What a North Korean assassination can tell us about our souls

If you’ve been following the news the past few weeks, you may have come across a series of stories describing the bizarre assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the exiled older brother of North Korea’s secretive dictator, Kim Jong Un. This type of thing–the flagrant murder of a political enemy by state-sponsored killers–is reassuringly rare. And when it does occasionally happen, as when Kremlin-backed murderers poisoned former KGB operative Alexander Litvinenko in a London restaurant, the killers are usually careful to cover their tracks, making it nearly impossible to prove that the hit was orchestrated by a government. I recently heard a radio commentator discussing why such killings aren’t more common, and why governments go to such lengths to hide their crimes. After all, if you’re a nefarious dictator, killing your enemies seems like a pretty straightforward way of dealing with dissent. There are a variety of international laws and treaties that explicitly prevent this type of behavior, especially when it occurs on foreign soil.

You may be wondering why this international intrigue piqued my interest, and if I’m planning to abandon the world of cozy crime and make an abrupt shift to writing spy thrillers set in the world of bad haircuts and imported cheese. Luckily for the reading public, the answer is no. Rather, my interest comes down to the word the commentator used: “prevent.” As in these laws prevent this type of behavior. It got me pondering the age-old question of inherent evil. This is Philosophy 101, Hobbes vs. Locke. If laws weren’t around to prevent, curtail, strongly discourage, etc. us from being horrible and violent, would the world just be one big Lord of the Flies-style foray into the darkest cesspools of the human soul?

I’m not talking here about laws that prevent jaywalking, insider trading, and other selfish or thoughtless acts. I’m thinking specifically of killing. Setting aside the small number of people who are utterly detached from reality and social norms, those who are, say, deranged by severe mental illness, caught up in a war, or scarred by childhood abuse, is it true that the fear of legal punishment is what prevents us from committing violent crimes? I’ve thought about this quite a bit as I’ve invented characters whose compelling motivations and character flaws combine to cause them to commit or attempt to take another person’s life.

My feeling is that most basic laws against violence weren’t codified to try to scare people into reining in a natural propensity toward murdering other people. Instead, I see laws as arising from the inherent belief that 99% of the world’s population already shares–killing people isn’t something most of us would even want to do, even if we were assured that we would never be punished. Unless a very specific set of circumstances and personalities are in play, killing doesn’t happen. Sure, I’ve been angry enough to want someone dead. Just the other day, someone (obviously deserving of death) bought the last package of whole grain waffles right out from under me. But if you actually put a knife in my hand and said, “Go for it. No questions asked and no consequences…?” I, along with most people, would take a pass. Even many nefarious dictators would think twice.

Life, Death, and Ginger Tea

Recently I paid a visit to a dear friend of mine who’s been ill. I shared the news of my pregnancy and told her about the unrelenting nausea I’d been experiencing. She, too, had been dealing with nausea, so she whipped out some Saltines for me to munch on and gave me her husband’s recipe for fresh ginger tea. We commiserated about how physical illness colors your entire worldview and makes it hard to concentrate. We both expressed some relief in the knowledge that no matter how bad things got, our suffering would soon come to an end.

There was a lot of commonality to discuss, but one major point of divergence–while I knew that my suffering would end with the birth of my baby, if not sooner, my friend knew that her suffering would likely only end with her death. She’d been told a few months previously that her condition was worsening and her decline would soon become inexorable. Just a week or so before I visited her, she began the transition from managing her chronic condition to moving towards in-home hospice care. She’s now in the process of spending her remaining time revisiting moments in her life with friends and family and cementing her legacy. Because she is the friggin’ bomb, my wonderful, compassionate, witty, vibrant friend is confronting her death with what feels a whole lot like joie de vivre. I can’t tell you how much I will miss her.

It may seem odd that in this time when I should perhaps be focused on the new life thumping away inside my womb, I’m instead spending a lot of time thinking about death. If you’ve read my blog for a while maybe this comes as less of a surprise, as I’ve written before about the way humor and death sometimes intertwine and how my own spiritual development is very much bound up in my views of the afterlife. You may also have taken a hint from the fact that I write murder-centric books about a hospital chaplain, who is often confronted with life-and-death dilemmas.

It turns out that I’m not the only person who sees life’s beginning and life’s ending as inextricably linked. In fact, I’d put forth that they’re not even two sides of the same coin. They’re more like the tension in a tug-of-war rope–the animating forces of the rope itself. Without them both pulling on you at the same time, the rope (i.e. you) would just be lying on the ground like a wet noodle.

If this post has put you in a philosophical frame of mind (and/or stirred up an existential crisis), I’d suggest some further reading, a recent New York Times piece “Looking Death in the Face” that my living/dying friend posted on Facebook. Happy living. xx

 

 

Mostly what I’m producing is vomit

I began the month of October all gung-ho to work on Murder on the Mile High Bridge, book four in the Mount Moriah series. I had a plot, a victim, a murderer, and a couple nifty twists all ready to be spun into literary gold. Or, if not precious metal, at least a halfway decent piece of commercial fiction.

Then, the barfing started. I’ve written before about my tendency to upchuck before taking the stage to speak in public and how I’ve used medication as a crutch to overcome my fear. This was a different kind of barfing. Pregnant barfing. The kind of all-day “morning” sickness that only the parasitic invasion of a fetus can produce. That’s right. A small(er) Quigley is being manufactured in my womb.

But wait, you’re saying. Kate Middleton totally made all-day vomiting and nausea seem glamorous. What better way to ensure that you can squeeze right back into your size zero designer frocks moments after giving birth? Well, friends, there is no glamour in spewing partially-digested Saltines out of your mouth and nose in the bushes outside the grocery store. If you’ve ever experienced seasickness or altitude sickness, you’ll have an inkling of what severe morning sickness feels like. It’s that, only times several months.

I’m now a few weeks into my second trimester and my energy and ability to complete the full digestive process are gradually returning. But this is literally the first time I’ve put cursor to screen in any creative way since this whole ordeal/joyous event began. Apologies to anyone waiting for the next installment of Lindsay Harding’s story. Real-life drama has been the order of the day. I’m hoping to complete the manuscript before Baby Q arrives, because I remember the newborn stage also not being a particularly fruitful time in my professional life. Wish me luck.

I know there are many women who have powered through cancer, MS, and other extremely challenging health conditions while simultaneously keeping up with demanding jobs and/or care commitments. Good for them. I, by contrast, am mortal. I can only do one thing at a time–build a human being from scratch or write a lighthearted cozy mystery. One or the other. Not both.  I recently came across a Virginia Woolf quote that’s an old favorite of mine, which lets me know that I am in good company. “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” Amen, Virginia.

Roll on, second trimester, and let the dining (and writing) recommence.

Oh! Quick shameless plug. The Mount Moriah box set is on sale for only $.99 on Amazon for the new day or so: http://amzn.to/2gGiHKg. Recommend it to a friend who could use a pick-me-up this holiday season.

Who Wants to Date a Reverend?

My Reverend Lindsay Harding character, a short, spunky, curly-haired Southerner with a quick wit, bears an uncanny resemblance to real-life hospital chaplain Stacy Sergent. Sergent shares her hilarious, poignant observations about life in the spiritual trenches at stacysergent.com. You can also check out her fantastic memoir, Being Called Chaplain: How I lost my name and (eventually) found my faith.

Sergent’s post about trying to find love as a female minister would definitely resonate with Rev. Harding! I may have to steal some of these dating “gems” for the next Lindsay book. 🙂

Stacy N. Sergent

The dating world can be tough when you have a job that quite literally scares the hell out of some men, and makes it hard to meet people “the old-fashioned way.”  Guys I work with are out of the question, because I am their minister.  Sure, there are some cute young doctors, but what if I date one, then he has a rough night in the ER and finds himself in need of the kind of support often provided by the chaplain?  How awkward would it be if the chaplain on duty were his girlfriend, or worse yet, his ex-girlfriend?  I think my no-dating-guys-I-work-with rule is a pretty good one.  I spend a lot of time at church, which is often suggested to me as a good place to meet like-minded individuals.  Yet I’m sorry to say there are absolutely no single men at this particular church.

When meeting someone new, one of…

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Two thumbs up for cozy mysteries

To a kid growing up in Chicago in the 1980s, the Chicago Sun Times film critic Roger Ebert was the fount of all wisdom. His weekly Siskel and Ebert: At the Movies PBS show, with its famous Thumbs Up-Thumbs Down scoring system, was in regular rotation on lazy Saturday mornings, when my sister and I would flop in front of the TV with bowls of cereal. Because it was the 80s, our mother let us add spoonsful of white sugar to our Cheerios and eat them along with big glasses of milk sweetened with Hershey’s syrup. Apparently, in the 80s, everyone had magical pancreases.

But back to Ebert. This bespectacled, almost cartoonishly jowly Midwesterner somehow embodied the personality traits of a sharp-witted pundit, a polymath genius, and a four-year-old at a birthday party. His arguments with his co-host were literate, civilized precursors to the hair-clawing, manicure-ruining brawls that populate today’s reality TV. Their arguments were every bit as viscous and sometimes even personal, but their disagreements also expanded minds and showed that it was possible for even well-intentioned experts to disagree.

I recently rediscovered that Saturday morning slice of my childhood when I saw Life Itself, a documentary that chronicles Ebert’s diagnosis with jaw cancer, and the aftermath of the disfiguring surgery that spared his life but destroyed both his face and his ability to speak. The documentary is wonderful, even for those who lack the childhood attachment I have. The film is chock-full of touching, profound, hilarious revelations, but it was one quote, as Ebert discussed his scathing review of Blue Velvet, that has stuck with me for weeks:

“Drama holds a mirror up to life, but needn’t reproduce it.”

For Ebert, Blue Velvet’s sadomasochistic depiction of Isabella Rossalini’s character, and by extension the actress herself, crossed a line between art/drama and exploitation. This brought me back to the struggles I had in choosing a comfortable genre in which to write. After my first agent unsuccessfully shopped the Mount Moriah cozy mystery series, she advised that I switch gears and write Romantic Suspense, which she assured me would sell more easily. That genre, also known as “woman in peril” usually features dangerous, even psychopathic, criminals and gritty scenes of life-threatening action. Following my agent’s advice, I started a novel about a female psychiatrist who treated patients suffering from severe phobias using 3D virtual reality immersion. Similar to the villain in the movie Se7en, my baddie was killing my heroine’s patients one-by-one by reproducing the circumstances of their virtual immersions in real life. Terrified of spiders? Well, you’d find yourself trapped in a room full of tarantulas. And so on. Pretty good plot, eh?

Here’s the thing, though. When I worked on that book, I felt gross. It was hard to edit, because I didn’t like going back reading what I’d written. Yes, those horrible things—mental illness, murder, torture, cruelty, happen. But I didn’t want to be the one to give voice to those things. So, I chucked that idea, dropped the agent, and published the Mount Moriah books myself with Nicole Loughan’s Little Spot imprint. There are murders in my books, and baddies. And things like domestic abuse and prejudice are not glossed over. But I try not to hold my reader’s gaze on them for too long, and I never want to inflict unnecessary suffering on my characters. Mostly, my books try to radiate positive energy. Sometimes, when I read a passage I haven’t read in a long time, it will still make me chuckle. That’s the vibe I’m most comfortable putting out in the world.

I’ll leave it to others to meticulously reproduce mass starvation, individual privation, war atrocities, and child abuse. Turns out when I hold up a mirror to life, I want to hold a fun house mirror.

Sex, drugs, and Mr. Peanut

“I swear! There’s an entire series of these, and this guy sells millions. There’s one about sexy sentient donuts.”

For better or for worse, last weekend I was made aware of the existence of the literary oeuvre of Chuck Tingle, whose series of creatively-titled, gay erotica about topical issues includes such gems as Feeling the Bern in My Butt. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the premise of Gay T-Rex Law Firm. My mental deflowering took place when a few writers and I were winding down after a day at the Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival, which, to be extremely clear, is a fun, family-friendly writing festival, and not in any way associated with butts or dinosaurs or dinosaur butts. The agent of my corruption was USA Today-bestselling romance novelist Kimberly Lang. Lang was  lamenting the lack of quality control in publishing, and we were feeling simultaneously aghast and impressed by the success of people like Tingle, who churn out books like a Kardashian sister churns out pouty-lipped selfies.

Lang has been in the publishing biz for almost ten years, and her own books range from sweet to steamy. She had some profound (and hilarious) insights into the writing of genre books that really got me thinking about my own work. I’ve sometimes pushed the boundaries of conventional cozy mysteries. My books are sometimes a little more open about addressing uncomfortable issues like racism and domestic violence than cozy mysteries typically are. And the humor can sometimes be sharper than it is sweet. I’ll definitely be keeping all these issues in mind as I start working in earnest on book four in the Mount Moriah series.

suffolk_mystery_fest
Look at me not barfing in abject terror!

Lest you think that Suffolk only involved serious conversations about the craft of writing peppered with digressions into the landscape of, um, creative erotica, let me reassure you that there was also some drug taking. I’ve written before about my reliance on prescription drugs to manage my public speaking anxiety. Suffolk was a pretty intense schedule for me, with a reading, a panel discussion, and an hour-long workshop where I was the one and only presenter. One of my fellow writers saw me popping a beta blocker, and I ended up evangelizing the merits of pharmaceutical-induced calm. I think I converted at least three people to drug-takers and also discovered that one very famous author relies on meds to quell her terror at public appearances. This person is in fact so famous that she might have lawyers who wouldn’t like me mentioning her name in the context of drug-taking, so I won’t!

 

I’ll close this dispatch from Suffolk with a quirky bit of trivia–Suffolk, Virginia is home to the beloved Mr. Peanut. As a child, I thought that Mr. Peanut was the same character as Rich Uncle Pennybags, the cartoon figure who fronts the Monopoly board game. I genuinely only recently realized that they were different. The fact that one is an anthropomorphic peanut probably should’ve been my first clue. Well, now that I’ve had a full education in the history and lore of the Planters mascot, I’m not likely to make that mistake again. But it’s possible that some folks in Suffolk might have mistaken me for Mr. P. After all, we were wearing the same dress.

peanut
Who wore it best?

The day Col. Sanders met Lyndon Johnson’s dog

A reviewer once opined that, though she loved my books, she found the speaking in tongues scene in A Murder in Mount Moriah unbelievable. I laughingly noted that that scene, along with the notorious squirrel in the bathroom incident, are just about the only events in the book that are based on true incidents. This reader had happily swallowed the miles of yarn I’d spun and choked on the single nugget of truth.

I was reminded of this recently during a long road trip with a colleague, who I travel with several times a year. You can only talk shop for so long, so we often end up telling stories of our younger days to pass the tedious hours trekking back and forth along I-81. We were regaling one another with tales of pets our families had kept over the years–the bird who angrily demanded everyone in the house go to bed at 9pm, the filthy stray female dog who, because of an anatomically ambiguous mat of fur, was thought to be a boy and thus ended up with the name Bert.

My colleague then said, “Did I ever tell you about Blanco?”

If you’re a keen historian of Presidential dogs, you may know Fala, FDR’s faithful Scottie, who is permanently enshrined on the National Mall. fdr-memorial-falaAlso well known is Checkers, who Nixon famously refused to part with, even though accepting the dog as a gift may have violated campaign contribution laws. Less well remembered is LBJ’s collie, Blanco.

Lyndon Johnson was a beagle kind of guy, owning a pair of dogs named Him and Her and several of their puppies. Blanco joined the family in 1964, when he was given to President Johnson as a gift by a little girl in the Midwest. TBlancohough the Johnsons did their best to integrate him, Blanco was never happy at the White House. The constant noise and action involved in being a Presidential dog grated on the shy, high-strung collie. He didn’t get along with the Johnson’s band of beagles and didn’t like strangers. He ended up on tranquilizers to manage his anxiety. When the time came for the Johnsons to leave office, they started to talk about whether they should bring Blanco back to Texas with them or find a new home where he might be happier.

One of their Secret Service agents was part of these conversations and mentioned that he had a sister who lived on a 28-acre farm in Corbin, Kentucky with her doctor husband and their three children. The place would be perfect for a shy dog like Blanco. The arrangements were top secret, and Liz Carpenter, Johnson’s press secretary, declined to give the media any details. Citing the fact that several trees planted by Lady Bird Johnson had been dug up and filched, she said, “The dog is too likely to be stolen, so we decided not to say where he is.”

Despite these precautions, word spread quickly in tiny Corbin. Even before Blanco’s private charter plane alighted in the small airfield near Corbin, attempts at secrecy were undermined when Air Force One made a low, slow flight over the farm to check it out.

If the story so far isn’t wacky enough, here’s where reality becomes sur-reality. You see, besides being a favored retirement destination for Presidential dogs, Corbin, Kentucky has another claim to fame. It is the home of Colonel Harland Sanders, the man who founded Kentucky Fried Chicken. By the late 1960s, Sanders had moved away, but happened to be in town visiting. When he heard about Blanco from his chiropractor (who was friends with the doctor whose wife was the sister of the Secret Service agent who’d worked for LBJ), that LBJ’s dog was living nearby, he hightailed it out to the farm to visit with the vicariously-famous collie.

And that, my friends, is how Col. Sanders came to meet LBJ’s dog at my colleague’s childhood home. The story comes pre-packed with drama, humor, political intrigue, and small-town wholesomeness. It even has a happy ending, with Blanco living out his days in Corbin, happy, calm, and drug-free. Despite all that, I can never use this tale in a novel. Not even the most credulous reader would believe that reality could be so very much stranger than fiction.

 

Here’s to not barfing in abject terror

I have a confession to make. I am terrified of public speaking. If you’ve seen me give a talk or a reading, it may come as a surprise to know I am secretly so petrified of talking in front of people that I would do just about anything to avoid it.

It wasn’t always that way. When I was in high school, I was in plays and musicals. I acted in a storytelling troupe that twice won the state championships and performed in front of a crowd of nearly a thousand people. I gave a speech in a packed auditorium to 500 graduates and their families. But when I went to work, mostly in administrative roles, I didn’t have cause to speak in public again for nearly twenty years. Three years ago, however, I took a new job that required me to give talks regularly. I also started finding success as a writer, and began to receive invitations to do readings and workshops. The horror! The HORROR! ALL CAPS CANNOT DESCRIBE THE HORROR!

But in swooped medical science to save the day. Now, I can get up on stage in front of a dozens or even hundreds of people, smiling, confident, shoulders relaxed, nary a wobble in my voice. My secret? I’m not me. I’m My Best Self. My Best Self can talk to people without the filter of terror that used to cloud the space between me and my audience like a room-filling cataract. What allows Best Self Mindy to show up, and not Quaking with Terror Mindy? Drugs. My performance anxiety had been so pervasive that my doctor wrote me a prescription for beta blockers that actually says “For Public Speaking” right on the little orange bottle. About 30 minutes before I take the stage, I take a beta blocker, which tames the butterflies thrashing around in my tummy and keeps my heart from exploding out of my chest like that sharp-toothed, mutant E.T. in Alien.

You want to know the craziest part? When I had to give a talk in DC a few weeks ago, I didn’t need to take my miracle calming pill. I was fine. It’s not that I think the drugs were just some pill-shaped version of Dumbo’s magic feather. I needed the pills to tamp down my out-of-control physiological response. They controlled my surging stress hormones and convinced my brain it was safe to allow My Best Self to show up. But repeated practice has retrained my panic muscles so they aren’t set on a hair trigger anymore.

You can see the results of my “Vorsprung durch Technik” experience in the video footage of a public reading I did last fall. It was recently posted online by New River Valley Voices, a wonderful local arts organization here in Southwest Virginia. My short story, “The Four Questions,” starts around minute 7. I even sing a little. In Hebrew. In front of almost 100 people. If I’m clutching an invisible magic feather, who’s the wiser?

Little kids are pretty trippy

First, a confession. If it were socially acceptable, I would play with dolls every day.

Yesterday, I took part in the enormously fun Ask Big Questions “Living Library” event hosted by Virginia Tech and the Blacksburg Library. Each invited presenter represented a job the attendees (preschool and elementary school aged kids) might be interested in learning more about. The llama farmer, who’d brought an actual llama along with her, was tough to compete with, but I still got an enthusiastic crowd of pint-sized storytellers visiting my table.

My exhibit focused on writing and storytelling. Attendees could create their own stories using the characters including a small Barbie, a wizard puppet, a plastic donkey, a squishy frog, a creature made of shells, a Minion doll, and others. I also provided settings in the form of pictures of tropical islands, palaces, dark forests, etc. I’d created some ready-made story prompts, thinking some kids might be stuck for plot ideas, but the kiddos sure didn’t need those! They came up with dozens awesome stories all their own. One little girl even pulled out a purse full of Disney princess dolls and added them to the story. After all, what story couldn’t benefit from a purseful of princesses?

Making up stories with kids is a little like dropping acid or listening to one of this year’s presidential debates. If you just sit back and don’t think too much, the spectacle can be pretty amazing. The stories zigged and zagged in ways I never could’ve predicted. One minute, the wizard character was nice, teaching a class full of wannabe wizards how to fly. Another kid would take over the story and suddenly the wizard would be trapping the plastic donkey in a cave above a secret lagoon, trying to destroy all her kindness with his evil spells.

Here are a few of my favorite story lines:

Not all the kids who attended were able to read and write yet, but those who could were invited to write little mini stories to share with the world via my blog.

Today I am going to a birthday party!

The makings of a great adventure story, for sure. 🙂

It started in China. When I was a little girl when one day I got to go on the plane.

Intriguing, huh? Writing was still pretty new to this little one, but she clearly has a knack for writing a compelling hook.

When I grow up I want to be a zookeeper.

Zoos are great settings for stories. And given how interested this little person was in the animal characters, I’m sure zookeeping is a solid career choice.

One day, I was coming home from school when… OH! I forgot to introduce myself! I’m Shell Dog and I live on a tropical island. Well, back to the story.

I was coming home from school when a dozen six-foot tall Minions, led by Kevin, came up to me wearing bikinis.

“Do you want to go swimming with us?” asked Kevin.

“What the heck.” I said.

Eventually I decided to go swimming with them, and they were super nice. After that, I went swimming with them pretty much every day.

A fun story from one of the slightly older kids, inspired by the characters and settings I’d brought. I didn’t have to correct the punctuation or spelling at all. She even got the hyphen right! An English professor in the making?

Dingbatters and Duck Dialect

Agatha Christie was a shy person. Clever as her mysteries were, she felt that, in real life, her wittiest remarks and most amusing observations always came to her too late–when she was alone at home or long after she’d left a dinner party. Part of the reason she loved to write was that she could use these slightly-too-late bits of dialogue for her characters. I, too, love to take a phrase that didn’t come out quite right when I said it, polish it until it gleams, and then put it into a story. Or, better yet, to steal a great turn of phrase I overhear and put it into the mouth of one of my characters. Writers are a bit like magpies, always on the lookout for shiny objects to add to our collections.

A great joy of writing the Lindsay Harding series is that the books are set in different locales around North Carolina. This has allowed me to play with not just dialogue, but with dialects. This was especially true of the second book in the series, A Death in Duck, which opened my eyes, or, more appropriately, my ears to the High Tide/Hoi Toid accent of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

To write dialect is to walk a fine line between authenticity and reader comprehension. For example, it may be authentic, but the dialogue in James Joyce’s writing has baffled readers for almost a century.

“That made him mad, and he said, liter’ry tone be durned.”

“Thunderation! Keep the durned millingtary step.”

Say what?! I’ve never been able to make it through Joyce’s classic Ulysses because the whole book is populated with incomprehensible jargon and phonetically-rendered accents.

My solution for the native ‘Banker characters in my book is to sprinkle in the occasional regional word–e.g. “dingbatter” to mean “outsider,” “whomperjawed” instead of “crooked”–to give the reader an authentic sense of place. And when the accent is first introduced, I explained the sounds this way:

“Well, you must be Little Miss Lindsay, all grown up,” he began. “I remember seeing you around when you was just a tiny, little thing. Have to say, you got your mama’s good looks. I’d’ve almost reckoned that that was a young Sarabelle Harding sitting there by the fire.”

Even after many decades of living in Duck, Butterworth’s High Tide brogue hadn’t been altered in the slightest. For him, “fire” was “foyer” and “sitting there” was a single word— “settinehr.”

I’m not saying I’m a better writer than Joyce, but if you’re looking for a book to take on your Outer Banks vacation and read on the beach while sipping a cold beer, might I humbly suggest you choose A Death in Duck over Ulysses?

If you’ve never heard the unique Hoi Toid accent, take a listen: http://www.greatbigstory.com/stories/hoi-toider-ocracoke-brogue-in-north-carolina.

Hoi Toider Accent

Far out, huh?