Hostile Takeover

Sometimes it’s stealthy, insidious, a thief in the dead of night. But not always. Sometimes it’s a seemingly polite, yet – let’s face it – gritty and downright disgusting battle. It’s turning your head away, grimacing, holding your breath and attempting to protect something, anything that is generally and rightfully understood as yours. It’s nuanced kindnesses that are forced into the space of ugly, strong statements. It’s giving, as you’ve been trained to do, and simultaneously restraining, struggling, inwardly gasping and gulping for your own air, pushing her out and helplessly feeling her pour back in like a flood. 

It’s the long drive home with the windows down, music promisingly loud yet mocking, meaningless, the cool air lashing at your arms and cheeks like a punishment. It’s washing, scrubbing, scouring away the traces of her but still reeking of her sweet perfume. It’s even wishing you could retch to cleanse yourself from the inside. (Kind of.) 

It’s gratitude for one thing, and one thing only: that at least you can write about it. It’s wishing you could skip past the discomfort to your default defense mechanism, humor, as you discover and appreciate the thousand points of irony. 

She’s everywhere, and she saw to that the instant she laid her dark eyes upon you. And you knew all about her, and you prepared yourself to the best of your current ability, and you remained professional and professionally assertive at all times, but she still overpowered you. 

You didn’t have a chance, did you. You still haven’t completely transformed that part of you that people like her relish in toying with. Some small victories were noted, but overall you conceded defeat. This time. 

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The Strangest Job I’ve Ever Loved

 Business is picking up at the spa where I work. Don’t get me wrong; it all still feels fragile, as though one powerful sneeze will blow clients away again. But our regular clients are starting to resurface from the hubbub that is summer. 

Lately I’ve been feeling stale, overplayed. Maybe most of those clients really do need similar treatment (back/neck/shoulders, etc.). Or maybe I need to be the one to break the pattern somehow. 

The humdrum of tired mediocrity took a detour today. One client’s needs gave me the license to change my entire progression. It became a myofascial trigger-point session, which meant in this case that I was focused on one shoulder for most of the 50 minutes. (Trigger point work is fascinating to me. So, you think you have carpal tunnel syndrome? Maybe not! Maybe it’s a trigger point buried under your shoulder blade in the subscapularis muscle. Who would have thunk it?!) I felt something in me light up as I searched for the source of the client’s pain, which happened to be about four inches from where he felt the pain itself. Not every client is begging for clinical work. This one was. Lucky me! 

Another client today, a tough-looking professional mover, didn’t look so tough as I finished the session. I massaged his temples and marveled (silently, of course!) at how peaceful he looked, like a sleeping child. 

It struck me then. Somewhere along the way, I forgot. I forgot how beautiful each person is when I regard their faces from my perch at the top of their heads. They seem to regress in age right in front of me. Maybe it’s because their eyes are closed. Maybe it’s the vantage point from which I peer at them. Maybe something mystic or spiritual happens. It doesn’t matter. Back when I was fresh, new, inspired, a starry-eyed part of me would exclaim (to myself), “She could be a movie star!” But along the way, unbridled wonder and inspiration have been replaced with good intentions, genuine attempts and, ultimately, the dull acceptance of feeling little more than relief that the session is over.

You could say I’m a little burned out, I guess. A tough spring, slow work, piling-up debt and some work drama may be taking a bit of a toll. 

As usual, talking myself through the situation calms me down. I’ve felt burned out before, and I’ve overcome it. I’ll overcome it this time, too, I’m sure. It may be as simple as learning new techniques and remembering and appreciating how delightfully strange my job can be. Where else could I say that I hold people’s snoring heads in my hands as part of my job? Snoring, for cry-eye! It’s surreal when I give it some thought. One can’t do that in an office setting without some bewildered looks, I’ll tell you what. My desk-bound former self would never believe current me if I told her that I massage people for a living. She’d tell me I’m too scared, too awkward for a field like that. But there was a string of unlikely events…

And here I am. I’m broke, sure, but far from poor. I’ve met and worked on hundreds of people who appreciate any help I can provide. When I push myself to take the lessons presented to me, I learn every day. And hey. When all else fails I can remind myself that I knock out complete strangers for a living (so to speak, of course). And they come to, say they feel amazing and come back for more. How weird and wonderful is that?

Massage therapists and bodyworkers, are there techniques you use to break out of a rut? I’d love to hear from you! 

13 Lifesavers Massage Therapists Keep Handy

  I’m horrified to report that last night I discovered three tiny warts on my hand. Gah, it’s an occupational hazard I was hoping never to experience! As I dabbed a liquid bandage onto the spots after freezing them dead with this frightening spray I bought at the drugstore, I thought about the many products that help me get through the day. Mind you, I’m not getting a kickback for any product mentions, and I’m not even sure it’s all right to list brand names here. So if I’m in the wrong, please feel free to educate me….

Toothbrush, toothpaste, breath strips and gum In massage school, my foundations instructor mentioned that the day before or the day that we massage, we shouldn’t eat strong-tasting foods. Considering that I work five days a week and lurve my garlic and onions, that’s just not an option. So all of the above-listed items are key. Breath strips are my most recent find. They’re small but mighty and spare me from sounding like I’m chewing my cud. Gum is reserved for times I really need to brush but can’t. I buy a softer-smelling, pleasing flavor and only chew a half stick at a time to reduce obnoxiousness by half. 

Barrettes, hair ties I’m sorry. Show me a spa with coiffed massage therapists, and I’ll show you the harrowing behind-the-scenes that is required to give a great massage while still looking pretty. It’s an endless battle for them. I simply can’t do it. In my world, makeup is minimal, bangs are often clipped back, and hair MUST be off my neck, or I exit the therapist’s room with makeup melted down to my knees and wet hair, much resembling a dirty puddle. 

Mini fan this relates to the hair ties. It’s teeny and doesn’t pack much of a punch, but that wee machine keeps me sane each session. I’m a sweat-er, plain and simple, and I’ve taught myself how and when to position that sucker on me (and not my client) without the client knowing. 

Traveler’s manicure kit From nipping surprise hangnails to trimming and filing nails, I use at least one item from my kit daily. (Have I ever mentioned that I often have to file my fingertips in this profession? Strange, but true!)

Burt’s Bees Hand Salve If I had a dollar for every time someone told me, “How can your skin be dry and cracking? You’re rubbing oil onto your hands all day,” I’d have a good dollar or two by now. We have to lather up all the way past our elbows twice as many times as we massage, before and after each session. This salve is as sleek as satin, and smells like a field of lavender. Don’t be discouraged by the price; a tin should last you at least one winter. 

Coconut oil This all-natural product was a big help for my forearms last winter. Again, we’re scrubbing up quite often throughout the day, and during the cold months I was alarmed to discover that the skin on my arms felt a lot like tweed. It took two weeks during my back-mending hiatus to get that skin feeling like…well, skin. While it doesn’t do much for cracked fingertips, coconut oil aborbs quickly, smells warm and comforting and, best of all, doesn’t sting chapped skin like a mother-trucker. *Ahem!* 

New Skin liquid bandage I learned this just today. Fellow MT’s would tell me to dab some New Skin on the cracks in my thumbs, and I ignored them…because it peels right off and feels scratchy to the client, doesn’t it? Well, that may be true for the generic brand I bought last winter, but the New Skin I just got today actually feels like skin, so much so that I dabbed on some extra to make sure it was there. 

Non-latex gloves These made today’s three massages possible. Not pleasant, mind you, but possible. (The liquid bandage purchase happened after my shift.) Therapists and clients are pleasantly surprised that a massage with surgical gloves feels almost like the gloves are not even there. But they come with a caveat for sweat-ers like me. You’d be amazed by how much sweat one hand generates in a 50-minute session! It made for some embarrassing squeaks during one of my appointments today when some trapped air escaped the glove all deflating-balloon-like. 

Good shoes I can’t emphasize this one enough. I need steady, supportive shoes to do good work. We’re not just on our feet all day, we’re lunging…All. Day. If my shoes don’t fit properly, I’ll know within the first five minutes of my first session. It makes for a long session when you’re uncomfortable on your feet….

Zinc lozenges Surprise! Here’s a fourteenth item that I can’t believe I almost forgot to mention. Yes, they make food and beverages taste weird. Yes, there’s controversy as to whether they even work. But placebo effect be damned, they work for me. And considering all of the colds a massage therapist is trapped in a room with for 50+ minutes at a time, she or he needs a trusty line of defense. Good-quality vitamins in general are critical for the various ickies that float around, year ’round. 

This list covers the basics. The above items keep me as calm and collected as possible to get me through the day with at least some grace (which says a lot since I’m naturally ungraceful). Fellow massage therapists and bodyworkers, are there any must-haves that you rely on? 

Body Language

  

This is what I recommend: When you talk about a symptom, make it the pain instead of my pain–the pain in my head, the pain in my stomach, or the pain in my back. At the same time, you should own your body parts–that is, my head, my stomach, or my back. But don’t say my arthritis, my multiple sclerosis, or my Parkinson’s disease. When you do, you’re just solidifying dysfunction as being a part of you. 

–Dr. Darren Weissman,
The Infinite Power of Love & Gratitude

The other day I winced during physical therapy, not so much because my PT was rolling a hard stick (cleverly deemed The Stick) down my IT band like a rolling pin on cold dough, but because of what she said to another patient: You’ll want to bend toward your bad leg.

“Your bad leg,” eh? After all this time, I’m still mentally editing other people’s words. How about that.

I have the tendency of being overly cautious when phrasing certain things. Stuck between two religions as a young girl, I balked at both and became superstitious for a spell, careful to form my wishes as air-tight as I possibly could. No way was I going to be the fool who accidentally conjured up a frog instead of a cute boy to kiss. (I got neither.) Since that time, I learned about cause and effect in the practice of Nichiren Buddhism; we make causes with every thought, word and action we create, and every cause has an effect. Between that former practice and my current one, I sometimes get tongue-tied trying to word certain things in the best possible way.

A big chunk of my life was spent dissecting words for a living. Being a cookbook editor meant I had to read recipes from a couple of perspectives: the chef who wrote the recipe into words and the home cook who would be turning those words back into food. I had a strict mentor who invited me to delve deeper, taking nothing for granted. If we used “whisk,” for example, would that lead the cook to pick up an actual whisk to do the deed? I believed so until we brought a few office workers into the test kitchen to prepare some recipes. Sure enough, we had a spoon-whisker in our crowd, to the smug satisfaction of my boss.

Words divorced themselves from me a couple of years ago. When I lost that position, it was the beginning of a strange time for cookbooks and publishing in general. Books started to compete against the many forms of web recipes. Language in general seems to have taken a hit over the past few years, hasn’t it? More and more I found myself putting away my editing eyes, tolerating the lol’s and lack of punctuation that we see in status updates and text messages. Similar to the result of some bad breakups, I ran into the arms of something else, leading me to the tangible power of massage therapy.

But my estranged words found me anyway. As I dug into my anatomy books, I was led to books such as Dr. Darren Weissman’s The Power of Infinite Love & Gratitude. In it, he writes about neural-linguistic programming, or NLP, which asserts that the language we use has great impact on our nervous system. Owning pain, my arthritis or my bad back sends a message to the body. It correlates with the law of cause and effect, too. What are we putting out there? Who or what is listening? How can we be sure the result will be as innocuous as we assume? Circling back to my PT and how she so casually phrased her directive, I’m wondering if I should try to catch and correct her the next time I hear something like that. The physical therapy facility is a healing environment, after all.

The other week I wrote a bit on pain and how some people deal with it so bravely. It may not always be that simple, though. In comparing notes with my sister about back pain (notice I didn’t write our back pain), I realized that she’s lived with it for so long, she’s almost taken pride in it. I worried that pain has become part of her identity. And maybe it has; that seems only natural when it’s been such a big part of her life for so many years. But then she said something that gave me hope. I see this pain as a guest that’s overstayed its welcome. I laughed. Maybe it’s finally time for it to go. And maybe she’s ready for what happens after that departure. As for me, I’m slowly getting to the bottom of why my healing, resilient back happens to hurt me right now. One carefully selected word, one PT exercise at a time, I will get there.

The Secret World of Pain

  
I should spare you the boring details and simply write “Ugh,” or better yet, not post at all. As this blog takes shape, it seems to be more about what goes wrong for a massage therapist than what goes well. I’m looking to change that as I grow into this role, but in the meantime…about a month ago I became a statistic and cautionary tale, joining the ranks of so many injured massage therapists. Apparently it’s not shocking that this happened to me just over a year into my practice. It’s been found that 80% of massage therapists and bodyworkers drop out after their first two years due to injury. So from that perspective I guess I’m tracking right on time….

When it happened in early February (while putting on my pants! Sheesh!), I lightened my workload for a few days, kept pushing forward and worried. Things stabilized somewhat, but pain persisted. Certain strenuous techniques came out of my massage toolbox. Compensating took place when pain would flare. Crash landings onto chairs became expected. Standing during breaks provided marginal relief.

Last Friday, it happened again. My back spasmed violently at the beginning of a massage session. I limped through the hour and was amazed that the client didn’t demand his money back. After the session I waved the white flag. Money, shmoney; staying the course was a disservice to my clients, the spa and my own body.

Two years ago, before I started massage school, I had a sobering talk with a financial counselor. He took down my history, chewed on his pen for a bit and told me that what I was about to embark on was a very bad idea, fiscally and otherwise.

But stubborn me, I went and did it anyway. And obtuse me, I ignored my body’s whispered signals. And complacent me, I kept going and going without seriously pursuing a career path that I could sustain. Now crumpled on a couch, unable to do my job, I’m buried under palpable shame.

Considering my environment, maybe it’s natural to feel so guilty about hurting. My sister has experienced severe, chronic back pain for at least 15 years. It’s limited her daily activities and changed her life. A dear friend suffers frequent migraines, yet she still manages to show up at her job and work through the pain. Both of these strong women have been compassionate as I’ve shared my recent struggle with back pain, but I know I can be tougher. I’m the whiny little sister, acting like I’m the first person ever to have gone through this.

Is it a sign of weakness to disclose exactly how bad we feel? Is it ego or survivalism that’s taught us to keep the bulk of our suffering secret? Maybe it’s more of a socially driven thing; we’ve all encountered the unfiltered acquaintance who taught us why true honesty is a no-no. And then I think about my clients. How often do they downplay their symptoms? Many come in with herniated discs, scars from back surgery and other obvious signs that they’ve been through traumatic events. I consider the times I’ve given self-care tips like “Soak in Epsom salt” or “Forward bends are great for stretching the low back and hamstrings.” Now that I have trouble getting into and out of the tub and can’t lean forward without a frightening twang of pain, I’ve vowed to be more sensitive to my clients, to read them more carefully for the unspoken.

As a matter of fact, as frustrating as this experience has been, I aim to take all of this as a lesson. I saw a doctor, took this week off and went to physical therapy as prescribed. After all, the only way to shake the shame I’m experiencing is to right my personal wrongs, right? Buddhism teaches that no effort is ever wasted, that every cause has an effect, and that effects can become causes toward victory or defeat depending on what we do next. It’s our choice. I’ve decided that this experience will make/is making me stronger, wiser, more compassionate and more effective in helping others, and I’m backing it up with appropriate action. To view it any other way and backslide might make me part of that dreaded 80% within the next year.

I can’t give up.

“What kinds of causes am I making right now?” “What actions am I taking?” The answers to these questions are what will determine our future.

-Daisaku Ikeda

On the Other Side of Fear

 

 Last weekend I caught the movie Divergent with a friend. In the movie, the characters go through mental training in which their worst fears are virtually actualized: dive-bombing birds, watery graves, walking across beams hundreds of feet above solid ground. Since the movie wasn’t captivating either of us, I turned to my friend and asked him what his worst fears are. He said breezily that he’s lived a good life; he’s pretty much ready to die at any time.

He asked what I’m afraid of. I laughed a hollow little laugh and described a scene with cockroaches underfoot, approaching tornadoes and uncontrollable vomiting while someone tortures me by pulling out my fingernails. And that was just off the top of my head. My friend said that I spend too much time thinking about that kind of thing, and we settled back into watching the movie.

He’s right: I think about fear so much, I’ve even personified it. Some people picture fear as a sort of hulking beast, larger than life. To me, he (yes, fear is a he to me) is human, thin and aloof with sleepy bug eyes. Come to think of it, he reminds me of a tall Steve Buscemi. He leans against the wall of a building in the corner of my mind, picking his teeth with a spent toothpick. He’s no pusher, fear, but he’s always, always there. “You really wanna go my way?” he asks, a little surprised that I’d choose such a difficult route. Again. “OK, suit yourself.” He flicks the toothpick toward the sewer grate and misses, shrugs at it and cocks his head to one side. “You coming, or what?” he asks over his shoulder as he starts to leave.

I hustle after him. Again.

Yes, I understand that fear is a choice. How many FDR-like quotes can I possibly post on Pinterest? And why are these quotes doing diddly squat for me lately? Today I’m thinking about what happens when I try a different response than following fear.

“He’s a minor, 12 years old,” my manager told me before I picked up my client. Slouched on the waiting room couch, he appeared to be a puffy jacket with a pair of legs. Only a shock of black hair peeking over his jacket gave him away. During that first session, his mom (who was present in the room the whole time) informed me that he was on the junior high swim team and trained six days a week. His back and shoulders were constant problems, so she decided that he should try massage.

This was the first minor I’d ever worked on, and to say I was scared is an understatement. Nate* was my first “scary” client for too many reasons. Maybe he and his mom didn’t know this at the time, but I can be even more socially awkward than he appeared. On top of that, I happen to experience performance anxiety and a touch of impostor syndrome. Since massage school, I haven’t really had to deal with that; once I started massaging professionally I realized that I’m the only one watching and judging me, since the client is in no position to see me during the session. But this time…I had an actual witness, and what was worse, it was my young client’s mother.

On top of that, working on a minor brought up a host of other concerns. Some massage therapists in the spa where I work refuse to work on minors to protect themselves from any number of things that can go wrong. I could hurt him, or he could lie and say that I hurt him. I wondered if I should have followed their cue and done the same thing. Was this a big mistake?

I had no reason to worry. Nate felt pain relief on that first day and has become a regular client of mine since then. His mom trusts me enough to stay in the waiting room or get her own massage during our appointments. Having Nate as a young massage client has taught me so much. Working on growing tissue is fascinating. Over these past few months he’s grown a bit, so it seems like I’m working on an entirely different person than the kid I met several months ago. He seems to regard me as a big sister, in a way, and it’s such an honor gaining Nate’s trust and watching him grow, even if it’s over a short duration of time in the grand scheme of his life.

I think back to that first session and how afraid I was. I would have missed out on an incredible experience if I’d followed my thin man, fear.

Right now is a scary time for me. I injured my low back over two weeks ago, and the pain simply isn’t going away. I’ve been afraid to face facts by going to a doctor about it. It could be as straightforward as muscle strain, or it could be something much more serious. It’s easy to let my thoughts run wild. What if this is a career-ending problem? What if I’m facing a lifetime of chronic pain? Should I change my career to protect myself? Or is that just fear talking? Maybe he’s more persuasive than I give him credit for.

The questions I should be asking myself are, why am I so comfortably uncomfortable in a situation I’m too afraid to step out of? What is the appeal here, really? I guess the issue is that finding answers can lead to more questions. And maybe that’s why fear can paralyze us: taking one step inevitably leads to more steps, more scary options to consider. But I’ve got to try. Maybe all of this is one giant obstacle devised to keep me from reaching my dreams. Maybe fear of success or fear of failure is at the root of all of this. Or is that just psychobabble? What’s on the other side of this fear, which is holding me back? It’s time to find out.

*The client’s name has been changed.

When Things Go Wrong

  

When things go wrong, don’t go with them. -Elvis Presley

Most massage therapists, like other serious professionals, are in constant pursuit of perfection. We want the room temperature just right, the music soft and soothing. We listen intently to our clients’ needs, both spoken and unspoken. We aim to deliver our massage techniques with precision, compassion and nurturing touch and work hard to ensure that nothing distracts the client from their desired experience.

I’d like to think that we usually come close, but let’s be real here. More often than not, things go wrong. And more often than not, these things are beyond our control. For instance:

  • Wet weather makes the music go all buzzy and distorted.
  • The chilly front desk associate turns up the thermostat, and sweat threatens to drip off of me mid-session. 
  • My compassionate client tries to help me drape her leg but instead manages to whack me in the gut with it. Oof! 
  • A bit of skin on my fingertip decides to break free and form a hangnail that scratches the client. 
  • I spontaneously develop the sniffles (gah, she’s wearing too much perfume!) and complete the massage dripping with sweat and frowning at my new hangnail with sniffy, contorted bunny face.

With luck, these kinds of little mishaps are spread out rather than condensed into one miserable experience.

We’re not always so lucky.

Here’s a mild example. Last week, a coworker and I performed a couple’s massage. Our spa just had a wall knocked down the other week, and voila! A couple’s room. We’ve quickly learned that while couples’ sessions are a lovely bonding experience for the clients, they can be a bit hairier for the therapists to manage.

Timing, as you can guess, is the biggest challenge. Maybe one of the clients undresses quickly, but then the other one…not so much. Maybe one of the clients is accustomed to getting massages, while the other one…same deal.

So with this particular couple, after intakes and letting them get undressed, we knocked right on time. Only, my partner’s client wasn’t ready. She barreled out of the room to use the bathroom, even though we’d asked them beforehand if they’d needed to use it.

Take II. This time, they said they were ready…only this time, my client wasn’t. He was sitting on the table. (Thank goodness he had shorts on, at least, or this could have been an awkward moment for all.) I asked him to start face-down under the sheet and gave him a minute more.

Now over 10 minutes late, my partner and I were finally able to start. I did my usual compressions over the sheet and blanket. Hmm. He had an awfully lumpy back. Closer examination revealed not just lumpy but “crumpled.” Crumpled? Poop. He’d gotten under both sheets, which meant his bare skin was on the table. This particular table didn’t have a table warmer on it (again, it was a new couple’s room, so the spa wasn’t equipped yet), so at least he wasn’t lying directly on top of a table warmer (potential ouch). But it must not have felt very warm and cozy for him to be lying shirtless on cool vinyl on a cold winter’s evening.

I decided that we were already too late to interrupt the adjoining session, exit the room yet again and have him wrestle with the sheets. So, I took a deep breath and just went with it. After all, it wasn’t awful…it just wasn’t quite right. My partner glanced at me, a quizzical look on her face as I pulled back his blanket and both sheets to undrape his back. I gestured toward the bare table and shrugged. She shrugged back. It was bad enough that the session was running late and rather unconventional, but on top of that, I had a witness to my confusion. 

As I warmed up his back, I accidentally pumped too much oil onto my hand, which is a common occurrence. Massage schools teach that when this happens, no problem! You can simply blot the excess oil onto the sheet without disturbing the client. Standing at the head of the naked table I didn’t have that option, so I nonchalantly worked my way toward his hips, where both sheets were. (We’re all about smooth transitions in this biz.) In the process, of course, I deposited too much oil all down his back. So to work my way back up, I did another technique that absorbs oil, the forearm glide. Ok, I was getting the hang of this, right? Nope. See, sometimes I place my free hand on the table to steady myself during forearm work. However, with that small amount of oil between my hand and the vinyl table, I slipped and nearly bonked my head on the client’s back.

The bottom sheet serves several functions, and not having it in its usual spot forced me to rethink a few protocols throughout the session to avoid sliding around. Draping his legs was also a bit awkward; again, thank goodness he had shorts on.

Things did get better, except my partner must have (fairly) deducted a couple of minutes from her session due to the clients’ delays. Massaging their scalps to wrap things up, we mouthed a silent negotiation with each other. I finally caved and finished when she wanted to, a couple of minutes shy of the 50 I’d verbally promised my client when we began the session. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s broken promises. I exited the room feeling guilty.

This was hardly an ideal massage session. But to my relief, my client was thrilled with the massage. He must not have noticed any of the shenanigans. It reminded me that even when things aren’t perfect, I can still give them my best, regardless of the circumstances. Maybe they feel my intentions shine through the anxiety and quirks. It just takes a little mind-bending on my part to get there.

In quiet moments I compare massage to live theatre. You’re onstage, so to speak, with this other person (the client) and expected to perform but, unlike theatre, the client is somehow the audience, the script and another actor. (The role of director may change hands depending on the client.) Still, you only get one shot to deliver what’s promised, and I’m learning that like theatre, the best (or at least the most memorable) sessions are the ones that go awry. Those are the ones that get me thinking quickly and get the adrenaline pumping. They force me to be more creative and resourceful. All put together, I get pushed into a more authentic, compassionate place as I problem-solve on the client’s behalf.

Who knows? Maybe the universe’s function of trickier sessions is to make me a better massage therapist. Not that I’ll look forward to the next difficult situation, per se, but if self-improvement is the payoff, I’ll be up for the challenge.