’t try to make the poisons go away, because if you’re trying to make them go away, you’re losing your wealth, along with your neurosis.

In this approach, I don’t try to get rid of my archnemeses. I sink into them. I open to them.

And let’s be honest. At one level, this “eating the poison” approach is batshit crazy.

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I didn’t sit down with the intention to write about anxiety and depression. My intention was simply to write an entry titled “Cultivate Attention,” one of my three guiding principles for the coming year. But everything I wrote felt contrived, or purely conceptual, and none of it, well, got my attention.

In trying to find a good thread for this post, I asked: where is it most important for me to “cultivate attention”? And my mind went immediately to my biggest battle; and I started out by framing attention as the key to winning the battle. An hour ago, I still thought attention was my weapon.

But a part of me was wiser. Because a month ago, when I wrote out these guiding principles, I didn’t write “sharpen attention” or “wield attention” or “load an automatic clip into attention.”

Cultivate.

A gardener, kneeling in the soil, dirty and sweaty and satisfied. Working with the earth, the plants, the sun, the wind, the rain. Participating. Growing.

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“Whatever you do, don’t try to make the poisons go away.” It dawns on me that my adversarial relationship with D. and A. is ultimately a doomed approach. Not because they’re stronger than I am, but because they are me.

Huh. I never quite got that until I wrote it out just now.

Huh.

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Stop.
Breathe.
Close your eyes.

Where is your attention this moment? Is it utterly focused on these words, or is it fragmented? Little shards of mind dwelling on worries, hopes, ideas, pains, pleasures?

What is your attention? Where does it reside? How do “you” (whatever “you” may be) direct it? What watches the watcher?

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Lately I’m more interested in the physics of attention — how it works, how to cultivate it — than the metaphysics, but I like to contemplate the philosophical questions now and again. They remind me of the grand mystery of attention, of existence itself.

Attention isn’t a purely mental action, you know. Not by half. It involves your entire being. Your senses; your subconscious connection to your internal organs; your hard-wired awareness of living beings around you; the rich microbiome that comprises 90% of the cell population of the biomass you call “you.” It involves cognitive capacity, emotional states, sensory inputs. Your family, your culture, your gender, and what you had for lunch.

Attention, my friend, is a many-splendored thing.

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“Resting attention” is not at all the same as thinking about something. It’s the complete opposite of ruminating, fixating, obsessing, or psychologizing. It’s an action; it’s something you learn by doing. You can read about it the same way you can read about flying a plane. But I for one am not crawling into a winged vehicle of any kind with a pilot who hasn’t logged a ton of actual flight time.

I’m learning how to rest my attention on anxiety and depression, instead of battling them. I haven’t been winning the battle, so maybe it’s time to lay down my sword and take up the plow. Perhaps they have messages for me; perhaps they are powerful parts of me that haven’t matured; perhaps they just need some watering and fertilizer now and then.

Pema Chödrön says “all this messy stuff is your richness.” With everything — anxiety, depression, the fun stuff, the scary stuff, the boring day-to-day stuff — I want to dig in, to cultivate attention, to be fully present with everything and everyone I encounter. A peaceful superhero. Fully awake, fully engaged.

How to do this? Here’s my strategy for the coming year:

  • Slow down. Eat slower. Talk slower. Listen slower. Go for rambling walks. Sit in cafes without a book and watch life unfold. Handwritten letters instead of emails. Walk instead of drive. Stovetop instead of microwave. Do things at a human pace, and engage deeply.
  • Speed up. Slowing down is great when it helps me shift out of mindless automation, but cultivating attention is not about living life in slow motion. Rapid activity requires sharp attention. Winnow email down to “inbox 0” as fast as possible. Take a fast shower. Zip through the grocery store in 10 minutes. Put everything irrelevant out of mind and see how fast I can cross the finish line. Find the activities where sprinting is useful and go.
  • Breathe. Ye gods but oxygen is important. The physiological benefits are well documented (e.g. NPR, Forbesresearch studies on pranayama), and the literal meaning of most traditional terms for “life force” is “breath” (e.g. qi, prana, ruach, spirit). A deep breath is a reset button, a moment to return to center.
  • Scale back. I’ll talk about this more when I tackle “Reduce Debt.” Saying “no” (to purchases, to commitments, to activities) creates more space to rest attention on everything that remains.

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Strategies are great. I love strategies. I love checklists, to-do lists, and color-coded notebooks. Very practical. Very useful.

But ultimately, attention is an experience, and words are mere hints. I know the moments in my life where attention has blossomed, sometimes in very inhospitable soil. Palm trees on a day when I gloried in newfound independence. A moment of clarity in which I saw that I was being crazy. A summer sunset, hazy and delicious. The coolness of my father’s hand in mine when he died. The crunch of grape nuts at breakfast.

This year, the foremost intention is: Cultivate attention. Get down in the dirt. Eat the poison.

Get my hands on the yoke of life and learn to fly.