A true Israeli breakfast of champions

Israeli breakfast buffet, eggs, olives, etc.

Lest I leave you with the impression that if you go to Israel, you’ll come back with a high bilirubin count, let’s talk about the food. It’s incredible, every single morsel.

Because Israel is surrounded by countries that are, at best, ambivalent about her existence, Israeli food is largely produced within its borders. In our travels we passed olive trees, date trees, banana trees, grape vines, and pomegranate trees dripping with fruit. The bananas were so tasty, J. refuses to eat another Chiquita.

(By the way, I don’t recommend eating an olive straight from the tree–it’s not a pleasant experience. Squeeze it and watch the oil ooze out, but cure your olives before you take a bite. I learned this lesson the hard way.)

Then there are the milk products, the yogurt and labneh and white cheese, which is a loose facsimile for our cream cheese but smoother and much tastier. Because so many restaurants and hotels in Israel have kosher kitchens to accommodate the religious Israeli residents and the tourists, many kitchens exclude meat from their menus. There isn’t enough space in this small country to produce a lot of meat. Rather, there is a very large sea known as the Mediterranean that is bursting with fish, and since fish can go either way–it can be eaten with milk products or with meat–the fish is aplenty.

Now imagine that all of this food finds its way into the buffets of the typical Israeli breakfast at hotels. This meal is often included in the cost of the hotel. We call it “Israeli breakfast” while Israelis call it “breakfast”. Whatever you call it, it is a perpetual exercise in self-restraint.

Imagine a variety of yogurt and cheeses, granola, dried fruits, and preserves. There’s smoked fish and tuna salad alongside a variety of breads and rolls. Add in eggs in various preparations, perhaps in spicy tomato sauce, or as an omelette to order. Of course there are sliced tomatoes, olives, and a mishmash of salads, including Israeli salad (which Israelis call “salad”). It’s finely chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions. Then there’s the stuffed pastry with savoury fillings like mushrooms or cheese.

Finally, there’s dessert breakfast, usually consisting of babka, i.e., chocolate- or cinnamon-swirled heaven, and halvah. Halvah is tahini and sugar, with added flavourings like cocoa powder or pistachios or whatever you can imagine, pressed it into a block. For immediate sugar shock, shave some halvah onto your babka.

If Israelis ate breakfast like this every day, they’d all be morbidly obese. The full Israeli breakfast is purely a tourist phenomenon, not that I’m complaining.

You won’t be surprised to learn I gained 10 lbs over the course of 14 days. But you may be surprised when I tell you that J. gained 0 lbs eating as much or more than me. Then we came home, and within one week on my strict low-sodium diet, I was back to my fighting weight.

I’ll admit it feels crummy to gain 10 lbs in 14 days, but losing 10 lbs in a week more than makes up for it. Best diet ever. You’ll come back with your bilirubin level intact, but if you gain weight, it’s all on you.

 

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If I’m yellow, must I be mellow too?

Picture of Alberta premier and delegates breaking ground on new cancer centre

Did I mention they’ve broken ground on the new Calgary Cancer Centre? If I can stay alive for 6 more years, I’ll be in the front row at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. I’m looking forward to more space, more windows, a more upbeat, patient-friendly environment, and better sound proofing.

The clinic rooms at the old centre have padded doors, either to protect patients who want to fling themselves around when they hear bad news, or to provide soundproofing between the patients and clinic staff. The soundproofing doesn’t work, though, as I was reminded yesterday when I overheard the nurse unexpectedly scheduling me for an urgent abdominal ultrasound. Turns out that little fever I’d spiked the previous week had wreaked havoc on my body.

Dr. Blood Lite was so alarmed by my blood test results, including a spike in my liver enzymes, and a dramatic dip in my platelets, that he initiated further assessment. And just like that, our day went up in smoke.

I knew my liver was unhappy. I’d lost my appetite, I’d felt so crummy I’d skipped yoga, and I noticed a few other changes that involve the colour yellow. But I was slowly starting to feel better, i.e., less yellow, so I didn’t think much of it.

Off I traipsed to the lab to repeat my blood work, followed by the ultrasound clinic for a wee peek inside. Unfortunately, I was assigned the almost-graduate ultrasonographer, when I needed the 20-year expert.

I am not easy to scan. My internal organs are displaced by my ginormous spleen, rendering some hard to see altogether–where art thou, oh pancreas?–so it took Ms. Trainee some time to sort out my innards. She spent a very long time examining one spot over and over.

Eventually Ms. Trainee brought in her supervisor, who said, “I know you’ve been here a while. Do you mind if I take a look?” It was a rhetorical question. How would you have answered her? There are many ways I could have responded. I could have said, “I’m really exhausted and sore from all this poking and prodding after a very long day. Can I go home instead?” Or, “Ms. Trainee, if you were having trouble sorting me out, could you not have dragged your supervisor in 45 minutes sooner?” Or, perhaps, “No!”

Ever the compliant patient, I failed this assertiveness test and said, “Fine.” If I hadn’t let her continue, would she have had adequate results for the doctor, or would I have had to endure more poking and prodding another day? We’d been at the Cancer Centre for hours already, and I wanted to go home, but even more I didn’t want to have to return. I was ready to put this little yellow blip behind me. Thus I endured another half hour–longest abdominal ultrasound ever–while J. worried I’d died during the examination. Eventually, I stumbled back out to the waiting room.

I hope I’d handle a situation like this more effectively were it to arise again. I’d ask more questions and express my needs, both of which I failed to do yesterday. Maybe then the experts could move their magic wand a little faster. I can only hope.

My limited knowledge of the language of our people

Shalom in Hebrew and English on Aramaic pottery tile

Have I ever told you that I studied Hebrew for years, even during university? I even lived in Jerusalem for a year. You might think the year of language immersion would have helped me hone my spoken Hebrew, but you’d be wrong. Back then, I was too timid to speak the language much. Often when I sheepishly tried to use my Hebrew, Israelis responded in English. They wanted to practice their second language as much as I wanted to practice mine.

It’s been thirty years since my Hebrew language learning stopped, but during our trip to Israel, more Hebrew came back to me than I expected. Most of the time, I think people understood the phrases and sentences I’d first carefully scripted in my head. Being able to speak the language helped when we needed directions, or the price of something in the market, or where to find the nearest bathroom/babka/baklava. I found I could read many store signs, understand the odd menu, and eavesdrop on the occasional conversation. The eavesdropping was the most fun.

Fully fluent I am not, however. Generally, I understood every third word or so. The Israelis that I understood easily, however, were those like me whose first language was English. They spoke with an accent like mine and at a moderate pace. At one of our first lunch stops on our trip, I realised I easily understood our server’s Hebrew. Then I overheard him speaking to the person at the table next to us in fluent English. Turns out he was born in the U.S. but emigrated to Israel with his parents a few years ago. I thanked him for allowing me to speak my slow, broken Hebrew, knowing full well we could communicate more easily in English, during the lunchtime rush.

Stuffed Grover standing by raisin challah that's been cutI may have understood what was being said around me, but I often forgot that J.’s Hebrew was limited to “shalom” and “challah”. Once we were in an elevator when a fellow asked her to push the 14th floor. J. was facing away from him, and had no idea this man had asked her for help. I, in my ignorance, impatiently repeated the floor number to her in Hebrew. Thankfully we sorted the miscommunication out before he’d missed his floor.

Over the course of the trip, my question-asking skills improved, but my ability to understand Israelis’ responses, spoken in rapid-fire Hebrew, didn’t. On our second last day, I asked a restaurant server for the washroom, but I didn’t understand his response at all. After standing there momentarily with no idea where to go, I repeated the same question to another server. Thankfully she pointed me in the right direction while repeating the same incomprehensible response.

There are several morals of this story. If you’re going to speak with the locals in their language, remember that you’ll also have to understand their responses. If you don’t understand, keep trying, and don’t worry if you sound like a toddler. At least you’ve made the effort. Oh, and don’t forget that your travel partner may have no idea what you, or anybody else, is saying. Trust me, she’ll remind you if you do forget.

 

 

There is no vacation from yoga

Child sitting in lotus position with eyes closed

I have a confession to make: I’ve been home since Monday and I haven’t written. You know that already. Here’s a better confession: I skipped yoga yesterday, I who NEVER skips yoga. However exhausted or busy or sick I might feel, I always drag myself to yoga. Yesterday I wasn’t up to it, so I slept in.

We arrived back home from our whirlwind trip after a looong travel day. I thought I was jet lagged the following morning when I woke up feeling weird, when in fact I brought home something with me. My body went to Israel and all I got was this lousy fever. (I didn’t even get a t-shirt because, despite our relentless searching, the t-shirts were indeed lousy.) I spent two days sleeping on the couch, and by day 3, yoga day, I had a decision to make. I chose sleep.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I did not do any yoga for the past three weeks, however. I didn’t take my mat with me, but I used many of my yoga skills to my benefit while on vacation.

Grover sitting beside pan of shakshukaThanks to my mindfulness training, I was in the moment every single moment. I was taking everything in, sights, sounds, smells, and, of course, tastes. I was so absorbed in the experience, I slept soundly every night so I could absorb all the newness again the next day.

When we were walking, I was aware of the importance of maintaining my posture and my balance. I need to maintain awareness of my body in space if I am on uneven pavement in unfamiliar territory. I am pleased to report that I did not fall even once, although I came close a few times. (Let’s say falling in the Dead Sea when I tried to stand from floating doesn’t count.) Sure, I walked into a few people and a few walls, but that is a normal occurrence for me. Surely my intent focus on other experiences distracted me at these times.

These are all useful skills, but what’s most useful when I travel is my ability to squat. Toilets vary in foreign countries, and I understand they won’t be as pristine as ours at home. Many lack toilet seats altogether, others are scary looking, and all require a careful hovering in position. Without this skill, I’d be at risk of falling in the toilet or missing my target when I pee. (Of course I have penis envy, and it’s heightened when I travel.)

I am pleased to report that, not only did I manage to vary my squat to differing toilet heights, I did not once wet myself. Thus, my current ill health has much more to do with the sickly person beside me on the flight home than with my fraternising with any germy toilet seats. (I’m kidding. Toilet seats don’t make you sick; they make you wet.) After two weeks of daily squats, I can’t wait to tell my yoga teacher that I am all muscle.

My fever has now passed, thank goodness, and I’ve left the couch to venture outside. I’ll be at yoga this Sunday, for certain, showing off my newly firm quads.

Sometimes I forget that yoga isn’t a competitive sport.

What I learned on vacation (other than what Grover taught me)

J. and I were reviewing our trip over our last dinner in Israel. For the first time that we could both remember, we were glad we’d stayed as long as we did. In the past, we’ve often been antsy to get home as a trip nears its end.

As we were chatting, J. asked me what my favourite part of the trip was. I could not think of one moment because there were so many. Over our two weeks, we saw so many fascinating sights, experienced so many different cultures, and met so many kind people.

On our last day in Jerusalem, I insisted we walk above the city on the Old City walls so we could see the hubbub from a different vantage point. Off we went, up and down stairs, along meandering pathways of uneven stone, past one exit and onto the second, at which point we’d have to return to solid ground. It wasn’t an easy stroll but I was up to the challenge.

Shortly after the first gate, we were greeted by two Israeli police officers watching over the area below, ensuring everyone’s safety. Although we were walking in what is normally a safe zone, there had been some unrest in the Middle East since our arrival in Israel and security was high in Jerusalem. The sight of the officers made me wonder whether we should proceed, but the officers were fairly relaxed. One was busy texting while the other was using a kerosene stove to boil water for coffee. “Oh, you have coffee!” we said, and Mr. Barista immediately offered us some. We declined with thanks, and off we traipsed.

Within a few minutes, I tanked (that happens sometimes) so we turned back to the previous exit, again passing by the officers. By now their water had boiled, Mr. Barista had finished brewing his coffee, and he was holding his cup in hand. So I said, “We were just coming back for coffee.” (They didn’t need to know that I am a coffee teetotaller.) The officer held his freshly brewed cup out to me and encouraged me to take it. He was serious.

I declined Mr. Barista’s kind offer, thanked him, and off we went. The overture was genuine. In retrospect, I now wish we’d stopped and chatted with these fellows for a few minutes. They were obviously grateful for the company in their isolated post.

We witnessed kind gestures like this every day we were in Israel. Soldiers not only protect the country; they help elderly people cross busy streets and interact warmly with children. People were patient and helpful when I tried to communicate in my broken Hebrew. On a crowded bus, younger people stand to make way for the elderly or others in need. And if a police officer happens to have freshly brewed coffee while he stands watch above the Old City, he’ll offer it to you, expecting nothing in return. Perhaps that pervasive attitude of caring for others was the highlight of my trip.

Making turkish coffee over a kerosene stove

Grover does the Negev

Today was a comedy of errors on the vacation front. It’s possible that God was punishing us for doing something on the Sabbath, our day of rest. In retrospect, we should have gone with the flow and taken it easy in Jerusalem. So what if the city shuts down altogether every Friday evening to Saturday evening? No buses, no restaurants, nothing but people spending time with families and resting after their busy weeks. It’s a wonderful notion, yet I couldn’t fathom our day of rest becoming a day of waste. Our time here is so precious that we decided to leave town to visit the desert with forty other restless people.

Have I mentioned that I’ve been largely tasked with the vacation planning for this trip? As J. has reminded me repeatedly, these are my people, so I should intuitively know what to do here. I’ve tried to make this holiday perfect from beginning to end, but certain events today were beyond my control. Everything that could have gone wrong did, and I mean everything. Our tour started late, our tour guide was awful, and we spent more time travelling and waiting for other heretics like us than experiencing the sights.

We had trouble containing our disappointment, but Grover was having none of our negativity. That guy’s smile is always plastered on his face. He was going to have a good time no matter what. Sure it was hot on Masada, as we were told it would be, but our little monster didn’t break a sweat. That’s because he was wearing a desert-appropriate outfit with minimal coverage and excellent ventilation.

While we were waiting for the others in the Masada gift shop, Grover jumped on the back of a camel for a ride. He was determined to have the time of his life. I’ve never seen a happier little monster.

Mini stuffed Grover riding on a stuffed camel

Once we arrived at the Dead Sea, first J. and I floated in the salty water. Since J. is a sinker, her floating was a miracle. Maybe God wasn’t so mad at us after all. Then we did what all must do at the Dead Sea: we slathered ourselves with Dead Sea mud, allowing it to dry before rinsing it off in the water. Today, for the first time in many, many years, my skin feels as soft as a baby’s bottom.

Grover jumped in after us wearing his desert-appropriate attire, which handily doubled as a bathing suit. Despite his lack of swimming prowess–his blue fur takes ages to dry–Grover floated in the salty water with ease. He may look a little dismayed in this shot, but he’s merely clenching his lips so as not to swallow any of the salty water. I was not so smart. I can still taste that disgusting water.

Grover on the Dead Sea

In the end, we had a good, if long, day. I’m glad Grover was there to remind us that negativity is not wanted on the voyage. Who’d think a little monster would be so full of life lessons?

Taking my life in my hands, or my feet

Mini Grover in bush overlooking Bahai gardensCuriously, over the past week, I decided to focus on my vacation rather than writing my blog. Sorry to leave you hanging, but I’ve been busy showing Grover the sights in this glorious country.

Several friends expressed concern when I mentioned I was going to Israel. “Is it safe there?” they asked. “Aren’t you worried about terrorists?” “Not at all,” I said. I lived here previously during a time of high conflict, so I know how safe Israel actually is. The highly skilled armed forces ensure that citizens are protected from harm. Security is ever present.

Unlike in Canada, Israeli men and women are conscripted at age 18, barring circumstances such as a physical or psychological impairment, a criminal record, or religious observance. There is a significant military presence all over the country, and a much higher level of vigilance than in Canada. There needs to be.

Mini Grover resting by the Sea of GalileeIsraelis may be safe because of the measures in place to protect them, but tourists are another matter. I quickly learned that I am taking my life in my hands by crossing the street here. The drivers here are insane. That whole notion of passing on the left is foreign in this foreign country. Those using the smallest vehicles are the worst. Imagine a motorised scooter (I’m talking about the two-wheeled, push-off-with-one-foot variety that children take to school) or a motorised skateboard overtaking a bus from either side at high speed. And why wear a helmet when you could risk your life? I am grateful to not have seen any of these daredevils thrown from their vehicles. The result would be ugly.

I have learned to cross the street with caution, and so far have not been hit by any moving objects. There have been several close calls, however. I feel like I am in considerably more danger crossing the street in Israel than I was in the UK, where I never quite mastered the direction of oncoming traffic.

The sidewalks are just as or even more dangerous than the streets. Forget the distracted walkers glued to their telephones; those imbeciles are wreaking havoc on sidewalks world wide. Not only are two-wheeled vehicles taking over the roads here, they expect me to share my sidewalk space with them. Israeli sidewalks are flooded with any fast-moving vehicle that needs to circumvent a traffic jam (I use the word “need” loosely here). Patience may not be a virtue of our people after all. Considering how much walking J. and I have done over our first week here, I can’t believe that I am still intact. I’ve long insisted leukemia would not be the death of me, haven’t I?

We have five days left here, assuming we survive. We have seen so much of the country already and have so much more to explore. I am so glad we came to this marvellous place. I promise you will have an experience like no other if you vacation here. Make sure you bring sunscreen, good walking shoes, a bathing suit for the Dead Sea, and your helmet. Even if the two-wheeled-vehicle risk-takers don’t wear them, you still could don one as you’re walking. The Israelis will keep you safe from terrorists; it’s up to you to keep yourself safe from their vehicular shenanigans.

Grover at Beit She'an overlooking the ruins

 

 

My irritability knows no bounds

crying baby in bed

Much appreciation for the three kind and loyal fellow bloggers who liked my last post, which could have benefitted from considerably more editing. Thanks for seeing beyond its many shortcomings, you generous souls. I’ll aspire to do better today.

Because I volunteer in a nursing home, where influenza can spread like wildfire, I scored an early flu vaccine. Shots start today for the general public, in case you weren’t aware, but some people get to jump the queue, including those who who work in facilities housing people vulnerable to infection.

Did I happen to mention they’re predicting a bad influenza season here based on Australia’s rates of illness? I thought you’d want to know.

Last week, following our PALS shift at the retirement home, I lined up with Jelly so I could get my shot. Except there was no line. The immunization clinic was set up for nursing, administrative, and other support staff, and volunteers, but no one was attending. Had no one noticed the mini chocolate bars for the newly immunized?

I sat down beside the immunizing nurse, who seemed overly excited to have a subject, while Jelly gladly endured the other bored nurse petting her. Everyone was content.

[Warning: Keep reading only if you plan to continue to the end of the post.]

The shot hurt from the moment the needle entered my arm. As she put a bandaid over the insertion spot, the nurse mentioned that many people were complaining of pain this year. Thankfully she didn’t disclose this before she inserted the needle since I am highly suggestible.

In the past, I have a sore arm for a few days following the shot, like a heavyweight fighter has punched me, but this time I thought I’d skip that part. I was unscathed until day 3, when I woke up in discomfort, trying to remember what the heavyweight champion looked like. The arm felt better after a few days, as it always does.

J. also scored an early flu shot as a volunteer at the children’s hospital. She received her injection the day my arm was the sorest. After the shot, she denied any pain on injection. She’s such a show off. To add insult to injury, nobody even punched her arm the next day. She felt nothing.

After last year’s shot, I was irritable. Irritability is a potential side effect of the shot, and I’m suggestible, remember? When J. suffered no ill effects, I immediately got cranky, but it had nothing to do with my flu shot; I was cranky because of J.’s suggestion that I am a baby. I may be a baby, but J. still shouldn’t have called me one. A loving partner knows when to fudge the truth.

You will likely react to your flu shot like J. did, i.e., you won’t feel a thing. If you’re irritable, blame it on me for telling you about my adverse reaction. You too can consider my reaction as a function of my sensitive temperament.

Maybe I’m irritable because we’re leaving for Israel tonight and I can’t decide which hoody to take. My life has no end of stresses. It’s a wonder that I can function at all.

 

Introducing the emotional hangover

Have I ever defined the post-Bar Mitzvah (Bat Mitzvah, in my case) blues? When someone gears up for something for so long, and it’s fantastic, but then it’s over? That’s what today feels like for me.

After months of anticipating yesterday’s Light the Night Walk in downtown Calgary on a beautiful fall evening, it’s over. My special support team walked the full five kilometres with me–a kilometre for every year–to celebrate my enduring good health. The evening was perfect.

I’ve described the walk before but allow me a medically inaccurate and absurd analogy. Imagine each walker as a blood cell. There are the white blood cells, the largest in size but fewest in number. Those are the leukemia (and other bloody disordered) survivors holding our little white lanterns. Then there are the red blood cells, which are smaller but more plentiful than the white cells. The red-lanterners are those walking in support of the white lanterners.

Platelets are small fragments of blood cells. They are represented by the gold lantern holders, who are survivors in their own way, walking in memory of someone who has died. They may feel they’ve lost a part of themselves.

Finally, let’s not forget the plasma, which carries nutrients, hormones, and proteins through the body. Consider the plasma all the amazing volunteers who registered all the walkers, distributed t-shirts and lanterns and coffee and hotdogs, and lined the pathway cheering us on.

We of many lanterns walked along a narrow pathway, clustered together but hopefully not clotting. We white lanterns were surrounded by our devoted red-lanterned supporters. One group followed after another, each its own community of red-lanterened support for one little white lantern. The gold-lanterned folks formed their own groups or were sprinkled amongst the whites and reds (we had two golds on our team) because blood disorders touch too many people. Along this narrow pathway–an artery? a vein?–walked all these blood cells, supporting one another, guided by our plasma support staff.

At moments during the walk, I looked around me and saw my little group, distinguished by their absurd team attire–perhaps next year you too could look sharp in a multicoloured Dr. Seuss hat–and I realized how not alone I am. While I searched for my own team, I saw so many similar groups ahead of and behind me, reminding me that we’re all in this together.

I’m blessed by the people who walked with me and the people who sent their regrets and wished me well. To the team members who hunted down my ridiculous 5-year pin, which I finally received from a kind volunteer, a 5-year survivor himself. To the two very handsome firefighters, the retired one who appeared on site unexpectedly with his beloved partner, the other one in uniform who handed me my survivor’s rose at the end.

Today I am spent, drained, hungover, but in a good way. You must know this feeling. I look forward to next year’s event. If you too aspire to be a red blood cell in colourful clown attire, know there’s always next year.

Crowd picture at Light the Night Calgary 2017

A microscope may help you see our team.

Hangin’ at the hospice

Small dog on hospital bed being petted by patient

Twice a month, my PAL Jelly and I go to visit the seniors at a retirement home. Adjoining the home is a hospice, and often we stop in there along the way. Because Jelly is vertically challenged, it is hard for her to visit with people who are bedridden, but she does her best, seeking out chairs and couches so she can raise herself up within reach.

I admit that entering a hospice isn’t easy. I never know who I’ll meet and what condition they’ll be in. Others must feel the same because somedays there are very few visitors, if any. Some of the patients are so close to dying that they are not up to company.

The past few visits, we’ve been watching a dog-adoring hospice patient become increasingly frail. From the pictures hanging on the wall, I can see he was once a strong and vibrant man. On the wall, there are several pictures of him with his dog. Over time, he is having more and more difficulty moving his body and speaking clearly. Imagine the frustration of not being able to communicate easily. Despite his challenges, he greets the PALS dogs with a broad smile, even if he needs to be woken from sleep to visit.

Since this patient is missing his dog terribly and is unable to reach down to pet our dogs, we lift our dogs up onto the bed with him. When Jelly’s turn on the bed came yesterday, she was more than glad to oblige. She snuggled up to the patient and kissed his face repeatedly. He laboured with his little remaining muscle strength to raise his hand to pet her. I was moved watching his effort to be with the dogs.

While we were visiting, two granddaughters walked in to see him. One of the girls immediately started crying when she saw the dogs and bent down to pet them. She told us she had had a bad day and she was so glad we were there. She didn’t elaborate, but I was glad seeing the pups comforted her.

I tried to imagine how hard it would have been for these young girls to enter the hospice not knowing what condition their grandfather would be in that day. From one visit to the next, like us, they have been watching him die. What would they find to talk about? Would they even be able to decipher what he was saying? Could they find some way to communicate? Hopefully the brief PALS appearance facilitated their visit, which I’m sure wasn’t easy.

This experience reminded me that we bring our dogs to the hospice not only to see the patients. The staff caring for these patients day in and day out–the nurses, the aides, the cleaning staff–anticipate our arrival. The family and friends who arrive when we’re there appreciate the wagging tails as well. Some even schedule their visits when the PALS dogs will be there. I’m happy knowing that the dogs make the day a little bit easier for many of these people. They deserve at least that.