Dusky Arion as Animal Totem

“Dusky Arion” sounds like a pretty name, right? Maybe even the moniker of a character in a sci-fi or fantasy story, or a particularly inventive stripper. In actuality, the dusky arion is neither an imaginary being nor a sensual dancer–it is a slug, and here in the U.S. an invasive one at that.

I know Slug totems in general are among the “undesirables”, the ones that people fear getting in their meditations and card readings and whatnot because they aren’t cool or physically imposing. But I’m rather pleased to count Dusky Arion as one of the totems I’ve been privileged to work with. It’s been a mutually beneficial experience, and I’ve been learning quite a bit from it as well as being able to improve my relationship with its physical counterparts.

I admit I’ve learned to be biased against slugs as I’ve gotten older. Growing up, I watched my mom fight against the leopard slugs (also invasive here) in her garden, though at the time I found them to be very cool-looking critters with their vivid spotted pattern and prominent keel (that hump over the “shoulders”). It wasn’t until I began gardening a few years ago that slugs began to invite my ire as they treated my own plants as an all-night salad buffet. I would painstakingly pick them off the stems and leaves of my vegetables and place them in the next field over, and then leave beer traps for the stragglers who remained. Even now I have a number of young turnips whose leaves resemble green lace doilies, and I’ve harvested radishes with telltale lines of white in the red skin from where the tops poked out enough for the slugs to get at them. Now, I do understand that slugs have to eat, too, and critters eating the veggies are a normal part of organic gardening. Still, it’s enough to make me want to stomp my feet, whine, and plead in vain for the slugs to only eat weeds.

Photo by Erik Veldhuis via http://bit.ly/1aEEENN

Photo by Erik Veldhuis via http://bit.ly/1aEEENN

So there’s a certain irony in the fact that this year Dusky Arion (and to a lesser degree other slug totems) has been trying to make friends with me. We’ve been having words over the slugs in the gardens for a while now, but for several months it’s been making extra effort to get my attention outside of the garden. For example, at the spring equinox I found myself the owner of a handmade stuffed toy slug from a vendor at a pagan event I attended. Okay, so it was cute and would be a nice addition to the stuffed animals I keep for counseling clients to hold or hug in session. But then I started looking at the slugs on my container garden, and realizing they were pretty neat little critters, moving with a slow grace along the edges of pots and up the fence around the porch, even upside-down!

This tapped into my childhood fascination with all creatures, regardless of whether they were seen as “pests” or not. It’s a timely rediscovery, given that this year’s theme seems to have been reclaiming the connection to nonhuman nature that I forged so early in life. Dusky Arion’s been helping me pick out my blind spots, showing me where I’ve been still attaching value judgments to animals and other beings based on human biases, instead of simply letting them be themselves. It’s easy to let human needs and desires become the first priority in all things; while it’s understandable to put ourselves first in some situations, we’ve so often erred on the side of “yay, us!” that we’ve put other species in great peril for no real need. Nowhere has that been more personal for me than my gardens, where the slugs are not merely fellow beings trying to make a living, but have been painted as enemies, thieves of my food to be tossed into the next yard or drowned in skunky cheap beer. My childhood self would have been appalled.

So in working with Dusky Arion, I’ve been rediscovering my younger, more neutral stance; as Henry Beston said of nonhuman animals, “they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.” It doesn’t mean I won’t defend my garden; slugs understand as much as anyone the need to survive. But there’s been more picking and careful removing, and less beer-drowning. And I’ve been greeting the slugs, too, as they move through the garden, appreciating a little encounter with little wildlife. I like their slender eyestalks that gently move about to take in the world and retract at the first sign of danger–a good lesson to protect what is most crucial! I’ve added a bronze slug ring to my jewelry box, and my partner gifted me with a couple of rubber stick-on toy slugs that are now part of the bathroom mirror decor in our apartment (and a reminder that all nature is pretty in its own way).

Who knows? Maybe I’ll start (carefully) turning over rocks and logsa again like I did when I was a kid, looking to see what other creepy-crawlies I can discover.

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On Denning and Settling Down

Greetings, fair readers and fine! October was a really, really, really busy month, where I was out of town far more often than I might have liked, but shared great adventures and joy and it was all worth it. If you missed my writing, I did write up a piece on urban greening at No Unsacred Place.

So I turned 35 this past Friday; being halfway to 40 gave me pause to think about where I am. I’ve been going through a strong “denning” urge as of late–think nesting, but for the more lupine-inclined. I’ve been not just doing my usual “clean ALL the things!” frenzy that I get a few times a year when I do extra organizing and stuff-culling and such in my home, but I’ve been experiencing a strong need to decorate in a more meaningful, directive fashion than “Oh, hey, look, there’s a space on the wall to hang this picture!” I think part of it is because my best friend just bought her first house out in southeast Portland, one of those gorgeous early-1900s wooden deals with an attic and a basement and a cute little yard, and I’m feeling a little positive envy for her. But I think it’s also that I’m finally in a good place to settle down.

I moved out of my parents’ home in 2001, after I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree. In the 12 1/2 years since then, I didn’t do the usual “get married, buy a house, have kids” deal that’s often set up as the usual way of things. I lived a life that was more mutable and mobile. I never had children, mostly because I wasn’t particularly interested in that endeavor (and I didn’t have the means to raise them properly anyway), so I didn’t have to worry about caring for a helpless little human being or three. I didn’t settle into a single career because no job held my interest long enough to be more than a year or so of employment, and it was really just a means to keep a roof over my head, my computer, and my art supplies. I did try marriage for a few years, but we jumped in too quickly and it ended with a whimper and some divorce papers.

And I never bought a house, for which I’m grateful when I look back at it. Sure, I spent the better part of five years in Pittsburgh, but I wasn’t tied down. Rent was cheap, and I even got to escape to South Dakota for a span of three months at one point when my environmental canvassing job gave me the opportunity. And when I decided to relocate to the Pacific Northwest, there was no hassle in selling a house–I got to get up and go when I wanted. I was able to escape Seattle after one depressing year there, and a couple of years later when the divorce happened, there was no argument over who got the house. I simply moved back to the part of Portland I loved the most and started over again. I needed to have that flexibility in my life. I needed to be able to turn on a dime, pick up everything and make for an escape route as needed. Life was much too interesting to turn down great opportunities just because I moved too slowly.

But now, after a few years of being able to settle into a place that I love, to cultivate a primary relationship with a solid and loving partner at a healthier pace, and to ease my way into not one but three vibrant and positively challenging careers, I feel a deeper need than the need to dash off yet again. I’ve been in Portland longer than I’ve been in any other place since I moved out on my own, and I like it here quite a bit. And this place has embraced me like no other. I am home in a way I haven’t been ever before.

What I’m creating now is stability, at least as much as anyone can in this day and age. I’m not yet in a place where I can buy a house; like getting a dog, I want to make very sure that I have the resources necessary in case of an emergency, as well as proper day to day care. Where I used to leap into new situations, now I’m trying to slow myself down and be more careful about big decisions. It’s teaching me patience in a way I haven’t gotten it before, and while at times my younger ways grate against the waiting and the planning, this is all standing me in good stead.

But I give myself gratification now, too. We have a small apartment, the two of us. And for the first two and a half years it was mostly a place to store our stuff and work on our projects and snuggle together at night (or whenever the need to snuggle occurred!) But more recently this place has begun to transform into a home, a shared home with an identity. Maybe it’s been happening longer than I noticed; my partner seemed surprised when I made the observation that we were just now beginning to “den”, while he thought it had started much earlier. Either way, I’ve gotten to that point where I’m ready to settle down and make that den. We’ve spent the past few days cleaning and overhauling the apartment, rearranging the living room so it can be both its usual work space and a place to relax, and I’ve even started trying my hand at a little bit of interior decoration. (And no, it’s not all just some bones and hides thrown around, either!)

As for the rest? The house and the dog and the happily-ever-after? That can happen in time. For now, we’re working with what we have, and I couldn’t be happier. I’ve left behind the semi-nomadic life of my twenties, the residue of a marriage that didn’t fit, and the frenzied dash from job to job. I’ve plugged the leaks in my energy these things created, and am focusing it here and now, seeing how it accumulates now that it’s not all just trickling away.

What happens when a Lupa makes her den? I don’t know either, but I’m eager to see.

May I Have a Moment of your Time and Attention?

Hey, all! I wanted to bring to your attention a couple of new projects of mine that I really want more people to know about. I would love it if you’d take a peek at these, and I’d be especially honored if you’d pass one or both links on to folks you feel may be interested. (And my thanks to you for that!)

First, the BIG one–on February 1-2, 2014, right here in Portland, OR, I am running Curious Gallery PDX, a weekend-long convention dedicated to the appreciation and creation of taxidermy and other natural history specimens, artifacts old and new, and other things you might find in a well-stocked cabinet of curiosities. From the official website:

Long before public museums became a feature of many cities, private citizens in Europe and elsewhere formed their own extensive collections of scientific specimens and cultural artifacts meant to educate and inspire their beholders. A longtime collector of natural history specimens, Portland artist and author Lupa wanted to increase awareness and appreciation of wunderkammern (“wonder cabinets”), or cabinets of curiosity, and their eclectic contents. Curious Gallery is the result, a weekend of exhibits, presentations, hands-on workshops, and special programming for lovers of taxidermy, natural wonders, and strange treasures old & new.

I’ve been planning this for a while and the time was finally right to make it happen! It’ll be two days of workshops, panels and other programming, an art show and fashion show, exhibitors of all types, and other goodies related to taxidermy and other natural history, ancient and modern artifacts, and anything else to be found in a cabinet of curiosities.

If you want to keep up on news, updates and special deals, here are the Facebook page, Twitter feed, and Google Plus page for the event. Early bird ticket rates are available now on the main site.

So, that’s one. The other is that I started a new art blog. But it’s not just any art blog! Lupa Makes Stuff is sort of similar to Therioshamanism, in that it’s a record of my explorations. However, this time it’s me exploring new artistic media and techniques, showing you what I did and how I did it, and even rating the eco-friendliness of each project! If you have a Tumblr account feel free to follow me.

I’ve already explained how I woven pouches on nothing more than an old board and some tacks, and the process of giving a rocking horse a makeover. And I have so much more planned!

Death and the Animals’ Privilege

Note: This is my offering for the October edition of the Animist Blog Carnival, topic being “Death”.

When I first explored paganism way back in 1996, I almost immediately gravitated toward the animals. Like so many other totemists, I picked up a copy of Ted Andrews’ Animal-Speak, and thereby began cutting my metaphorical teeth. For the following decade the animals were at the center of my practice, whether I was working with generic Wicca-flavored neopaganism or Chaos magic. I developed my own system for working with animal totems and spirits, and even created a lot of practices for working with hides, bones, and other animal remains.

After my arrival in Portland, I soon became immersed in the Land as a whole. I adopted a more bioregional approach not only to my spiritual path, but my life in general. This led me to connect not only with the local animals, but with the plants, fungi, stones, landforms, waterways, and many others. I grew to understand that the animal totems lived in their own wilderness and urban environments, just as their physical counterparts did, and this gave more form to my spiritual path, my neoshamanism and my role as an intermediary.

One of the effects of this shift in my worldview was that I became more sensitive to the great emphasis we place on animals over all other beings of nature, and especially vertebrates, and even more especially charismatic megafauna. We tend to value those beings that are most like us (but not too much like us). So (at least in the U.S.) a wolf is seen as more valuable than a salamander, a salamander moreso than a fruit fly. (Oddly enough monkeys and apes are often denigrated as silly beings because we think of them as “failed humans” of a sort; we see too much of ourselves in them and that perhaps scares us.)

Continuing on in that, we see animals as more valuable than plants, fungi, and the like. Someone who would never dream of killing an animal will happily uproot carrots and prune a bonsai tree into perpetual tininess. The usual justification is that since plants don’t have nervous systems like animals do, they don’t feel pain and therefore it’s okay to do whatever you want to them. This is even in spite of new research showing that plants can communicate with each other through sound, chemicals and even the mycelial mat of fungi connecting their roots.

Also, plants recover from injury differently than we do. If you cut off a vertebrate animal’s limb there’s a very good chance it will die, or at least be very significantly disabled for the rest of its life. Many invertebrates and a small number of vertebrates can regenerate lost bits, but few people would advocate for deliberately mutilating them just for the fun of it (and those who did would be looked at very suspiciously). On the other hand, you can lop off the branches of a tree, tear off a flowering plant’s reproductive organs, and cut grass down to a height of an inch or less once a week, and they’ll still keep growing. So we assume that this must be okay because they don’t die from it. Even if they do die, oh well–what’s another tree or shrub?

Finally, plants die differently than animals, or at least appear to. Even though both have evolved the same sort of programmed cell death, on a larger scale the point of death for an animal is a lot easier for us to determine–the brain activity stops, the heart no longer beats, the body becomes cold. Animal deaths can happen very quickly; a plant generally only dies quickly if caught in a fire (and even then some plants, like grasses, can survive the fire to regenerate). If you pick off a leaf from a lettuce still growing in the ground and eat it, that leaf is still alive. The top of a pineapple that you’ve peeled and cut up can be placed in water and then soil to grow a new pineapple plant. It doesn’t become dead just because you’ve separated it from the rest of the fruit. So this can contribute to why we don’t see plant deaths as being so traumatic, and therefore not as weighty.

Now, before we move on, let me say that I am certainly not supporting willful cruelty to animals just because we inflict similar activities on plants. However, I would question the attitude we have toward plants (and fungi, just for the record) that they are infinitely expendable, and that their deaths don’t matter. Rather than lowering the standards by which we gauge ethical care of animals, I suggest that we raise the standards we use to care for plants. And that includes being mindful of their deaths.

For fifteen years I’ve been working with hides, bones, and other animal remains in spirituality and art. I’ve developed unique rituals and practices surrounding this work as a way of honoring the spirits in these ways, as well as part of my meals (yes, I do eat meat). More recently, as my work has expanded, I’ve expanded that sacred approach to plant and fungus parts as well, which I call “leaves and caps” as shorthand*. As with the hides and bones, there are certain practices of purification that I do with everything I make from plants and fungi. But more importantly, these practices help to remind me at all times that these were once living beings, and in order for me to live (or create the art that I do), something had to die, or at least sacrifice a part of its physical form.

It’s especially important to me that I’m expanding this work of sacred approach to the plants and fungi as well as the animals. I’m not about to become a fruitarian. But I’m trying to reduce my bias toward animals, and elevate all living beings to a more meaningful and considerate level in my life. I’ll still eat them, and work with their remains, and consume other products made from them, since I need these to live. However, I’ll do so with more mindfulness, and a greater sense of responsibility toward them. I’ll be more careful about sustainable sources, and continuing to do my environmental volunteering for the betterment of all.

And that includes not taking the deaths of the plants and fungi for granted. They may not be the same as I am; they may not suffer or die in the same way as I. But I can still extend compassion to them, and hope that I benefit the world a little more thereby.

* If you’re interested in this part of my work, I have a chapter on working with plant and fungus parts in spirituality in my book Plant and Fungus Totems, which is due out from Llewellyn in May 2014.

The Breaking of the Wheel of the Year

It’s been years and years since I last did any sort of formal rituals for the Wheel of the Year; I was never Wiccan, but the eight celebrations have been adopted by a wide range of pagans. For years I tried to use them as well, and it never really stuck. While I definitely appreciate the role of seasonal celebrations for individuals and communities, in my own practice I could never quite get over the feeling that doing a special ritual every six weeks was a bit contrived. It’s convenient for a group because it’s a set bunch of times for everyone to plan to get together for a shared ritual experience, and for some solitary pagans, too, it’s an opportunity to break out of the everyday routine and re-connect with the sacred in a deeper way.

Maybe if I was part of a working or ritual group I’d be more inclined to have these special touchstones throughout the year, and there is a part of me that feels a bit wistful about them. But on my own, I have the freedom to acknowledge special moments with nature whenever they arise, and have those as my sacred times. There’s no scheduling necessary, no potluck to cook for. Instead, it’s moments like “picking the first ripe tomatoes of the summer”, and “hey, the maple tree finally started growing leaves again” (and even “thank the gods the noisy-ass starlings finally raised their last brood in my apartment’s ceiling”.) This is not necessarily a superior way of connecting compared to the Wheel, but it’s one that’s fit me better over time.

I think part of the problem with the Wheel is that until the past few years I had little context for it. It was just something a lot of pagans did as part of the pagan package, written by Cunningham and others and used as an excuse for everything from Pagan Pride to pagan coffee klatches. But “old harvest rituals” don’t mean the same to a farmer, as to a city dweller whose food comes from the store and who doesn’t even have a window box of flowers. That was me for a number of years, first due to lack of transportation and money, and then a period of depression and inactivity in general. When I moved to Portland, almost immediately the Land embraced me, and my reconnection with it, and myself, and everything else, became so easy, and a lot of what I’d done as “what’s expected” made more sense.

This included renewed interest and activity in gardening, and for the first time I got a taste of what those old harvest rites were for. It’s one thing to watch a tree grow and shed leaves each year outside the window. It’s another thing entirely to plant a seed, watch it grow, coax it through drought and flood and disease, pick its fruits and seeds, and then bury it in the compost heap at the end of the season. Only then did the excitement over spring, the flourishing of summer, the harvesting of autumn, and the sleep of winter, begin to fall into place just a bit more.

And so it was that I spent my autumn equinox with my hands in the dirt. My community garden plot was in sore need of some work, and so I spent a great deal of the weekend weeding, putting down mulch, fertilizing the soil, and planting the fall crops of kale, spinach, radishes and more. In those hours I felt more connected to the Land than I ever had when standing in a circle with my athame and special ritual dress. The scent of the earth and rain spoke more than my chanted words, and every seed I dropped into the furrows carried more hope for the coming Winter than the candles lit in my ritual room.

Seeds in autumn, indeed! I’m not the first person to point out that using religious directives created in the U.K. in other areas can be pretty limiting. Yet I’m fortunate enough to live in a planting zone where the winter is mild enough that even the autumn is a sowing time, and deep winter and early spring the harvest. Here in Portland, the planting and harvesting cycles blend and flow together, not so much a strict progression as an ever-shifting dance where the participants step in and bow out at different times throughout the year.

Some people claim they feel the presence of death and the ancestors more around Samhain. Not so for me. I sense it all the time. Every day, every moment, something is passing away, and something else is benefiting from that death. Trees fall in the woods, and fungi and lichens flourish on the dying bark. Bears may hibernate in the winter, but bacteria continue to be fruitful and multiply in its gut and on its skin. I myself was born on Samhain Day, November 1, proof that spring does not have the monopoly on new babies. And it’s like that for the other spokes on the Wheel; everything we celebrate at one point of the year can easily resonate throughout the rest, if you know where to look.

The Wheel is broken. It doesn’t roll right here. Sure, it stumbles along the path, but it doesn’t fit the ruts worn down by other, more local vehicles. It ill-fits the conveyance of this place, which is far more than the planting and harvesting of wheat and corn, and the birthing of cattle and sheep. This land–and perhaps all lands–are places of constant, daily births and deaths and rebirths, of sowings and harvests. Here the sun never goes away entirely; though we tilt away from it a bit more, it still rises every morning and greets us, even behind a shroud of clouds.

The stories we tell–the Oak King and the Holly King, the god who is born of the goddess and who dies again only to be reborn–they oversimplify the many-layered cycles of the Land. Nature is not only that which we can easily see or which most benefits us. It is the midwinter birth and the spring harvest, the many hermaphroditic beings that far outnumber the sexually dimorphic ones by individual count if not species, the odd warm day in January or the snow in June.

Of course, if you still prefer the Wheel of the Year, the Oak and Holly King’s drama, and the idea that the Divine looks like us humans (and not our gut flora who are much more plentiful on this earth than we), there’s nothing wrong with that. My dissatisfaction with these things does not extend beyond myself. Still, just as others have pointed out that the Wheel doesn’t match the Southern hemisphere, and West is not always where the water is in every place, so I think it’s good to examine the reasons to celebrate throughout the year where you are, if you like. Think about being more specific–celebrate the time when the kale is harvested and the time when the hummingbirds build nests, mark the passing of an old tree that fell on the third of May and the birth of a kitten on Valentine’s Day.

These things are more important to me than standing in someone’s living room wearing robes, burning candles, and reciting words written for an ideal based on a land I’ve never been to. Let me eat not cakes and ale from the store, but lettuce and carrots from my garden; let me serve the meal I prepared on the table I painted with the flora and fauna of my Land. Let everything I do be a breath I share with this place that has given me a home. In a world where my computer is made with parts from China, where my winter apples come from Brazil, and my ancestors largely hail from Europe, let me ground myself more deeply in the place I am now, to appreciate it and its gifts and its limitations. Surrounded by global interdependence and diversity, let me also grow local roots. Let me learn the mysteries and teachings of what’s north, east, south and west of here, what is embedded in the earth and what breathes in the sky I see every day. Let it be these things and places and secrets that I celebrate, those which have the most meaning for me in this here and now.

Happy 6th Birthday, Therioshamanism! And a Question For My Readers

Hey, you! I’ve got a question for you! (And by “you”, I mean anyone reading this blog, whether regularly or sporadically or just by chance.)

So I’ve been writing in this space for six years now. (Yay, happy birthday Therioshamanism!) Over time the focus has shifted and evolved; it went from being a fairly uptight “I’m going to make my own neoshamanism–here’s how I do it!” blog, to a more laid-back place in which I’ve done everything from profiles of different totems to records of outdoor excursions and even ruminations about environmental and sustainability issues and activities, among others. (I wrote a little more about this transition here.) I still consider all these to be integral to my spiritual path, which ceased being its own independent entity years ago and is now part of the whole woven tapestry that is my life, each and every day. So this blog has become a place for me to share these things, whether overtly spiritual or not, with you folks.

I know what I get out of the blog, then–a place to organize thoughts and share them with others. But I’m curious as to what you get out of it. Why are you here? What do you like to read when you’re visiting this blog? What do you want to see more of? What could you not care less about? I’m not so much trying to let other people decide what I should do with my little space here on the internet; rather, I’m curious as to how it may be benefiting others. I get emails and messages now and then from people who were inspired by something I wrote and grew because of it, and that always makes me feel like I’m doing my job as a writer well. So consider this a friendly invitation to fill me in on what brought you here, what keeps you bringing back, and sure, what would you like to see in the future? Let me know what’s helpful to you!

Animist Blog Carnival, Part 2! Bioregion Revisited

I have so many posts sent my way for this month’s Animist Blog Carnival that I unwittingly left a couple out!

Bryan Russellson over at Black Mountain Waincraft shares this beautiful introduction to the southern Appalachian abode he calls home:

Like the comfrey and mugwort that fills the small garden bed just outside my window, we are transplants. Yet we have done much to integrate ourselves with this place. We are literally made of the land and that which fills it…of deer and bear and rabbit, raspberry and ramp, wood nettle and morel. Our shit fertilizes the garden beds nestled throughout the forest and the water flowing across the edge of our property sustains all. In time, I too shall fertilize this place as circumstance or age draws the breath from my body.

A wonderful written picture (with lovely photos as well!) of this amazing place.

Brian Taylor, at Animist Jottings, presents an alternative view of invasive species as part of a bioregion:

So, we have an un-necessarily polarised debate, not least because the ecological-forestry discourse of woodland management (adopted uncritically by local green groups?) appears to be privileging ‘evidence based science’ at the expense of the (often well informed) feelings of local people. Personally I’d like to see them take a leaf out of the Woodland Trust’s book, and register notable trees; trees that are culturally important, or ‘of personal significance‘. In the context of advancing Ash Die Back, Richard Mabey makes a case for valuing Sycamore (‘the weed of the woods’) as a replacement for Ash trees. Now, more than ever, conservationists should be ‘welcoming outsiders’ rather than ruling non-native species out of court.

A good reason to pause and think.

And let’s revisit an older post of mine from over at No Unsacred Place, about the spirit of a place and the beings that embody it:

Arguably the more charismatic animals, plants, and places are often seen as the most irreplaceable, when in fact all are important and often it’s the tiny ones on whose backs and stems the rest of the ecosystem rests. But if we look instead at the greater concept of the numenon as Leopold uses it, rather than just the individual species chosen for it, it’s a great deal like the Genius Loci, the spirit of a place. And all of the above are representatives of what gives a place its unique qualities, the je ne sais quoi, even if we can’t put a label to those qualities themselves. These are not quantifiable in the way that bird counts and the momentum of a waterfall are. They’re exceptionally subjective; it’s arguable that those of us who value a place for what it is create its spirit, while we cannot make a land developer or oil baron see beyond the cash value of the physical natural resources. It’s an aesthetic judgement, but no less crucial for that.

My sincerest apologies to both Bryan and Brian for not getting you in on the first round; here’s to readers getting a fresh look at these!