Ab Crunches and the Single Parent

Having been serving as a de facto single Dad for the past week, I’ve had a lot to handle and not as much time as I would like to do some of the things I would have liked to do (such as writing on this blog, for instance!).  One of those things was going to the gym to work out.

After throwing my back out a few years ago, putting my wife in a position where she had to do pretty much everything around the house for about six weeks, I joined a gym and began to get into cardiovascular shape and embarked on some fairly simple weight training.  Central to what I wanted to do, though, was to strengthen my core so that I didn’t throw my back out again (it was a brutal experience).  Lots of ab exercises and lower back stretching.

Not going to the gym this week has raised a pretty simple question for me: how do single parents work out?

The only times I could have gone this week were following work, after I had picked my kids up at camp.  (I couldn’t go early morning because I needed to be home to take care of them, and it has been a busy week at work.)  But each day the kids were tired after a full day at camp and I didn’t think I should put them into daycare at the gym for an hour or hour and a half.  Doing so didn’t seem fair to them or particularly considerate to their needs.  They needed to regroup, watch some television or do some reading.  Plus I needed to get home, get dinner prepared, and start the long process that leads them toward bedtime. (The same issues would have held true during the school year.  My kids are wiped out when they get home from school.  They need to rest or just veg out.)

It seems to me that single parents who wish to work out need to place their children into this type of daycare at the gym, though, if they want to stay in shape, because they have limited options as to when they can work out.  But what does this lead to?  Getting home later, starting dinner later, and getting them to bed later: more tired kids, more stress in the home.  Whereas I will be able to arrange for piano and tennis lessons after school this Fall, as well as sign the boys up for soccer and get them to practices and games, all while still being able to get to the gym because I can share these responsibilities with my wife, I wonder if these are the types of opportunities that are less accessible for single parents for whom working out is not only a desire but perhaps also a need.

The reality is that many people need to get into shape for health reasons – perhaps for weight reasons, or heart reasons, or to rehab an injury.  Short of taking time off from work, what are the options for those who are both the primary wage-earner and caregiver of their families?

This obviously raises class issues.  Not everyone CAN take time off from work readily.  Not everyone can afford a gym where there is daycare, let alone a gym at all.  While some people can work out at lunch, not everyone gets enough time off for lunch to do this and still eat.  How do these people manage?

My wife returns tonight and I’ll be heading to the gym tomorrow morning, I’m pretty sure.  And I’ll be sore from running and from lifting and from all those ab exercises that are so tortuous.  Still, that soreness will be a sign that I’m one of the lucky ones, really.

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The Killer in Me (is the Killer in You)

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Yesterday, I stumbled on the fact that there is a film of The Killer Inside Me in the works.  (I guess there was a 1976 version starring Stacy Keach, but I haven’t seen it.)

I am so excited to see this film.  This is one of my favorite books, written of course by Jim Thompson, who wrote so many great novels.  The film stars Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Elias Koteas, Bill Pullman, Ned Beatty, and Simon Baker.  The director is Michael Winterbottom.  They’ve been filming in Oklahoma, to match up with the look of Texas in the 1950s (when it was published), and the release date is in 2010.

If you haven’t read it, do so.  Do so soon.  Today.  It’s one of the great first-person narrations out there, a weird mixture of Sigmund Freud, Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Frederic Wertham, and Groucho Marx.  Seriously.

Thompson is usually called a pulp writer.  I’m not always sure what that means, but I can tell you this – The Killer Inside Me is a great read – fun, crazy, fast – but also an interesting read.  When I say he’s similar to James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity), I mean it as a compliment.  A big compliment.  Thompson is a good writer, and one who bears re-reading.

So, yes, I’m super-excited to see this film.  Winterbottom has done some interesting films – I really enjoyed his Tristram Shandy – and Affleck has become a stronger actor with age.  I’m not a big Hudson fan, and don’t know if Alba is much of an actress, but the supporting actors listed above are all outstanding.

This is a story that deserves a wider audience.  I’ve taught it, and my students were both confounded by the novel and really enjoyed it at the same time.  I’m interested to see how they translate it to the screen.  I won’t give away any spoilers – I just recommend you read the book, or at worst plan to see this one.  I’m sure it won’t win any awards, but it has the potential to be a great film.

Bottle Shock!

So, the kids are in bed, and now you’re wondering what to do tonight?

J. and I just watched Bottle Shock, after some friends of ours suggested we might enjoy it.  It’s the story of how Napa Valley came to prominence in the late 1970s in the wine business, focusing on a few of the players involved and a well-known wine tasting that took place in Paris that catapulted California wines into the standing it now holds.  It’s fiction, based on actual events, with some liberties taken with actual events and characters.

Having said that, though, it’s a fun movie, lacking special effects or extraneous nudity or discomfiting scenes that make you wish you were anywhere but right there at that point because gosh that was embarrassing to witness.

I’m not saying that it’s a great film – there were times when I wasn’t quite sure where the focus was supposed to be. The film meanders at times and gets caught up in some of the characters in such a way that left me a bit foggy as to the point of the story, but with the great cast it has who can blame them?  (It stars Alan Rickman, Dennis Farina, Bill Pullman, Freddy Rodriguez – you remember him from Six Feet Under -, Rachael Hunter, and Captain Kirk himself: Chris Pine!)

Still, it makes for a very good date night at home.  Order it up on Netflix, open a bottle of wine or two – we were tasting a Joel Gott 2006 and a Hoopla 2006 – from Napa! – both very nice.  I don’t know a lot about wine, but I enjoyed my three glasses of it and I certainly had a nice time watching film that stars and focuses on adults.  It’s so rare nowadays!

Peeling Away the Allure of Don Draper (and Jon Hamm)

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After a night’s delay, I had the opportunity to watch the season premiere of Mad Men last night.  There’s lots to like in the episode, and it’s nice to be back in the swing of things – the set design, costume design, and writing continue to be sharp and illuminating.  I’m glad to have had the opportunity to see Sal somewhat more in the center of the narrative, along with Pete and Ken, but suspect we’ll see more of Peggy soon.  (And I just can’t get enough of John Slattery’s Roger Sterling!)  Obviously, much of the focus was on Don, on his role as husband/father, and on the theme of birth – much of this follows naturally from last season.

Jon Hamm seems born to play Don Draper, doesn’t he?  Not only does he have the virile good looks of the leading man, but somehow he seems to have come straight out of that era.  While much of this has to do with the great hair, makeup, and costume people on the staff of the show, there does seem to be something about Hamm that fits effortlessly into the corporate culture of the Rat Pack years.

I wonder, though, if this is the case of a great actor at work or a great bit of casting?  In Bruce Handy’s recent piece in Vanity Fair, he writes that there was a reluctance to cast Hamm because he was too good looking, even though he had been in the casting mix from early on in the process.  Following Matthew Weiner’s experience on The Sopranos, with James Gandolfini as the lead actor, there was the sense that the producers did not need to cast a traditionally handsome actor in the role because Gandolfini had demonstrated that one didn’t have to have good looks to command a show.  But once they got Hamm into makeup, hair, and costume, the decision was easy because he just seemed to embody the role.  He looks good in a suit, handles a drink and cigarette naturally, and is striking enough to garner the interest of most women.

But there is more.  Don is something of a cipher.  (His identity isn’t even his own, after all.)   His job is to provide people with what they want – not the product but the advertisement that leads them to buy the product.  His specialty is to make manifest the associations that products and services evoke, especially emotionally.  The Kodak carousel is of course the main example of this skill.  (Peggy, by the way, does much the same in her ad for popsicles in the second season.)  But he does this in more than just his job, but in his life, especially his interactions with women.  He provides them what they want.  For most, this has to do with being a certain type of man – masculine but not overwhelming or threatening.

Rarely, though, do we see Don deep in discussion with anyone, especially a woman.  He occasionally has had scenes with Roger where they start to get at something emotionally real and vulnerable, but they tend to pull back.  In the first two seasons, in many ways his closest relationship in New York seems to be with Peggy, and much of this seems to be because of their unstated acknowledgement of the secrets each knows about the other. (Sal may now enter this type of relationship with him as well – Don seems to trust people who are hiding something, much the way he is.)

Few if any characters really know Don, other than Anna Draper – who knows him as Dick Whitman and with whom he seems most at ease, probably because she knows the real him.  The repeated flashbacks/imaginings he has of his conception/birth/upbringing only seem to emphasize that no one else knows who he really is and that he is all alone.

Hamm is exceptional at conveying this.  But much as with Gandolfini did in The Sopranos, much of his skill seems to be his ability to maintain the blank face.  The other characters seem to project things on to Don – hence, the aura he has at work and the virtual awe with which his underlings see him.  It’s not only at work, though, as it’s also at home with his family.  It seems to me that Don’s silence is constantly “read” by others on the show, and they tend to project things on to him.  I think this mirrors what happens with Mad Men‘s viewing audience.  We likewise read Don’s silence and project motivations, reactions, emotions, ideas on to those silences.  But, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, is there really a “there” there?  What type of inner life does Don really have?  The joy of this question keeps me coming back for more each week.

At the same time, I wonder about Hamm and HIS ability to play this character.  Just how much of Don’s charisma, let alone the viewers’ tendency to project emotions and motivations onto the character, a result of how Hamm plays the role?   That’s not clear to me.  Is Hamm just good at holding a blank face, or is he doing something – with his eyes, with his expression – that leads us into thinking there’s more going on for Don Draper behind those silences and that that “more” is compelling.

Another way of asking this might be whether it’s all a matter of writing or is it a matter of acting.  How much of this is Matthew Weiner, creator and lead writer (and the one who ultimately cast Hamm in the role)?  How much of it is Hamm?  It’s much the same question I had with The Sopranos.  My suspicion is that the great majority of the credit goes to Weiner – after all, what else has Hamm been especially good at?  My sense is that Weiner saw something in Hamm that matched the effect he was seeking, and writes with that in mind.  All Hamm has to do is to be consistent in how he plays him as a cipher and Weiner will take care of the rest.

What Frank O’Hara Tells Us About Don Draper

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In the first episode of last season’s Mad Men, Don Draper sits at lunch one day and notices a young man next to him reading a copy of Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency.  Making small talk, Don suggests that reading a book of poems “makes you feel better about sitting in a bar at lunch.  You feel like you’re getting something done.”  The young man, looking Don over and noticing his pressed suit, perfectly groomed hair, and close-shaven face, rejects this fraternal gesture, saying with an air of dismissal that “Yeah, it’s all about getting things done.”  With a nod, Don recognizes the young man’s tone but proceeds to ask if the collection is good.  The man gives him one final look and answers, “I don’t think you would like it.”  Don is seemingly put into his place as a corporate shill.

For those of us who are regular viewers of the show, however, the young man’s comment is rather amusing, for Don Draper – or Dick Whitman, as we know his given name to be – is much more than what his appearance would lead one to presume.  Against the advice of the young man at lunch, Don purchases a copy of O’Hara’s book and this collection plays a recurring role in the show, gradually evolving into a major motif during the second season to such a degree that the final episode is even entitled, “Meditations in an Emergency.”  Frank O’Hara, it turns out, has quite a bit to tell us about Don Draper.

The use of O’Hara as a central touchstone for the second season may at first register as a surprise.  O’Hara was one of the mainstays of the New York School of artists in the 1950s and 1960s.  A gay man, he was an accomplished and well-known poet and published a number of well-received volumes before his untimely death at age forty.  He worked as an assistant curator in the Museum of Modern Art and was close to a number of the most important painters of that time, including Willem de Kooning, Larry Rivers, and Joan Mitchell.  These biographical details do not much connote the life of the Madison Avenue lifestyle of Don Draper.

However, there is in O’Hara’s poetry a crisis of identity and identification that very much evokes Don’s life.  “To the Harbormaster,” the first poem in Meditations in an Emergency, begins, “I wanted to be sure to reach you;/though my ship was on the way it got caught/in some moorings.  I am always tying up/and then deciding to depart.”  These lines establish a theme of desire unrealized and of ambivalence that O’Hara maintains throughout the collection.  The speaker of O’Hara’s poems rarely, if ever, achieves communion with another person. For instance, in “For Grace, After a Party,” the poem begins, “You do not always know what I am feeling.”  In O’Hara’s poems, the speaker’s emotion is perpetually misplaced or misses its mark, as if there is a fundamental alienation at play that no one can breach.  This tone seems very much appropriate as a complement to Don Draper.  During the first season of Mad Men we learned that on a special assignment in the Korean War, Dick Whitman was working alone with the real Don Draper when their base was attacked and Don was killed.  Dick took advantage of the situation to switch dogtags and to assume Draper’s identity, thereby helping him escape a life that held very little promise for success.  In this first season, though, Don repeatedly battled issues of identity, including a brief reunion with his brother, who he rejected and who subsequently committed suicide, leaving Don feeling especially alone by the end of that season.

O’Hara’s poetic style appears inviting and familiar, but it maintains a rigorous distance.  As a New York poet, he set the great majority of his poems in the city in which he was deeply entrenched and with which he was fascinated.  Cramming his work with references to specific restaurants, clubs, and city landmarks, O’Hara detailed the places and products that someone in New York would encounter, lending his work a tangible familiarity.  Moreover, in the majority of his poems he constructed a first-person speaker who not only references familiar places but who uses a language of everyday experience.  At the same time, however, O’Hara’s speaker does little to reveal anything of his emotional, intellectual, or spiritual essence.  The corresponding distance resonates throughout O’Hara’s work, and makes him a natural fit for Don Draper to read.

At the end of the first episode of the second season, Don finishes reading O’Hara’s collection, places it an addressed envelope, seals it, and drops it off late at night in his neighborhood mailbox while taking his dog for a walk, having made sure that no one has seen him.  As this action takes place on screen, Don speaks in a voiceover, quoting the fourth (and last) section of the final poem of the collection, “Mayakovsky:”

“It may be the coldest day of/the year, what does he think of/that?  I mean, what do I?  And if I do,/perhaps I am myself again.”  In the lines, “what does he think of/that?  I mean, what do I?”  The poem wonderfully evokes a crisis of identity that closely matches that which Don experiences during the show.  Having adopted the name of Don Draper and having masqueraded as him for years, he has no close friends or even intimates.  Indeed, as the first episode ends, we might ask, what would it mean for Don to be “myself again”?  Who is the essential Don, or Dick Whitman?  These are questions that Don wrestled last season.

Before Don placed the book in the envelope, he wrote a short note to the recipient of the package.  It reads, “Made me think of you – D.”  We don’t know the recipient of the package, nor why it reminded Don of her, until the twelfth episode of the season, when we find out it was Anna Draper, the woman who was married to the real Don Draper.  Anna lives in California, and by this point last season Don has come to Los Angeles on business.  He is in a crisis – he has engaged in an extended affair with a married woman, endangering his marriage and his power at work.  His wife Betty has discovered the affair and has kicked him out of his home.  It is at this lowpoint that he goes to see Anna, and that we start to discover more of Don’s backstory.  In a series of flashbacks, we watch as Anna first challenges his authenticity when he moves to New York and adopts Don Draper’s name, and we see them develop a close relationship over the years, at least in part because of the secret that he has and that she agrees to keep in exchange for his financial support.  Ultimately, Don seems comfortable with Anna, relaxed and at ease in ways we don’t see him with other people, not even Betty.  He comes back to her now, in the present, because as he says to her, he’s “screwed it all up” and he wants to figure out what to do.  This is the set-up for the return to O’Hara’s collection, for in this episode we discover that Anna is the person to whom he sent the book, the one he thought of when he read the poems.

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In this key scene, Anna offers Don a tarot card reading, during which, looking over the cards, she tells him that he is “definitely in a strange place.”  But she identifies one card as “the soul of the world.  She’s in a very important spot here.  This is you, what you bring to the reading.  She says that you are a part of the world – air, water, every little thing is connected to you.”  Don replies that this is a nice thought, but asks what it means.  Anna answers, “It means the only thing keeping you from being happy is the belief that you are alone.”   Anna not only comforts him in this reading, but also gives him the assurance that he is part of a broader community. As Don listens to the reading his eyes keep drifting to the window as he feels the ocean breeze; in the final scene in the episode, he goes to the Pacific and walks fully clothed into the water.  In that moment he is figuratively cleansed, reborn in a type of baptism.

In the final episode of the season, Don returns to New York, reconnected to the world, no longer alone.   He goes back to his job and manages to weather the storm of his firm’s merger with a British advertising agency with his position as Creative Director intact.  Along with the rest of the country he perseveres through the tension of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  And perhaps most importantly, he reunites with Betty and his children, and at the end of the episode discovers that she is pregnant.  The season ends with the two of them holding hands, looking to one another, unsure of the future but attached to one another as a family.

Mad Men’s use of O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency to dramatize Don’s crisis frames last season and its central question of what it means to forge real, emotional connections with others – echoed in the stories of Betty, Peggy Olson, Pete Campbell, Joan Holloway, Roger Sterling, and virtually all of the characters on the show.  In Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters, Marjorie Perloff argues that the typical O’Hara speaker “makes no attempt to reflect upon the larger human condition, to derive meaning from a series of past incidents, or to make judgments upon his former self.”  Don, in contrast, does seem to want to face the reality of “the catastrophe of his personality” and what he has wrought by creating such an emotional distance from those that love him, trust him, and work with him.  However, as we prepare to enter the third season, still uncertain is whether Don will actually be able to successfully immerse his full self in this world of his making and to make sense of his life, especially when his actual identity is a lie.  We might well wonder what it will take – to return to the language of O’Hara in the final line of “Mayakovsky” – for Don to “become [himself] again”?

Pynchon, Detective Fiction, and the Dismissal of Genre

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Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Inherent Vice, is a detective story set in California in the early 1970s.  Like most, if not all, of his previous novels, it contains a number of idiosyncratic characters, surreal settings, unforeseen plot twists, and the occasional song lyric that he has written specifically for this narrative.  It’s a bit whacky, in other words, but his use of language seems to be as sharp as ever.

I’m curious about the reception, however.  In the past few weeks, I have read a number of not-so-hot reviews, in places like The New York Times, Slate, New York, and other venues.  Louis Menand in The New Yorker dismissed it as “a generally lighthearted affair.”  What I have found interesting in these pieces is the criticism of the choice of genre that Pynchon has chosen for the novel.  It seems that these critics cannot understand why it is that Pynchon would choose to write a detective story.  These writers not-so-subtly imply that it is clearly beneath him to do so, and that the novel’s inherent flaw, if not vice, is the very genre in which it resides.

Why the hating on detective fiction in these reviews?  Why the implication that a “serious” novelist like Pynchon, someone who writes important, canonical fiction, shouldn’t be wasting his time with such a lightweight narrative structure?

I suppose this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.  Critics and readers have often taken detective fiction as little more than entertainment, though starting in the 1960s onward, many critics began to recognize the ways in which detective fiction reflects, refracts, and engages in the culture of its time.  Still, like romance or science fiction, detective fiction is often marginalized as “only” genre fiction.  Notice how these genres have their own aisles and areas in bookstores: they are seen as somehow different, not part of Literature (note the capital “L”).

And yet “serious” writers have often written detective fiction.  Obviously, we can begin with Poe – after all, he’s in pretty much every course on American literature of the nineteenth century.  But Joseph Conrad also immediately comes to mind, as does Umberto Eco.  Such heavyweight contemporary writers as Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, and Martin Amis have written detective novels.

The genre itself, which was admittedly at its commercial (and possibly literary) zenith in the 1920s and 1930s, continues to enjoy a great deal of vitality in terms of its commercial appeal and its artistic achievements.  James Ellroy, Walter Mosley, George Pelecanos, and Richard Price are just a few of the outstanding writers who utilize the genre in compelling ways and have written exceedingly fine novels.  They use the genre to interrogate issues of race and ethnicity, America’s past, class, and ideology.  These are sophisticated writers dramatizing critical issues in America through the lens of the detective story.  Chabon, Amis, and Lethem likewise use the genre to not only think about some of these issues, but to explore issues of language and ontology.

Pynchon’s decision to write a detective novel and to situate it in California in the early 1970s should not be dismissed as mere lowbrow fluff.  While it was a bit of a fallow period for detective fiction, other than the work of Ross Macdonald, there was a renaissance in the mid- to late-1970s with the emergence of such writers as Sara Paretsky, Mosley, Ellroy, Robert Parker, and others.  Moreover, the early 1970s was the era, as well as the setting, of Polanski’s Chinatown and Altman’s The Long Goodbye – both of which are not only crucial detective narratives, but important films.

There is a rich history to the genre, and Pynchon’s work will take its place in it.  Of course, he already has a place in the history – The Crying of Lot 49 is essentially a detective novel and is often taught as one.  Why did the reviewers of his latest novel seem to forget about that one?  This isn’t even new territory for Pynchon.  But why let such details get in the way of the dismissal of a serious writer’s embrace of a lowbrow genre?

Weeds and the Subservient Woman

Over the past few years, Weeds has impressed me with its ability to recreate itself.  The show has, for the most part, retained its core set of characters, even as it has left Agrestic for Ren Mar and Mexico.  It has lost a number of excellent actors in these moves – Romany Malco and Tonye Patano come immediately to mind.  It also has endured a number of listless characters – those played by Mary-Kate Olson and Matthew Modine, for instance – as well as subplots that didn’t really lead anywhere valuable or even particularly interesting – the whole Majestic thread of Season three was one long dead end, it seems to me.

But Weeds is resilient.  Jenji Kohan, creator of the show, hasn’t been afraid to blow everything up and start again – as she did at the start of Season four with the move to the San Diego/Tijuana border.  The same holds true with some of the characters. Celia Hodes, the character played by the wonderful Elizabeth Perkins, has suffered a long-running series of setbacks since reigning over the town of Agrestic in the first season or two.  But Celia always finds a way to get back up off of the floor.  Andy Botwin likewise seems to have little sense of shame – he has been willing to abase himself repeatedly over the past few years for drugs, money, and/or sex.  But he’s also seemingly grown a set of principles and is no longer as pathetic as he once was.  (Though let’s face it – the way he was masturbating in bed while lying next to Nancy was pretty foul.)

All of which leads me to wonder something.  Just why does Nancy Botwin, the character played by Mary-Louise Parker, continue to debase herself?  I understand that at the beginning of the show that she had to find a way to provide for her family and that is what led her to sell drugs.  This was one of the most interesting elements of the show – how might one propose drug-dealing as a viable and credible way of putting food on the table, that is for a white suburban mom?  I can even see how logically this led to the elements of seasons two and three, as she tried to make a go of it, operate independently, and perhaps even grow her business.  And I can see why she took off for Ren Mar, with its chance of a new life.  But I guess it was a few weeks ago, as I watched her character have sex with Esteban that seemed as much rape as it did some type of rough sex, that I began to wonder when she would say enough is enough?

Having sex with men with power isn’t a new turn-on for her; it was certainly there when she had sex with Sullivan Groff, developer of Majestic.  Is she unable to change, to grow, to gain self-esteem and a sense of self that isn’t defined by or through a subservience to men?  Or is it that she might be able to, but just isn’t willing to.  Because it seems to me that she continues to operate in that position, five seasons along into the show.

Then I wonder why the female Kohan has created a show centered around a woman who ultimately is strikingly subservient to men sexually, economically, and emotionally.  Forget Andy Botwin, who is clearly a mess and often a much maligned and humiliated character in the show – the truly pathetic one is Nancy Botwin, the lead character.

As a sidenote, sadly, this situation complements the series of photos that Esquire recently published of Parker in which she is portrayed working in a kitchen wearing only an apron and baring her breasts and ass.

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Why would Parker – an established, award-winning actress – acquiesce to posing in this way?  Is this about anxiety about her ability to look sexy at age 45?

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Did she feel this was a wise career move?  Or does she somehow imagine this gives her control over her own sexuality, or at least the representation of it?