Definitely Ambivalent – dispatches from my inner child

Mom and Dad are doing it again. They know how to talk in a different language, and they do it when they don’t want me to know they’re talking about. I’m four, turning five soon, going to be a big girl. They’re talking about my birthday present. I know that much. “Should we get her a bee eye are dee?”

I filled my bowl with dry cereal for breakfast and brought it to the kitchen table to add milk and sugar.

What the heck is a bee eye are dee?

That was before I knew how to read. I know now. I taught myself. Mom was baking. She’s a very good baker. One time she even brought home some giant white buckets of pie filling from Nonna’s restaurant to bake pies in our kitchen to help out because Nonna was sick. They were so good. I think raisin is my favourite; or maybe blueberry.

Another time I pulled up a chair to the kitchen counter and Mom showed me how to make genettis. I made a perfect cute little miniature genetti because I was little and my hands were small. Uncle Jimmy came by for a visit and Mom showed him my cute little genetti. It didn’t even have icing on it yet, but Uncle Jimmy popped it in his mouth and said “mmm, good”; and Mom yelled at him and he said “What? You’re not supposed to eat them? Were you going to keep it forever?” He smiled and winked at me and I was okay with that. I think this was before I knew Uncle Jimmy could wiggle his ears. Maybe it was after.

Auntie Anne and Uncle Jimmy, 1966

This is a picture of my Uncle Jimmy outside my Nonna’s restaurant, the Underpass Grill. He says the picture was staged, but I like it anyway. My Auntie Anne and Uncle Pete were visiting from Toronto. They’re Mom’s aunt and uncle, not mine, but we call them Auntie Anne and Uncle Pete anyway. Auntie Anne is really short, and Uncle Jimmy is really tall for fifteen, and everyone thought a picture of him bending over to kiss her goodbye would be cute. That’s the staged part I guess. I remember because I was there. It was pretty cute too.

Anyway, I was curious about letters and stuff and always asking Mom “What’s this letter? What sound does it make?” and she would tell me. She was good that way.

Then one day when mom was baking, she stopped for a minute to look down at me, rolling pin in hand, mouth a little open in surprise. All I said was “ALCAN. A. L. C. A. N. Alcan” Because I could read now and that’s what the tinfoil box said.

I could read lots more, books even, before I went to kindergarten. Everybody thought it was a big deal. I thought, well, they don’t know much about four year olds, do they?

I like big words now that I’m five. “Ambivalent” is a big word. It means not knowing how to feel about something. I am ambivalent about clowns. Everybody thinks I should like them for some reason. But I’m definitely ambivalent.

Dad painted me a clown for my bedroom wall. I guess it’s okay. The boys got paintings for their walls too, a cowboy for Dan and I don’t remember what for Mike. He was just a baby so maybe he didn’t get a painting.

Dad dug up some good clean clay to make a clown face for me too. Then he put some gluey newspaper all over the clay that made a kind of shell clown face, but I didn’t know that was the art. I thought the clay was the art, so when I jumped and accidentally landed on the newspaper face and crushed it I thought no big deal, but Dad was mad.

So there was no clown face mask for my bedroom wall. But that’s okay because I’m ambivalent about clowns anyway. I don’t tell Mom and Dad about being ambivalent. Somehow I get the idea that they don’t believe five year olds are allowed to be ambivalent. But I am. Definitely ambivalent.

I think it might have started when was little. I remember sitting at the curb in a stroller on Queen Street for the Community Day Parade. It wasn’t really all that much fun. All I could see were people’s legs going by and I definitely was not ambivalent about the thump thump thump of the bass drums in my belly when the marching bands went by. Definitely not ambivalent. In fact I didn’t like it. At all.

Then Uncle Benny came by. He wasn’t my real uncle but we called him Uncle Benny anyway. He was Dad’s cousin and he dated Mom before she fell hook, line and stinker for Dad.

Lots of people don’t remember that before Uncle Benny had Peachy’s Pizza Parlour (it was named after my cousin Valerie; Peachy was her nickname, not her real name) that before there was Peachy’s there it was a garage where we got our car painted. Lots of people don’t remember that, but I do.

Anyway, before that, when I was in the stroller watching people’s legs go by, Uncle Benny was in the parade and walked over to kneel in front of me and say hello. It was nice to see someone’s face and not just their legs. He was dressed like a clown with paint on his face, but I knew it was Uncle Benny. I remember thinking I didn’t get it or something like that. What’s a clown face supposed to do?

Ambivalent. Yep. It’s a good word.

Coughs, colds, sore holes – a list for Fathers’ Day

My dad, Reynold (Ren, Rennie) Bertolo, was a kind, gentle man with a dry sense of humour that often left people wondering whether or not he was joking at all. He loved the rugged landscape of northern Ontario and the north shore of Lake Superior; he was a gifted artist, painter and cartoonist; he loved good food, red wine, a good single malt, biking and ice-skating, and his family, not necessarily in that order. He loved his hats. One of his favourite snacks was a salami sangwich.

Dad loved to read. Sometimes we’d share a new release at the same time using two different bookmarks because neither of us wanted to wait to read it.

And he loved jazz music, especially the work of paesanos like Bucky Pizzarelli and Guido Basso.

Turns out neither of us liked the Bruce Cockburn Christmas album, purchased by me for Dad’s stocking after hearing Peter Gzowski review it on CBC Radio. It became a running joke after that for him to slip it into my coat pocket while hugging me goodbye, and for me to sneak it back into his house for him to find somewhere. Sorry Bruce.

As a teen, Dad would hop an Algoma Central Rail car up the line to draw and paint for the day, always home by dinner. He attended the Ontario School of Art in the early 1950’s. He was part of a talented group of artists who came out of Sault Collegiate High in those years, including Ken Danby, and his good friends Ken MacDougall and Eddy Kosiba.

Legend has it that one night, a few sheets to the wind, it was revealed that Eddy K. had not been baptized. So, in order to save his soul, my dad and Ken broke into a church somewhere around McCaul Street in Toronto and baptized Eddy themselves.

Many years later, back in Sault Ste. Marie, my dad, Eddy and Ken had a part in creating the Underground Drawing Group that brought together artists of all experience levels to draw and paint and learn from each other. They’d pool their money to hire models for life drawing sessions, and when they didn’t have the money or hadn’t arranged a model in advance, they’d take turn modeling themselves.

This is a drawing of my dad done in the field by Ken MacDougall in 2003

My dad took on a second career with a degree in electrical engineering in order to earn a respectable living and raise his family. He worked as a supervisor in the construction department of Algoma Steel until his retirement.

He loved my mom deeply, and I always envied the way they danced jive together.                

Mom and Dad’s wedding March 19, 1960

He would often burst into song, singing lyrics he’d made up to famous songs like “while shepherds washed their socks at night….” for a Christmas Carol.

Also known as Rev Ren, he was a deacon in the Catholic church who, according to a friend, had the power to part the clouds and bring out the sun at our camp (that’s what we call a cottage in Northern Ontario) by looking up at the sky and calling “Come on God!” (That friend was a young child at the time; she and my dad formed a mutual admiration society that was just delightful.)

When the urge hit, he’d pee off the corner of the deck at camp rather than go inside to the loo. And he took great pleasure in teaching his grandsons to do the same. When the long-vacant property next to ours was finally sold and occupied, his only comment was “Geez. Now I won’t be able to piss off the deck.”

Dad had a litany of phrases and words, unique to him that would probably fill a book if I could remember them all.

Today, for Fathers’ Day, I offer you excerpts from the book of Ren:

  • “I had one too but the wheels fell off!” in answer to a young child’s babbling
  • “Are you squeakin’ to me?” in response to grandchild’s high pitched calling of “Nonno!”
  • “Kumpastofanuch” (pronounced KOOM-pa-stuff-ah-nooch”) served as a placeholder when he could not remember someone’s name.
  • When the name of an object was unknown it was a “howyoucall” (pronounced “HALL-ya-call”)
  • When describing a multipurpose remedy, it was “good for coughs, colds, sore holes and pimples on your howyoucall” (howyoucall replaced with a high-pitched whistle about half the time; Dad was a great whistler)
  • “He had a faraway look in his eye, like a pig, pissin’”
  • “There are no pockets on your last suit.” (Friuli proverb)
  • “His belly is swollen like a poisoned pup.”
  • “Doors aren’t assholes you know. They don’t close themselves.” (This one I learned only recently is not unique to my dad, when I heard Steve Patterson, host of CBC’s The Debaters use it at a charity comedy event; it’s possible this is the case for other Ren-isms as well – if you can share etymological insight on any of these, please do)
  • “I believe you. Where thousands wouldn’t…”
  • “Your ass is a star”
  • “Drop your pants. I want to see if you have an extra crack in your ass from working too hard.”
  • “And you know what burns my ass? A flame! About this high!”
  • “Your eyes look like two duck turds in buttermilk.” (similar to the more familiar ‘your eyes look like pee holes in the snow’ but superior in my opinion)
  • “I thought that cat had one eye, but he was walking away.”
  • “Don’t speak with your mouth half full; fill it up first.”
  • “It’s better than a poke in the eye with a burning stick.”
  • “How’s your belly for spots?”
  • “That guy gives me swollen coles.”
  • “Don’t give me the hairy eyeball.”
  • “Porco Canne!”
  • “Porco Dio!”
  • “Ma va fa Napoli!”
  • “Justafeckous” (just because)

He had an imaginary friend named Joe Muttaratz who lived on imaginary Petaka Lake, and my mom fell for stories about Joe. Every single time.

Whenever company left the house he’d say “I thought they’d never leave” without fail, even when he’d obviously enjoyed the company. I never knew if he was joking about that, but I think he probably was…

I wish there was a way to recreate his voice for you when he called me “honey.” He had a special inflection all his own. It made me feel so special and loved. I saved it on a voicemail message as long as I possibly could before changing phone carriers and losing it. It remains in my memory and I call upon it often.

One of the last times I held my dad was to help him out of his chair about a week before he died. By this time, his illness had progressed so that he was non-verbal. I had to wedge his feet against mine to leverage him up. I said “this reminds me of dancing on your feet when I was a little girl.” His face lit up and I knew he was there with me, no words were necessary.

There’s a part of me that will always be a little girl who misses her dad.

He lives on in his quirky sayings, in his paintings, and in our hearts.

I like to think that he and mom are dancing up a storm together right now.

Reynold Bertolo: September 27 1935 – March 20 2005

In unexpected places

In today’s mail from Tom Granger

As I’ve alluded to previously, I left my career as a political aid at the end of the Canadian federal election in October 2019. Without being sure of what would come next, I knew that I needed to rest, to grieve, and to heal.

I knew, too, that I craved community – something that seems pretty difficult to achieve for an introvert with trust and self-worth issues, who no longer had her workplace community to rely on. Let alone trying to navigate all those barriers during a pandemic.

Without a work from home or young family, or a pet in need of care to regulate me, maintaining any kind of schedule or plan, or even a plan to devise a plan, felt next to impossible. The energy expended on sourcing pantry items, cleanser, hand sanitizer, masks, bringing an adult child home from university for an unknown duration, and learning to navigate my physical space now that it was shared with two others full time took all my energy and left me exhausted.

I’m told dysregulation is a natural response to the trauma of the times we’re living in. I have natural response by the boatloads.  

Finding community is pretty much impossible given all that.

Or so one would think.  

With so many people now relying on e-commerce, inventory systems, tracking systems, and delivery systems are so overloaded that an item commonly delivered within a couple of days is now taking weeks.

It took ten weeks and 4 online orders (3 of them cancelled because the online inventory that said the product was available was not up to date) to source a second office chair for our downstairs office that would enable my stepson to finish his university assignments and use the computer in comfort, to finally be available for curbside pickup. Three days before he returned to Montreal.

It is, at least, a lovely chair.

This week, it feels like all my online order ships are coming in at once, like an old-fashioned Christmas with the doorbell ringing constantly and being presented with packages. Two by Purolator with art supplies, one by Canpar fulfilling an order I made an unbelievable five weeks ago, one by UPS from Australia that came in a record week when domestic mail on that continent is taking over a month, and another by Canada Post Priority Mail.

And all that by mid-week.

In addition to those expected deliveries, I received an envelope this afternoon that was unexpected. Well, not quite unexpected. I had been told it was on the way five weeks ago and forgotten. It was this small and precious gift that made me realize community had come to me.

Prior to the pandemic stay at home, on one of our regular forays to the lovely town of Almonte, Ontario and a stop at Mill Street Books, one of our favourite independents. It’s a rare visit that doesn’t have us leaving with at least a couple of books and/or pieces of vinyl to spin. On that day, I picked up Draw Breath: the Art of Breathing by Tom Granger.

In early April, lockdown in full swing, I posted an Instragram story about the book and sent Tom a message saying how much I appreciated it,  and later, a congratulations on the book winning the Nautilus Book Award for innovation and creativity. Tom sent a note thanking me for my support and asking for my address so he could send a little gift to thank me for my encouragement. (see photo above)

I am touched by the personal interactions that happen on Instagram. It has become one of my communities. It allows me to stay in touch with people I have met and worked with on soul goals, people I have only met virtually, and people like Tom, with whom I share something in common.

Instagram has become a community for me.

And it’s not the only one.

The pandemic inspired the smartest and most innovative of entrepreneurs to pivot and provide services online, many of them generously free of charge.

It was as if the universe was dropping breadcrumbs for me to follow the path to my dreams, or at least to discovering what those dreams might be.

And in the process I’ve discovered an amazing community of feminist badasses who recognize that the institutions of capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, and systemic racism do not serve us, and who strive in diverse and creative ways to propose alternatives and to support each other on the journey.

Community comes in the places you least expect it.

I have been welcomed, challenged, invited, called in to these communities, to learn, to explore, to share my experiences and to grow, in creativity, in solidarity and in hope.

Here are some of my favourites, including amazing humans I follow on Instagram who have inspired, entertained, challenged, and taught me so much:

Jo Tucker

Brooklyn Vienneau

Erin Lindstrom

Erin Lindstrom’s Shiny Sales and Human Being Club

Colleen Gray

Colleen Gray’s Watercolour on Synthetic Paper group

Mara Glatzel

Mina Aidoo

Rachael Maddox

The Gem Collective

Komal Minhas

Sarah Nicole Landry

Viviane Kay

Jam Gamble

Kerry Clare

Kerry Clare’s blogging school

Not bad for an introvert who had trust and self-worth issues who no longer has her workplace community to rely on, let alone trying to navigate all those barriers during a pandemic, eh?

Mind you, I still crave community with skin on. I live in hope of returning to that soon. But now community with skin on has so much more potential than I had first imagined.

From unexpected places.

Going Rouge

I was enrolled in an online learning group a while back in which people would type that they were “going rouge” when they deviated from the suggested plan. It was used so commonly that I began to think it was part of the group’s lexicon rather than a typo. Either way, it’s become part of my own personal glossary of terms.

Whenever I decide to buck a trend and do something my own way, I yell “I’m going rouge!” with gusto. It’s a silly little thing that gives me joy.

One day a few weeks ago while David and I were enjoying an end of day quarantini in the hot tub, I said “I’m not painting a fish. I’m going rouge,” forgetting that he can’t (always) read my mind.

And I told him this story, a memory triggered when my painting instructor suggested we paint prehistoric fish for that evening’s online class:

When I was five my parents enrolled me in a learn-to-swim class at the local YMCA during March break.

I hated most everything about it, which is odd considering how much I love the water. My mom always said that she couldn’t drag me out of the lake even if my lips and fingernails were turning blue.

That being said, the shallow “baby” pool at the YMCA is no Lake Superior. There’s really no comparison.

I hated the locker rooms; I hated the showers; I hated the echoey noise of the place and the smell of chlorine; I hated having to wear a life jacket. I hated standing in the cold water listening to the instructor, a crabby old lady (who was probably in actual fact a teenager earning a part time wage who probably would rather be anywhere else besides trying to teach this sullen shivering kid in a life jacket how to float).

The idea was for me to hold her hands and lay face down in the water, arms and legs extended, while she pulled me around the pool.

I was having none of it. I put my face in the water, extended my arms, and extended one leg back while keeping the other one firmly on the bottom of the pool, hopping on one leg while she pulled me around.


When I raised my head from the water, rather pleased with pulling it off, I met the scowl of my captor.

“Do you think I can’t see you hopping around on one foot?” she asked. “Do you think I’m stupid?”


As you can well imagine, it wasn’t a very productive week for either of us and, speaking for myself, I was happy to see the end of it. On the final day we were presented with certificates of achievement, mine a lovely drawing of a seahorse, with whom I was well pleased.

I noticed, however, that I was the only student with a seahorse. Every other junior swimmer in my class got a fish. I was curious as to why I was singled out for such an honour and asked the instructor why I got a seahorse when everyone else got a fish. I braced myself in anticipation of her warm praise. (I may have been sullen and non-cooperative as a five year old swimming student, but c’mon – I was pretty cute and I had a fairly healthy measure of self-esteem all things considered)

She explained, with some smugness I must say, that fish know how to swim and as I didn’t even know how to float yet, a seahorse was what I got. It turns out my lovely seahorse was in fact a certificate of underachievement.

Unperturbed, I shrugged that off. Seahorses after all are infinitely more beautiful and interesting than plain old fish. Did you know that in seahorse families it is the male that gets pregnant and gives birth? See?

Besides, suggesting that fish can swim and seahorses can’t is a false analogy. So there.

When I got home I hung my seahorse on my bedroom wall in a place of honour. The following summer my dad taught me how to float and swim in the waves on the north shore of Lake Superior and I eventually returned to the YMCA to complete all the swimming star levels up to the lifesaving certificate.

And so tonight I planned to go rouge and paint a seahorse.

I had begun to believe I didn’t have an inner child when one day during a group reiki class, mine popped out from the tree she was hiding behind and ran straight into my lap for a cuddle. We’ve been getting to know each other ever since. She’s the one who reminded me that fish are okay, but seahorses are where the magic really is. She’s been streaming stories to me that I had long forgotten. I’m thinking of letting her be a guest blogger here from time to time.

Stay tuned.

A road trip on the cusp of Covid

Photo of a white fluffy dog playing in the snow

In January, before all of the pandemic shit hit the fan, it became clear that Einstein, my precious white fluffy 17 year old soulmate, wasn’t going to decide to leave us on his own, that we’d have to make that heartbreaking decision for him.

His body was giving out, his senses were depleted. He was disoriented in moving to this new house a little over a year before and had never really regained his bearings. His world had become small and restrictive, and I could feel his stress at navigating it.

So we let him go, in our home, surrounded by love and his favourite treats, with the assistance of two mobile veterinarian angels. They wrapped him carefully, arranged his beautiful body and ears on a miniature litter and carried him away.

And our house became emptier than I could bear.

We decided to take a road trip. We packed the car for Toronto, our happy place hotel where David would settle in to write and prowl his favourite haunts while I took the train to London for a personal retreat I had planned as a birthday gift to myself.

We had a long overdue and wonderful visit with my son who lives in Toronto; ate and drank extravagantly, dipping into my severance pay, auspiciously deposited into my bank account on my birthday.

From Toronto, we headed to Kleinburg and the McMichael Gallery to take in the final day of a Maude Lewis exhibit.

There is a deep bone comfort for me that comes from wandering and basking in a gallery of creations by my favourite artists. I have been known to, and undoubtedly will again, sit with tears of joy and gratitude streaming down my face in the presence of such beauty and energy. This visit was no exception. Maude’s work come to life on the walls was stunning, overwhelming in its simplicity and beauty.

Every gallery visit concludes with a stop at the gallery boutique, where this time I purchased the exhibit keepsake book as well as an activity book for our grandnephew Clarke, 5 years old, who lives in Stratford Ontario, our next stop.

I’d always wanted a sister, having grown up with two younger brothers. And I could never have imagined having in-laws, finding David later in life at the age of 48. He came with the built-in blessings of two children, his mom and siblings and their families, who all became mine.

David’s sister is my sister, the comfort, the love, the appreciation, acceptance and inclusion something I cherish and didn’t know I was missing until they were showered upon me. When shit gets tough, I want to be with Cathy. Her love and support have become a touchstone for me. That’s just how it is.

It’s how it was in the fall when my mother passed, not unexpected but suddenly, while I was away from home working an election campaign in London, not far from Stratford. I just needed to stop there for an overnight on the way to the funeral in Northern Ontario. I sat on the couch in Cathy’s living room, surrounded by warmth and love and lulled by chatter, doing a lot of nothing but cuddling under a blanket and it was enough; it was what I needed.

And now, after saying goodbye to Einstein I wanted the comfort of my big sister again. So we travelled to Stratford, our visit extended by a winter storm that afforded the time to visit with the whole Stratford family. Clarke was happy with the Maude Lewis activity book; I showed him my souvenir book to compare his activities to the actual paintings. Cathy and Clarke’s mom told me the story of someone in the area finding a Maude Lewis painting in a thrift store that ended up being sold for thousands in support of a local charity.

And when the storm subsided, we headed home

Not knowing when this pandemic will end, when and if the world will return to ‘normal’, has been destabilizing to say the least. But also stabilizing. I didn’t know what was coming next for me before the pandemic hit. I wanted more, and still do. In many ways, the resources and breadcrumbs to follow a path to creating more have been abundant and flowing as a result of the stay at home.

The emotional upheaval, the bottom falling out of all we construct for ourselves to feel safe and secure and comforted, when the truth is that nothing is really ever safe and secure and comforting except that which we find within ourselves, is trauma.

Up until now, we have been quite successful in distracting ourselves from that truth, too willing or too passive to recognize that we have been manipulated into believing that the machinery of capitalism, profit, systemic racism and colonialism is inevitable and impossible to redirect.

I see glimpses of a great awakening in these times, and I hope it’s true.

On the morning of May 2, in the middle of all those feels, while having coffee in bed, David and I received a message from our grandnephew, transcribed by his mom:

“Hi Zia and Uncle Dave; I made this picture for you. Love, Clarke”

Clarke's Maude Lewis coloring book page from a road trip on the cusp of covid.
Clarke’s Maude Lewis activity page – A Road Trip on the Cusp of Covid

And it is everything

Is it possible that somewhere in our hearts and souls we knew what was coming? That we’d need to store up some resources of family connection and love to call upon in the days when that kind of physical connection isn’t advisable or possible?

I’m so grateful that we took the time to do what our souls called us to do, to be with the people who soothe us and love us, and whose love and soothing we make an effort to return; because doing that feels so impossible and vital and elusive right now.

These times, these great escapes, these moments with friends, family and my happy places, are my touchstones now.

And they are everything.


Hi and thanks for reading.
I’m Janine – post-trauma growth coach, a holder of sacred space, a painter, a writer, and anti-capitalist crone.​​​​​​​​
Learn more here.
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A Better world

This is not what I expected to be writing as part of my debut in the blogging world.

Then again, neither is this is the world I looked forward to a year ago.

The world is on fire.

We’ve heard that before, about climate change ravaging the planet; and for most of 2020 because a virus is spreading like wildfire, confining us to our homes in order to flatten the curve and prevent more deaths.

It’s quite possible that the rising up against racism sparked by George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the police May 25 is, at least in part, the result of the shelter at home protocols that left us paying more attention to the world, attached to our mobile devices and the internet in an effort to remain connected.

After all, Black people have been murdered for nothing more than existing in this world for centuries without much of a ripple in the capitalist-patriarchy continuum of colonial white privilege.

Janaya Future Khan deconstructs the project of white privilege, that has been systemic in our education and institutions for centuries; she describes quite elegantly that defunding the police is necessary to redistribute resources and ensure every single human has access to housing and wellness and safety. It is a necessary and proper adjustment to address this systemic evil. You can hear what she has to say in its entirety here.

“The despair you are feeling right now is something inside you saying something is just not right.”

“It’s time to step outside this project of whiteness because that is not who you are.”

I feel that. I’ve been feeling that for a long time. Perhaps you have been too.

Mehcad Brooks speaks to us from the Church of Anti-Racism here encouraging us to look at the world differently, to deconstruct the language of black and white adopted by European settlers to demonize differences in order for the state to roll profitably along.

“Perhaps this is the great awakening.”

“Perhaps we’ve been given the invitation to the greatest spiritual awakening the world has known”

“We don’t want your sympathy, we don’t want your apologies; we don’t want your feelings of guilt. We want your acknowledgement that this is the worst atrocity done to a group of people in the modern world. And then just begin the healing process of that. Why is that so hard?”

I encourage you to take the time to watch, listen and learn, to examine your hearts, to find the ways of taking action personally and in our communities, to support and demand change.

There is the despair and horror and discomfort of self-examination in these days for me. But I also feel hope and energy and optimism that a better world is possible, and that maybe, just maybe, it’s closer than I believed to be in 2019.

This is not what I expected to be writing as part of my debut in the blogging world.

But quite frankly, I have no desire to return us to our regular programming.