Real Life: I Often Cry In Parking Lots.

When I was 8, I wanted to quit the soccer team because my coach made us run more laps than everyone else’s coach. Where my friends had the luxury of fun relay races at their practices, my teammates and I would start each practice with 10 laps on our much-smaller-than-regulation-sized field, which was, of course, a goddamn travesty.

I wanted to quit, but my stepmom — an ex-college athlete —would not allow it.

“You don’t quit things because they’re hard.”

That was the end of the conversation. No more needed, no more said.

For the next two months, I ran my laps, I sweated more than I’d probably ever sweat in my 8 years of life, and finished the soccer season.

I was only in second grade at the time, but I think of what my stepmom said often. I think of it when I consider quitting pretty much anything — a job, a class, a hike. I think of it when I feel challenged; sometimes before I even think about quitting, I think about Kim’s sentiment first.

You don’t quit things because they’re hard.

Last week was the first of my second fire season, and it was hard. It was a week that made me think about what Kim said on an almost hourly basis.

This week wasn’t hard in the ways you’d think it would be. It was physically hard, but nothing that pushed the limits of what I thought I was capable of. In actuality, it was the loneliness, the seclusion, that almost did me in. It was the spring cleaning, the boredom, the 40-minute drive for groceries, the lack of a cell phone signal. These are the things that made me think of what Kim told me almost 20 years ago.

I spent the first night in North Fork, Idaho (population 242) lamenting to a friend that there were no bars, no people, no coffee shops, no cell phone signal (though, there are a few places with wi-fi). There wasn’t much of anything, really, except a beautiful trout stream, a ranger district, a windy road and a trading-post type building with wi-fi, a seasonal café (not open yet), a small store and a post office. I cried in their parking lot for a solid half hour while talking on the phone. I cried because I knew that the next six months would be some of the toughest of my life, and I couldn’t quit. I wouldn’t quit. I was committed, and I had no choice but to make peace with that.

So after I cried in a parking lot (which happens with startling frequency in my life, as most of my most formative phases have started with a good cry session in an unfamiliar place) I went home and I made some dinner. I introduced myself to my crewmembers who had shown up before me. And they offered to help me clean my house, which had flies all over the floor and a winter’s-worth of dust on every other surface. We bonded that night over fly carcasses and piles of dirty Clorox wipes. And my eyes weren’t puffy and red anymore and the lack of cell phone signal didn’t feel so bad anymore and…I felt better. And now a week later, I feel much better. It took a few nights of wondering what the hell to do with myself and feeling true boredom for the first time in a long time to start making peace with the situation. Reading, playing banjo, writing, just sitting and thinking — these things that I considered occasional hobbies previously are my life now, the only things to do once I’ve clocked out. At some point I’ll do a post about what happens when you don’t have wifi or a signal where you live, but suffice it to say that it involves a lot of aimless wandering, real alone time (without the mirage/distraction of social media), and making a lot of educated guesses on subjects and questions previously Google-able.

It’s sad that it’s come to this — that the most challenging part of my new job is the seclusion and not having pretty much any use for my phone anymore — but it’s the part I hadn’t mentally prepared for. I’d prepared for grueling hikes and heavy packs and ticks and steep hills and heat and hard work. I hadn’t prepared for abruptly losing all of my vices, all of my safety blankets, my beers with friends and social life (digital and real) and the ability to drive to the grocery store without using a quarter tank of gas. I hadn’t prepared for standing in a big house, alone, wondering what to do now, of having only myself and my thoughts and my books and my words and my banjo when that all gets too heavy.

I’ve learned that I’m not necessarily tough, but I am flexible and convincible. I can be convinced of hard, scary things and can adapt to pretty much any situation thrown my way if given just a few minutes to overthink it, a few minutes to cry in a parking lot over it. And then, even when it’s hard, it starts to feel a bit easier — like a few laps around an elementary-school soccer field.

 

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Another Day, Another Slog: Preparing for Fire Season in the Salmon-Challis

 

A lot of the time when I tell people I fight fire, they have two questions: smokejumper, or hotshot?

Last year I shook my head with a self-deprecating laugh at this presumption — of course I wasn’t a hotshot, let alone a smokejumper. I wasn’t jumping out of planes. I wasn’t the person with a face covered in two-weeks-worth of ash, or eyes so overwhelmingly tired they’re barely distinguishable from the surrounding dirt. I didn’t even get my yellow dirty until August. I was a rookie, assigned to an engine, but with occasional handcrew rolls to keep me from getting soft. I dug a little line, saw a little fire, breathed a little smoke and thought, however briefly — maybe I do want to be a hotshot? Definitely not this summer, but maybe next, I told myself.

This winter I applied for a single hotshot crew — the Sawtooth shots in Idaho. I didn’t expect to get a call, and on the off chance that I did, I didn’t plan to take the job. I wasn’t ready for a shot crew, but applied mostly out of curiosity (e.g. am I worthy?)

I didn’t get a call from the Sawtooth shots, but in February I got a call from what will be a brand new 10-person initial attack wildland fire module in the Salmon-Challis National Forest, also in Idaho. I’d already accepted my “dream” position on the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie NF 20-person handcrew, the job I’d been eyeing for months prior to applying; fighting fire in the shadow of Mount Baker would be a dream, and the moisture of the Pacific Northwest would assure that I wasn’t getting in too deep during what would only be my second season. Still, when I got a call from the Salmon-Challis to see if I was still available for hiring, something made me say yes. I told the hiring supervisor that I’d at least like to hear about the crew, and he told me everything I needed to know — namely, that his district has some of the gnarliest terrain in the country, and that I should be prepared for lots of uphill hikes and at least 50 initial attack fires this summer. He added that because of how remote some of the district is, they’ve had to float crews in on the Salmon River to engage fires. Count me in.

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This is the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, very close to where I’ll be based this summer. It’s one of the deepest river gorges in the country, second only to the Grand Canyon. This is called Impassable Canyon, which is part of the River of No Return Wilderness area. Not daunting at all.

After a long interview (in my experience, this isn’t entirely common in the fire world unless you’re applying to higher-up positions) I got a job offer, and it was only then that I asked where he’d found me; I didn’t remember applying for a position in the Salmon Challis, so how did I inadvertently end up on a hire list for a brand new fire crew there?

“We hired you off the Sawtooth shots list. We wanted the kind of people who would be applying to a shot crew.”

Well, shit.

Considering I didn’t even consider myself someone who should be applying to hotshot crews, the self-doubt was immediate and strong. After all, I didn’t expect to have to meet hotshot crew fitness requirements this spring, and I only had one fire season under my belt. It was already February and I hadn’t went for a run in like two months. I’d experienced only mild fire behavior, and had no experience in the type of fuels common on the Salmon-Challis. This all pointed to a lurking feeling that I was getting in too deep, that I wasn’t qualified enough, wasn’t strong enough, wasn’t experienced enough — I just simply wasn’t enough.

But I found a sliver of confidence in my hiring supervisor, who interviewed me for a half an hour before offering a position. He liked what he heard, so I must have something to bring to the team, I figured.

I found confidence in my excitement to start running and hiking, and in the fact that I’d be living at altitude for the remainder of the winter. Training at 10,000 feet would no doubt make living and working at 6,000 a bit easier.

I’m a month out from my start date now, and the feelings of inadequacy are slowly evaporating. With every hill climb or five-mile run at altitude or hike with 45 pounds worth of dumbells in my backpack, the fear melts away. Excitement has taken its place. I’m stoked to be a member of Crew 7, the Salmon-Challis’ first wildland fire module. I’m stoked to help the crew develop from the ground up, to be an original member of a module with aspirations to become the forest’s first shot crew within the next two years. I’m even a little excited for the crew’s “Hell Week,” which will surely be…fun. Or something.

Pre-season fire training in a nutshell

The scariest thing in my immediate future is not fire or 14-mile uphill slogs or running hills until I puke; it’s showing up unprepared for the season, it’s losing the respect of my crewmembers because I didn’t put the same effort in during the pre-season. Being ill-prepared scares the absolute shit out of me. But I’m reminded with each uphill mile, with each sweat-soaked shirt, with each squat or day spent bootpacking or touring in the mountains, that I’m one step closer to the season, one step closer to being strong enough to hike up steep river canyons and swing a tool all day. I’ll be enough, and I’ll be okay.

 

No Rain, no War: Working with Spokane’s Veteran Crew

I’m elbow to elbow with two guys I’ve known for maybe three days. We’re sweating, digging, wiping eyes burning with smoke, digging some more. Someone alerts us to a spot fire down the line a little ways over the radio — a burning log rolled over the line, lighting a bunch of bone-dry cheat grass and eventually another tree. By the time I make my way down to it, four guys are already trying to get a handle on it. The other tree, a ponderosa pine, has fire creeping up and up and up into its needles. The spot is approaching thick brush that would light up quicker than we could possibly contain it, so they are working fast to stop its spread. I take my sunglasses off to consider the hazards — sketchy branches overhead or logs that could break loose uphill — my expression just awe-struck enough to warrant a comment from my crew boss.

“Look at me,” he said in an understanding tone. “We’re fine. Now get digging.” I hopped in line behind a guy whose name I didn’t know yet and dug.

We wrapped up the spot and the rest of the line held for us. We had finished less than a mile of line on a fire that would eventually burn 2500 acres when all was said and done — a seemingly minuscule, but satisfying victory. Homes were lost and threatened, roads were closed. This was only my second day on active fire.

Aside from seeing my first “big” fire (by my rookie standards) on this assignment, I also got my first taste of fighting fire in the wildland/urban interface. I saw the foundations of homes that were standing only a few hours prior and got thanked by strangers for the first time. I met a couple who had lost their home on a fire we were fighting, listening as they relived it over a hotel continental breakfast. I carried a bladder bag and watched retardant and water drops for the first time, my mouth agape. The crew only gave me a little shit for my naive fascination with this very common aspect of fire, but for the first few days I couldn’t get my eyes out of the sky when helicopters and air tankers buzzed overhead. When I did manage to take my eyes off the dropping water and low flying aircraft, I was often mesmerized by torching trees. And all along, they understood. They let me be naive. “Just don’t let us catch you doing this shit next year,” one of them told me as I was stopped in my tracks by the immensity and chaos of what the world is capable of, and what we’re capable of in return.

I spent close to three weeks with this crew, from mid-August until early September. I was assigned as part of a 10-man handcrew resource order (yes, humans are called “resources”) from the Northern Idaho zone, joining nine others from across the northern Idaho Panhandle to turn a 10-man veteran crew in Spokane into a 20-man throw-together crew. Four of the men from Idaho had also been in the military, making a crew that was almost 75 percent veterans. We were assigned to initial attack duties, basically standing by until something “popped.” It inevitably did — on a red flag day, where the combination of low humidity, high winds and high temperatures were such that the flicked ash of a cigarette or a spark from a mountain bike pedal colliding with a rock could consume dozens of acres of forest in minutes.

We had three fires start in a matter of minutes on a Sunday afternoon, the air suffocatingly dry and gusty. Smoke emerged from the foothills both north and south of Spokane as a haze settled on the Spokane valley. The smoke plume over the foothills to the north of Spokane went from a singular pillar to a massive plume in minutes, as we watched from the station’s parking lot waiting for the call to come through from dispatch. When it did, we hopped in and drove towards the thing everyone else was driving away from, listening to evacuation orders and radio traffic for water and retardant drops along the way. This would be my first active fire, and along with my excitement was a tinge of fear. One of the guys turned around and asked if I was doing okay. When I said yes, he responded that I had nothing to worry about, that they had my back.

It was this comment that got me thinking about how similar wildland must be to the military — veteran wildland fire crews are popping up all over the country, after all. To me, it seems like a natural progression — warzones to fire lines, uniforms to Nomex, military food to MREs, the ever-enduring camaraderie, the structure and the need to be situationally aware at all times. It’s a means, apparently, of thriving in a place void of both rain and war, of existing after an existence of combat. After all, many of these guys were in the military for years, through a deployment or two or three, and then left to make a go of the world, some only knowing childhood, high school and war. I interviewed a couple of them for a story I plan to do about veterans in wildland fire, and almost all of the interviewees pointed to the inherent chaos of fire as a reason they were drawn to it, albeit a more controlled chaos than combat.

It’s impossible to compare this experience to being in combat, of course. This is a war made not of men but of relentless smoke and heat, and as unpredictable and scary and chaotic as fire can be, it’s got nothing on humans. Yet, standing shoulder to shoulder with them as we swung our tools in unison, thinking about how sore/tired/hungry we were while not daring to vocalize it, I could understand the parallel, why they were drawn to this work. It’s occasionally miserable, but there’s a perverse satisfaction in it — in working this hard, in going up against something so harrowing and therefore wildly humbling, in knowing that you can overcome it, work through it, hell, even make jokes while doing it. It may be as close to combat as you can get with the natural world.

   

Firefighting: Still Easier than a Desk Job

I worked a desk job in data entry one summer, which amounted to entering different numbers into the same little boxes over and over until my eyes felt like bleeding. It was a summer of Excel spreadsheets, emails, break room lunches and bathrooms where I didn’t have to worry about getting poked by devils club while peeing.  My life was defined by morning commutes and the persistent hum of fax machines and printers. It was a job for which I am thankful — if only to realize that desk jobs aren’t really my thing — but days lingered painfully in a kind of way that had me looking at my watch every 13 minutes and thinking, “damn, that felt like at least 45.”

Many people pursue their passions and feed their kids from behind desks. I’m not here to undermine them. They find comfort in things that are actually comfortable — like a good swivel chair, photos of their kids on the wall, knowing where work will take them every day. Firefighters, on the other hand, tend to find comfort in things that are precisely the definition of discomfort — a face full of ash, eating more tuna fish in a week than one person should reasonably eat in a year, working through an aching back and fatigued legs. But I’ve been asked countless times why I’d want to do something so…insane and dangerous and hard etc….so I’d like to offer an explanation.

Yeah, firefighting is hard. 16 hour days, sunrise to sunset of having a tool in your hands and walking/scrambling on terrain that seems to have the singular goal of putting you on your ass, sometimes with fire — big fire that torches trees on contact — a few feet from your face. Sometimes it’s sleeping in a little orange government-issued tent that leaks. Sometimes it’s no showers, no signal, no one to interact with for two weeks but your crewmembers.

 

Yet in it’s difficulty, it’s still not that hard to convince myself to do it. Physically demanding, yes. Mentally challenging, for sure. But it’s not a chore to get up in the morning, to mentally prepare for what many would consider a pretty absurd way to make a living. I can log a 14- or 15-hour day with hardly a glance at my watch, the amount of progress we’ve got on the fire being the only measure of time I’m concerned with. One minute I’m stumbling around a hotel room or fire camp on aching feet, trying to get the blood flowing again, and the next I’m blanketed in a layer of ash and dirt, loading into a truck to find a shower, some food and a bed (or, more likely, a good spot for my Therm-A-Rest), not knowing which is more important at that moment.

I’ve learned this summer, my first as a firefighter, that swinging a tool with a 40-lb pack on in a heat advisory with a bunch of other sweaty, dirty people is what gives me peace. It’s the thing that humbles and challenges me and simultaneously makes me feel a little badass (until I inevitable eat shit on loose rocks or otherwise make an idiot of myself). I never know where I’ll be working when I wake up in the morning; an assignment could come up and have me 600 miles away by the next morning. It requires a level of adaptability I’ve never encountered — one minute I’m sitting around playing cards or desperately trying to find busy work, the next I’m in the back seat of a truck gaping at a massive smoke plume that appeared seemingly out of nowhere, thinking “how are we possibly going to do anything about that?”

My mind works best when the rest of me is in motion — I’ve known this about myself for quite a while now, but it’s particularly satisfying that I’ve found a job that encourages this conviction. So I suppose fire is my meditation — enlightenment in eyes teary from smoke, tranquility in aching feet, calm in chaos. And not a swivel chair for miles.

Days 1-3: My shirt’s too clean

An hour before starting a new job as a wildland firefighter, just a few miles into Idaho, I was suspected of smuggling drugs into Canada.

I got caught doing 55 in a 35, and got pulled over. I had just dropped my boyfriend off at the airport, after driving three days across the country with him, and I started with the Forest Service at noon. It was now 10:45 a.m. and I was still an hour away from the station. It was a moment where you can only laugh. In this case, through nervous, lonely tears.

The cop walked up, told me how fast I was going, license, registration, the whole schpiel. What he didn’t tell me was that he was calling in the canine unit because he suspected that I might be smuggling drugs into Canada. I’m crying in the front seat (I’ve never cried during a traffic stop, but this day was cause for particular melodrama) when a plain-clothes officer walks up with a police dog at his feet. He tells me what’s being suspected of me, the red-faced 25-year-old who is set to start a job with the federal government in an hour.

“You think I’m smuggling drugs into Canada right now?” I say, doing that thing where you gasp for air cause you’re crying so hard that you’re not getting enough oxygen.

“Well, you’re very nervous and nice-looking, and we’ve had many instances where those kind of people are involved in this kind of thing.”

What could I do? My sobbing drew no sympathy. I was alone in Idaho, and I had just been suspected of smuggling drugs into Canada. Once the dog had determined that to not be the case, the officer handed me a $155 speeding ticket and told me good luck at the new job.

Welcome to Idaho.

The experience was helpful, almost, in that it gave me something to break the ice when I finally arrived at the ranger district where I’ll be working all summer. I met everyone in the office and fire cache, relaying the speeding ticket story, reveling in the small miracle of having something to talk about to a group of people I’d never met in my life. A small, $155 miracle.

The guys were great — they hooked me up with all the gear I’ll need, gave advice on which MREs result in the mildest gastrointestinal issues and answered all my rookie questions without (too much) judgement. I was issued the smallest Nomex pants and shirt they had in the cabinet. I tried them on and felt immediately like I didn’t belong.

By day three, I feel equally inadequate but less on edge, and now in the presence of every other firefighter in our district. There’s 80 or so of us here, at the Red Ives Ranger Station on the St. Joe River — about forty-five minutes from the nearest paved road, which turns back into dirt before heading through a mountain pass that takes you to St. Regis, Montana after about an hour of switchbacking through spruces. They have a heli pad in the event of an emergency, because it takes an hour and 20 minutes to get to the closest town, let alone the closest hospital, and, tellingly, it would take less time to dispatch a helicopter to come pick someone up. You could say it’s in the middle of nowhere. That might be an understatement.

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It takes six hours to drive to Red Ives from my home district (damn mountains), but there’s no getting out of the district-wide preparedness review. Once we arrived at Red Ives, we were heralded through stations with 15 people we’ve never met, practicing our situational awareness, our ability to identify hazards in keeping fire away from structures and our ability to utilize our fire shelters in a high-stress situation. High stress situations are hard to simulate; nonetheless, our supervisors had us hike up a decent-incline about a half mile, simulating what our radio traffic might typically sound like — basically, controlled chaos of crew bosses, supervisors and pilots all vying for radio time. After a while, they indicated a wind change, while our “lookouts” indicated they no longer had eyes on the fire (because of smoke). This escalated into a command that we get off the mountain ASAP.

Of course this was all fake, but we were told to put as much into it as we could. This resulted in all 15 of us running down a steep slope with 45 pounds of line gear on, while our crew boss yelled to prepare our shelters. At the bottom, we made a 100-yard sprint to a grassy field, grabbing our fire shelters while running before tossing our tools and bags and getting in our shelters as fast as we could. Meanwhile, our supervisors blasted us with industrial fans to simulate the blast of wind at the front of a fire.

This was no doubt a morbid exercise — you’re practicing what you’d do when you’re close to being burned over. But, if it’s any indication, none of the supervisors in our group had used a shelter before, and they are truly there for last-resort purposes. Still, it’s worth noting that they have a remarkable success rate, and the technology improves every year. It’s just something you have to do.

Later in the day, we practiced hose lays on a steep ridgeline above the ranger station. I was given the responsibility of bringing the “hard line,” or the line that was directly attached to the truck (versus one attached to a pump on a body of water) up an incline that required more of a scramble than a walk while carrying a 2-inch hose and spraying the fake fire around me. Water gets heavy after a while, especially up steep inclines, and my scramble up the hill turned into a by-any-means-necessary endeavor that started to involve elbows and clawing at the wet ground.

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Our briefing at the end of the day had me scanning the crowd of the tired and dirty people around me, all one seemingly homogenous group easily identified by yellow Nomex (fire-resistant) shirts, green Nomex pants, yellow helmets, packs and tools. You can tell who is most seasoned by who’s wearing the shirts that are more dirty-mustard than sunshine-yellow — finely aged with a combination of bar oil, sweat and fire retardant. Some of the guys have fire tattoos on their forearms or legs. Most have boots that have obviously seen hundreds of miles worth of ash and mud. I consider my blindingly unstained yellow shirt and freshly-broken in boots that have yet to experience a day of ash.  My pants are so stiff they could stand up on their own. I grow particularly self-conscious when I see that every woman here has figured out how to get their hair to stay in their helmet and not become the tangled mess that mine had become. Do I even belong here?

Later that night, after a late dinner because someone had forgotten to buy plates and had to drive the hour-plus back into town (“Welcome to the federal government,” one crewmember quipped), I sat next to a fire on an upturned log while a couple guys passed a guitar around and strummed bluegrass songs. Everyone looked at the ground, tired and likely downtrodden that we weren’t allowed to bring any beer in our government vehicles. We might have needed it, given the forecast — thunderstorms and heavy rain throughout the night, which would no doubt keep our small tent village from getting much sleep. The mountains beyond the tents were draped in heavy grey clouds, but the bearded guys strummed on while I realized this moment didn’t make sense, me sitting with this festoon of dirty firefighters singing bluegrass songs. And maybe I didn’t belong at all, but at least I was one muddy elbow stain closer.

Dispatch from Left Field – An Intro to Ink and Ash

I’m Amanda. I’m an English major with a couple credits of firefighter training. I currently reside in left field.

When I decided last August to pursue firefighting, left field came up a lot. A LOT. So I had to embrace left field, and it’s not so bad.

Other than hearing about which field this idea was coming from (seriously, right field sounds pretty good right now), I’ve reveled in documenting the responses I’ve gotten from friends and family about my decision to breathe smoke for the next six months. Confused nods outnumber most other reactions, but a few statements have been pretty popular as well — namely, that I need to “put some meat on my bones” if I want to be a firefighter (PS I’m eating more carbs and burgers than you care to know about, okay?). My personal favorite is when someone reminds me how dangerous it is, how many people die doing it, that they’ll pray for me. I understand the concern is coming from a place of compassion, and I understand the confusion is coming from a place of actual confusion. I’m a 125 lb English major. Why would I subject myself to such hard work!?

Honestly, I don’t know how I’ll like hiking up steep game trails with a heavy pack on while breathing smoke for the next six months. Maybe their sympathy and concern isn’t misplaced. Maybe I’ll hate it. Yet more than likely, I’m going to love it, because I’ve spent nine months dedicating all of my being to getting mentally and physically prepared for it, to learning how to operate chainsaws and pumps, to learning how to predict fire behavior, stay safe, splint broken bones and open an airway. Aside from writing, I’ve never felt so energized to learn how to do something. Once I considered firefighting to be within the realm of possible life choices (probably the biggest obstacle of all of this), I took out a personal loan, paid for a semester of fire classes at NMU (the university where I got my English degree,) found a rental and a couple part-time jobs, and moved back to Marquette — all within a month.

Even writing hasn’t been able to motivate me like that.

I can rattle off a few of the reasons for this re-directioning, my rampant masochism being the primary culprit. However I also have four little sisters, all under 14, and I want to show them that nothing is off limits. Nothing is just for the boys. Nothing is beyond their realm of possibility.

There are also the reasons that I’ve given my parent’s friends, who are unfailing in their puzzled, sympathetic gestures when I tell them what I’m doing for the next six months. My go-to is that this will be a quick way to pay off my student loans before I move into a career. Equal parts financial justification and a presumption of future success, they eat it up, their puzzled faces almost always giving way to something more content, satisfied — reassured.

For some, nothing reassures better than money. And that’s understandable. So I talk money. Lots of overtime, I say. Oh, and hazard pay — all buzzwords that usually serve to convince whoever is doing the asking that this isn’t a useless, left field life direction I’m heading in.

“They have a 20-year retirement program! I could be retired by 50!” I told my mom when she asked about how this would benefit me in the future.

“I could work in PR or communications at some point!” I repeat to uncles and aunts who wonder how an English degree and fire science could possibly be pieces of the same puzzle.

Truth is, I don’t know if they ever will be, but there’s fun in trying. In the meantime, I’ll just be over here, chilling in left field.