The Importance of Being Earnest

n.b.: Transgender Day of Visibility 2019 was this past Sunday, March 31. While I am out and visible, it took me a while to do so in ‘earnest’.

It was 1997 when I discovered Usenet, and the various public transgender related forums it hosted. That discovery, and the realization that I was not as alone in the world as I had once thought, marked the beginning of my exploration of my gender related issues. As these were public forums, I needed some ‘online identity’ behind which I could maintain some anonymity: I was light years away from being ‘out and proud’. The name I decided on was Donna – specifically Donna Lynn Matthews. I think it took me all of five minutes to settle on it, and to create an e-mail account for her. And thus was born my alter ego.

Donna has posted online for over twenty years. During that time, I have joined new forums where people have ‘recognized’ me from pieces I have written, I have found references to my website and blog in online course notes for college classes, and as I mentioned in “Why Can’t You Just be Trans?”, a humble glossary of terms I wrote is referenced as “[o]ne of the missing links between wider popularization and Usenet” of the term ‘cisgender’. For over twenty years, I have literally maintained two identities: Gary – who pretty much kept his head down and did his best to get through life, and Donna – who has been the voice for all of my musings on gender.

In 2006, I reached out to the LGBT group at Lehman Brothers, and ultimately had my profile posted on their intranet site. That was really the start of my being ‘out at work’ as transgender. Lehman Brothers / Barclays, FXAll / Thomson Reuters, New York Life… It has now been thirteen years, with the last two or three where I have really been the most out and vocal – the last two or three years where ‘Donna’ has lent her voice someplace outside the Internet.

For the past twenty years, my ‘gender expression’ as a trans-person has been largely at work, with me downplaying it while at home. This is because for the past twenty years, I have walked a line between what I need, what I can ‘live with’, and what my wife is comfortable with. It has been a delicate balancing / juggling act, and truth be told, I have dropped the balls more than a few times. It is an imperfect solution to a difficult situation, and there are no rules for making something like this work. Time and perseverance have brought us to what seems to be a relatively stable place.

I joined Facebook in 2009. ‘Back in the day’, the only options for ‘gender’ on your profile were male and female. I choose male and hid that information. For almost ten years, save for the very occasional repost, my Facebook wall was transgender free. I did not ‘like’ or repost any transgender content. I did not comment on posts regarding transgender issues. There was next to nothing that would lead anyone to think I was transgender. When Facebook finally offered (in 2015 I think) expanded gender options, I seized on the opportunity to ‘self identitify’, and I changed my gender there to ‘Trans, Gender Nonconforming and Non-binary’. I felt safe with this, because, really, who reads profiles? This was also when I started ‘liking’ transgender related posts. At some point in 2017, in response to Trump’s general attitude towards transgender people, I began re-posting transgender related content. I could not remain silent in light of the current political climate. But even with this, I was still not ‘openly transgender’ on Facebook: I was a supporter, an advocate – at best, an ‘ally’.

On October 21 2018, the Trump administration issued ‘memo’ that would effectively erase federal recognition of trans and nonbinary gender identities. There was an immediate online response with #WontBeErased. Trans and otherwise gender non-conforming people were putting the administration on notice: we will not be erased. That morning, I took fresh picture of myself. On Tuesday, with no fanfare, I updated my Facebook profile picture, including a “WontBeErased” graphic on it.

Gary was now out, publicly, as a transperson.

I received supportive comments, as opposed to the negativity for which I was bracing. What touched me the most was a private message from a woman who was a classmate from high school:

Gary, I’m not on FB much anymore bc I found it raises my blood pressure! When I was checking in more often, I always appreciated your intelligent posts, not knowing what u were living thru until u recently changed your profile pic. I just want to tell u how profoundly touched I am by your courage and how deeply I respect and honor u and feel grateful that our paths crossed at one time. While we were never close, I still want u to know that I am here for u if u ever need a friend. I hope u are living your best life and r happy. Please know that there r many of us out there who have your back 👍🏻❤️😘

The genie is out of the bottle, and she’s not going back inside.

I celebrated this past Transgender Day of Visibility with a new picture. It seemed appropriate:

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I have been ‘visible’ for a long time, while very much ‘hiding’ in plain sight.

Time to be ‘me’ in earnest…

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In Our Own Words

I am a member of a Facebook group for non-binary individuals.  As you might imagine, it’s a pretty diverse group.   In it, a thread was started, asking the following:

What is something that you wish the greater population knew about nonbinary folks?

 

I thought would be interesting to see what other non-binary members wanted to share:

  • We are regular humans just like everyone else.
  • We aren’t “currently identifying as X”.
  • I’m real.
  • We aren’t “undecided”.
  • I’m not “just trying to be a special snowflake”.
  • Sexuality is not defined by gender identity.
  • I wish mainstream society could understand that we are not a single stereotype, we are an extremely diverse community of people. You may not realize someone in your life in non-binary because we don’t have a shared look or a fixed set of behaviors. We are each unique individuals.
  • That we can look and behave variously.
  • It’s not just “something the kids are doing”. A.) It’s an identity, not a fad. B.) There are plenty of nonbinary folx over the age of 30. We just haven’t always had the language to express this.
  • Not many of us are comfortable being referred to as our gender assigned at birth.
  • Asking about surgery and medical transitioning is invasion of privacy and you shouldn’t do it. If they want to talk to you about it, they’ll bring it up.
  • THEY IS A VALID SINGULAR PRONOUN, YOU’RE JUST OVERTHINKING IT.
  • That we exist, it’s not a phase, we’re not seeking attention, it’s not what we “want others to think we are” etc…
  • We’ve existed for years; being non binary isn’t just some trend.
  • We aren’t all the same.
  • That you can’t possibly tell whether someone is nonbinary (or trans, in general) just by looking at them. Nonbinary isn’t a single look.
  • I also wish people wouldn’t assume that just because you don’t identify as the gender you were assigned at birth doesn’t mean you are taking some kind of medical treatment.
  • Also that denying the existance of non binary people won’t do any good.
  • The world isn’t going downhill because people are embracing who they truly are there are actual problems to worry about like war and poverty.
  • Even if being non binary was a choice/trend it’s still in no way a problem or issue nobody is getting hurt from people being harmlessly happy.
  • Presentation != Gender
  • We are not looking for attention, we are just trying to exist.
  • I am not obsessed with my gender, they are.
  • There’s no one way to be nonbinary, you can feminine, masculine, or androgynous, or none of the above. Expression =\= identity.
  • While I do admittedly love attention, no, this isn’t a ploy to get it.
  • Adults can be nonbinary, and it’s not something you had to have realized when you were a little kid (goes for all trans people.)
  • No, I’m not intersex (about which there needs to be a LOT MORE EDUCATION in general.)
  • This really isn’t the main keystone of my identity, it’s just something that’s true about me. The keystone is way, way nerdier than this.  And frankly it’s not even that important; just don’t address me by the fact that I have breasts, and listen when I have an idea at work.
  • That the gender binary is an inherent part of the white supremacy. Also that you can’t know who is cis or trans, so no one can accurately say they aren’t attracted to nonbinary/trans people, because you literally can never tell just by looking.
  • I just want the same respect you give a dog when the owner corrects the gender and you apologize and correct what you said to the correct gender. Is that so hard?   Also I don’t like my birth name I just want to be called Jess. My birth name makes me cringe.
  • That “I never wanted to wear dresses as a girl,” or “I had lots of sisters and grew up ‘sensitive’,” while still feeling comfortable in the gender labels assigned to them by society, is not the same thing at all.
  • It’s not “woman-lite”
  • We’re not just “over-labeling” ourselves to be “more complicated”! We have found words that align with how we identify. That’s all. (this is something my mother in particular cannot wrap her head around.)
  • That just because I still sometimes wear traditionally feminine things it doesn’t mean I’m faking it.
  • I’m not doing this to be political, edgy, or a snowflake. I just want to exist in a way that makes me happy.
  • That gender isn’t binary and it’s more “unnatural” to force yourself into the binary than it is to reject it. That everybody has their own relationship to gender, and that people don’t have to adhere to what society says gender is or must be.
  • That its easier to title/introduce things using ‘they’ etc rather than writing ‘he/she for EVERYTHING.  Legit one time I tried to educate someone on it and they corrected the sentence to ‘he/she/they’ and I’m like BRUHHHH.  The cis complain about they being a plural pronoun but can’t use it as a plural pronoun anyway.
  • That we’re not a new thing or a trend. We’ve always existed, it’s just that the language and societal space is starting to exist to allow for us.
  • I’m ambonec. Just because you haven’t heard of a term before doesn’t mean I made it up. Same goes for all non-binary terms.
  • We don’t have to want to look like what a cis person thinks androgyny is.
  • There are more than two genders.  My gender isn’t made up, the fact that I’m femme presenting and afab doesn’t make me less non-binary.
  • We’re not all skinny white people. I’m sorry but in the main that’s what I see when I see stuff about being nonbinary.
  • It’s not all about appearances for everyone, so you should respect someone’s identity regardless of if they fit your idea of androgyny or not.
  • We have always existed, and we will always exist.
  • That non binary is not a single identity, there are infinite ways to be non binary and you should never assume someone is/is not non binary because of how they look. And never ever think it’s your place to tell someone what you think their identity “really” is.
  • That we aren’t freaks and that we are just like everyone else.
  • That respecting our identities is just as important as respecting that of binary trans people. Also that it’s NOT an afab club. I get that a lot. Even from other trans people….. Anybody can be non-binary.  So basically, just respect non-binary folk as much as anybody else.
  • That just because some people don’t go on HRT or have any surgeries, doesn’t make them any less non-binary. That just because they wear clothes that might “correlate” with their assigned at birth sex, doesn’t make them any less non-binary.
  • I just want people to know that non-binary doesn’t have a correct look. Just because I wear makeup doesn’t mean I’m a girl. Respect how I look and my pronouns.
  • Also language is an ever-evolving social construct and they/them and neopronouns are in fact “grammatically correct” because humans literally create language as we go.
  • That it’s not “too rare to bother moving away from binary language”.  That using gender inclusive/gender neutral language or the correct pronouns isn’t difficult.  It’s about effort and maybe it will take effort at first, but then it won’t – and telling me it will be “difficult” for you is something I have zero interest in hearing.
  • We exist in all ages, all socioeconomic situations, basically all varieties of people imaginable.
  • Gender being a social construct doesn’t make our experiences any less real.
  • That some people have no gender, and that some of us without a gender use ungendered (as opposed to gender-neutral) pronouns like “it/its”.
  • I have no gender, and am not some in between of masculine and feminine. I’m off the spectrum altogether.
  • That we are real and not just internet gender memes.
  • That we’re not an ideology.
  • That we lived our whole lives as something we are not, and now we get to decide who we are – so why not escape the societal tropes of the gender we were assigned at birth if we don’t at all identify with it.
  • Some of us don’t even know we’re nonbinary yet – might take years to find out.

The overwhelming message from the comments:

We are real, we are valid, and we just want to be respected for who we are.

Recognition

I recently had the pleasure of attending the NGLCC ERG Roundtable on Transgender, Non-Binary, & Gender Fluid Talent in the Workplace.  NYL hosted the event, which featured an excellent speaker, and some very good breakout discussions.  I enjoyed the event, although I did experience a moment of cognitive dissonance, the likes of which I have not experienced in quite a while…

I discovered that, against the odds, I was not the only TGNC (trans / gender non-conforming) individual in the room….

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I know, right?  Like, how the heck did that happen???

There were at least five other individuals who were either trans or some flavor of non-binary – I cannot remember the last time I experienced that.  Once I realized (and fully processed) this fact, something interesting happened to me…

I relaxed… In public…  That is not something that happens too often to me.

In unfamiliar public situations, I usually scope out the room, looking for the safest (i.e. least conspicuous) place to sit.  I may (or may not) relax a bit as things progress – it all depends on the vibe I get from the room.  I am sure that I make more of things than I should, but when you are the only one in the room, you become hypersensitive to things: the glances, the stares, the whispers…  This is because you have experienced these things, having been the topic of casual discussions before – discussions which happen as though you aren’t even there… except that you are.

Last Wednesday though, I didn’t feel the need to be ‘on my guard’ like I usually do in unfamiliar social settings.  The theme of the event helped to put me at ease; the recognition of other people like myself that made me less self conscious, and allowed me to relax and enjoy the event: a rather welcome respite.

Trans visibility is important, because it serves to normalize trans and non-binary individuals, moving us from the realm of ‘curiosity’ to that of ‘commonplace’.

Trans visibility is important, also, because it helps us to feel a bit less alone in the world.

“Why Can’t You Just be Trans?”

There is a graphic that has made the rounds on the web, listing 32 distinct ‘genders’ and the symbols to represent them:

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It’s cool that we are living in a time where as a largely invisible class of people, we are developing our own legitimizing lexicon: the language through which we can talk about one another, and that others can use talk about us.  This is not just a linguistic evolution, but a social one as well.  A ‘thing’ is real only in so far as there is a name for it.  Our identities are real for the same reason.  We need names for who we are in order to be recognizable and intelligible within the greater context of society.

Let’s hop into the Wayback Machine and see what things were like when I was coming to terms with my own gender identity.  (n.b.: this is a simplified overview but suffices for the purpose of the discussion.)

It was the late 1990’s, there was no ‘social media’, and Usenet – the public Internet discussion forums – was the primary gathering place for discussions about transgender related issues.  At that time, the individuals who now are colloquially referred to as ‘transgender’ were, back then, referred to as transsexuals.  These individuals considered themselves ‘women’ who sought (or were guided by the psychiatric community) to change their ‘sex’ to align their bodies with their gender.  As a rule, these individuals did not identify as transgender.

Also at that time, there was a group who started to use the label transgender (a term coined / adopted by crossdresser Virgina Prince in 1987) to describe themselves.  This group, as a rule, did not feel ‘compelled’ to change their sex like the transsexuals did.  Where transsexuals felt that their sex to be the opposite of what it was at birth, transgender individuals felt that their gender to be the opposite of what it was ‘at birth’.  While really two sides of the same coin, the two groups clashed, rarely finding common ground. (please see postscript below)

At that time, I pretty firmly identified as ‘transgender’, as it wasn’t an ‘umbrella’ term back then.  It was specific, and positioned me separate from the transsexuals, and from the cisgender individuals.  It should be noted that ‘cisgender’ did not carry the political baggage which it does now.  For a bit of context, please see: Researching Early Uses of “Cisgender”, where, as I was both surprised and pleased to find, I am mentioned:

Koyama, in turn, cites a glossary maintained by Usenet regular Donna Lynn Matthews as an authoritative source on cisgender, who was also one the term’s most frequent users on Usenet. Matthews’s glossary becomes one of the missing links between wider popularization and Usenet.

So, yeah, I’ve been at this a while… 🙂

It wasn’t long before I found that transgender, as a ‘gender’, just did not fit right.  I realized that my ‘gender’ was not something that fit the binary, or at either ‘end’ of the gender spectrum.  In 1998, I coined the term Intergendered in an attempt to capture what my experience of gender was and how it was different from transgender.  I even went so far as to start my own Usenet group for discussions related to this ‘non-binary’ gender: alt.support.intergendered (which is now listed in the Digital Queer History Project, and is in the process of being added to the Transgender Usenet Archive.)  Contrary to those who look to invalidate non-binary genders as something ‘new’ and ‘a fad’, I knew I was non-binary in 1998, and there are countless others before that who simply did not have the language to express what it was they experienced.

Over time, transgender became both an umbrella term for all things ‘gender variant’, and the ‘gender identity’ of those who used to be called transsexuals.  As I continued to evolve, I eventually replaced ‘intergendered’ with genderqueer, as it was essentially the same and had gained some ‘mainstream’ use.  I would later find that genderqueer was used almost exclusively by AFAB (assigned female at birth) individuals, and having gotten some pushback from people online,  I would ultimately abandon genderqueer in favor of ‘non-binary’, as it came into use.  At this time, I do feel that ‘non-binary’ fits me the best of all the other labels I have used.

So, why can’t I just be trans?  I agree that it might make it easier for everyone else, but my ‘gender’ isn’t about everyone else, it’s about me.

I am non-binary / trans-feminine.  The ‘non-binary’ aspect is that I am neither a ‘man’ nor a ‘woman’ as is colloquially considered by society.  The ‘trans-feminine’ aspect is that I present myself and prefer to interact in a way that that society would colloquially view as ‘feminine’, despite having been gendered ‘male’ at birth.  And while I acknowledge the ‘non-binary’ aspect is not something that is necessarily visible to other people, and that the ‘trans-feminine’ aspect is much more apparent, it does not change the reality of who I am, and my lifetime of experience.

We have been asked, “Why can’t you just be trans?”

We cannot ‘just be trans’, because it isn’t who we are.

We deserve to be seen for who we are.

We deserve to be real.


postscript: It is important to note that the transsexual, crossdressing, and transgender discussion forums were frequented almost exclusively by AMAB (assigned male at birth) trans people.  This demographic was the most visible, most vocal, most controversial, and most ‘studied’ from a psychiatric perspective.  The AFAB individuals started out largely in the lesbian communities, and seemed (to me) to have a much better established social support network.  It was, in my opinion, easier for then to blend into society than their feminine trans counterparts.  There was not a lot of online mixing of the two groups, and I will admit to a large degree of ignorance with respect to the history in the trans masculine space.

A lot of the ‘non-binary’ gender presentation started in the lesbian community.  Women toying with gender bending has always been ‘less problematic’ than men looking to play with gender.  The early genderqueer community was almost exclusively young, college aged lesbians, making a masculine / androgynous presentation.  Because of this, there is still some echo of this idea that AMAB individuals cannot be ‘non-binary’, which is, of course, not the case. 🙂

 

What’s in a Name

 

“Hey Donna!” Jasmine, one of the women at the registers, waves me over to take my order.

I have been frequenting a Starbucks on my way to the office. When asked for my name, I have been using Donna – which has been my ‘online’ name for the past twenty years. I also use it casually sometimes, as well as with people I consider closer than casual acquaintances. At my previous job, a had a number of friends there who called me Donna, or simple ‘Dee’. 🙂

The staff at the Starbucks only know me as Donna there. No one questions or second-guesses my name. In that microcosm, I am Donna and nothing else.

I point this out because trans people often get a lot of pushback when we ask people to refer to us in a way we prefer – in a way that is validating to us. People are quick to accept celebrities naming themselves: Sting, Lady Gaga, Bono, The Edge, etc… No one calls these celebrities out, saying “That’s not your ‘real’ name…” No one accuses them of being dishonest or deceitful. People accept and respect that this is how they wish to be addressed, and they do so without question. However, when a trans person chooses a name for themselves, it is often perceived that there is something ‘dishonest’ about it. We often get the question of “But what is your real name?” This perception is rooted in the notion that transgender identities are themselves not something ‘real’.

Trans people spend the first part of their life with a name that carries with it a lifetime of baggage: the expectations of parents, family, friends, colleagues. These are expectations that often do not resonate with how we feel and who we know we are. For us, the act of choosing a name can be a re-birth of sorts. Choosing a name is an act of self-affirmation – one which roots the ownership of our identity with ourselves, as opposed to with someone else. It is very much the case that something is ‘real’ only in so far as we can name it: by choosing our names, we become ‘real’.

For individuals who have legally changed their name, that is their name; it’s use is not optional. Referring to a trans person by their birth name is called dead-naming, because for these individuals, the person with that previous birth name simply no longer exists. Dead-naming is never appropriate, so please just don’t do it.

For individuals who have not legally changed their name, there is still no good reason to not respect how an individual wishes to be addressed. If you can respect the use of someone’s ‘nickname’, you can respect a trans person’s ‘preferred’ name. My story about Starbucks illustrates just how much of a non-issue ‘preferred names’ should be. As I said above, no one questions or second-guesses my using ‘Donna’ as my name. As a result, I get to start my day with a bit more of a smile. 😀

I worked with a woman named Pamela – she hated her name and told everyone to call her Pam. If someone called her Pamela, she corrected them. In very short order, we all called her Pam, and it was a non-issue. If you meet a trans person (or anyone for that matter) and are unsure how to address them (name, pronouns) just ask. We like when people take the time to respect us enough to ask. And if a trans person ‘corrects’ you, don’t be offended – simply make a note of it and move on. The goal is not to make you feel bad, just to let you know, “Hey, this is what I prefer…” 🙂

 

 

Come out, come out, wherever you are…

“In for a penny, in for a pound” as they say.  I have been ‘out’ for years now: very out at work, scaled back some at home.  It’s been a complicated dance I perform between the two worlds, and to be honest, I ‘leak gender’ all the time.  Some people just realize it, others just think I’m quirky, and some are oblivious.  In the end, all I care about is being treated respectfully.

On Oct 23rd, early in the morning, in rersponse to the White House memo about ‘redefining’ gender, I posted a new profile pic on Facebook.  A few minutes later, I posted the following to a closed FB group for non-binary individuals:

I kinda ‘officially’ came out on FB this morning. It’s not like I have been hiding – under ‘Gender’ on my profile I have Trans, Gender Nonconforming and Non-binary, but who reads profiles. 😉 I have never really stated explicitly ‘I am trans’, but I feel you would be hard pressed to miss that fact. Anyway, now it’s out there – new profile pic, of me, with a #WontBeErased frame. So there you go. 🙂

I am ‘publically’ transgender now… Whoa…

As I expected, members of the group were quite supportive.  We do like to support one another for things like this.  Many of my FB friends liked / loved the new pic, and several left encouraging comments.  It feels good to know you have the support of your friends, even it you are all not overly close.  But there was one reaction I wasn’t expecting…

I received a private message from a classmate from high school.  We were never close, I’m not sure we even ever spoke to one another, but that was what high school was like for me.  As I wrote when I was invited to our 30th reunion, it was rather cliquish and I never really felt like I fit.  But late last nite, I found this waiting for me:

Gary, I’m not on FB much anymore bc I forind it raises my blood pressure! When I was checking in more often, I always appreciated your intelligent posts, not knowing what u were living thru until u recently changed your profile pic.  I just want to tell u how profoundly touched I am by your courage and how deeply I respect and honor u and feel grateful that our paths crossed at one time.  While we were never close, I still want u to know that I am here for u if u ever need a friend. I hope u are living your best life and r happy.  Please know that there r many of us out there who have your back👍🏻❤️😘

I stared at the message, reading it several times in (somewhat) disbelief.  Few are the times when someone has reached out to me like this, and each time had been emotional for me, because it can be hard sometimes to see past the selfishness of what I do.  I’m ‘out’ for me – because I need to not be hiding; that’s not always easy for others.  I still tend to discount the (positive) impact I have on others, despite having been told so more times than I can count.  Thank you for reminding me. 🙂

The gains we have fought hard to make are likely to be erased in the blink of an eye.  It’s a hard time for anyone who is not white, cis, and straight, but we need to be strong.

Know that we all have people like my friend who support us and want the best for us.

National Coming Out Day

Today, October 11th, is National Coming Out Day, a time when we celebrate coming out as some flavor of LGBTQ+ and share our stories.  I thought I would share the first time I ‘came out’ to someone in person.  It remains, to this day, a powerful moment in my life.

I was a VP in Human Resources Information Systems for Morgan Stanley in 1996. There was some buzz one morning about a new consultant who would be starting there: a transsexual woman.  I remember finding it rather disconcerting that there was gossip like this before she had even stepped foot on the floor.  I was also intrigued, as to my knowledge I had never met a trans woman.  Later that morning, we were introduced to Riki Wilchins, who would be doing Visual Basic development.  I remember thinking how unremarkable she was; I don’t know what I was expecting, but she wasn’t it. By the end of the day, the ‘novelty’ seemed to have worn off and things were business as usual.

We would chat on and off over the next weeks, nothing specific, just the the usual day to day idle chit-chat.  She did share a bit about herself with me, more so than she did with others I think.  We often have a sense for others like ourselves, so maybe she picked up on that.  One morning, when I was feeling especially ‘distracted’ by the trans noise in my head, I asked Riki if she had a minute.  She said “sure” and we went into my office and closed the door…

I told her “I hope you don’t mind, but you seem like you might understand…”, and then the floodgates opened.  I spent the next twenty minutes telling her my story, everything up to that point in my life.  I paused, looked at her and said “I’ve never shared this with anyone, not like this.”  She smiled, and said “I know.”  She was very understanding, empathetic, and offered suggestions for support groups, reading, and was just genuinely supportive.

Riki would go on found GenderPAC and has published a number of books.  Many years after Morgan Stanley, I had reason to email her, and introduced myself as “the guy who came out to you at Morgan Stanley”.  She said she didn’t remember that specifically, but recalled that I was the only person there who she felt treated her as just a regular person, and that that meant a lot to her.

Since that first time, I have ‘come out’ many times: at my last three jobs, to friends, coworkers…  I have come to accept that I will never stop ‘coming out’; there will always be some person, some situation, that will require me to explain this all over again…

… and by now, I’ve gotten pretty good at it.