Apolitical

I try to stay apolitical in my writing for the simple fact that it is very hard to have any ideological position these days without hacking off half the world. I like to joke that if most of my neighbors knew what I really thought about the shape of our culture these days, they would have already burned my house to the ground. Unfortunately, I happen to live in Olympia, home of Evergreen University, which is my wife’s alma mater for her masters degree. To hear her tell it, and granted she finished up 20 years ago, Evergreen was a great education. Open dialog and debate were welcomed and her professors sound like sources of more than education. They sound like sources of wisdom.

In the past few days, Evergreen University has made the national news. My take on it is that they had a long-standing policy of allowing a day in which white people were encouraged not to attend, presumably out of respect for everyone else. First off, in what universe is this policy not racist? Why is racism only considered racism if it comes from a white point of view? Racism exists everywhere, in every flavor, and from the perspective of every population. Mexicans look down on El Salvadorans. Russians look down on Ukrainians, and so on… Ad infinitum. Some level of racism is pure human nature. It’s probably fairly easy to argue that racism is tribalism, which had a significant role in prehistoric survival. What the heck is this white privilege that keeps being shot out like cannon fire? Is anyone imagining that white people do not have to work for a living like everyone else? Sure, there are examples from any race of people who happen to be fortunate enough to inherit money, and it’s even possible that there more white examples than any others, but it works in the opposite direction just as well.

I once worked for the US Forest Service, and I was told in no uncertain terms that if I wanted to continue to work for the agency, I’d better hope that no one of any other ethnicity applied for the job, or I would be out. Guess what happened? There’s your white privilege. There was a lesbian in the front office who could tell as many loud jokes about male genitalia as she wanted without any consequence, but as white guy, even giving a female employee a hug (that she initiated) was grounds for dismissal. White privilege, I guess. We have institutionalized the blank slate to a degree that many would find astounding.

My wife loves her genealogy. She encouraged me to take a DNA test to see what I have in my background. In all honesty, I was hoping for a confirmation of the childhood rumors of Native American ties. I was hoping for some African DNA. At the very minimum, I could have happily created a scandal at the next family reunion in the deep South. I got nothin’. I’m as white European as they come. I was actually disappointed. From a certain point of view this makes the furthest from a racist that a so-called child of white privilege could be. For others, I am the ultimate racist for even noticing the difference.

So, apparently the Evergreen professor in the news, Bret Weinstein, a name implying one of the most horrifying examples of racism in history, although even noticing his name would subject me to racist accusations, has apparently spoken out against the policy of keeping white people off campus for a day. The resulting protest has been either mind blowing or an example of the most illogical thought in my lifetime.

The protesters apparently want this guy fired for racism when his position is patently anti-racist. Unless you buy into the concept that the only racism is that which comes from a white (preferably male) perspective… The only way to make his position racist is to believe wholeheartedly that white racism is universal and any other form of racism does not exist. The protesters blocked the campus police from even checking on his well-being, and even more amazingly, the president of the college has told his campus police to stand down, to accede to the demands of these students who could not logically find their way out of a wet paper bag. Again, my house could be burned to the ground for even espousing these opinions.

What have we come to?

I can only speak for myself. I grew up in the South, which many automatically associate with racism, but I am not racist. On an individual basis, everyone is the same. I may regard a man of Mexican decent as one the finest people I have ever met. (Hi Arturo!). I may worry about the recent health crisis of my Asian friends. (Hi As-Soon!). I may regard some of my high school football buddies as great examples of superlative humanity. (Hi Wayne!). I may regard a Puerto Rican high school friend as the most beautiful girl ever, but then I’m also a sexist, right?

The point is there is no longer any room for judgement. Even if my friend from Mexican descent was a member of a violent gang, rather than one of the most respectable people I’ve ever met, I’d still be a racist for using the word Mexican. Even if my friend As-Soon, and her husband Mike, and her children James, Jonathan, and Jennifer, were working as hard as they can to assimilate into American culture because of the opportunities they have found here, I’d be a racist for even noticing that they are Asian, no matter how high my regard for them stands. My friend Wayne, who I could not help but notice has African ancestry, would not be the slightest bit offended by the fact that I noticed, because he is afforded the respect of a human being, not an African American human being, not a black human being, just a fellow human being. Even noticing a difference is now tagged with a Hitlerian level of disdain.

The logic escapes me. My current mental metaphor is that the progressives, the left, the anti-Trump-election rhetoric, is spoken from inside of a particularly limited balloon. Of course the balloon is blue on the outside, mirrored on the inside to clearly reflect the thinking that is going on without any outside perspective, and the only view outwards is through the cardboard tube at the center of a roll of paper towels, which as we all know, is the pinnacle of environmental destruction, and the biggest blind spot imaginable.

Anyone who knows how to get both sides talking with some semblance of intelligence, mutual respect, and common sense, please speak up.

 

 

Wherein I Become Political

Sorry to all you Hillary supporters out there.

Yes, Donald trips over his tongue more often than should be allowed. The sad fact is that if we men were feeding our unedited mental stream to a recorder, it would come up a lot like Trump’s recent 11-year-old comments. We’re really stupid like like that.

That being said, with the implicit apology to women everywhere who do not understand that you have this brain killing effect on men, there are literally infinite examples of this kind of idiotic “locker room” talk almost every time men get together. We can’t help it. We’re sorry, but you are more than we can resist. And isn’t that a good thing in the grand scheme of things?

I’ve been accused of a “subtle sexism” in my writing. I am thankful for the “subtle” part of that accusation. I believe that women can do anything, without any limits. My wife is more than a match for me in far more ways than I can count. I believe that women should have the same opportunities and get paid the same for the same job. Unfortunately, we still live in a world where the first consideration for a person’s competence may well be gender. I’m married to a consummate professional and I was raised by another. I also believe that women should have the ultimate choice about what happens with their bodies. I do not, however, believe that we should confuse equal with “same”. Women are different, and that’s a good thing. They approach many important problems with a different set of priorities and goals, and oftentimes that is exactly what the problem requires. I can’t count the number of times I’ve tied myself into a mental knot, and my wife has come along and untied the whole problem with a handful of words. Needless to say, that differing set of priorities and approaches has enormous value in the overall solution. The potential perspective is valuable. I’d love to equate that with the potential first woman president, but I can’t.

Hillary, on the other hand, is not expressing that value. No matter how often she declares herself the champion of women and girls, she is an almost perfect example of masculine values. Say the most expedient thing, do the most expedient thing to accrue the most power and money, and lie when it runs contrary to the narrative of the most expedient path to those traditional patriarchal values of power and wealth. Have a private and public policy and never the twain shall meet. This is a stated position that I find far more frightening than locker room talk. The current political climate is almost defined by the fact that so much lying is being thrown around that we have no idea what is really happening. Isn’t it a truly male method to lie when caught, and to keep lying until there is at least some question in the actual facts of any particular issue? Or more precisely, to keep lying until well after the evidence is overwhelming in contradiction of the lie. I used to think that Bush the Younger had mastered that technique, but Hillary makes him look like a lying amateur. So does Obama, for that matter.

Trump, on the other hand, is too clumsy to get away with the same tactic. So, even though his message is a bizarre mixed bag of potentially scary outcomes, he is not capable of the level of subterfuge that our political machine has perpetuated on us for almost my entire life. Isn’t that sadly refreshing? Trump has been caught talking like a teenager in a locker room. Big deal. He is a male pig. Just like the conversation that occurs every poker night at my next door neighbor’s house. If you are a woman, would you find it offensive? Most likely. Would you find it rare? Not a chance. Men with other men will always talk big about women because we find women the most important thing, the most mysterious thing, and the most likely to lend us status in any male vs. male conversation. Is it stupid? Yep, definitely. Will it ever change? Nope. Is it our fault? No again, because we will always find women to be the most important thing we discuss. As women from a male perspective, and I say this in a dangerously sexist fashion, will always be the most important and baffling subject that men will ever discuss. Women, you have that power over us. Rejoice!

So we have a man who has said typically boorish and male things about women, yet puts women in high level positions within his multi-billion dollar/thousands-of-jobs enterprise in which most of his employees feel that he looks out for their best interests, and pays them the same as men, versus a woman who lives out very male values and in her limited experience as an employer of women, pays them 30% less for the same level position as men in the Clinton Foundation, which incidentally exists to spend 90% of its income to enrich the Clintons while taking money from the worst examples of women’s rights in the world. To be fair, I suspect her closest advisors are paid very well. Well…. You call it. My view is that Hillary is no champion of women or children. She certainly hasn’t helped either group in a full career of claiming victory. Frankly, I’m amazed that with all the effort to discredit Mr. Trump, they haven’t found armies of people to testify against him. Apparently he actually does behave himself pretty well. If not, the media would gleefully dump hundreds of interviews on our heads. On the Hillary side, we have decades of well documented misbehavior and elite disconnection from the reality of our existence under her entrenched system and a profound lack of positive results.

Now let’s broaden our view. Here we are with a government, constitutionally called to look out for our best interests first, that in reality looks at our best interests last. I’ve long said that there are  only two conclusions that fit the facts. Either we keep electing total idiots, or the people we keep electing are working for someone else. Who might those others be? The first and most benign view is that our so called representatives quickly forget what it feels like to be on this side of the privilege line, and are simply working for themselves. In a world of more sinister possibilities, pure selfishness is a very calm conclusion. I mean they, meaning our elected representatives, have all kinds of favors and loopholes through which they can enrich themselves without anyone, meaning us, noticing until it’s too late. A more scary conclusion is that they are working for someone else. Although I’ve seen plenty of conspiracy theories about who someone else might be, I can honestly say that I have no idea.

Logically, “they” can be grouped into special interests or some kind one world government idea, which based on recent wikileaks and about a million statements, Hillary clearly supports. It is purely logical that the biggest impediment to a one world government is the American middle class, which has wielded enormous economic and political power to go with our independence and access to opportunity. Until recently at least… Those of us in the American middle class are losing economic power through globalization and loss of jobs. We are losing political potency through a rapid loss of economic power and a cultural sell job that is trying to convince us that the American culture is not only useless, but something to feel guilty about. Thanks, Obama, who manages to disparage American values on a regular basis. How do we lose the heart to fight for our way of life? Obama. Any president standing in a foreign country talking about American laziness is saying more about himself than those under his condescending crosshairs. None of this is to say that our culture is in any way perfect. It is really more of a supporting leg in the way that we built our economic success. I’d say that leg needs some heavy sanding and a new coat of paint right about now.

How do we continue to lose the idea that we have a culture worth preserving? Some combination of overwrought political correctness combined with Hillary’s third term of Obama. Who does this ideology benefit? Not us. If we a want world that seeks fairness above all else, then we have to be prepared to lose more of our way of life than others would gain. If we want to maintain our quality of life then we need to be prepared to put America first, a phrase that has been reduced to a trucker hat slogan. Anyone who has been to third world or post Soviet nations can attest to the fact that we are blessed in this country, and we should do whatever it takes to avoid becoming a post-American nation.

So what works at this point? First off, we need to forget globalism until it works for us. It’s a nice idea of inclusiveness that will destroy our quality of life. Trump stands for this concept. Even the most critical interpretation of Trump’s stance indicates that he is working to preserve his wealth into a future that will no longer support it. If Trump can’t go from today and grow wealth into the future, then what chance do we have? Hillary stands for eroding our quality of life as fast as she can manage it. The only limit is how much discomfort we can withstand, like the proverbial frog in boiling water. If “they” move too fast, we sense the danger and jump out before we are cooked. The movement of support for Trump, and Bernie, we’ve seen in the past year indicates that “we the frog” are feeling the heat. And we should. Hillary’s record alone makes this point clear. She exists for her power at the expense of the American middle class, which in turn stands in the face of a “global open borders, one step from a global government” reality. Anyone who thinks a real hemisphere free trade system protects our way of life, please raise your hand.

Long story short, Hillary represents a future of global oligarchy that doesn’t care about Joe Six Pack and his opportunity of future success against the “fair” balance with every third world nation. We will fall far further than they will rise. Trump, warts and all, represents a preservation of our saucy capitalist values, which includes American exceptionalism, and the middle class existence that rides on the success of that vision. It’s your choice, and rightly so. Just think it through…. and then feel free to write in a vote for your favorite aunt, who is almost guaranteed to run the country better than anything on the ballot. But then, whose favorite aunt is the best? Let’s pick one of those charming ladies who has no fear of saying exactly what she thinks. They are the best.

To Hillary

To Hillary: You’re a criminal. The fact that people don’t generally understand this means that they either can’t use google, or they don’t bother. Hillary, you lie on a level that Satan himself would find impressive.

To Bernie: You seem to be a man of integrity, and I like you, but your polices are not American. Better than a clearly self serving criminal but way too risky for our future.

To Cruz: You may not be establishment in the sense that no one likes you, but your fake attempt at sincerity makes me think there is a hooker under the podium.

To Rubio: Go back to being a sincere child in the world of politics. It fits you better, and two terms from now will make you an obvious nominate.

To Kasich: Good for you, looking like an actual grownup in the monkey circus, but we are pissed, and you should be too.

To Trump: Yeah good job on tapping into our pissed off state, but we are waiting for something deeper and more detailed than slogans. Do your homework.

To the RNC: We don’t care about your platform, a conservative movement, or the establishment. We care about a government that works for us rather than the obvious fact that we are led by a pack of assholes who are more interested in accruing power and money to themselves than the long term health of the people they theoretically serve.

To the Democrats: WTF!?

To everyone: Let’s try owning up and asking for forgiveness.

Here it Comes! Make it Count!

Well, here we are, approaching the end of an endless race. Seriously, it feels like I’ve been the unwilling receptacle of a streaming fire hose of political mind junk for a solid decade now, and that’s just for the 2012 election. If any of us are hoping to win something from the barrage of the 24-hour news cycle, I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were us – and it just so happens that I am.

I think the whole race is about what we could lose, and more importantly, what we hope not to lose. I hate to break it to either set of proponents of the two-party system, but we’re in a lesser of two evils situation. I can make a case either way, but that’s not for me, since there are a million pundits working both sides right now – and for the past 800 million weeks. Given my baseline opinion of the only viable candidates, viable because the two-party system has an iron stranglehold that prevents any other parties from joining the race in a realistic way. Not that it matters; every one of the secondary party candidates can disqualify themselves quite handily, which leaves those of us who would otherwise cast a protest vote without a meaningful target.

Just for the record, I could write a huge honking volume about problems and solutions in the America of 2012. My poor wife gets the brunt of it. But in order to do that, I would have to use footnotes and sources and crap, and honestly, I just prefer to collect ideas and stuff them in corners of my head until they leak out as fiction, which is blessedly free of footnotes.

I suspect that a large number of my readers would happily argue the same side as I would, and that is the sad idea that we are rapidly turning into tiny, ineffectual cogs in a machine that is running out of control. I think the power elite tends to look at us regular citizens as vote batteries for attaining office, money batteries for our fantasy-based economy, and when we can’t be used in those ways, they simply hope to keep us from noticing what they are really doing.

Over the long term, these and many other tendencies coalesce into patterns. Just like the predicted course of a hurricane, the end result of the patterns can end up diverging wildly from where we expected. (I would note at this point how incredibly accurate the Sandy predictions turned out to be. Kudos to our Hurricane Forecast Center) I happen to believe that the balance point of the crossing patterns is relatively fragile, and our metaphorical storm can turn hard with a little push from chaos theory. To borrow another metaphor, our economic engine is way out on the limb, and gets bounced at will by forces that appear to have our best interests in mind only to the extent that we can go back to being fully charged money batteries for those same forces. As a bonus, if we remain happily engaged in the system, we make nice stable vote batteries as well.

As I write, nobody knows how this election will turn out. It’s that close. What does the sheer “dead-heatedness” of our political process say about where we are in this country? Some would talk about political polarization, and that is certainly true. Just looking at my friends on Facebook is enough to build a model for the extreme range of views of our people. I would argue that the statistics say more about the extreme poorness of our choices. It’s far easier to agree “on” something than “against” something. And that’s what we are doing as a nation. We are not able to see something that is clearly favorable to enough people to build a consensus, using good honest information, and so we fall back on the next best thing.

What is the next best thing? Well, that depends. For some of you, it’s easiest just to pick a single issue and decide on that. Anti-abortion says you’re buying Romney. Pro-choice and the stats say you’ll go Democratic more often than not. On the economy, it gets much more complicated to pick the wheat from the chaff. Now you’re forced to pick an economic model, and whichever one you choose means you get a whole truckload of other issues that go with it. What if, for example, you believe in a minimal regulation, free market economy, and you believe in a woman’s right to choose? Well, then you are stuck with deciding which part is the most important. And the list goes on until we have the near perfect polarization of opinion.

What if the belief is just not there? Obama generated a staggering amount of belief in his message four years ago, and we jumped in with both feet. Many of Obama’s believers have experienced bitter disappointed at the startling revelation that, OMG, he’s just another politician speaking from the most expedient side of his mouth. I’m not saying Captain Etch-a-Sketch is any better. He flip flops so often that the only way we will discover what he’s really about is to give him four years to show us. Until we elect our next President, we are stuck with nothing but belief to help us make the call. Obama has his sackful of vague promises, and so does Romney.

What if the party line is good enough? If you happen to believe that Republicans generally do a better job than Democrats, it’s not so hard to convince yourself that any candidate they toss will stick to the fridge like a well-cooked noodle. If you swing the other way, that’s fine too, because if you care to dig, you can easily find that neither party represents any kind of solution for the mess in which we find ourselves, and historically, both sides can  lay claim to an endless stream of abuses.

What does it all mean?  This grand, faith based, no-good-choice reality… Well, it means that we had all, as individuals, better think long and hard about how to get our own house in order. This country is our house – yours and mine. How do you want it to work? Do you want your leadership bought and paid for? Do we want to pay for Romney’s <cough> 47%, and if so, how do we really pay for it into the future? Are they the Free Shit Army, or brothers and sisters who deserve our care? Do we want most of our goods to be made in China, or do we want to build the best stuff in the world and worry long and hard about how to distribute it to our global customers? Do we want to play games with foreign dictators through loans and billions of dollars in aid, and if so, who can make a case for what we get for those dollars? (By we, I don’t mean the power brokers who set up the arrangements. I mean us.) Do we want to subsidize the entire world’s medical costs by paying the entire “pride of lion’s” share for every pill and procedure – and to live in place where one health problem can destroy a financial life? Do we want bankers to risk everything we entrust to them and then buy them out of trouble with our own tax dollars while none of them even miss a bonus check, much less go down with the legal ship? Do we want our laws and regulations to grow to even more absurd levels of behavior controlling complexity while we all live in fear of some kind of costly non-compliance? Do we accept our liberty being threatened by sneaky maneuvers that benefit corporations with person level rights while the Supreme Court is deciding whether we actually own what we buy? Finally, how do we feel about people who live in waterfront homes and flood prone areas, screaming for government help when a devastating storm comes through? I could go on and on, but you get the point.

It seems raw and cynical in a country of free people that I feel the need to remind myself that we are supposed to have a voice. We are supposed to have some level of control over our political destiny. Do we still possess our voice, our rights, our own thoughts? Or, are we slowly succumbing to a social assault that over years and generations has led us to point where we forget the basics. This country is ours.

As we line up to cast our ballots, some of us will proudly vote for our candidate. I’m a little jealous of those people, because I would love to be voting “for” someone. If I could find someone like that, I assure you I would be telling you who that person is. As it stands, I’m voting for the lesser of evils in my own personal hierarchy of important issues, and at the top of the list is the most basic, fundamental idea of this country of ours. Freedom.

I feel confident that if you start digging without prejudice, you could easily discover who is the biggest threat to fundamental rights and freedom. Thanks, Google!

For all of you, I pray for your own clarity and wisdom in the voting booth, and no matter the outcome, let’s all remember that the first and last line of defense for America is us –  the strong, independent, thinking individuals who still have the right of destiny for our great nation. I suggest we hold onto it.

 

 

 

The Market of Belief

I read too much. I watch too much, and I make sure to cover every side of the spectrum. Why? Quite honestly, I don’t expect the truth from anyone.

I’ve made the assertion several times that politics is just another belief system. Like any belief, certain aspects of our politics, no matter how we identify ourselves, are based in faith. That’s not to say that we cannot grab facts to support our faith. We always can. Just like a revival, we can offer our testimony for a certain set of political beliefs. That’s perfectly fine. One of the great things about this country is that we can believe the way we see fit.

The problem – one among many – is that most of us live at the receiving end of a giant and well entrenched system that is designed for the express purpose of manipulating those beliefs. If you are offended by Romney’s recent unearthed comments about the 47%, there is an army of liberals trying to make you believe that it makes him a heartless rich bastard, and therefore entirely unsuited to represent your particular brand of Americanism. Likewise, if Obama is not loudly and aggressively hunting down terrorists right now, an army of Republicans is trying to make you believe that he is weak, and therefore unsuited to run the country in a world full of shadowy terrorists.

We see news that is almost laughably designed to make us look at the pretty birdie while Congress passes something that goes against our beliefs. Since we can’t really accept the news we are fed from every spouting electronic mouth, we are compelled to examine the issues from a viewpoint of some kind of logic. Does this make sense for Republicans or Democrats? Who is most likely to benefit from current events? Could it be someone else altogether, like China. What is happening in the world that we hear nothing about? And right now, how does everything affect the upcoming elections? Is there a larger game at play? It’s tiring, being the pawn in an information war.

I recently read an article in Wired magazine about the modern markets. Apparently, some investors will actually drive down the value of stocks they own in order to manipulate the currency market, where they actually make their money. It’s seems shady in a system that is intended to create value for companies and investors that someone would intentionally destroy value in one place to create it somewhere else. But it’s a good analogy for the patterns I see occurring every day, and the source of the title of this post.

What if (and please bear in mind that I write speculative fiction) there are people out there who think of our political beliefs as a kind of commodity that can be traded? Our beliefs can be built up for one purpose, and destroyed for others, so that the political power conferred by those beliefs can be traded for something of “real” value, like an election, or a war, or even something more subtle, like the tendency to use credit like the future doesn’t matter.

Everything has a spin. Sometimes the spin is delivered with a language that assumes that I am part of a certain platform of belief before I hear it. If I’m viewing the conservative side, the world is a scary place, teetering on the brink, and it’s made worse by those pesky Democrats. If I’m listening to the liberal side, it’s warm and fuzzy and the government will take care of everything for me, except for the stifling efforts of those pesky Republicans sitting on their hands. If I listen to the Libertarian side… Well, not much point in that in an election year.

I’m not saying that anyone’s political beliefs are wrong, mostly because, like that other great purveyor of belief known as religion, no one can legitimately claim to have the whole picture in hand. Especially not us, the average Americans who try to make sense of our world. Just as a survival tactic against an overwhelming tide of complexity, we are forced to have faith in something, or someone, just to retain some semblance of order in our heads. Over time, most people turn that faith into a kneejerk to the left, or a spasm to the right, and we forget the fact that almost everything we see and hear is intended to impose someone else’s beliefs upon our lives.

Am I calling for everyone to dedicate long hours of his or her life to wrestling with some grand, underlying truth? No. Frankly, most of us have better things to do with our time. I am saying that we might question our beliefs from time to time to discover where they arise. Unfortunately for me, when it comes to politics, all I do is question. I’ve lost my faith in any recognizable part of our ostensibly representative government. I’m not sure who they actually represent, but I’m sure that it isn’t me. I would further contend that, by and large, they no longer represent the Constitution, the founding ideals, the health and well being of the citizens, or any agreed upon concept of what makes America great.

And what made it great? You. Aware, responsible, educated, hardworking Americans trying to build something better, without trampling the rights of everyone else attempting to do the same. Your great-grandparents may have come to this country with a simple dream, but they did not contend with the flood of noise aimed directly into their skulls, trying to trade beliefs like food stamps for frozen pizza. They were not such victims of the Market of Belief because the tools were limited. That doesn’t mean that politicians haven’t been playing the same game forever. It just means that you can’t create an entire ideology in a single whistle stop campaign speech. It takes time. It takes access.

So, here we are, believing that government should do more or the government is way too big and prevalent in our lives. We believe that the free market governs itself, or that regulation is the only way to keep an out-of-control system from using us like the money batteries we’ve become. We believe that unions are the only thing that keeps the playing field level, or we think they are the greatest destroyers of progress, efficiency, and improvement in the country. We believe we should engage the Middle East in a meaningful dialog for peace, or we have decided that we should nuke them until the desert is a shiny bowl of glass. Either way, we believe.

Control your own beliefs. Don’t be a commodity in a chaotic market. It’s one of the prices we pay for this experiment of freedom and one of the sources of what made this nation special in history. It’s who we are – ornery, cussed, opinionated, independent Americans.

Thanks for reading.

Special note to politicians: Here’s a thought. Be honest about your beliefs, and stop changing them with your shoes. Better yet, find out what your constituents believe and, I don’t know… Represent us.