Doors

It happens at bedtime. Wild-eyed and almost vibrating with anxious energy, Jack zooms through the house. He sweeps down the hall and into his bedroom, from which I hear frantic murmurs. Moments later he zooms out again and I catch him up in my arms to steady him. I feel his heart beating rapidly in his chest.

I ask him what’s wrong.

“I don’t know. I don’t feel right. Do you ever feel like you’re stuck in a dream? Do you ever look in the mirror and feel like it’s not you looking back?”

Yes, I say. Many times.

He doesn’t really hear me. He disengages from my arms and zooms around the room again, first toward the kitchen, next toward the door. “Doors,” he mutters and reaches for the knob. I say no and he turns on his heel and makes a beeline for his bedroom again.

I follow. He sits in his desk chair and taps his fingers on the desk. His brown eyes fill with tears and dart around the room.

“My brain doesn’t feel right. I think I’m broken.”

He goes on to tell me that everything is boring. He says that fairytales are lies that are written to cope with the fact that there is no real magic in the world. He reads them and he feels hope and then reality returns: there is no magic, there are only lies. He will never have adventures. He will get up in the morning and eat his boring toast at the boring table and then go to boring school…it is all so awful.

His eyes meet mine and he pleads, “Is there something that can fix this?”

He says he worries about taking pills. He worries he is not meant to take pills, that he is meant for something that the pills will suppress.

Where did he get this idea, I wonder… How can a 10-year-old even possess this level of critical thinking?

“I don’t know how to fix this, Son, but I have ideas for what to do to help right now. You don’t have to figure it out on your own.”

First I give him headache medicine for the pounding in his head. Then we find a music station on his iPad, a soothing station of instrumental lullabies.

Draw, I tell him. Draw the monsters that are in your head right now. Draw and listen to the music and breathe while I make a cup of tea.

I come back with a steaming cup of minty tea and hold it under his nose, telling him to take a whiff. He does and then continues drawing.

He sketches twisted faces, pairs of eyes, a vortex, a banana tree. An instrumental version of “Hey Jude” plays while he draws. A calm settles over him.

“I’m feeling better,” he says. “I’m starting to forget the thoughts. I just need to draw this one last thing.”

He draws a door. “I kept seeing doors,” he explains as he puts his sketch pad aside.

We climb into his loft bed together, where he sips tea while I read to him. He is mostly back to his easy-going self by the time I tuck him in and say goodnight.

I breathe a deep sigh as I walk away from his bedroom door. I am bewildered. I don’t know what happened to my son this evening or why it happened, but we got through it together.

It is behind him, for now. It is my turn to cry.

Not Your Average Mother

I have a complicated relationship with my mother. I know that is not unusual in the least, but my mom takes quirky to a new level, and I learned so much from her. She is not your average mother, and thus, neither am I.

This Mother’s Day, I thought I would share some of what my mom taught me, whether directly or through her actions. Some of what I learned from my mom is pretty badass (in my opinion), but there are also unexpected twists…

mom and daughter

My mother and me, circa 1998.

If someone tries to abduct you, even at gunpoint, scream. It’s better to be killed on the spot than to go through what they have planned. And you don’t want to have to live with the memories of what they will do to you.

Be assertive. Something is wrong with your order? Talk to the manager. If someone is sitting in the booth you want? Ask them to move.

Learn to type. If you can type, you can get a job. And having a job is very, very important so that you never have to rely on anyone.

Don’t trust anyone with your money. Your husband might very well drain the bank account and charge up the credit cards buying a fur coat (in Sacramento!) for his mistress. It’s best to have separate bank accounts. And make sure your paycheck can cover the bills entirely because your boyfriend may up and go to prison.

Keep calm and carry on. If you find out your boyfriend has committed atrocious crimes, stay calm and don’t let him know you’re onto him. Instead go immediately to the courthouse to get a restraining order and have your 6’4″ brother deliver it. Don’t tell said boyfriend why he is being kicked out. Later, work with police to get his confession to the crime recorded over the phone.

Okay, you can break down but only in the shower when you think your kids can’t hear you.

Plan ahead. Get your will and life insurance and safety deposit boxes in order, and then tell your kids all about it, even if they are preteens. “I added you to my bank account. If I die, you need to go withdraw all the money right away because otherwise it can get caught up in legal proceedings and it will take forever to get the money and it might even disappear.”

Pay attention to your maternal instincts! When your spidey sense starts telling you something isn’t right with your kids, listen. You might just show up in the middle of your kids getting a lesson about their dad’s drug use.

I think about these lessons from time to time and the depth of experience that comes with them. My mom has survived so much in her life and I can honestly say I look up to her a lot. At the same time, I hope to never have to share most of these lessons with my own kids.

With that said, I have my own history and quirks. Time will tell what kind of lessons my children will glean from me.

What about you? What life lessons have you learned from your mother that she may not have intended to teach you?

Trying to Figure it Out

Recently my doctor said he thinks I have ADHD. He said I could get a full assessment to be sure, but that the first treatment he would suggest to treat some of the depression and anxiety symptoms I’ve been struggling with would also address ADHD issues.

I was taken by surprise. At this point in my life, I hadn’t expected to add yet another thing to the list of labels and acronyms assigned to my mental health. The implications of this felt a bit overwhelming, and I wasn’t sure what to think about it.

I don’t like surprises.

I did some reading to try to process it all. Processing takes a while for me, even for things that seem simple. I have to gather tons of info, jumble it all around, chew it up, poke at it, and look at it again and again. That’s how I work and at this point in my life I’m mostly used to it. My first answer to a lot of things is often not the true one; it’s the reflexive one. I’m still working on my reflexes. I’m still trying to integrate my emotions and my intellect, two seemingly opposing forces.

The more reading I did, the more it all made sense to me. I reviewed the symptoms of ADHD and wondered how in the world I hadn’t seen it sooner (and why my prior doctors hadn’t suggested it). I talked to a friend who was surprised I hadn’t already been diagnosed – she had assumed I had because it was clear to her.

I have always thought I was a pretty self-aware person but this new information made me doubt that.

As I started looking at my struggles in a new light, I though about Jack and his struggles. And I felt guilt.

I should have found this out earlier. I should have known this about myself. And why didn’t I take it more seriously when Jack was diagnosed? Why didn’t I do more reading then? Why have I let him deal with this all on his own?

Intellectually I know why I didn’t do more reading and why I didn’t take it more seriously when Jack got the diagnosis a year and a half ago. I couldn’t. I was overwhelmed and wrung out after getting him through 3+ years of cancer treatment. Not to mention, I had a newish baby to take care of and was looking for a job. I couldn’t handle another thing at that point in time. I needed to take a breath.

That breath has lasted a lot longer than I anticipated.

As I said, my intellect and my emotions don’t always get along. They seem to each have their own separate timelines. So this may take a bit more time to process, but I will get there…I hope. In the mean time Jack and I will talk about our challenges and our strengths and maybe we’ll figure a few things out together. I’m sure he’ll teach me a few things along the way, as well.

Sometimes the challenges your kid faces are the very things that give you the kick in the pants to get your own shit together.

Reconsidering Our Bedtime Approach

When I got pregnant with Dez, I expected that it’d be easier than it had been the first time around because of all that I learned. And truly, I have experienced very few disadvantages in having my second child eight years after my first. Aside from the pregnancy being tougher due to being older, it has been easier for the most part.

There are some unique challenges to having kids so far apart, though. The biggest being that all the things I learned about being a parent were geared toward being a parent to Jack.

toddler

Jack, age 2.

I had eight years to get to know Jack very, very well. And over the years, I have gotten used to him and the way he works. And after all those years, it’s probably not much of a surprise that I went into parenting my second kid with what I will call “Jack-colored glasses.”

From the moment Dez was born, I couldn’t help but compare and contrast him to Jack. I wasn’t thinking in terms of better or worse; I simply made conclusions about Dez based on how his actions differed from Jack’s. And somewhere in those early days I got caught up in how different they seemed and couldn’t see beyond that.

On a recent night David and I had some time to talk before bed, which is very rare (Dave and I don’t see much of each other after 8pm, as you’ll read). We talked about Dez and the various things we’ve tried to make bedtime easier and reviewed how many things have totally failed. It was during this talk that it really hit me just how ALIKE my two kids really are. I’ve spent so much time thinking over the last two years about how different they seem, and not realizing that it’s only that they express the same issues differently. Ultimately they are both very sensitive little creatures with more emotion and personality than they know what to do with! Their behavior may look different, but it often comes from the same place.

With Jack, I was able to figure out by about 5 months that he needed a solid nighttime routine plus a dark, fairly quiet house. The bedtime routine became getting dressed for the next day, brushing teeth, reading three books, and cuddling a bit before saying goodnight. (For a while that happened in my bed, then he transitioned to his own bed around 2.5 years.)

Bedtime with Dez has been a mess from the start, though. Partly, I think, because instead of trying things that might work best for him, we tried things that we felt worked best for us. It seemed like a simple thing to have the new baby fit into our routine instead of rework how we did things. This was somewhat out of necessity, as Jack was still going through chemo when Dez was born, but we all had trouble adjusting to “normal life” even after the chemo stopped.

As time went by and a routine did not suddenly implement itself, David and I both started tearing our hair out over bedtime. We had many dark nights where we each just lasted as long as we could trying to get Dez to sleep.

At some point I finally went and did some re-reading of all kinds of parenting and bedtime advice. I thought about what I had done with Jack and what our parenting philosophy and goals are now, and I threw some ideas out at Dave. And somewhere in that mishmash of reading and talking and trying various things, we landed upon a couple of things that turned into some semblance a routine.

Thing 1: We must factor in time to wind down. It takes Dez a lot longer than Jack to wind down, which can mean 8 books instead of Jack’s 3. And that means Desmond’s bedtime routine can easily take 2+ hours. There is nothing we can do to make it go faster and if we try, it only makes the situation worse. (He’s stubborn just like the two of us!)

Thing 2: Both kids are noise-sensitive. Jack is unnerved by loud, unexpected noises (like garbage trucks) and avoids them, while Dez gets amped up. We tried a sound machine for a while, but it ended up just keeping him awake. Other noises in the house will also keep him awake, though! So, unfortunately, the rest of the house has to shut down at bedtime. All screens and lights go off at 8pm. The only “excitement” will be in Dez’s room.

Thing 3: Consistency is KEY. I put Jack to bed and David puts Dez to bed. EVERY NIGHT. Because if we don’t do the same thing every night, Dez will stretch things out waiting for the other parent to come in and “save” him, and that will just drag the whole thing out even longer.

These three things may not seem like game changers, but knowing them and acknowledging them has made things go more smoothly. Bedtime is still hard for us because, frankly, those 3 things kind of suck! Our evening (and any chance at couple time) is over by 8:30. No fun!

BUT so far there is less screaming from an overtired Dez, and that improvement alone is pretty awesome. It also makes a big difference for us to know that the bedtime routine will take a big chunk of time no matter what we do. I think once we stopped agonizing over how long it took and just went with it, we all felt calmer.

Hopefully things will improve even more as Dez gets more sleep, gets older, and has even more consistency from two clued-in parents.

We just need to remember that we are not perfect parents, and this surely will not be a linear process of improvement. But at least we can say we tried some things and they worked and this child isn’t a complete little troll who is trying to bend us to his will at every opportunity (probably).

In fact, he is quite sweet when he is well rested. He gives the best little kisses and loves to chant “click clack moo” and gives us pep talks complete with pats on the leg while we get him some grapes to eat! And he is full of great big belly laughs.

Toddler belly laughs

Little toddler, big belly laughs

Dez is full on adorable when he’s not screaming and refusing to sleep. And he absolutely deserves a bedtime routine that works for him, just like the rest of us.

And with that, I bid you all goodnight. I need to get some shut eye before he drags me into his bed before dawn and wraps his arms around my neck while breathing hot toddler breath in my face…

What the ACA Means to Average Americans

Last week I posted something to Facebook about how upsetting it was that the GOP is taking actions to dismantle the ACA. That post ended up in the trending topics on Facebook, and I had to turn it to friends only as a number of strangers and trolls decided to chime in. I was headed out of the house for the Women’s March and couldn’t address the ugliness entering my feed, so I put it on lock down.

I thought I would take the time here on my blog to post in more detail, though, and address some of the rhetoric I’m hearing out there. I can offer some additional insight into the issues since I’ve worked in the healthcare field (to be specific, I worked in the Administration and Finance department dealing with contracts, physician payments, and Board meetings). Others in the healthcare may have a different take, I suppose, but here is mine.

First, a note: There has been a lot of spin about what the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) is and why people want it. Republicans have lobbied hard against the ACA for years. Many people have forgotten that the original iteration of the ACA was torn apart by Republicans and what we were left with is just a shadow of what President Obama intended–literally, the bare minimum he could get through Congress. There are a lot of things wrong with the ACA, of course, and that is in large part because of the refusal of Republican lawmakers to work with Democrats during that time (and since). Some states were able to develop their own ACA-related programs to address the holes in the law, and some were not. So in many areas around the country, insurance companies have hiked rates because there is little or no consequence to them.

Ewokmama.com: Why we Need the ACA

Logistics of implementation aside, I want to make it clear that my support of the ACA is not about wanting free healthcare for my family. In fact, we don’t have insurance through the ACA programs. We have an employer-sponsored plan because we are lucky enough to be in good health and able to work. The unemployment rate is pretty low at the moment and my husband and I have pretty secure jobs (as secure as any job is these days).

With that said, the tenants of the ACA impact ALL healthcare plans. See this article for more on that.

When I use my family as an example of why we need the ACA, it’s because my family is pretty typical. Our circumstances are subject to change at any time, just as most Americans who don’t have a hoard of cash as a safety net. We are living paycheck to paycheck and have credit card debt and have experienced lay offs in the past. We have a house and cars, but those things could easily be taken from us if we hit hard times–just like so many other Americans.

There are many, many Americans who do not have employer-sponsored plans. Some are unable to work, perhaps due to illness or because they are caregivers. Some are self-employed or work with small companies that do not offer healthcare. Some have lost their jobs–most people I know have experienced a lay off at some point in their lives! The ACA is meant to help all of these people and prevent them from going into catastrophic debt from which they can never recover.

You can easily google “how much does cancer cost” and find out just how financially catastrophic that diagnosis can be.

And then there are those pre-existing conditions clauses. These do directly impact my family. My older son, a cancer survivor, is considered to have a pre-existing condition. That will never go away. He cannot hide it because he will need monitoring for the rest of his life to catch any other issues that cancer treatment causes. I have mild asthma and a history of mental health issues. My younger son has Reactive Airway Disease, which is often a precursor to asthma; he is only two–who knows what else will come up for him.

Prior to the ACA, even employer-sponsored healthcare plans could exclude us from coverage for periods of time. Prior to the ACA, and before I had employer-sponsored healthcare, I was denied private healthcare insurance due to a history of mild asthma and depression. I could not afford to pay for the medications to treat these health issues out of my pocket, so they went untreated.

When people cannot afford to take care of their health, that impacts their ability to work and be fully functioning members of society. Their health problems do not magically go away during that time!

Now let’s talk about hospitals. Did you know that if someone shows up in an Emergency Room, the hospital cannot deny them care even if they can’t pay? Some uninsured patients that show up in ERs are able to qualify for Medicaid (which, I might add, also doesn’t reimburse the hospital 100% for cost of care), but some are not. So many hospitals are taking on the cost of caring for uninsured or “under-insured” patients. If there is a large number of these people who need health services and cannot afford to pay for them, the hospital accrues large amounts of debt. The hospital has to then raise their rates for the rest of us to make up for the gap in operating costs.

And what happens if we refuse to pay those higher hospital bills? Well, in many cases those hospitals get shut down. This was a major issue for the Catholic hospital where I worked in rural northern California. It nearly shut down. Hundreds of people were laid off to keep it operating!

These issues snowball. Rural hospitals and facilities in debt have trouble hiring quality medical staff. The quality of care goes down. More mistakes are made and more lawsuits happen. People die, and costs continue to skyrocket.

This was happening in rural areas all over the country before the ACA. And these rural hospitals are still struggling due to key provisions missing from the ACA.

But if the ACA is repealed, it doesn’t fix any of these problems. We just go back to large numbers of people being uninsured or under-insured!

We need to fix the ACA. We need healthcare reform to hold insurance companies accountable–not a big gaping hole.

Please, call your representatives and demand they either KEEP THE ACA or develop SOME sort of bandaid in the mean time!

Why I Marched on Oakland

On January 21st, I marched in Oakland as part of the Women’s March on Washington. I know there are some out there who don’t understand what marching accomplishes. I don’t always know the answer to that, but sometimes you feel strongly about things going on in the world and you can’t sit there anymore and do nothing. Sometimes, marching just feels right.

It was a diverse group that marched in Oakland. It wasn’t only women; there were people of every color, size, shape, ability, gender, sexual orientation, and flavor. The reasons why participants marched were many and varied.

Jack and me at the march in Oakland. Photo © Rhea Avalos.

Jack and me at the march in Oakland. Photo © Rhea Avalos.

Here are the many reasons that I marched (with my son Jack) yesterday:

  • To show that I will not be a silent victim of Trump’s fascist agenda and toxicity.
  • Because every person who marches builds up a critical mass that results in 2.5 million people, which shows that we are not a small minority of people who are concerned with the dangers of a Trump administration.
  • To show support to every person who will be targeted and harmed by Trump’s agenda and toxic atmosphere for simply trying to live their life:
    • people of color
    • LGBTQIA people
    • women
    • immigrants
    • those in need of affordable healthcare and protections against pre-existing conditions clauses
    • children who deserve to go to school without worrying about gun violence
  • To feel solidarity with my fellow citizens who also want to build a better America–an America that is constantly improving and not trying to return to the past.
  • To be part of a movement so big that it cannot be ignored.
  • To show my children what freedom means.

I will keep marching because it means something to me and reminds me what it means to be an American.

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Sleeper

I have no idea what this kid needs from us. I am sure that we’re doing everything wrong, though.

It feels like we have tried everything to get him to have good sleep habits and yet…nearly every night involves screaming and kicking and throwing things and hours of time. Frustration and anger and tears and…youtube videos.

Yes…as a last resort, we are now regularly putting him to bed with youtube videos.

That is the wrong thing, I know. But what is the right thing for this child? Because we have tried everyfuckingthing and this seems to be the only thing that ends with him sleeping without us completely losing our minds in the process!

Even so, bedtime is a nightmare. We feel powerless. I personally get so dejected and angry when I finally leave the room (usually some time after 10pm). Hence, this blog post…

David takes on bedtime most nights now because it has taken a serious toll on my mental health. He fares better than I do, but he can’t do it every night. It wears a person down.

I want a toddler who sleeps through the night.

Still true.

It doesn’t end there, either. Dez sleeps for a couple of hours before waking and he will throw a gigantic hour+ long screaming fit if I don’t tend to him in the middle of the night. Sometimes we go the screaming route with Dave going in there while I try to ignore it and stay in bed and get some sleep through the noise. Other times, I take one for the team and head in there. We try to take turns because once we go in, we usually do not emerge again until morning.

The parent who goes in there gets a toddler velcro treatment. With me that means Dez scoots his face right up to mine, breathes his hot toddler breath on me, and locks his hands around my head. He falls asleep peacefully while I try to breathe air that isn’t coming out of his mouth and hope I can get back to sleep while locked in his embrace. All night long it’s a game of “shove the toddler over to get some space and a few independent winks” and “oh look here he is right in my face again.”

I probably don’t need to tell you that I don’t sleep well like this. I am pretty sure Dez is the only one on the planet who does!

And I haaaaaate it.

I keep trying to come at this sleep thing from different angles, try to analyze the situation and read tips and…nothing. Nothing helps. It looks like we will just have to get through it. Sigh.

This is not a request for sleep advice (and good lord, please do not email me trying to sell me something!), just an exasperated rant from a very tired mom.

Please let this child figure this sleep thing out. 2+ years of shitty sleep cannot be good for any of us.

Living That Normal Life

For the first time in nearly five years, Jack’s latest lab results were normal! While he finished cancer treatment over a year and a half ago, his body has taken its sweet time showing us that it could function normally. The last hold out on the labs was his ferritin level, which stubbornly refused to come up even with liquid iron supplementation. Finally, though, he’s off of supplements and his ferritin is normal!

Health aside, Jack is mostly living a normal life as a regular 5th grader. He’s been improving steadily in school thanks to a teacher that is pretty laid back and increased time in the resource room for math help. He even likes math sometimes!

Oh, and he can tell time now. That finally clicked when we got him a smart watch. He played around with the time display a lot and I think that helped him understand how time works.

Who knows, the increased ferritin level could also be a factor. (Apparently low ferritin can impede brain functioning.)

Things have improved considerably for all things Jack-related. No more fits over homework, very few missed days at school, and mood stability. In our darkest cancer days, we never thought we would get here. It’s pretty incredible!

At the end of January, Jack will reach 5 years disease-free. He survived.

We all survived.

Brothers

Jack and Dez on Thanksgiving.

Happy Second Birthday To My Second-Born!

It’s been two whole years since this little spitfire shot into our world.

newborn

He was so chill and easy in the beginning, but we have learned that those first few months of peace were just the calm before the storm.

Before Hurricane Dezaroo hit.

And now he is TWO! This quote illustrates this stage of life perfectly, I think:

“It’s saying no. That’s your first hint that something’s alive. It says no. That’s how you know a baby is starting to turn into a person. They run around saying no all day, throwing their aliveness at everything to see what it’ll stick to. You can’t say no if you don’t have desires and opinions and wants of your own. You wouldn’t even want to. No is the heart of thinking.”
― Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two

He says no. A lot. Mostly, “NOOO DOGGYYYYYY!!” He thinks Lambert is trying to steal his food, which is pretty funny considering he throws said food to Lambert when he’s finished eating it himself.

Sigh.

He has already taught me a lot in his two years. Mostly I have learned that everything I thought I knew from parenting Jack would be useless while parenting Dez. My two kids could not be more different! Although, they both have loads of personality, so I guess they have that in common.

Dez is active and loud and tests boundaries. He already struggles with major FOMO (fear of missing out) and fights sleep more than any other human being I know. He climbs and jumps and dances and runs and throws balls – he is always moving. He has a mean arm on him, too! Just the other day I found a golf ball in the garbage disposal.

If he doesn’t play ALL of the sports as he grows, I will be shocked!

It seems like the time has gone so fast. I barely remember his infancy. I miss that brief time when I could set him down and he couldn’t go anywhere! He is definitely now more of a little boy than a baby, and so very independent.

We weaned at the end of June and he did very well. He learned to sleep through the night at the same time (hallelujah! I finally got some sleep! Huge props to David for parenting solo for a week, which allowed this to happen!). A few weeks later we tried to separate our bed from the crib but…Dez climbed right over the side of the crib. So he was unceremoniously moved into his own (safe)room.

toddler room

Little toddler, big room!

The transition to his big boy room has not been easy, but it’s been a couple weeks now and he is adjusting. And so are we; we are figuring out that most things with Dez are just going to happen the hard way!

I’m sure we’ll get used to it, right?

Or, at least, it will all be worth it just to have this amazing, vibrant little boy in our life!

toddler on a swing

Happiest of birthdays, Desmond. Mama loves you like crazy!

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Double Digits

Tomorrow my first born son is ten years old. Double digits.

I’ve been trying to avoid thinking about this date as it loomed ever closer. The thought of Jack being TEN caused panic to bubble up in my chest and claw at my throat. My eyes would burn with tears and I had to hold back from clutching him tightly to me.

I didn’t don’t feel ready for this.

But the time is here nonetheless.

Jack almost 10

Looking like a teen!

One would think that after ten years as a parent I would feel more ready to let Jack grow up and move into the next stage of his life. But I haven’t been spending my time over the last decade preparing for this moment–not at all. After his cancer diagnosis, I focused on preserving his childhood as much as possible. And before that I spent a lot of time working to figure out how to be the mom he needed and haphazardly uncovering my own issues along the way.

I feel as if I’ve been sidetracked so many times. I’m not sure I’m much closer to knowing what I’m doing than I was on the day he was born. In fact, I feel that only now am I getting to the point where I can see the breadth of what I don’t know about raising a person to be a self-actualized adult. And I guess while focusing on all of that I simply forgot to prepare myself for the whole growing up thing.

But Jack will keep on growing even if I waste time being hung up on worries over the future.

Jack is an incredible human being. If I stop thinking about my own experience being his mother for even a second, I know that he will navigate the coming years in his own way and craft them into an adventure as he goes. That same creativity and empathy that seem to emphasize his youth right now will also help steer him on his path to becoming an amazing man.

I really just need to stand back and let it happen because, whether I’m ready or not, Jack is growing up.

Crystal and Jack in Bath

On an adventure together in England.