The Way I Read: Haphazardly

Following Pulitzer celebrates its 4th anniversary this week—that’s right, 4 years (give or take a multi-month outage or two when I disappeared like a magician’s assistant) of non-stop rambles through a very idiosyncratic take on largely forgotten prize-winning American fiction from the period between the world wars, interlaced with a lot of pretty excellent poetry and some navel-gazing about the idea of America (some would call the whole blog navel-gazing, but presumably not you, faithful reader).  Anyway, this would be a great moment to bounce back triumphantly from hiatus with a post on Upton Sinclair‘s Dragon’s Teeth, but truth be told that dazzling volume was only rediscovered yesterday under a pile of papers on what passes for a coffee table here at FP’s palatial digs in an early 20th century Chicago apartment building, and so it’ll be a day or two, at the very least, before I have anything to say about it.  But I could hardly let the moment pass without posting anything, and so I thought it might be a good time to return to my very occasional series “The Way I Read” in which I offer some thoughts about who I think I am as a reader, and invite you to comment a bit on what you make of my thoughts, and how you yourself read.  It seems like a pretty reasonable, maybe even important, sideline to Pulitzer blogging—a way to help provide a little insight into why I see books (and American literature, broadly speaking) the way I do.  Newer arrivals to the blog (and long-time readers who may easily have forgotten the prior posts) can find them all gathered in one place by clicking on this link or by selecting “The Way I Read” from the category dropdown in the right sidebar.

Tonight’s topic?  It’s about time I dealt with one of the most important facts about me as a reader that is totally obscured by this blog project—the remarkably aimless way I approach 95% of the reading in my life.  Here at FP, of course, my “brand” is all about rigidity: I’m not just a “literary blogger”, or a “literary award blogger”, or even a “Pulitzer blogger”.  I’m committed to reading the Puliter Prize winning novels in exact chronological order without exception—no skipping chapters, no skipping books, no peeking ahead.  But that’s not at all how I handle reading normally, and I wonder how similar I am to the rest of you.

It’s one thing, of course, to read whatever I feel like—I do, generally speaking (more on that in a bit), but I figure that’s true of all of us once we’re free of teachers or professors assigning us reading material.  What I think is odd about me, or else what is wonderfully odd about the human race (if you’re all like me in this respect), is how many books I keep spinning at one time.  When I walked through the door this evening, home from work and thinking of picking up a book, I had six books with bookmarks (or folded Post-It notes, or receipts, or whatever’s handy) waiting for me to pick them up.  I’m not talking about books I picked up long ago but have long since forgotten that I was reading.  I’m not counting the book I’m reading aloud to my wife (see a previous Why I Read on that front), or books that are naturally read a bit at a time (like What to Expect When You’re Expecting), or books that get consulted now and then (like an encyclopedia or a travel book).  And I’m not counting the long-neglected Upton Sinclair, even though obviously I intend to pick up that Pulitzer winner and start up from exactly where I left off, nor am I counting the scholarly books I’m reading at work as part of trying to put together a journal article to submit somewhere.  What I am counting is the Dickens novel I’m finally rereading for the first time in 20 years, the book about global warming I realized I needed to re-read now that I’m bringing a human being into the world, the Agatha Christie mystery that P. D. James‘s book on detective fiction reminded me I’d wanted to read, and several other titles scattered from my bedside table to the computer desk.  And depending on what whim seizes me tonight, I may add a seventh to the mix since I brought home this book about the journalists who covered the Nixon/McGovern campaign in 1972 and a blog post today made it sound intriguing enough that I might just have to dive in at once.

Now, these six (or seven) books aren’t all going to be finished—that much I grant you.  Certainly at least one or two, and maybe four or five, of them will fall back into the sea of books that I’d call “our library” if that didn’t make it sound like books and bookshelves were some smaller subset of an apartment largely composed of other things, and of course in fact the book to apartment ratio is much closer to the ocean to land ratio current on the planet Earth.  But the weird thing is that I feel I can fall into and out of these books really easily—that global warming title, for instance, I’m pretty sure I haven’t touched since I moved it from one pile to another last week, and I don’t think I’ve read it since sometime in July.  But if I wanted to read it tonight, I’d pick up exactly where I left off, and feel I was merely continuing an ongoing “read” of the book.  I have no idea how this sounds to you.  It might be you’re saying “Ah yes!  This is what readers do, James: did you really think you were unusual?”  And it might be you’re saying “Ahem: James, if you’re reading more than two books at a time, you don’t get credit for any of them.  Those are the rules, you know.”  To me it feels simultaneously very natural and very silly.  Natural, of course, since no one’s forcing me to behave in this bizarre fashion and so this must be what my brain thinks of as “normal” on some level.  But silly in that I cannot possibly imagine where in my head all these different things are alive—fictive and non-fictive characters and situations bumping into each other like guests at an awkward wedding reception, looking past each other in the hopes that someone they know is already at their assigned table.  All of them are as present to me as if I’d just set them down a little while ago—in old-fashioned computer speak (Millenials, I don’t know if this will make sense to you), they’re in RAM, not ROM—and I can distinguish pretty clearly between a book I read a bit ago and “am still reading”, and a book I read a bit ago and “have stopped reading”, though I’m not always sure how I know this.  This is a modern luxury, of course—I figure that Aristotle and Aquinas couldn’t really have lived like this, since even owning that many books at any time pre-Gutenberg would have been pretty luxurious.  I wonder why it feels so natural to me, then, and where on earth I got the habit (to my knowledge, neither of my parents are like this, and I can’t think of any other “reading role models” off-hand who might have influenced me this direction).

One last (maybe related?) note ties back into what I noted a couple of paragraphs back, when I said that “generally speaking” I read whatever I like.  For some reason, every summer I decide I need to learn something.  I pick a topic (often seemingly at random) and assert that I really need to pick up several books on the topic and get somewhere with them.  Sometimes this is an utter disaster (the Summer of Learning Old English was not a roaring success), and at other times it works marvelously (the Summer of Learning about Climate Change has turned into a lifelong interest).  But regardless, I’ll admit, it’s a bit of an odd thing to do—suddenly select an area of interest and decide that, over the next couple of months, I am committed to reading about it.  Is this my brain trying to steer me onto a better, more focused path?  Or just one more of the many ways I make eccentricity a way of life?  It’s not clear to me.  I certainly read a weird mix of fiction and non-fiction normally, and usually none of the titles relate to each other, outside the parameters of my “summer project”.

Am I overanalyzing?  Almost certainly!  But this is the point of my occasional “The Way I Read” posts: bringing out into the light one of the sides of me as a reader that I figure might be idiosyncratic, and seeing whether it resonates with other folks or not.  I fully intend to keep reading this way in the future: I hardly know how to stop, even if I wanted to.  But I wonder—do you read this way?  If so, I’d love to hear your musings about it, and if not, it would be great to get a glimpse of what reading is like for you.

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Still kicking!

Upton Beall Sinclair Jr. as depicted on the co...

Like Upton Sinclair, there’s life in me yet! (I envision him saying in a saucy gangster voice “Put ’em up!”) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yes, it’s been a long blog outage—this is two parts needing to recharge batteries, two parts a slow novel (Upton Sinclair, I thought there would be more terrifying slaughterhouse scenes?), four parts unexpected baby on the way, and probably a mystery ingredient or two I haven’t identified.  Anyway, I got a little nudge today from one of my few faithful readers (thanks, Donna!) saying they miss the output here at FP, and I’m inclined to agree: I miss it too!  I don’t know yet how to fit this routine into the new routines in my life, since I’ll be adding (what I hope will be) a relatively engaged fatherhood to an already semi-busy life as an academic who hears the tenure clock ticking in the background (so far I’m publishing enough that perishing doesn’t sound too likely), but I have a long way to go and by golly I’m going to get there.  There are a ton of novels I’m looking forward to reading—just today I picked up a book and then thought “wait! it’s a Pulitzer novel! put that down and go find Dragon’s Teeth, wherever the heck it is, and you’ll get to this one eventually”—and step by step I’ll get there.  I can try to ennoble this as some larger message I want to give my future daughter about determination and finishing what one starts, etc., but really what it comes down to is I’m a bit stubborn and also just pleased enough with the best bits of the blog that I’d like to see if I can out-do them.  So, anyhow, I remain alive and committed to getting FP back off the ground here sooner or later, so keep your eyes open for a little poetry or a bit of me whining about the Pulitzer board’s taste in the 1940s.  Until then, happy reading!

Poetry Friday: 1942, part 2

We’ve finally gotten to the end of a journey begun back in April (the cruelest month)—the long and winding path through T. S. Eliot‘s gorgeous and evocative poem collection, Four Quartets.  For those of you who missed earlier posts, or who need to refresh your memory, this link will take you to all of my posts on the four poems.  The final piece in Four Quartets, a poem called “Little Gidding”, is so rich with material that I’ve actually decided to divide it up into two PF posts.  This first one will deal with most of the poem, and the second post, next week, will tackle Eliot’s grand finale, which will give me a chance to reflect just a little on how all the poem’s themes weave together.

So, we’ve arrived at “Little Gidding”—just as a reminder, this is the end of a project begun well before the war, in 1936, but by 1942, Eliot is writing amidst the chaos of the war’s peak.  He and his adopted country, England, have endured the London Blitz, the Battle of Britain, and the nearly-constant threat of invasion and conquest.  The fact that we know the outcome of the war shouldn’t blind us to how inevitable surrender must have seemed in 1940-1941, when England stood more or less alone, having seen the nations of Europe fall one by one under the jackboots of the Wehrmacht.  This final poem, then, is written as the tide has just begun to turn—allies have joined the United Kingdom in this fight, the worst of the bombings are over, and the prospect of victory and peace (while still distant) begins to seem not entirely unrealistic.  I’m going to tackle a huge piece of the first section of the poem—remember, each of the quartets is divided into five sections, all of them with distinctive patterns that echo and resonate between poems, as well as between sections within each poem.  Here it is, then, an excerpt from the first section of “Little Gidding” by T. S. Eliot:

“If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull façade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places
Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city—
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.”

Eliot takes advantage of our deep investment in these poems (by this point) and makes our journey as readers a part of the poem’s text—we began this series of poems by hearing voices in a nameless garden, and we followed them through the door we never opened, “into our first world”.  Where, then, have we come?  To a place that is not yet green with springtime, not yet blossoming with May-flowers, but we sense that will come.  Eliot, the master of the resonant phrase, ties our journey into journeys from another age: wherever we are arriving, we do so at night “like a broken king”, and that phrase is at once specific (Charles I fled to the tiny village of Little Gidding after the Battle of Naseby, in which his army was destroyed—he’d go on to be captured and executed at the end of that war) and universal (who can’t, on some level, identify with the feeling of a nightfall that found us broken and cast down from some position we once identified with?).  This arrived-at place is still hard for me to fully imagine: we have left the road, but I do not know what this “dull façade” is, nor whose tombstone I am seeing.  Like Scrooge, I think I worry on some level it’s supposed to be mine—the end of a journey in a very mortal sense.  Whatever we think we came for, Eliot tells us we more or less have to leave that behind.  The goal is less important to him than something else—is this like Cavafy’s “Ithaca”, where the journey is its own reward?  I don’t quite think so.  Eliot is just acknowledging a truth about journeys—that on some level we cannot possibly anticipate or understand what we were really traveling for.  Either our real purpose is hidden from us by the distance we feel from our own selves—whatever moves us to get on the road is buried too deep to make sense of—or else the purpose has become something else in being reached.  I like the way he talks so matter-of-factly about being here at “the world’s end”.  This is not the only place where the world ends—it ends in many other places, some perhaps more exciting or alluring than here, some perhaps less.  This is different from them in only one key way, but perhaps it’s the only one that counts: this is the “nearest” place.  It is the place closer to us than any other.  That very mundane fact strikes me as weirdly significant.

English: Little Gidding Church, near to Little...

Little Gidding Church—whatever the village meant to Eliot, this is the place he chose to tie in to the poem we’re grappling with (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And then Eliot starts to push us about this whole journey we’ve been on, and what it means that we are arriving somewhere.  It doesn’t matter, he tells us, where we came from.  Not how hard the journey was, how slow the going, or how carefully we planned our path.  It is time for us to set down “sense and notion”.  We think we have come here—where are we? doesn’t the importance of that rise as we read? and yet I feel certain he wants to delay that reveal for good reason—to act in various sensible ways.  He anticipates our desire to start cataloging things and organizing them, to document the world around us, perhaps, or to walk away nodding meaningfully at how important this all has been.  And he tells us to give up something instead—that composure of the student and the critic that holds us at a distance from what we are observing.  Instead, Eliot asks us to humble ourselves.  He does not ask us to pray, but he insists that we kneel in acknowledgement that we have come to a place where prayers are answered, where prayer is not the rote mumblings of the pious or the careful supplications of the needy.  Whatever these prayers are, he suggests that they are wordless, unconscious, the wild soundless expressions of something in us that is neither mind nor order.  And in this place, by some means Eliot does not bother to explain (perhaps he cannot), we hear the voices of the dead who will tell us what we cannot know in, to use Eliot’s chilling phrase that sets my hair on end, “the communication of the dead [that] is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living”.  We have met them in a moment that is outside of time.  We are here in England—in Little Gidding itself, perhaps, a tiny village in Cambridgeshire—and yet we are also nowhere.  We have stepped outside of the world into somewhere that never existed, and always will.

What is Eliot after?  You really ought to read the whole poem to reach for it, but here are a few musings from me, based on having read and re-read this poem with real fascination for many years now—it was the first of the Quartets to catch my eye, and is still my favorite.  The poem is, I think, rich with images of death and resurrection—this is a work that is fascinated by what it means for life to end, and what hope we can draw from the idea of stepping beyond it.  I imagine that seeing England drawing itself back from the brink is a part of this, although this is also a topic that fascinated Eliot in general.  As “Little Gidding” unfolds, Eliot narrates the collapse of the four elements of medieval science—earth, air, water and fire all “die”—and confronts his own mortality in a dialogue with an unnamed “master” who pronounces an end to his “lifetime’s effort”.  Eliot begins to play with time, memory and history: he overlays scenes and images in what I’d call a “montage” if he were a film-maker, and deals at some length with what it would mean to literally turn back time (to unring a bell, at one point) and what it means that we cannot.  The world Eliot sees in the poem’s brief but haunting fourth section is a world aflame.  We cannot escape the fire, he tells us—we can only go through it, either the fire that will unmake us into ash or the fire that refines and cures us until we emerge from it as something new.  If this isn’t a man trying to do for the world via poetry what Stephen Hawking wants to do for it via physics, explaining our experience and our condition in something like a Grand Theory of Everything, I think it feels very like it at times.  And the genius of Eliot (for me) is that I think he gets awfully close: certainly large portions of “Little Gidding” feel deeply perceptive and incredibly important to me, even (and perhaps especially) those images that I can’t entirely understand.

He goes on to weave together a lot of these images into the staggering fifth and final section of the poem, and I’ll deal with that next Friday.  In the meantime, I hope you’ll look for a copy of it—just Googling “Little Gidding” will turn up copies aplenty, if you don’t have it in print handy—and give the poem a read.  I’d love to talk it over with some of you in the comments, both here and on next Friday’s post.  It’s one of my favorite passages of poetry, and one that I think yields a lot of messages depending on what symbols you choose to deal with, and how you tackle them, so the more voices that can chime on on any part of this, the merrier I will be.

In defense of book blogging

Mabel, of Maple and a Quill, encountered a pretty savage shot across the bow aimed at book blogs and book bloggers this weekend, and fired back a salvo as polite as it is devastating in defense of what we do.  I’d talk at more length about why the critic she’s responding to—and a lot of critics like him—are clearly both badly informed about the breadth of the world of book blogging, and astoundingly chauvinist in the ways they think and talk about book bloggers (“knitting circles”?  Wow, and I thought no man was left alive who had been a member of a Victorian gentlemen’s club.  He must think those suffragettes are outrageous).  But honestly, Mabel has said it much more articulately and more stirringly than I think I can muster, so go give her essay a read.

Need more incentive?  This, I think, is the heart of her piece: “As one of the leeches of literature, I feel inspired to speak. I am no literary critic, but I am an intelligent, keen, earnest, curious, and certainly legitimate member of the literary conversation, and I daresay I live in a society that is both aggressive and gentle; both analytical and emotive; both critical and appreciative; both male and female. I do not write to tear apart literature, but to learn from it, and to share my tattered thoughts, which are very much a work in progress.”  Amen to that, Mabel—amen.

My interview with the Rural Lit R.A.L.L.Y.

So, there’s this initiative out here on the interwebs that’s aimed at reviving interest in America’s literature about rural life—a joint venture of Buffalo State College (New York) and Buena Vista University (Iowa), the goal is to raise the profile of American novels about farm and country life that are disappearing from the national memory and conversation.  The idea in the long run is to work with universities, colleges, museums, and other cultural and educational institutions across the country to publicize books, get them in classrooms and libraries, etc., but you don’t have to take my word for it: you can find out more about the Rural Lit R.A.L.L.Y. at their website.

Anyway, these excellent people were steered my way by a friend of Following Pulitzer, Nancy Gluck of Silver Season (thanks, Nancy!), given that I’ve been reading a lot of semi-neglected rural American novels.  Veteran readers of my blog will be interested/amused/horrified to learn that one of Rural Lit R.A.L.L.Y.’s rural novels, and the novel they are in fact featuring this month, is none other than Margaret Wilson’s The Able McLaughlins.  Yes, that book.  And before you ask, the good people at RLR (who are fans of Wilson’s work) already know how I feel about the book, and nevertheless wanted to associate themselves with me—if that isn’t proof that us book bloggers are an open-minded and non-judgmental sort, I don’t know what is.  Anyway, they’re interested in linking to (and even excerpting from, with my permission) Following Pulitzer, and otherwise involving me at least peripherally in helping spread the word about America’s good rural literature—I’m pushing for them to give some much-needed attention to the wonderful Now in November, for instance.

This picture isn't the link to the interview, in case you were wondering...it's a link in the text to the left.

I swear, I only said a couple of unkind things about The Able McLaughlins in the interview—I think I deserve some credit for restraint. (Photo credit: smiling_da_vinci)

All of this is to say that, as a part of this association with RLR, they asked me if I’d be willing to be interviewed, and I said I’d be delighted to.  Right now, posted on their website, is a lengthy interview with me, so if you’re interested in my reflections on what I’ve learned so far, which rural novels I’d single out for praise (and why), how my work as a teacher has affected my project, etc., there’s a lot of pondering and pontificating there that I’ve never posted here.  Head to that link to find out even more insights into my psyche and this crazy quest I’m on.  And, in general, I hope you’ll poke around RLR’s site a bit and find out more about what they’re up to.  I’m still learning about their work (and how I might collaborate a little, down the road), and I think it’s definitely something that people who love books should be informed about.  Cheers to you all, and I hope October’s being good to you so far!

The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction: The 2012 “snub”

A public domain image of Joseph Pulitzer (thanks to Wikipedia)

Joseph Pulitzer, looking with disdain (or approval?) at the 2012 board’s decision not to award a prize in fiction

Well, obviously it just got a whole lot more interesting for me as a lonely blogger focused on Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction—welcome to those of you arriving here searching for information about the prize and why it is/isn’t awarded.  If you’re looking for basic information about what the criteria are for the prize, and who picks it, I have a page devoted to that information: it’s primarily historical (given that I am currently only up to the 1930s as I read my way through the novels), but I do link to an article from a recent jury member who has some comments on what the process looks like now.  If you’re wondering how often this has happened before (the answer—more often than you might think), a quick glance at my list of the novels by year will show you the years in which “no award was given”—the last time this occurred was in 1977, when Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It didn’t quite reach the Pulitzer Board, despite being the jury’s unanimous recommendation.

As a blogger reading my way through these selections chronologically, in an attempt to better understand America and America’s literature, my feelings on the subject are mixed.  The fact that the list of books ahead of me is not one longer is, I suppose, a bit of a comfort, given how long this project has taken, and will take!  But that’s a fairly petty response, and not the one I’m dwelling on.

I’m at a major handicap here, since I haven’t read any of the three finalists this year, nor have I read the competition they beat out—the jury members are obviously exponentially more qualified than I am to say what was worthy this year, and how worthy it was.  All I can do is comment in the abstract by saying that one of the best things about the Pulitzers, in my opinion, is their determination not to hand out the award “because someone has to win”.  They are not swayed by the publishing industry’s demand for a prize-winner to drive sales.  They are not moved by the appeals of literary critics or author campaigns.  When they can’t settle on a winner, they don’t—this applies to all the Pulitzers, not just the prize for fiction.

That’s in the abstract.  I also have to acknowledge that, in practice, the decision not to award a prize (in fiction at least) has usually not stemmed from a desire to maintain high standards, but rather from a fear of endorsing literature that is seen as too edgy, immoral, experimental, etc., for the relatively mainstream reader that the Pulitzers remain determined to serve.  I don’t think that’s commendable.  But I honestly can’t say what motivated the board in 2012.  Is it just fear of, for example, an unfinished novel by the admittedly eccentric David Foster Wallace?  Or is it really their feeling that none of the three finalists (or anything else—the Board is not required to limit itself to the jury’s nominations, though in practice they haven’t strayed recently) really merited the award.  We don’t know, and we may never.

So all I can say, in the end, is that I hope it really was their feeling that none of the finalists merited the award.  I can’t say if that judgment would be fair, but I don’t think it would be a bad practice if more awards followed the Pulitzers’ lead.  Having the freedom not to give the award means that the award will be more significant when it is given.  It will always provoke outrage.  It may sometimes be the fairest possible outcome.

The other decision for me will be delayed—when I get to 2012, years from now, will I read the three finalists?  I simply “skipped” 1920 when I hit the first gap in the sequence.  I think I will at least comment on 1941 when I reach it, probably in the next few months.  But will I read the book that was unanimously recommended (and then hastily swept under the carpet) for 1941?  I don’t know.  I think my decision for 1941 will govern how I handle 2012, and I’ll need to make that decision soon.  Any comments/thoughts you may have on the matter, or on the larger question of whether or not it’s really a good idea for the Pulitzer Board to just skip the fiction award for 2012, would be very welcome.

Poetry Friday: Er, well….me, it seems

I’ve had a good run with Poetry Friday, but I’ve lost some steam recently.  It’s hard to scrounge up poetry, no matter the source, and the last few weeks at work have taken enough out of me that I haven’t been ready with anything, each Friday.  Today, realizing I’d come to yet another Friday without a poem, and not having the energy to try and unearth something from the year of my current novel, I’ve bailed out to what I’ve always considered my last resort: a poem of my own.  I’ve intentionally chosen something I’ve never done at any reading (that I can recall), something that I’d be open to tinkering with, and something that may well not be very good (we’ll see how you take it).  Maybe more importantly, it’s something that I think might provoke a little discussion—what do you think it’s about?  What am I saying?  Because I won’t tell you what I think of this one…not until you comment and we have a conversation to engage in.  (I thought about adding commentary, but posting your own poem unasked-for, and then, on top of that, your literary analysis of your own poem really sounds too self-indulgent even for me, and I’m a literary blogger who only reads award-winners.)

So, here it is, a brief and untitled work—I hope it’s a nice addition to your weekend, and that if you have thoughts or questions about it, you share them:

The fireplace has a square little door to the left of it
in the lamp-lit living room
of my parents’ house.
Winter evenings, I’d huddle cozied
there by the flames
and wonder what rich rooms, what worlds
awaited me if I opened the door
and followed the path behind it.
I never opened that door.