My Horn of Plenty

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I knew a man who had suffered greatly during the Great Depression. He and his family oftentimes went hungry and their mealtime staple was usually a pot of beans. When he finally made it into the middle class as an adult he refused to have beans at his table, not even red beans, although he was a bonafide Cajun.

My mother sometimes struggled to put food on the table, but she liked to brag that in spite of our meager budget we never once missed a meal. She was incredibly creative when it came to stretching the offerings in the pantry. She was such a good cook that we rarely noticed that we were sometimes nearing the end of our stores. Only once in a great while would the refrigerator be almost empty, and the cupboards be bare. Even then Mama used her ingenuity to whip up what felt like a feast. She told us that she had learned from her mother who fed a family of ten during the great depression. She told us the story of how our grandmother would cook a whole fish with head still attached. After everyone had taken their share Grandma would eat the head. Mama laughed and said the her mom was actually getting the part with the most vitamins.

I was a skinny girl who barely weighed eighty eight pounds on my wedding day. Food didn’t really matter that much to me. I rarely ate breakfast which was no doubt a bad thing, but I never really missed it. I took a sack lunch to school and it usually consisted of either a bologna sandwich on white bread or a fried egg sandwich. The egg was the more delicious of the two, but it embarrassed me to open the wax paper and let the aroma of cold egg waft across the cafeteria. Someone invariably made a comment, and I quietly did my best to disavow the idea that it was all that we had for that day.

It was supper time when my mother became like the Julia Childs of the low economic set. She was literally able to make hot dogs into a gourmet dish, often making up recipes to use the ingredients that she had on hand. After my Grandmother Little she was the best cook that I have ever known.

I suppose that I was much more affected by the scarcity of food in our home than I ever dreamed because I eventually developed a kind of fetish for fresh fruits and vegetables as well as lean cuts of meat. I like to have my larders well stocked at all times, and I get a bit nervous when they are not. I’m not much for purchasing junk food because that was never something that we kept around my childhood home. Instead I take great joy in visiting a farmer’s market or a really good produce department. I become like a kid in a candy store in such places. In fact, I actually enjoy going to such venues for fun. I suppose that if I am honest I must admit to carrying a hidden fear that the food will one day run out.

Nothing pulls at my heart strings more than seeing photos of starving children in distant lands. My mama used to caution us not to waste food, reminding us that children in some places would be more than happy to have the plenty that she put on our table. My brothers sometimes joked when she was not around that it wasn’t as though we could put our waste in a little box and send it somewhere that it would be appreciated. Of course, that was before we grew up and realized that even though we lived on the edge, we still had more than millions of souls whose misfortunes made ours seem like nothing.

I worked as a volunteer at the Houston Food Bank a number of times. Some of the students that I have taken with me ironically had used the services on a regular basis. It was humbling to realize that even within my own city there are families struggling to get the proper nourishment. I’ve often thought of my own mother and her incredible knowledge of ways to create a healthy diet on a very small income. We may have eaten beans and greens, but she understood the value that they gave to our diet, and cooked them so that they were also delicious. A problem that far too many people have, is a lack of understanding of how to feed themselves and their loved ones with only a small number of ingredients.

I have a good friend who is much like my mom. She uses every part of every kind of food that she purchases. She boils the tops of beets and the peelings from potatoes and all the rest of the seemingly unusable parts of vegetables to make broth that is filled with vitamins and flavor. She purchases big bags of overripe bananas that are practically being given away and freezes them for the smoothies that she makes her husband each morning. Whenever I’m looking for a good way to use food to its utmost she provides me with dozens of ideas. She even knows how to make her own chocolate and has devised a method for making ice cream that doesn’t even require a machine.

I used to shudder whenever I had cafeteria duty in the schools where I worked as I watched the garbage cans filling with perfectly good items that the children simply did not want to eat. I thought of those babies with bloated bellies and wondered if they would have been more than happy to munch on the food that would end up in a landfill. I found myself understanding what my mother had been thinking when she told me and my brothers not to take what we did not think we could eat. 

Food is one of our most basic needs. It is also a way to celebrate and gather with friends and family. We humans have turned eating into an art form. It is one of life’s great joys, and as I grow older it has also become a source of contentment for me to choose a juicy red tomato or find a display of perfectly formed apples. As I store away the meats, fruits, vegetables and grains I feel so thankful. Now when I make an egg sandwich for myself I see it as a great gift. The horn of plenty that is my refrigerator and pantry makes me feel quite thankful, particularly for having a mother who so quietly and courageously fed me an my brothers with no complaint and great joy. She taught me to have an appreciation for whatever I have and to never forget those who have so much less.

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Oh SNAP!

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Try to imagine living on a net monthly income of about one thousand dollars a month. It would create a constant struggle to meet even the most basic needs of food and housing. In the Houston area we have a lower cost of living than most places, but even here it’s difficult to find housing for less than seven or eight hundred dollars a month. Just paying rent alone takes a huge chunk from such a meager monthly budget, and when utilities are added to the bottom line there is very little left to take care of other basic needs.

Sadly there are very good people who work but still don’t manage to move past the level of poverty. Then, of course, there are the elderly who are no longer physically able to hold down jobs whose monthly checks provide them with ever diminishing spending power. To offset the hopelessness of living in such situations the federal government instituted the Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program, otherwise known as SNAP.

Recipients of SNAP benefits must certify that they meet the standards of one hundred percent of the designated poverty income levels. They may have a home but no more than a few thousand dollars in savings and other assets. Once they have been verified they receive an EBT card that has been preloaded with funds that they may spend at designated grocery stores for the purchase of food. Eligible recipients are free to choose the items that they prefer but may not make nonfood purchases with the card, nor may they include certain products like beer or wine. SNAP requires individuals and families to continually certify their financial status to insure that eligibility requirements are being met.

While it is generally known is that many Americans are lacking proper nutrition in their diets, the SNAP program does not restrict particular food choices, even if those include soda, candy and other questionable snacks. Studies have shown that enforcing nutritional standards would make the program far too costly, as well as creating paperwork nightmares. Efforts to improve the delivery of wholesome foods to those needing assistance have been mostly unsuccessful. Recently President Donald Trump recommended a major change to the program that would take the element of choice from those receiving the benefits. He proposes a system that would send boxes of nonperishable food items to individuals and families each month rather than reloading funds into an EBT card. The suggestion has created a firestorm of criticism and concern.

Obviously the cost and logistics of delivering the food would be enormous. There are a number of nagging questions about how to make such a system effective, and many concerns about whether or not it is even possible. Take for example the situation of someone who is not home when the box arrives. Does the delivery person just leave the food hoping that it actually ends up where it is supposed to be, or does he notify the recipient to reschedule? How efficient would such a system be when deliveries have to be made to far flung rural areas? Who will be in charge of the distribution process? Will this kind of system require whole new staffs of people?

Of course the most obvious question literally becomes one of taste. Each of us has certain dietary preferences. I can’t imagine not having the freedom to decide what kinds of foods I might purchase, and I find it insensitive to think that the poor should not be allowed the same liberties that I enjoy. I also prefer fresh fruits and vegetables and the idea of only having canned varieties is a very unpleasant one.

My mom was a widow who never made a great deal of money. There was only a brief period of time in her life after my father died when she enjoyed a high standard of living. Most of the time, especially in her later years, she was only barely above the one hundred percent poverty level. At the time of her death she missed that standard by one hundred dollars a month. Even though she owned her home by then, she barely scraped by. She reached a point at which she was stretched to the maximum and yet she was not spending money frivolously. She rarely purchased new clothing or shoes. She did not own a car. Her house needed major repairs that had to wait. Much of her income went toward utilities, medical expenses, insurance costs, and food. She pinched every single penny, especially when it came to purchasing food, and yet she always managed to have a very healthy diet. Her secret was in choosing very carefully. Rarely did she buy canned items. Instead she bought seasonal vegetables and cuts of meat that were on sale.

My mom used the skills of meal planning and her knowledge of nutrition to prepare healthy meals. A carton of eggs lasted for a week and gave her a good breakfast to eat in six of the seven days. She searched for the stores that had the best prices and always bought her food for a bargain. She regularly chose meats that would provide her with multiple meals and vegetables that would be sides as well as ingredients for soups. She loved dried beans and there was rarely a week when she did not prepare a large pot of some kind of legume that would serve as lunch or dinner for many days.

I took my mother grocery shopping on Friday evenings and she would spend hours determining how to get the most bang from her buck. Rarely did she spend more than twenty five dollars and yet she managed to get bags and bags of items. She made it a kind of challenge to walk out of the store with a wonderful variety that she had purchased at a very low cost. In fact, she often urged me to join the competition and would raise an eyebrow at any extravagant purchases that I made, pointing out that the sale apples were just as good as the more expensive ones that I had chosen.

It was difficult for my mom to make it on her low income, and yet she did. She was profoundly independent and she was proud to be able to be the mistress of her own budget. She sometimes grumbled that she was just shy of receiving some assistance from the government, but she would not have taken anything away from those who did because she understood their plight. I suspect that she would have allowed more treats in her diet had she been given a bit more purchasing power. Mostly though she enjoyed the ability to choose. I think she would have found it distasteful to have someone insinuating that she was somehow ignorant or less than able to be her own mistress simply because her income was so sparse.

I understand all of the arguments from people who worry that the taxpayers’ money is often wasted on frivolous items that don’t seem to be necessary components of a healthy diet. What I find hypocritical is that some of the very same people complained loudly when First Lady Michelle Obama helped create nutrition rules for school lunches. They voiced their objections to being told what their children might eat. Many of them often insist that their private decisions should be their own, and I agree with that concept. I just don’t think that it is right to exclude the poor from the right to determine what will be on their tables at dinner time. It’s not up to us to make decisions for them even when they slip in a bag of cookies for their children. It’s good for the soul to have a treat here and there. Why would we want to deny them?

I am open to the concern that some of the SNAP funds are not being spent properly, but I just don’t believe that we need to be nannies or create programs that will become more complex than they need to be. Let’s think of better ways to help people bring nutritious meals to the tables of our fellow citizens without insinuating our own preferences on them. Let’s put ourselves in their shoes and demonstrate a bit of understanding. But for circumstances we might one day find ourselves in their shoes.

Living A Good Life

Gym-equipment-pic.jpgI’m relatively healthy given my age. I’m more likely to need dental work than any type of medical procedure. I take vitamins and a medication for GERD which is produced in my case by a hiatal hernia and a very narrow esophagus. My grandmother once told me that everyone in her family lived to an old age, but eventually died of “gut” trouble. So far I seem to be proving her theory to be correct, but a few years back I decided that it might be a good idea to have a Primary Care Physician, someone who would coordinate all of my issues in one place. I had no idea where to start in choosing someone, so I asked my husband’s and mother’s cardiologist to suggest a few outstanding physicians that he knew. I decided on a fairly young doctor with high marks and a most interesting name. I mean who would not be intrigued by a name like “Septimus?” I figured that at the very least I would have no difficulty recalling such a moniker, and besides I had to meet this person with such a regal sounding handle.

I’ve been with Dr Septimus ever since, and it’s a good thing because he is exactly the kind of person that I was seeking. He is very serious, hardly cracking a smile or a joke, but he knows his stuff and he’s inclined to share it all with me. He is unwilling to overlook any little aspect of my health, including my exercise regimen. In that regard he has recently demanded that I join a gym and work out at least five times a week. Luckily my new Medicare Advantage Plan includes membership at a variety of places. Dr. Septimus felt that I would feel the most comfortable at the YMCA, where I might avoid the muscle bound devotees and be around folks more like myself. After reviewing several possibilities I found myself agreeing with him, and so I joined a couple of weeks ago. I have to say that it has been a grand experience. Even the personal trainers are not intimidating.

The local YMCA is a short drive from my home and everyone there is quite friendly. I received a personal training session and a fellow up as part of my membership. A very nice woman told me which machines to use in the beginning and how to set them to my personal specifications. At first I felt a bit odd because the truth is that I am a virtual blob of flab. My initial encounters with the weight machines proved how much I needed them. I had to keep reminding myself that nobody was watching me, and I thought of a business proposal that some of my former students once suggested which involved creating a special exercise space for very unfit individuals. I was thinking how nice it would have been to be surrounded by a bunch of blobs like me, but then where is the motivation in that?

Once I got over my self consciousness and nerves I realized that all of us are in the process of improving ourselves. There are young folks who are amazingly fit and people older than myself who are barely able to move. The point is that all of us are after the same essential goal. The trainer told me that I would see results more quickly than I thought, and she was quite right. The first thing I noticed was how much more energy I have. I am no longer experiencing that afternoon let down that made me want to take a quick nap each day. Instead I am moving so constantly that achieving ten thousand steps a day has become a piece of cake. I get more done in a few hours than I ever imagined would be possible. The only difficulty that I have experienced has been working the gym time around all of the other appointments that I have. I don’t like to go there when it is really crowded, but I suppose that I will learn how to balance all of my demands eventually.

So far I’ve managed about an hour and fifteen minutes of exercise five days each week. The chest press that seemed so difficult initially is already reaching a point of comfort that tells me that I may need to increase the weight. I’ve begun to overcome the elliptical machine which originally ate my lunch. I dream of wearing summer clothes with a bit more pride, and I suspect that I will be successful in that regard as long as I keep up the routine. I’m thankful for Dr. Septimus because he is not about to let me off of the hook. I can’t get anything past him. He monitors me like a hawk and gives me the kind of evil eye that a parent or teacher might invoke whenever he realizes that I am slacking.

I don’t know why we humans allow ourselves to become so unhealthy. I guess there are just too many temptations urging us to cheat. I’ll be the first to admit that given the choice between a big bowl of chips and cheese dip versus a big juicy apple I would tend toward the worst of the two. I have to work hard to stay within the most reasonable eating norms, but I have been quite diligent in that regard. The result has been that when I do fall off of the wagon I feel rather sick. My body just doesn’t like me when I feed it junk food anymore. It has adjusted to a routine of fruits and vegetables made with spices but no salt or added sugars. I’ve become such a regular at Sprouts, the Farmer’s Market and the produce section of HEB that Quicken notes my expansive use of finances for good food.

I find myself wondering how the very poor are able to fund healthy food, when I realize how much more it costs to invest in it. I think of their inability to join a gym, and feel a bit guilty that I have privileges that they don’t. I remember my mom putting back apples because she had estimated how much she had to spend and didn’t have enough. I feel so fortunate to have a doctor who cares enough about my welfare to push me to exercise and eat well. I am lucky to have a medical plan that pays for him and my gym membership. I have enough retirement income to bring fresh vegetables into my home. I have everything that I need to feel younger than I am because I am living a good life. I need to remind myself of the next time that I begin to falter.

Abundance

vans-2015-summer-geoff-rowley-footwear-collection-11My grandmother was one of those people who saved all of her nice things for some future day when she would need them. We used to joke that our Christmas gifts to her would be stored away and not seen again until the things that she had been using were worn beyond usefulness. When she died there were items still wrapped in cellophane and stored in boxes. I suppose that hers was the habit of a woman who had lived in a state of poverty for most of her life. She was brought up to use what she had rather than to concern herself with acquiring abundance. I suspect that there were many people of her generation and economic status who did exactly the same thing. It sometimes made us sad that her tendencies prevented her from fully enjoying the advantages that we sought to give her. I suppose that it mattered little to her because by then she was set in her ways, but it always amused me that we kept trying to provide her with luxuries even as she resisted our efforts. Perhaps in some ways she was actually wiser than we were because she was perennially happy with little more than our presence. The things we brought her were not required to make her smile.

I was reminded of my grandmother recently as I helped a friend to dispose of her deceased father’s possessions. I realized as we packed away boxes and boxes of items that he had accumulated that most of us probably own more than we ever really use. When all is said and done we are drowning in stuff and yet we continue to shop and add to our collections. I wondered if we have our priorities straight or if we are simply addicted to consumption, victims of enticing commercialism that convinces us of what we must have rather than what we actually need.

I mentioned to my friend as we worked that perhaps we would all be best served by pursuing memories rather than things. She smiled knowingly and noted that she had planned a summer trip to Alaska because of that very idea. It occurred to me that we don’t always recall all of our purchases, but we do think about experiences time and time again. Our trips and outings are the stuff that often make us the happiest and leave the longest lasting impressions.

I have two friends who live frugally so that they will be able to take phenomenal trips each year. They have travelled the world and seen wonders. The wisdom of their choice to buy vacations rather than things really made sense when their home was flooded by hurricane Harvey this past August. The one thing that they did not lose was the joy that their journeys had brought them. They were certainly devastated by the damage done to their abode, but somehow I found comfort in knowing that they still had memories that not even floodwaters could wash away. What after all, do we really require to live full lives? Is there a way to enjoy ourselves and still be mindful of our tendencies to waste our resources and purchase more than we truly need?

Years ago a cousin noted that we begin our time as an adult in a tiny apartment which soon becomes too full, so we move until we have accumulated so much more that we are once again searching for room to store everything that we own. The practice continues again and again and in many ways we end up with bigger and bigger homes not so much because we actually want the space, but mostly because our possessions have overtaken us. I have often felt guilty as I fill every nook and cranny including the attic with my acquisitions and  wonder if I need to scale back.

What would I truly want to keep if I were somehow forced to pare down my life to a barer minimum? I suppose that it would require a bed on which to sleep with enough linens to have a clean surface for my slumbers and a blanket to keep me warm. A chest to hold my socks and underwear, pajamas and some clothing would probably be good to have. I’d want a table and some chairs for partaking meals, and a couch on which to sit whether I’m reading or visiting with friends. I have to admit to my need to own a television if for no other reason than to have access to the news, but in reality because I enjoy relaxing with shows that touch my imagination. A few lamps would be nice and bookcases to hold my treasured volumes, but I suppose that I might even eliminate that necessity by purchasing electronic copies of my favorite titles. I’d need a refrigerator and a stove and I’ve grown accustomed to having a microwave oven, a coffeemaker and a toaster. I could wash dishes by hand but I wonder if that method is as efficient as doing a load now and again in the dishwasher. I also must have a clothes washer and dryer or at least a clothesline in my backyard along with some cleaning tools to keep things tidy. A few changes of clothing and some towels would round out my needs, and yet I own so much more than that and seem to think that it is important to preserve it all in a kind of shrine to my accumulations that takes twenty seven hundred square feet plus a garage and an attic to store. I don’t want to live like a monk, and I find nothing wrong with decorating and collecting, but I sometimes imagine my children and grandchildren one day culling through my things and wondering what to do with all that I possess. 

My mother once told me that she had never been owned by things. She commented that she might have carried all that really mattered to her in two suitcases which is in fact what she did in the last two and one half years of her life. She spent those months living with me and my brother with little more than a weeks worth of clothing changes, her bible, and a radio for listening to Houston Astros games during baseball season. She had uncluttered her life so totally that she had few worries related to possessions. When she died the distribution of her estate was uncomplicated and debt free. My brothers and I could not have had an easier task. Her life was in order because so little of it focused on things.

I know people in Houston who are back in their houses after having to leave when four feet of water flooded the insides back in August. They once again have walls instead of bare studs, but they walk on concrete floors and sit on lawn chairs. Somehow they are happy because they feel the warmth and security that they worried had been destroyed by the waters. They realize that it was never the things inside that made their houses feel like home. Perhaps each of us should consider how much we truly need and begin to live with less dragging us down. We may find freedom, joy and purpose in learning to live with what we need rather than being possessed by our wants. Perhaps my grandmother had the right idea all along.

A Nation of Hermits

Hermit-crab-GettyImages-597303469-58b66f6f5f9b586046c36d9e.jpgI have been told that my grandfather went shopping every Friday after work. He visited a bookstore and purchased a new volume to read during the coming week and then bought a few groceries which he carried home in a reusable mesh bag. (He was obviously way ahead of his time.) It was an outing that he enjoyed. As a child I accompanied my mother on Saturday shopping excursions. Sometimes we rode the bus into the downtown retail district, but mostly we went to the malls that were just then becoming a new phenomenon all across America. I looked forward to those times with great anticipation because they meant that I would receive a quarter to spend in any way that I chose. When I became an adult I kept the Saturday tradition going with my own daughters and I have warm memories of fun times together.

Eventually my girls left home and I enlisted my mother as a shopping partner once again. As she grew older I religiously visited her every Friday afternoon after work and our adventures always included dining out followed by an excursion to one of her favorite stores. She literally spent hours studying the items displayed in every aisle and buying only those offered for the best possible prices. She always appeared to be so happy just window shopping and I loved being with her talking about this and that as we went about our weekly routine. I suspect that I somehow developed a psychological connection between retail therapy and joyful memories of my mother, because to this very day I find wandering around my favorite stores to be calming.

I sometimes worry that the act of browsing inside boutiques and such will go the way of the dinosaur. I recently heard a news story in which an economist predicted that three fourths of all of the retail merchants that we now know will be gone within a couple of decades, replaced mostly by online giants and mega stores like Walmart. People are more and more often using existing brick and mortar establishments to see what products are like so that they might order the same things from Amazon for lower prices. More and more often we hear of stores closing their doors forever for lack of customers, and even those that appear to be doing well are struggling to keep up with the momentum of online shopping. It seems that people would rather spend their time on weekends enjoying family activities and traveling than perusing racks of clothing inside buildings. Furthermore the cost of renting space and paying for upkeep makes it difficult for traditional establishments to compete with the deals that online businesses are able to provide. The American shopping experience is rapidly changing.

Ironically we are in a sense returning to the old days of the catalog. In the early days of the twentieth century people who lived in more rural areas often shopped from a Sears or JC Penny catalog. Virtually anything that they might have wanted was available including kits for building homes. My father-in-law lives in a house in the Houston Heights that was made from designs sold in the early nineteen hundreds. It is a style that might be seen all across the country because it was a favorite of the catalog buying public during that era. Now we have online inventories from which we can choose most of the things that we use and have them delivered directly to our homes, often without having to pay shipping costs. With a few keystrokes we are able to order our medications, appliances, clothing, gifts and even groceries. There is little reason to get dressed up and venture out. It’s just so much easier to visit the electronic stores.

I have often believed that given enough reasons not to have to leave my home I would easily evolve into being a hermit of sorts. I wonder if today’s world is so fast paced and stressful that most of us are tempted by the idea of finding solace inside the walls of our homes as often as possible. We now have the capacity to enjoy movies, music and culinary experiences without ever venturing into crowded establishments. With Netflix and the like we are able to spend an evening watching great entertainment with all of the snacks we might desire for less than a third of the cost of going to a theater. Best of all we can do it in our pajamas and pause the action at will.

The world is always changing and those of us who cling to past memories may have to learn how to keep up. It appears that the big malls of yesteryear may become empty caverns of curiosity that our grandchildren and great grandchildren will view with wonder. They will marvel at the quaint idea of wandering from one shop to another as a form of entertainment. They will laugh at the impracticality of such ideas as they order their goods and receive them within hours from drones that drop them on their doorsteps.

In some ways the ever changing way of doing business is actually quite wonderful for seniors like me. As we become less and less able to get around we will still be able to procure the items that we need for comfortable and happy living. We will have little need to have a car or worry about transportation. With Uber as our chauffeur and Amazon as our marketplace we will be able to be independent far longer than previous generations. The only thing that worries me is that as we as a society spend more and more of our time inside our homes we run the risk of becoming isolated. Unless we couple the convenience of home shopping with concerted efforts to stay connected with other people we will fall prey to some very unhealthy habits.

It will be quite interesting to see what actually happens in the coming years. The stores that I frequent are still quite busy and I find it difficult to believe that everyone will be accepting of the idea of reinventing the ways of commerce and abandoning the brick and mortar experiences. Nonetheless I have been proven wrong many times before. I laughed at the idea of recording television programs for future viewing. I never dreamed that Blockbuster Video would become a memory of the past. I believed that Amazon was only a phase along with home computers and smart phones. There is no telling what actually lies ahead.

I now have devices in my home that turn on lights and monitor the area while I am gone, ready to alert the police in the event of trouble. I can view the rooms from hundreds of miles away. I receive my medication at my doorstep and purchase all of my Christmas gifts each year without ever having to search for parking spaces at a mall. I watch programs at my own leisure and truly believe that one day I will not have to drive my car because it will be programmed to get me from place to place on its own. I have a robot that cleans my floors just like Rosie in the Jetsons. I eat meals that only require a few minutes of heating time in the microwave. I am as automated as a science fiction story of old and there is definitely going to be more to come. I only hope that in our quest to make our homes all providing castles we do not fall into the trap of becoming a nation of hermits. The temptation is there. We will have to make certain that we find other ways of interacting with our fellow humans. I’m sure that someone already has ideas about how to accomplish that.