20 November 2012

I Confide in Wolves at Night

Ever since posting about my recurring nightmare, a certain part of my brain has been working overtime, trying to figure out some form of damage control. After all, you can't just end a post with "Yes, I'm a sick person" and then expect to have any followers the next day. So here's my explanation for why I find this nightmare so intriguing.

Let me preface this by saying that I am not a brave person. I've read plenty of books about plucky young heroines, captured by the Supreme Evil Bad Guy, "enhanced-ly interrogated" for information, who somehow gather the nerve to say bitingly witty and hilariously sarcastic one-liners in face of ongoing pain. "Hey, I think you missed a spot. There's some room here in my leg." Or the lovely young sidekick who tracks across the whole of the Universe with an epic Gentleman Adventurer, getting into scrapes and out of them just fine - and not always with the help of the main character. Or the girl who gets an adrenaline makeover - frumpy and nerdy before the fight, but in moments of crisis, she suddenly reveals unknown powers of awesome and, as it turns out, an unexpected hotness upgrade.

... Yeah, that's not me. I find the prospect of physical pain frightening - I would be talking before they knew the questions. While my persona may be of a self-controlled young lady, I know the truth. I am much more breakable than I would care to be. I am weak.

The reason that I find my nightmare fascinating is because it traps me between the person I am and the person I want to be. 

Like most recurring dreams, it comes with multiple iterations. I've already told you about the most common- in the warehouse, by myself, trapped into a predetermined outcome that I am too frightened to fight. The scary aspects are easy enough to identify: being hunted, the intense pain that comes before the end, the alien nature of the Wolf Pack, and the most of all, the Mist. But "scary" doesn't make a dream a nightmare. A nightmare is truly terrifying - the intense, sociopathic, true-born son of fear.

Fear is watching "The Thing" late at night in the winter. Terror is waking up to find the Thing physically in your room. Fear is imagining what Gollum looks like. Terror is discovering Goll -- I mean my brother -- crawling over the foot of your bed muttering about twisting neckses. Fear can occasionally be entertaining; Terror is the clammy feeling of millions of wet spiders dancing on your spinal cord.

What is truly terrifying in my nightmare is how I effectively become a passive observer in my own dream.

One of the most pivotal moments of the dream are the events surrounding the finding of the Vivacious Friend. The one that the Fog ate. The one in physical suffering who is no longer a person. This friend is technically vital, but not truly alive. This moment is perhaps the most terrifying in the entire nightmare, because this is the point I become powerless in the dream. Effectively, I become two persons in the dream - what I'll refer to as Dream-Me and Lucid-Me. Dream-Me is the one moving, running, acting. Lucid-Me is the voice in Dream-Me's head screaming that this is the wrong move, the wrong way to run, the wrong action.

As I said, this moment is terrifying because as Dream-Me stumbles upon the Vivacious Friend, Lucid-Me knows exactly what will happen, and has already started screaming. Dream-Me, in an attempt to relieve the Vivacious Friend's suffering and stop the Friend's eyes from haunting Dream-Me's thoughts, attempts to kill the Vivacious Friend. Lucid-Me, the part that knows this is wrong, has absolutely no power to stop it. In my dream, I can only watch myself. I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream.

Occasionally, Dream-Me leaves the Vivacious Friend alone, but then the Wolf Pack catches up to my trail and finds the Friend. You know what happens next.

In a dream, time is more open to interpretation, though not negotiation. It loops back on itself or jumps erratically between events. Whichever poor decision I make with the Friend, dream-time replays it over and over again, subtly changing the scene everytime into worse and worse outcomes. 

This iteration is horrifying because of my complete, utter helplessness. I have the will to save my loved ones, but ultimately, posses not the means to save even myself. I wake up feeling like Ralph at the end of the Lord of the Flies, only there is no navy captain to save us. 

I mentioned there are other iterations. The other ones again twist and distort my empathy into a terrible weapon instead of what it is supposed to be. Sometimes, instead of entering the warehouse by myself, I have a companion. This companion is usually another distorted version of a dear friend. They invariably are both stronger and weaker than I am. For instance, they may be able to kill the Wolf Pack but cannot walk. Or are immune to the Mist but blind and deaf. And it is no longer my goal to save myself and as many of my friends as I can. When I have that other person with me, it is my duty to save everyone before even thinking of saving myself. 

I am always presented with the perfect opportunity to buy the entire set of loved ones a few precious minutes by distracting the Wolf Pack, but I never do because I decide I can't bear to part from them sooner than absolutely necessary. The focus has changed, but I fail just as miserably as ever.

Ultimately, the Wolves at Night play off of my frustrations and fear of inadequacy. Not inadequacy at life, but at Living.

We are caught in the in-between
Of who we already are and who we're meant to be.
We're looking for love, but finding we're still in need.
It's only what we've lost will we be allowed to keep.     

In my daily life, I am not the person I wish I were. I want to be so much more - more compassionate, more Christ-like, more understanding. I want to be the sort of person anyone could call at 3 am because they needed someone to listen. I want to be the person you can trust. I want to be safe, merciful, humble, willing, generous. But I am not that person, not when push comes to shove. I'm still selfish. I become angry. I am scared. I'm self-centered, not God-centered.

I've been having this nightmare ever since I was called on a long-ish term mission a year-and-a-half ago. It throws that incompleteness in my face. The two people I become in the dream are both perverted versions of myself. They are both afraid of the future, of the unknown, of making the wrong decision. They both try to do things on their own. They both try to save their friends, their loved ones but they fail.

I am looking to save love, but finding I'm still in need. I'm afraid that by literally dying to myself to save those I love, I will not be able to keep them with me.

There is a  tension we have to live with - that we are not who we will be. The knowledge that I can never save myself, that I will never help others on my own steam, these are all elements within my nightmare. Above all else, I am a control freak, and it's not easy to turn over control to the One who has already saved me from the warehouse.

Because while I may like to think the warehouse exists only in my dreams,  I live in it every moment of every day. 


17 November 2012

Wolves at Night

I was intending on writing a different post this morning. I really was. It was about turquoise and silver. It would have been fascinating. However, when I logged in to start writing, I stopped to catch up on my blog list. And then I read this little gem.

Argentum is talking about The Wolf, a nightmarish creature who has a propensity for following him on dark nights. It's deliciously creepy, more than a tad bit frightening, and definitely not something I want to think about while closing up the shop at nights. After reading this post, I was reminded of a recurring dream on my part. Because almost nothing I do is original, I figured I may as well abandon originality entirely and share a memory.

When I was little, I had exactly one nightmare. I would be flying through a gigantic, never-ending canyon in a little red hover pod, and the construction equipment mounted on the sides of the canyon would try to destroy my little ship. This dream has long since stopped terrifying me, and for years I had no recurring nightmares. The scary dreams I had would almost always turn into lucid dreams where I ended up choosing my own ending and parachuting off a cliff away from the danger or something similar.

That time of relatively non-scary dreams ended about a year-and-a-half ago, when I fell asleep one night and found myself in an infinite warehouse. It has no walls or freezer section, and has fallen into disrepair. The electricity doesn't work. It is icy cold. Rows and rows and rows of rusting metal struts rise into the gloom. Fog drifts across the floor, sluggish and spotty, and you know that if you walk into the fog, you may never return.

When I arrive, I am by myself in the middle of a break in the shelves. I have a flashlight whose batteries are almost dead. The fog begins glowing a vibrant, glorious orange. My flashlight dies, and in the gloom, I can see the fog crawling across the floor, and I know that I must not let it touch me. I turn to run, when I hear it. In the indeterminate distance, a wolf howls. As the echoes die away in the distance, I hear something worse: Footsteps.

At this point, I am running madly through the night, avoiding the light that gives away the fog's presence. And there - something moves behind a strut. I spin toward it. There is a knife in my hand, and I grip it tightly. My best friend steps out from behind me. She's a bloody mess. As I turn toward her, another movement flashes in the corner of my eye - another close friend. I am surrounded by the people I care most about, and none of them in good condition. No one talks. As I tense, ready to defend myself, a growl comes from off-screen. We turn as one, and a monstrous shape looms out of the approaching fog. You can't see much - just enough to know that whatever it is, it's not good.

We split and run, individually, through the warehouse. We begin disappearing. As we run into each other occasionally in the gloom, we try to figure out who's left. We can't. It's confusion. As the dream progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that if the wolves don't get you, the fog will. The wolves aren't too bad. They just destroy the body, leaving bloody paw prints and scraps of tissue behind. The fog, though. The fog destroys you. I find a friend who was caught by the fog. He is impaled on a strut - but still alive in the most basic sense. There is no expression - no pain, no intelligence, no response. Just mute suffering. I kill him because I cannot stand to see the vacant expression of a once-so-expressive friend.

I wander the warehouse for twelve hours, finding more and more bodies - or at least their blood. I find what is left of my best friend - the fog got to her and she's drawing pictures with someone's blood on the floor. I'm trying to help her in whatever way I can, when I hear the steps. Wolves encircle me, back-lit by the glowing fog. It's going to be a close one - which way will I go?  As I reconcile myself to the inevitable, a raven flies overhead. I look up to follow the flight of the bird, and a flash of the most intense pain blinds me. Everything goes black. Maybe it was the wolves; maybe the fog - I wake up without knowing what got me in the end.

Ultimately, the warehouse scares me not because my outcome is predetermined, but because I am so frightened myself that I cannot help my friends. We are hunted through a limitless trap, and if I had just a little more presence of mind, I wouldn't be closing the eyelids on so many of my friends.

But at the same time, a part of me enjoys this dream. It's becoming more lucid - I have more control over my actions rather than passively watching. But I've never escaped the warehouse alive. I've never known why the raven shows up. I never know if I die bodily or spiritually. There's a mad adrenaline in the fear of that greatest unknown. Some of the best interactions I've ever had with people have been when they've entered the warehouse with me.

Yes, I'm a sick person.

12 November 2012

A Crack in the Ice

There is something terribly evocative about 2 am on a cold, autumnal night. It's a time most sane folk would be abed, snuggled up in mounds of blankets to keep the chill out of their dreams. It's quiet, unnaturally so, and beautiful, oh so beautiful. The apple tree outside is just barely visible through the gloom. And here I sit, trying to explain an idea that's been going around for some time.

Have you ever had a thought that keeps haunting you for a significant amount of time, but when you try to remember what it is, you can't? That's what has happened with this one. I touched on it briefly in conversations with two different friends, and then promptly forgot it when I tried to write it down. But I think I may have grasped the elusive thought this morning.

I am an incredibly judgmental person. Now, before you go on to say that I'm not or some other such false nicety, you are entitled to know the truth. While what comes out of my mouth may not sound bad, I am entirely capable of scathing criticisms within the privacy of my own mind. This comes, in part, from the fact that I am incredibly opinionated - no more so than on the issues of the Arts and Christians witnessing in a secular culture. Those two issues will, without a doubt, cause some internal diatribe if I hear someone disagreeing with me.

But more on that later.

I also know what I like. I've been accused of collecting people the way some people collect stamps. Rather than having "true friends" I tend to surround myself with interesting people to observe and interact with. While this is a gross-overstatement, it is true to a smaller extent. I like my friends to be thought-provoking, and the best people to provoke thoughts are the ones who are not like me. This goes back to my addiction to conversations.

See, I like to hear other people talk, because I learn a lot about them. "Them" is interesting, so I want them to share their opinions and thoughts and dreams and, basically, their essence. Every good conversation divulges a little about the participants, and I love that slow unfolding of a personality. This desire for genuineness extends into my taste in blogs.

Now, before I go any further, I'd like to ask you to postpone your judgment on how much of a jerk I am until you've read the entire post. Your cooperation is appreciated.

There are a lot of blogs out there written by Christian young women that are essentially daily/biweekly/weekly/monthly devotional sites. The are polished and precise like the brain behind a gun should be, but I'm living in some kind of ecstasy and rational and often read very much like CS Lewis and there is nothing so theologically wrong with them that I have any reasonable reason for disliking them as much as I do. In fact, they are great displays of the strength of belief that the author(ess) possesses. More power to them for posting it online.

However, I cannot bring myself to read these sorts of blogs, because when I do, I feel as if I'm reading an exhibit intended to show off the authoress's spiritual prowess. Like the blog is more about giving a mighty fine showing of Christianity. The constant spiritual content overwhelms me and off-puts me, because rather than seeing a person writing their thoughts down in an almost permanent medium, I see someone showing off. I seldom post about my convictions, but when I do, it's always heart-felt. When I read these devotional blogs, part of my realizes that I would never be able to continuously upload that content without delving into fake reserves of spirituality and sanctification. Thus, I deem the posts fake and ostentatious and not something I'd like to read in the morning before heading to work.

But if I'm being perfectly honest with myself, I feel like a really bad person as well. If it's true that the mouth speaks out of the fullness of the heart, then what does that say about the contrast between a devotional blog author and me? What if these posts are genuinely meant and the devote, polite, well-spoken and reasonably well-educated author is actually like that in real life? Not only do I become the biggest jerk on the planet, but that would also imply that my daily testimony is insufficient and lacking. After all, I'm not a good enough Christian to be able to post multiple devotional blogs every month. I don't even manage one per month, as it is. So the fullness of the heart influences the mouth -  Polished Anonymous Christian Bloggers: + 1,000,000,000,000,000, Me: -0.

Not just that, but operating on the assumption that these blogs are the genuine article, why do I not enjoy them? You'd think that any true Christian would want to read spiritually uplifting content in the morning before going to work at a job where the boss is constantly ragging on Christians. Why do I not enjoy writing these blog posts myself? Do I not have a firm grip on the joy of the Lord?

These thoughts have been swirling around and around in my head, and here's the best conclusion I've been able to come to.

The Bible talks about various spiritual gifts and callings. It's clear that some people are called to be pastors or apostles or evangelists, the list goes on. Even today, some Christians feel called to wave signs and march on the State Capital and hold banners above crowded freeways. That approach has always rubbed me the wrong way - While it is true that laws "legislate morality" by enforcing certain standards of conduct, it is impossible to write a law that dictates what morality people subscribe to in their hearts. It's safe to say that I do not feel that calling at all, and have not the inclination to wave banners for the cause.

Yet, when I see a man panhandling on the side of the road, or walk past a very clearly mentally-ill person in the city, my heart breaks. I want to cry, I want to act, I want to scream at all the fortunate people going on with their daily lives while ignoring the oppressed because ignobility makes us uncomfortable. And then I shove a couple of ones toward the pan handler and wish I could do something more. What's more, it really, really ticks me off that some Christians do not feel that level of commitment to the poor and the outcasts of the world. In all likelihood, this is the same frustration the politically active feel towards me when I decline to wave signs or join their march on Olympia.

As near as I can tell, God created every personality uniquely. Everyone's essence is separate, describing them and them alone. God wants to use us to work His will, but not to the destruction of the person He created us to be - if He wanted His will without that uniquely human element, He could avoid all the troubles of humanity and just use angels. They're more reliable. ;) So persons are unique, and God purposes our persons to specific tasks. To some, He gives the desire to encourage other Christians. To some, He gives the desire to reach out to non-Christians. Regardless, God uses imperfect, eminently personable people to work His will in different areas.

That style of blogging doesn't do anything for me -- it clearly works wonders for others. My care for today's "widows and orphans" doesn't reach everyone I meet -- but it doesn't have to. It only has to motivate the one meant to hear.

So should I guilt myself into enjoying devotional blogs? Probably not, but knowing me, I'll continue to do it anyway. Should I continue passing out harsh judgment on them? No, and I'll have to struggle to be more open and understanding.

Ultimately, it comes down to this analogy my dad is fond of using. Heaven, he says, is going to be like the greatest jazz jam session ever - full of improvisations and personal touches on the same celestial theme. The instruments will all reflect that Melody through their work, but each one will approach it from a different standpoint.

I'll take a longer-term comfort from that, but in the meantime, I'm going to need all the grace I can get. :)

03 November 2012

A Significant Gesture

I have just realized this post directly relates to the importance of Rumpelstiltskin. Hah. Funny how my mind works.

Gesture: Noun; A movement of part of the body, esp. a hand or the head, to express an idea or meaning: "so much is conveyed by gesture."

In the field of music, the smallest unit of musical significance is the gesture. Larger than a single note, smaller than a phrase, the gesture is a series of moving tones which impact the melody and mood of a piece. Granted, this is my poor, short - hand attempt to describe a much more complicated piece of theory, but I imagine most of my dear readers have neither the time nor inclination to learn all the nuances of gestures in music. For instance, the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony can be considered as a gesture forming the first part of his opening phrase.

In communication, a gesture is a physical movement that conveys significance to the accompanying words. "May the LORD do so to me," means little without the gesture illustrating what "doing so " looks like. Above all, a gesture is subtle. It is not the text, it can be context. Or subtext. Or the just an illustration. It is meaningful, but only when combined to form a phrase.

When I perform a piece of music, my attention is split between shaping phrases and creating meaningful gestures. However, if I do my job correctly, the listeners do not hear short little snippets of melody strung together like a four - year- old's bead necklace: rather, they hear long, fluid phrases flowing together to form a unified whole.

To a certain degree, gestures meaningful only when hidden. Like a secret, the gesture put on display loses it's original meaning and shifts the power more into the audience's hands -is the subtlety worth our attention? Should it live on as a meme or GIF or die on the authority of public opinion? It is worthwhile to note here that a gesture may be intended for a receiver without becoming a display - when I ask my father to help me treat my mother, I do it for her sake (a gesture), rather than for his (a display).

Because the meaning of a gesture is implicit rather than explicit, I hesitate to use this next example to illustrate. The gesture in question occurred on my birthday, and I could have quite easily crowed about it on Facebook that night and turned it into a big display. I am worried that by sharing the event I will lose its personal meaning and turn it into just another Big Fish story. But here goes.

My family went hiking in the Cascade Mountains for my birthday. The Cascades are, in part, named for their abundance of streams and creeks flowing off the snow line. So there we are, hiking alongside of a creek bed. Thursday and I hiked down off the trail (following Leave No Trace principles, yes) and into the rocky creek. Walking upstream, we had fun jumping on and off of rocks and over fallen trees, just for the heck of it. However, we soon reached a point where the trail was on top of a cliff, and the stream on the bottom. Not wanting to backtrack, I found a fallen tree that ran from the bottom of the stream to the top of the cliff, and exited my 18th year by crawling on a tree of questionable structural integrity about twenty feet above a rocky, stream filled ravine.

Yes, I got a crazy adrenaline rush. Yes, some other hikers stopped and took pictures.  Someone filmed it. But I wasn't doing it to give my mom a heart attack or get online. The gesture was for my benefit alone. I was facing my fear of heights and fear if the mundane.

In short, a gesture's significance comes more from intentions. It is, like a secret, internally defined and externally descriptive of the person making the gesture. Eavesdropping or accidentally observing one can tell you a lot about a person - which is why I enjoy people watching. Ultimately, it is the person one is when alone that is the real "person." It is the things one does with private meaning that has the most significance, and it is the actions one takes for the sake of one other that truly are a window into the soul.

01 November 2012

Rumpeltstiltskin, I Name Thee!

Become more than a man and devote yourself to an ideal...

Do you remember the story of Rumpelstiltskin from when you were a kiddo? It goes something like this.

A jerk of a father needs to ask his king for a favor. In hopes of making him more favorably inclined to his request, the dad tells the king that his daughter can spin straw into gold. The king is suitably impressed and orders the girl brought to him. Turns out, the king's a loser too: He locks the girl in a room filled with hay and tells her to work her magic before morning on pain of death. The girl, impressed both by that knowledge and the fact that she has no freaking idea how to spin gold, starts crying.

Enter Magic Man, stage left. He agrees to spin the gold in exchange for a piece of her jewelry. The next morning, the king decides to do it again, this time with a bigger room. Free gold, right? The daughter cries some more, the Magic Man reappears, and spins again for her last piece of jewelry. The king is elated, so this time he locks her in an even bigger room, and swears to marry her. If I were her, the promise of marrying that jerk would quite possibly be more terrifying than death.  The girl cries again, but when the Magic Man shows up, she has nothing left to give him. They strike a bargain - the room of gold for her firstborn, and she's all set to marry the king. When the girl gives birth, the wee lil Magic Man appears and demands his payment in full. The daughter only escapes by guessing his name. THE END.

There are countless folk tales concerning the magic of names. By knowing someone's true name, they testify, you have intrinsic power over that person.

The funny thing about names is they act as both a way of identifying and describing someone or something - a sort of label. In a way, labels are humanity's attempt to describe something's essence. A "chair" is something we sit upon above the ground. A "squirrel" is a type of animal known for its inclination to mischief. A label brings to mind a certain archetype - however, the specifics of that "essence" differ from person to person. Case in point: The difference between my mother and my conception of a "hipster." Here's a hint - my mother thinks it's an affectionate endearment.

But let's get back to names and their function as a label. Let's talk about my imaginary friends. I have four of them, so let's talk about my imaginary friend Joe. Well, as it turns out, I have two imaginary friends named Joe. I'm specifically referring to Joe Black. He's pretty cool - I like hanging out with him as opposed to Joe White, who's a self-righteous little fella. Those two little words - "Joe Black" - bring to mind a very specific personality I have made up for a fictional character. They also make me crave peanut butter. But that's beside the point. The name of my imaginary friend identifies him among my many imaginary friend, and to a certain extent, describes him. He is NOT Joe White, and has [x], [y], and [z] characteristics. Get it? A label is an identifer (Which Joe are you talking about?) and a description (What sort of person is he?). You've heard of people saying "I'm just not a Bill," right? That's what I'm talking about.

Think about going into the canned soup area of a grocery store. You've got Campbell's, Annie's, Souper Meals ... all sorts of different brands. But then you also have types of soup: Chicken Noodle, Stroganoff, Minestrone, Tomato, Spaghetti-Os. If you send a friend out to buy you some "good soup," who knows what they may bring back? But if you tell them you want "Campbell's Chicken Noodle" they can identify the soup and have a general idea of what's on the inside. 

Now, I really like my name. I think it suits me admirably. In fact, I've had friends make comments testifying to the fact that I just "did a really Whimsy thing." That's cool by me. It means I'm being myself, that my label, or my name, has become inseparable from my personality, who I am as an individual.

But have you ever noticed how humans have this tendency to try and "find themselves?" I would relabel (ha!) this as humans trying to be the essence of themself - what makes Whimsy tick? What songs does she like? What food does she enjoy? Who are her friends and why?

Here's the rub. The most useless piece of advice ever given to mankind is To Be Yourself. A person not given to introspection will ignore it and continue just as ever. An introspective person will devote considerable time to angsting over who they are as opposed to someone else, and end up never truly finding themselves from too much navel-gazing. The process of discovering who Lady Whimsy is will take my lifetime, because who knows what person God intends me to be? I certainly don't.

So back to labels and names and essences. We've got these public names that people use on a regular basis. Cassandra, Matthew, Hannah, Grace. We know the people to whom those names refer. We use those designations to address them and refer to them. They're public knowledge - how you and I are known in our communities.

However, I would argue that everyone has a secret, "true" name. Not some mystical name given to you in a dream by a Technicolor rabbit the night before you turn 13, but labels that are self-applied and self-descriptive. Not how I describe myself to other people - "musician," "hopeless romantic," "dark romantic," "day dreamer" - but how I describe myself to myself.

And what other way to define ourselves than by the secrets we keep? Secrets are the "true names" of people. They are hidden, mystical, tied up in the very essence of the holder (why else keep it a secret?) which no one knows. The hidden actions, the clandestine thoughts, the beliefs and ideas and ideals so closely tied to the person's identity and security that they are shared with no one. Secrets are pieces of information that clarify and describe the person keeping them.

"Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead."

Just like Rumpelstiltskin, releasing the knowledge of one's secret identity gives them the intrinsic power of the name. Once shared, the information can grow, mutate, or be used against you. Like it or not, the relief of sharing a secret creates a new, funky dynamic in any friendship or relationship. Once shared, the true name can never really be forgotten. It's a determined little thing, clinging desperately even when it's usefulness has passed. And of course, the awkward, messy dynamic it brings is both wonderful and despicable. It all depends on your standpoint.

Bottom line is, we all have a choice. We can "become an ideal" and save our real names from the control of another, or diminish and go into the West with what is left of our folk and share that privilege with others. By sharing, you give up something precious for the sake of something more desirable. By saving, you destine yourself for a lifetime of secret keeping. Personally, I choose to travel the path with my real name easily accessible [ Note: not readily accessible or displayed. Simply easy to access when I choose]. Why? Because I value that gritty, honest, this-is-who-I-am truth and openness with my friends.

But it is a choice. An adventure. A daring step into the open, giving power over to someone who may not have your best interests at heart.

Rumpelstiltskins of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your Name!

And if that's not an exhilarating thought, I don't know what is.