Uncle Tom’s Cabin vs. Django Unchained

harriet beecher stowe

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852

Whew, boy. This is going to be a tough post to write. I have mulled, contemplated, ruminated and thought on Uncle Tom’s Cabin and what I should say about it for close to a year now.

I regularly put myself in the position of weighing the righteousness of moral positions taken by Victorian authors. It’s a strange, shaky task. And I’m hard to please. Treatises on the rights of women (i.e. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) are nowhere near feminist enough for me. Every book is objectionably classist or racist.

Sometimes, I tell myself that I should be lenient because the authors are trying their best at their own levels of consciousness. Harriet Beecher Stowe abhorred slavery and wanted Northerners to advocate for abolition, a laudable goal. I can’t fault her intentions. Similarly, when Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist he championed the cause of impoverished orphans. Does that excuse the appalling anti-Semitism in his novel? No. Absolutely not. Don’t tell me “it was a different time.” Bigotry is bigotry—in any era.

Novels can and have raised awareness and built up sentiment and political will that lead to real change and improvement in social justice. Sometimes those same novels kick down when they mean to pull up.

Are you waiting for me to talk about Django Unchained? I’m getting there. But, before I do, let me state two problems I have with Uncle Tom’s Cabin that aren’t critical to the comparison I will draw:

  • Stowe’s depiction of slaves reinforced negative stereotypes that persisted for generations.
  • Stowe dwells too much on the misfortunes of a woman who is a “quadroon” or only one quarter black. Stowe depicts her as beautiful and almost white looking and therefore deserving of compassion, which is a bigoted attitude.

Onto Django. I have seen Django Unchained three or four times. I enjoy it. Like Inglorious Basterds, Kill Bill and Deathproof; Django is a satisfying revenge fantasy. Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre offers viewers ample opportunities to drown their white or male guilt in fountains of Nazi or male abuser or slaver blood. And it feels great. We chuckle gleefully at Tarantino’s depiction of the Klan as flaccid and ridiculous. But, they weren’t impotent clowns; they were vigilantes more powerful than law enforcement. We, the viewers are impotent. We can’t undo slavery. We can’t prevent the Holocaust. We can’t give every female victim of violence the ability or opportunity to defend or avenge herself. So, we fantasize. We watch a movie that takes us on a fun romp through slavery.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is decidedly not a fun romp through American slavery. However, like Tarantino, Stowe presents a white person’s idealized vision of how a slave should respond to persecution. She certainly doesn’t advocate blowing away the denizens of an entire plantation with an assortment of guns. Instead, Stowe venerates Uncle Tom’s pious and long-suffering Christianity. He gives all his troubles over to Jesus and forgives his masters. Tom responds to increasing hardship with increasing forbearance and faith. When his owners sell him to a horrifyingly abusive plantation, he mildly accepts his fate. Tom reaches the zenith of his characterization as a devout and worthy Christian when he persuades another slave, a victim of serial rape who has had her children sold away from her, not to free herself from her torture. She wants to escape by killing her abuser or by killing herself, but Tom’s silver tongue and the shining example of his tolerant Christian suffering convince her to just bear it all.

Honestly, if I have to choose between the white director’s fantasy of a heroic slave’s violent vengeance and the white author’s advocacy of Christian meekness in the face of intolerable suffering, I would have to choose the violent avenger.  Who is Harriet Beecher Stowe to suggest that slaves ought to forgive and tolerate the sins of their masters? Who is she to reject the rightness of an enslaved and abused woman’s urge to fight back?

Do you see what I mean in terms of the difficulty of judging the moral rectitude of bygone days? I have enough trouble just watching a movie without getting outraged over social injustice. My point here isn’t that Harriet Beecher Stowe or Quentin Tarantino are reprehensible. My point, really, is that both of these works of art attempt to answer the question “How should slaves respond to their victimization, ideally?” Which is a question with no right answer and not one I’m entirely comfortable with white authors or directors answering.

The question I’m trying to answer is “Sydney, why are you so weirded out by Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Django Unchained and why are you more weirded out by Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Violence is bad, right?” Here are the answers: 1) Yes, violence is bad. But, don’t stand in a position of privilege and tell someone else not to free herself from unbearable and unending suffering by any means possible. 2) I am not Christian and not of the Victorian Era. So, Christian forbearance and Victorian morality don’t appeal to me. In the face of cruelty, I would rather fight than endure. 3) While I enjoy a revenge fantasy, I don’t think it does us any good, culturally, to go on a fun romp through slavery. It does us better to look slavery right in the face, to reel in horror at the atrocities inflicted by slavers and by the Klan, to acknowledge that the Klan mentality has not died out, to find institutionalized racism and fight it in all its forms.

We can’t go back in time and dismember slave owners, but we can fight. We can fight for better schools for minority children. We can fight to end discriminatory voting laws. We can fight for police accountability. We can fight. Django is fake, but the fight is real and we can fight it.

Checkout My Moby Dick Pics

Call me Ishmael.

Call me Ishmael.

Moby Dick, Herman Melville, 1851

I did it! I read Moby Dick. It took me four attempts. On the first three I only made it about four chapters in; that’s how painfully boring this book is. Stop freaking out, Melville enthusiasts. I promise to say some nice things about the book before I’m done.

Moby Dick is often called “one of the greatest adventure stories of all time.” I think it’s time for this book to get a more honest blurb. Really, only about 20% of the words in this novel are dedicated to the adventure of searching for the white whale, and that’s a generous estimate. An appropriate blurb for the other 80% of the book is “every single thought Herman Melville ever had about sperm whales.” Seriously, it’s like Herman Melville had a bad break up with sperm whales and wrote down all his obsessive, post-breakup thoughts. 600 pages of “sperm whales are so beautiful and so evil.”

Some people really love Moby Dick. At least that’s what they tell me. I have a hard time believing it though. You would have to be passionately interested in 19th century whaling to have a good time while reading this novel. There are chapters dedicated to every part of the body of the sperm whale. There are chapters dedicated to every part of the boat used to hunt the sperm whale. I would rate my interest in 19th century whaling at about a 16 out of 100. I am interested in whales and I would like to know more about their biology, but not from Ishmael, who is an idiot.  One of the first things he says about the sperm whale is that it’s definitely a fish. He argues against Karl Linnaeus’ assertion that whales are mammals. Karl Linnaeus was a prominent biologist whose work is arguably just as important to contemporary biology as that of Charles Darwin. I would be interested in reading Linnaeus’ thoughts on whale anatomy, but I don’t care even a little about Ishmael’s. Melville dedicates more words to this topic than any other in Moby Dick, which leaves me wondering why on earth anyone likes this book. I’ll do my best to guess.

moby dick 2

Buried deep in Ishmael’s ramblings lie some little gems of literary merit. I will enumerate them for you:

  • The bromance between Ishmael and Queequeg. The unlikely friendship between the supposedly savage Pacific Island cannibal and the New England sailor is very endearing. There are actually three noble savages onboard the Pequod: Tashtego, a tall, sexy Native American, Dagoo, a brawny, lionine African, and tattooed Queequeg. They are all spoken of with admiration. However, Queequeg is the only one of the three with whom Ishmael forms a genuine friendship. Tashtego and Dagoo are admired for their physical form and whaling skill. They don’t break out of the noble savage thought cage.
  • The adventure parts are scary and exciting. . .and repulsive. So much whale gore spurting into the ocean, making the waves red and foamy. Yuck.
  • Poor, creepy, haunted Pip.
  • Melville can be silly. There are some bits of hilarity to be found if you’re patient enough to wade through all the whale carcasses to find them. For example, at one point the oil, or sperm, from a slaughtered whale has crystalized and the crew has to manually squish it back to its liquid form. Ishmael describes that process thusly:

Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my collaborators’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much to say,–Oh, my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.

Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm forever!

I mean, that’s pretty great. Maybe worth reading all of Moby Dick for. Maybe.

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The last thing we need to talk about is Ahab. What a weirdo. I never managed to regard him with the filial loyalty and respect that his crew feels for him. They describe him as “noble” a number of times. Perhaps he was once, but his mind has been twisted by the loneliness or violence of whaling or something. Now he’s just a weirdo. All his dramatic speeches seem really silly to me. Get a grip, dude; you’re seeking revenge for an insult perpetrated by a whale. A whale. It’s not your enemy; it’s just an animal, you psycho. Chill out. Don’t ruin the lives of your entire crew. Oops, too late, you got everyone killed. . .because you couldn’t forgive a whale. That sucks. Ahab sucks.

There are some dramatic moments in this adventure story, but the whole thing seems ludicrous to me.

You might like Moby Dick if

  • you just can’t get enough inaccurate Victorian science.
  • you just can’t get enough information about whaling in the 1840s.
  • you are reading a severely abridged version.

You might not like Moby Dick if:

  • the complicated and sometimes loathsome racial relations will upset you.
  • the gory details of hunting and butchering whales will upset you.
  • you are not a whaling enthusiast.

Final thoughts: Look, if you want to read Moby Dick, best of luck to you. I recommend skipping most of the chapters.

Goth Sonnets

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning

Sonnets from the Portuguese, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1850

Once upon a time in Italy, Robert Browning sat scrutinizing a poem in progress. As he plumbed the depths of his brain for the exact word to fit his meaning and his meter, he heard the quick pitter-patter of feet lightly descending the stairs. Before he could turn around, he felt the pressure of a hand on his shoulder, warning him not to look behind him. His wife slid her hand into his pocket, deposited a packet and fled. He saw only the swish of her skirt and a hint of crimson cheek through her thick hair as she retreated to a room of her own. Intrigued, and probably a bit aroused, Robert hastily pulled the papers from his pocket and became the first person to read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese.

Robert Browning had to convince Elizabeth (let’s call her EBB) to publish the poems. She was hesitant to allow the public to read the deeply personal love poems she wrote to her husband. So, they titled them Sonnets from the Portuguese and pretended that she discovered them and translated them. I think of them as EBB’s Goth Sonnets because she her tone is self-effacing and melancholy. She describes herself as a drooping, tragic, gloom-monster who was destined to a life of weeping misery until Robert Browning shined his brilliant, amethyst light on her.

I always want to call Robert Browning “Robert Barrett Browning,” because it seems logical for married poets to exchange names as well as aesthetic and intellectual ideas. Also, Elizabeth was older, wealthier, higher class and more professionally successful than her husband at the time of their marriage. But, ya know, gender issues.

Without those pesky gender issues EBB might have been named poet laureate over Tennyson. She was quite influential in her time, to the point that she influenced child labor laws. Through poetry. Poetry!

The most famous sonnet is number 43:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints – I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! – and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

The sonnets are all very similar. I recommend them to people who are looking for poetry that represents love in an optimistic light. Most poets like to write about sad, bitter, destructive, doomed, tragic love. Sonnets from the Portuguese conveys love as spiritually uplifting and healing. I know that doesn’t sound Goth, but the trick is that while EBB describes herself as sad, love is the light that lifts her up out of her sadness. So, yes these poems have notes of melancholy, but they still depict love positively.

You might like Sonnets from the Portuguese if:

  • you like poems about love.
  • you’re secretly Goth inside.
  • you’re interested in real life romance between literary figures.

You might not like Sonnets from the Portuguese if:

  • you have no time for self-deprecation.
  • you’re just not that into sonnets.

Final thoughts: EBB was a talented poet. If you like poetry, you should read some of hers. Also, Valentine’s Day is coming up. There’s still time to embroider a sonnet onto a pillow for your loved one. Cuz who doesn’t love a pillow with a sonnet embroidered on it. (internal feminine rhyme, y’all)

Your High School English Teacher Should Apologize for Making You Read The Scarlett Letter

hester prynne scarlet letter cosplay

hester prynne scarlet letter cosplay

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, 1850 (with some continued mention of The House of the Seven Gables)

I’m going to try to be Fair and Balanced like Fox News in this review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s major novel. In other words, I am going to launch into a highly biased rant against Hawthorne’s many flaws whilst ignoring the perspective of anyone whose tastes, opinions and values may differ from mine.

I kid; I kid. I wanted to loathe Hawthorne, but certain elements of The Scarlet Letter reversed the tide of my affections. I will explain. First, some background information about the book:

Hawthorne wrote about New England. He was particularly interested in the Puritans and their cultural legacy. He had a relative who convicted “witches” in Salem, a judge who never expressed regret for his actions.  Both of these novels have a strange vein of magic running through them. Is it or isn’t it magic? Are we superstitious or are we skeptics? Was my ancestor an evil man who sent innocents to the gallows, or was he a hero who eradicated witchcraft from Salem? Hawthorne seems to toy with these questions, but his novels ultimately express a belief in magic and witches, in my opinion.

Every American high school student is forced to read The Scarlet Letter, so I am sure that you remember that it’s about Hester Prynne, a woman who sleeps with her pastor after her husband disappears. She gets caught, because she gets pregnant, and she is forced by her strict, Puritan community to wear a scarlet “A” for adulteress on her clothing. She never gives up the identity of her lover.

I don’t have a problem with Hawthorne’s plots. The presentation is awful, though. In both novels, Hawthorne withholds the most interesting elements of his story. In The House of the Seven Gables, Clifford and his cousin have a secret drama that ruined Clifford’s, health, psychology and reputation. Instead of telling the reader about that, Hawthorne talks for about 15 pages about chickens. Just the stuff that chickens do in the yard. 15 pages. Yes, their behavior is a metaphor for some stuff, some stuff that the reader has already internalized and does not need to spend 15 pages thinking about, especially not in the form of an overlong chicken allegory.

Let’s think about the plot of The Scarlet Letter. Here are the plot elements:

  • A Puritan woman’s husband disappears into the wilderness for two years.
  • She has an affair with her reverend.
  • She gets pregnant.
  • She gets convicted of adultery.
  • She hides the identity of her lover.
  • Her husband returns.
  • He asks her to keep their relation to each other concealed.
  • Her husband moves in with her lover and torments his guilty conscious.
  • Her lover is super tormented by his religious guilt.

I would say that 1, 2 and 3 are the most interesting elements of this plot. 7 and 8 are the least interesting. Be honest, would you rather read about religious guilt or forbidden romance? Forbidden romance, obviously. As an irreligious person, I could not empathize with Reverend Dimmesdale’s guilt.

In fact, religious guilt is my absolute least favorite literary theme. So boring. Stop tormenting yourself and become an ubermensch! Obviously, his obligation is not to God or his flock. His obligation is to his child and the woman he impregnated. Run away! Make a life! Forget your guilt, it helps no one! Don’t waste your life feeling shitty about loving a very lovable woman. Dummy. Reverend Dumbsdale.

That rant really got away from me. My point was that Hawthorne dedicates zero pages to the romance between Hester and Dimmesdale and 150 pages to their feelings of sinfulness and guilt. Waste of their time and waste of my time as a reader.

Hawthorne’s management of his pacing in The House is equally bad. He moves in a Brownian motion between a small set of ideas: Phoebe is youthful and pure, Hepzibah is dour, Clifford is feeble and loves beauty, the Pyncheon bloodline is degenerating, the sins of the fathers are blah blah blah. He ping pongs back and forth between these few ideas with no sense of urgency or forward movement.

Rant over! Here’s what I love about Hawthorne: Hester Prynne. Hester Prynne! Based on my (exhaustive) knowledge of English literature, I think that Hester Prynne is the first woman in literature whose virtue is divorced from her sexual purity. Hawthornes depicts his fallen woman as admirable, which just doesn’t happen in other books. (Except maybe Nancy in Oliver Twist, who I also love.) I really loved Hester and wanted her to escape from her life of shame, which she never does.

If you think about it, Hawthorne’s ideas of women are feminist. He suggests that Hester would have been a “prophetess” of sorts if she hadn’t lived in such a judgmental society. He makes it clear that she’s the most badass person in her tiny, hater-filled town. He demonstrates that shaming people for their sexual behavior is unproductive, hypocritical and cruel. That’s a good thing for an author to do.

You might like The Scarlet Letter if:

  • you sympathize with women who are publicly punished for their harmless private behavior.
  • you are anti-slut-shaming.

You might not like The Scarlet Letter if:

  • well, there are a lot of reasons, but you should probably just read it. Everybody else has and you don’t want to be uncultured do you? No, you don’t. You want to be buttermilk. Not just regular milk. Because you want to make good cornbread.

Final thoughts: I really didn’t enjoy or understand The Scarlet Letter in high school, but I’m glad I revisited it. Hawthorne’s style might be yawn worthy, but Hester Prynne is a literary heroine of the first order.

Edward Lear, Koala and I Add Whimsy to Your Life.

The Owl and the Pussycat, Edward Lear

Edward Lear, 1812-1888

I am afraid that I am about to dishonor my creative writing degree by inadequately expressing the extent of my love for Edward Lear. Wait, wait, I shall write a limerick in the style of Edward Lear.

There once was a girl two ears.

She used them to hear Edward Lear.

She read his poems all aloud and never once frowned.

That delighted young girl with two ears.

Slant rhyme in the third line, but I think the ghost of Edward Lear will forgive me.

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If you need more whimsy in your life, and you do, I highly recommend Lear’s poetry and artwork. He titled his volumes of poetry Book of Nonsense I, II and III. And his illustrations looked like this:

That’s how silly this man was.

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I first encountered Edward Lear in a survey of British Literature class freshman year of college. Of course, the Lear poem most commonly reprinted in lit anthologies is “Cold Are the Crabs,” one of his only poems with a melancholy mood. Because serious, canonical literature must be sad, right? Blerf. Nevertheless, more than any other poem from that course, the first two lines stuck in my head. They’re still mucking about in there. “Cold are the crabs that crawl on yonder hill/Colder the cucumbers that grow beneath” Silly, yes, and beautiful and evocative. I wanted more of that.

Tne Complete Verse and Other Nonsense by Edward Lear

Thanks to this 450 page volume of Lear’s complete verse, I got all the Lear I need. It took me an entire year to read it, but that was a fun and whimsy filled year. Now I’m reading The Angel in the House by Coventry Patmore, which fills my brain with boredom and my heart with feminist frustration. I long for Lear.

Not everyone knows of Edward Lear, but everyone has felt his influence. He popularized the limerick. If you’ve ever heard a limerick you can thank him for that. His were not licentious or crude, by the way. He wrote the “Owl and the Pussycat.” He coined the term “runcible spoon.” Here’s a runcible spoon, if you’re wondering what one looks like.

Lear is the clear predecessor to Lewis Carroll. I just don’t think there’d be a Jabberwocky without the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.

He was a multitalented man. He made his living doing scientific illustrations.

That’s a capercaillie, by the way.

Painting landscapes.

Writing music and, of course, writing poetry.

Most of his poems have accompanying illustrations. Here’s a limerick for you.

You might like Edward Lear if:

  • You like silliness, animals and whimsy.
  • You like anything that is good in this world.

You might not like Edward Lear if:

  • You are a broken, messed up person with a void where your soul should be.

Final thoughts: Look, Edward Lear is exactly what you need in your life. Well, he’s exactly what I need in my life. His poems will make you smile and chuckle. He’s entirely unique. Anyone who likes smiling and chuckling will like Edward Lear. You should get the book of his complete verse. It will make you happy, I guarantee.

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Nathaniel Hawthorne, American Gothic

 dead pilgrim

The House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1851

If you trudged through The Scarlet Letter in high school and never read another work by Nathaniel Hawthorne, you probably aren’t aware of his status as the premiere American writer of Gothic fiction. While his most famous novel doesn’t feature the paranormal, he sprinkled plenty of ghosts, ghouls, witches and curses into his other writing, including The House of the Seven Gables. In true Gothic fashion, Hawthorne never openly declares that magic exists in the world of his novel. Gothic is not Fantasy, because the ghosties turn out to be fake. Or do they?

As a Victorian New Englander, Hawthorne was fascinated with his Puritan ancestry, which makes sense to me. The ethos of the Victorian Era seems to channel some of that rigid, buttoned up, Puritan sense of moral righteousness. The story of The House of the Seven Gables starts with a rich and powerful Puritan, Colonel Pyncheon, who wants to build a house on land that belongs to a lowly farmer. That farmer, Matthew Maule, doesn’t want to give up the land, so the Colonel accuses him of being a witch. How else would you dispose of an enemy in colonial Massachusets? (Well, a musket would have worked.) Hawthorne laments Pyncheon’s corrupt use of his power and influence, implying that poor Matthew Maule was not a witch. However, this is a Gothic novel, so the Colonel mysteriously dies pretty much as soon as he finishes building his spooky mansion. . .and  Maule’s curse haunts his family for generations. (Anyone else thinking about that Velvet Underground song, Ocean? Love that song.)

Hawthorne dwells on that time honored “sins of the fathers” theme for the rest of the book. He touches on the intervening generations, but the story mostly concerns the relationship between Judge Pyncheon—the spitting image of his ancestor the Colonel—and his cousins. Elderly cousin Hepzibah lives in the titular house, but she’s impoverished and struggles to look after her feeble-minded brother, Clifford. But wait, this is a Gothic novel; it can’t just be about old folks! We need a handsome hero who is bold and brave and a pretty heroine who is pure and sweet. Not to worry, not to worry. Holgrave, the first daguerreotypist character in my list, plays our hero. Young Phoebe, a cousin from the country (you know, where everybody is as innocent and pure of heart as an eensy fresh little daisy) comes to town to be our heroine.

Guess what finally overcomes the curse. Guess. Did you say True Love? Yep, it’s True Love.

This isn’t my favorite novel ever. I found it a bit dull. But, if anyone can get some edification and enjoyment out of a boring book, it’s me! Here’s what I liked:

  1. It was kind of interesting reading Hawthorne equivocate about whether the troubles of the Pyncheon family were caused by witchcraft or Providence or coincidence. He sure can sit on a fence.
  2. Best names ever! Hepzibah! Phoebe! Jaffrey! Clifford! Hooray!
  3. You know me, I like wizards, witches and ghosts, even if they’re only maybe real.
  4. Daguerreotypists are great.
  5. Hawthorne seems a bit tortured and confused by the witch-burning antics of his ancestors. His tone is all over the place in this novel as he tries to reconcile his current moral sensibilities and his veneration for the past, which is interesting.

Here’s a Quote:

Old Matthew Maule, in a word, was executed for the crime of witchcraft. He was one of the martyrs to that terrible delusion, which should teach us, among its other morals, that the influential classes, and those who take upon themselves to be leaders of the people, are fully liable to all the passionate error that has ever characterized the maddest mob.

Truth!

However, Hawthorne later refers to Maule as “the wizard.” Fence sitter.

You might like The House of Seven Gables if:

  • You like Gothic fiction

You might not like The House of the Seven Gables if:

  • You didn’t like The Scarlet Letter. (Btw, you should rethink that opinion, but I’ll save that for another post.)

Final Thoughts:

Meh. I’m glad I read it, but I wouldn’t recommend it. This novel is short, but still too wordy. The word/idea ratio is too high for my liking. Also, I might change my name to Hepzibah. Will you call me Hepzibah?