Editing Virginia Woolf’s Diary

I feel extremely lucky to have been able to get my hands on one of the limited editions (Arizona State owns #814 of the 1,000 signed copies) of Anne Olivier Bell’s recollections of editing VW’s Diary. It all stemmed from Quentin being asked by Leonard to write her biography, which he acquiesced to when asked again in 1966. Olivier “was alarmed at the responsibility he had undertaken” and knew she could help him. Quentin asked Leonard for the diary, which he’d had transcribed and typed in order to come out with his A Writer’s Diary (1954). Leonard sent the carbon copy of this to the Bells, but hilariously they were in tatters because Leonard simply snipped with scissors the parts he wanted to include in AWD, telling the Bells they had the complete text when they put the tatters together with his published copy. The actual diaries were in the Westminster Bank in Lewes until Leonard’s death, upon which they transferred to the New York Public Library which had purchased them decades earlier (but to be held by Leonard until his death).

Olivier’s process was to create a scaffold of VW’s life on index cards that Quentin could refer to while writing his biography. These cards would come in handy later on when she was awarded the task of putting the full diaries out for publication. She details some of the fun in tracking down information that’s wedged into the footnotes of the diaries, how fortunate she was to have an extensive library at home but how that also led her to linger over tangentially related things like reading Wordsworth or Walter Scott.

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If ever you’d like to feel small in comparison to someone else’s life, check out the obituary for Olivier, recently dead at 102.

Are You Somebody? : The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman

Nuala O’Faolain’s memoir is a funny, sad, well-written account of growing up Irish, lucky to have avoided the major catastrophes of life such as babies and marriage, making her way in a man’s world of literature and broadcast. It’s filled with delights for people who love words. One of the most important moments of her life is when she learns to read, and this memoir shows her lifelong joy in that pursuit. Literature begets commentary and autobiography and biography. She adored the classics. “The only thing I don’t read much of now, when time is so precious, are middle-range authors—Kundera, say, or Paul Auster. Writers who play middle-level games.” When she is teaching English literature at Oxford in the 1960s:

“I wanted my students to do something hard, to learn to hold on to the self while going out of the self to enter into the literature that someone else had made—to find a poise between subjectivity and objectivity. This poise would then be rehearsed and made more stable with each access of understanding of a piece of art. The change in the person comes in that; it isn’t a matter of learning a technical vocabulary. There is a vocabulary peculiar to the study of literature, literature itself never having asked to be studied.”

She is guilty of a lot of name-dropping, and the chapters do become a bit wearisome. I also wasn’t a huge fan of the extremely lengthy afterword she added which seemed to consist of bits of fan mail she received when the book was originally published.

Florida

Recently I heard a conversation between Thomas McGuane and another writer featured on the New Yorker Radio Hour where the pair go fishing and talk about words and writing. McGuane said something along the lines of being amazed at the quality of short stories coming out of the U.S. right now, compared to the vastly disappointing novels, and as I read Lauren Groff’s collection of stories about or tangentially related to Florida, I wholeheartedly agreed. It seems especially fitting coming from the author of Ninety-Two in the Shade, that Key West fishing guide to life.

Groff’s stories are so powerful, you have to close the covers after each one, look wide-eyed around the room and wonder to yourself, “Did I really just read that?” The lush, rainy, snakey, lizardy life of Florida pulses from the pages, even when the characters are escaping the summer heat by traveling to France. Yes, yes, yes. Read it.

Essays After Eighty

I definitely was in the wrong mood to read poet Donald Hall’s memoir of what life as a privileged old white man was like. RIP, since he died recently, but perhaps his poems are better foodstuff for my brain than his haphazard recollections of various wives & helpmates, various awards and trips and other yawning details of a long luxurious life teetering toward death on an ancient farm in New Hampshire.

Pauline Kael on Charleton Heson

In Decadence, Pauline Kael’s December 1974 review of Earthquake, she calls the film a “marathon of destruction effects, with stock characters spinning through. It isn’t fun, exactly; it’s ejaculatory, shoot-the-works filmmaking carried to the borderline of satire and stopping just short… there is something particularly gratifying about seeing the smoking ruin of the city that movies like this come from.” The director seems not to want to leave any calamity effects for other movies to use, “as the bodies keep jumping, falling, or being shot, buried under walls and girders, or drowned… a lot of well-known people are casually left in the debris.”

The treatment of the film’s two principal stars, Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner, could almost be the in joke of an industry that enjoys the idea of self-destructing… Charlton Heston is the all-time king of prestige epics. However, the repressed acting, granitic physique, and godlike-insurance-salesman manner that made him so inhumanly perfect for fifties spectacles have also destroyed his credibility. He’s not a bad actor, but he’s humorlessly unresilient. He can’t open up: his muscles have his personality in an iron grip. When Universal uses him in its action-disaster pictures, which are all really the same movie, sold by the yard, he underacts grimly and he turns into a stereotype of himself. In Earthquake Heston plays a big-time engineer who married the daughter (Ava Gardner) of the boss (Lorne Greene) and has fallen in love with a young screen-starlet widow (Genevieve Bujold), and when the city is all shook up he dashes from one heroic deed to the next, rescuing, rescuing, rescuing. He’s a dependably heroic joke. No one is expected to believe in the acts he performs: he’s a wind-up hero-machine, and ingenious special effects and trick photography can go on around him. At the end, the movie has the embarrassing problem of what to do with him to avoid the catcalls of a jaded audience, so it cynically trashes him along with Gardner and most of Los Angeles.

Heston’s fatigued heroism serves a function: it enables us to retain an amused, disbelieving view… You feel no pang when the various characters get hit: the whole point of a pop disaster epic is for the audience to relish the ingenious ways in which they’re brought down. When a drowned man pours out of a flooded elevator, you’re meant to gasp at the shock, not lament his passing.

Also on Heston:

“We don’t respond to those Charlton Heston heroes who lack irrational impulses.” (Notes on Evolving Heroes, Morals, Audiences, 1976)

White Tears

Highly entertaining book by Hari Kunzru dovetailing a few bizarre crimes, mashing time and space together in such a way that you’re not quite sure what’s happening (especially towards the end, it’s a blur), spiced with details that music connoisseurs will love—especially if your specialty is 1920s early blues and jazz—liberally sprinkling in names like King Oliver and Bix Beiderbecke. It’s present day and immediate past and far distant past time periods whirred up together in a weird blender. The first half of the book unfolds like a normal work, suspenseful, but you have half an idea of what’s going on. Later chapters the work deteriorates itself (purposefully?) and you’re not sure what’s happening only you know it’s not good. Present day story is told through a narrator who’s pals with a rich kid who sets him up with an apartment in NYC and a music studio where they launch their own recording sessions. Rich kid gets beat into a coma, a robbery gone bad? Rich kid’s sister ends up hanging out with the roommate narrator and then they go on a road trip to the South where she ends up dead and the narrator ends up beaten by police then released. Other tale twisted inside this is of record collectors in the 1960s hot on the trail of forgotten gems in houses across Mississippi, the power of the music ultimately consuming one of them in fire. 

My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Ottessa wields her mighty pen again, this time choosing a main character who is so blonde and thin and beautiful that we can’t complain about ugliness like we did with Eileen. The story is a blur of nothingness, the character existing off her inheritance and taking weird drug cocktails to try and sleep her entire life away. Some of the drugs don’t work as advertised—she is extremely active during those blackouts, going to raves and shopping and frequently waking up with bizarre remnants of the evening or on the LIRR not sure what day it is, what time it is, and which direction she’s headed. After reading several gushing interviews about Ottessa recently, I wonder if this book isn’t her getting back at us, sneering at us to say look how interesting I can make a story about a woman passed out most of the time. At any rate, this is my least favorite of hers so far, despite the obvious writing talent.

A Woman of No Importance

Sontag referenced this play in her Notes on Camp (“I adore simple pleasures, they are the last refuge of the complex”). It’s an amusing four act play with lots of zingers. “Men marry because they are tired; women because they are curious. Both are disappointed.” And: “The happiness of a married man depends on the people he has not married.”

Act 1 ends with Lord Illingworth noticing the handwriting of a letter and saying it reminded him of a lady he once knew, but when pressed he called her a woman of no importance. This turns out to be the mother of Gerald, whom Illingworth just hired to be his secretary, and who of course was Illingworth’s mistress, making Illingworth Gerald’s father. In the end, Mrs Arbuthnot has her revenge, rejecting Ill’s plea for marriage and noting the glove that she slapped him with as that from a visitor, a man of no importance.

Kudos

The magical world of Rachel Cusk continues to buoy and delight. Her writing seems effortlessly beautiful, putting description and philosophy and questions about modern life and poetry into the mouths of the characters that buzz around the main narrator, an author traveling to a literary festival where she speaks, meets her publisher, meets her translator, meets sundry other authors, has “interviews” with people who end up gabbing their time away in lieu of asking her questions. She gets away with covering a lot of territory without much action, like the TV journalist’s feminist rant during sound check, “there was nothing worse than to be an average white male of average talents and intelligence: even the most oppressed housewife is closer to the drama and poetry of life than he is…” This interviewer goes on to mention her thesis on British artist Joan Eardley who I’d never heard of, another forgotten woman to wrest from the ashes of history. There was another bit where the narrator is talking about “a feeling of homesickness even when you are at home… a sorrow that has no cause,” which reminded me of something in Lost Connections that I need to go look up. Something else that resonated with me was the discussion of the renovation of an older European city previously neglected but now new shops and restaurants pouring in, only they were “the same shops you saw in town centres around the world and the bars and cafes were touristic versions of themselves in the same inevitable way as everywhere else, and so this regeneration begins to look a little like a mask of death. Europe is dying and because every separate part is being replaced as it dies it becomes harder and harder to tell what is fake and what is real, so that we might not realise until the whole thing has gone.”

Only the stars survive: disaster movies in the seventies

Nick Roddick’s essay in Performance and Politics in Popular Drama: Aspects of Popular Entertainment in Theatre, Film and Television, 1800-1976 is an excellent reference in my ongoing disaster movie research. Stephen Keane relied heavily on Roddick’s analysis, so I went straight to the source for my own read. The title of Roddick’s piece comes from an interview with Irwin Allen who described The Poseidon Adventure as “a perfect set-up of a group of people who have never met before and who are thrown together in terrible circumstances. In the first six minutes, 1,400 people are killed and only the stars survive.”

Interestingly, in Keane’s regurgitation of Roddick, it seems like he was saying that Roddick blamed “a post-Watergate depression, a national inferiority complex” on the appeal of the movies, but Roddick calls those things “a little too obvious and wholly impossible to substantiate.” Instead, Roddick aims to study these movies “because they give clear indications of how a cultural industry reacts to a period of economic and political crisis in capitalist society, and how culture can become ideologically active.” He then goes on to quote Karl Marx by saying disaster movies are a great example of reactionary culture, and as Marx says, “in each period, reactionaries are as sure indicators of its spiritual condition as dogs are of the weather.”

The narrative structure of the films is usually three parts: world before disaster, the disaster, and world after disaster. When movies don’t spend enough time examining the world after disaster, they are less successful, making it seem that showing how people cope with the disaster is an essential part of the cycle.

Elements of disaster movies: isolation, luxurious environments, random gathering of people, elemental cause of disaster (earth, fire, air, water), limited violent deaths (usually just one striking example), reaction to disaster.

Who is killed? The weak, the criminal, people in positions of power for which they are not suited (judgement strips them of power).

Our leaders have been shown to be wanting at times of crisis. This fear, fuelled by Watergate… is evidently a very real one. And disaster movies respond to it in a typically demagogic fashion: by portraying the transfer of power from the old, the incompetent and the corrupt to the new race of super-heroes, brave, morally upright and technologically brilliant. Behind them, the people can be united into a corporate identity, free from the divisions and the individual selfishness which characterised them before the disaster.

This is more than a merely thematic process: the narrative devices of the disaster movie actively encourage our allegiance to it. In addition to providing a character for each member of the audience to identify with, the characterisation of the world in terms of archetypes may be seen as a tacit statement that the world is simple, easily organised and hierarchically structured. Complexity of motivation and a problematic social structure, it is implied, are products of degeneracy…. for Michel Marmin in Valeurs actuelles, disaster movies ‘call for a kind of reassessment of our values. In particular, they stress the incapacity of the masses to govern themselves alone, and the need for hierarchies and masculine supremacy.’… [Disaster movies] are consistently and seductively the embodiment of a corporatist world view, a pleasingly simple solution to the troubling problems of our age within an effective narrative framework. These disasters may happen, they suggest; and if not these, very similar ones: when they come, you will know what to do.

Would like to read Stéphane Sorel’s Catastrophique virilité in Téléciné May 1975 for its analysis of the role of women in disaster movies but I can’t find any trace of this publication.

Essays: The imagination of disaster & Notes on “camp”

Sontag’s 1965 essay, The Imagination of Disaster, (collected in Against Interpretation) is her look at sci-fi films in the era of worrying about the atomic bomb. The dialogue in these films makes them “wonderfully, unintentionally funny. Lines like ‘Come quickly, there’s a monster in my bathtub,’… and ‘I hope it works!’ are hilarious in the context of picturesque and deafening holocaust. Yet the films also contain something that is painful and in deadly earnest.” The films are about disaster, “one of the oldest subjects of art.” And in the films, disaster is always viewed extensively, a question of scale, a matter of “quantity and ingenuity.”

The aesthetics of destruction are the “peculiar beauties to be found in wreaking havoc, making a mess.” We are “treated to a panorama of melting tanks, flying bodies, crashing walls, awesome craters and fissures in the earth, plummeting spacecraft, colorful deadly rays; and to a symphony of screams, weird electronic signals, the noisiest military hardware going, and the leaden tones of the laconic denizens of alien planets and their subjugated earthlings.”

“The theme of depersonalization (being ‘taken over’)… is a new allegory reflecting the age-old awareness of man that, sane, he is always perilously close to insanity and unreason. But there is something more here than just a recent, popular image which expresses man’s perennial but largely unconscious anxiety about his sanity. The image derives most of its power from a supplementary and historical anxiety, also not experienced consciously by most people, about the depersonalizing conditions of modern urban life.”

“Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large rations by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin specters. For one job that fantasy can do is to lift us out of the unbearably humdrum and to distract us from terrors, real or anticipated—by an escape into exotic dangerous situations which have last-minute happy endings. But another one of the things that fantasy can do is to normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it. In the one case, fantasy beautifies the world. In the other, it neutralizes it.”

“The interest of these films, aside from their considerable amount of cinematic charm, consists in this intersection between a naïve and largely debased commercial art product and the most profound dilemmas of the contemporary situation.”

The films force us to “think about the unthinkable.”

“In the films it is by means of images and sounds, not words that have to be translated by the imagination, that one can participate in the fantasy of living through one’s own death, and more, the death of cities, the destruction of humanity itself.”

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Notes on “Camp” (1964, also collected in Against Interpretation) is another useful essay as I’m trying to crack what it is about terrible movies that I enjoy so much. Movies are one of the first things she notes as “campy,” calling out Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933) as an example.

“One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure camp is always naïve. Camp which knows itself to be Camp is usually less satisfying.”

“In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.”

“The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance.”

“The reason a movie like On the Beach, books like Winesburg, Ohio and For Whom the Bell Tolls are bad to the point of being laughable, but not bad to the point of being enjoyable, is that they are too dogged and pretentious. They lack fantasy. There is Camp in such bad movies as The Prodigal and Samson and Delilah, the series of Italian color spectacles featuring the super-hero Maciste, numerous Japanese science fiction films (Rodan, The Mysterians, The H-Man) because, in their relative unpretentiousness and vulgarity, they are more extreme and irresponsible in their fantasy—and therefore touching and quite enjoyable.”

“One cheats oneself as a human being if one has respect only for the style of high culture, whatever else one may do or feel on the sly.”

“One is drawn to Camp when one realizes that ‘sincerity’ is not enough. Sincerity can be simple philistinism, intellectual narrowness.”

“Detachment is the prerogative of an elite; and as the dandy is the 19th century’s surrogate for the aristocrat in matters of culture, so Camp is the modern dandyism. Camp is the answer to the problem: how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture.”

She quotes from Oscar Wilde (father of Camp) throughout the essay, including A Woman of No Importance: “I adore simple pleasures, they are the last refuge of the complex.”

“Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste… The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating. The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy… Camp makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.”

“Camp taste is a a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation, not judgement. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism… Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes rather than judges the little triumphs and awkward intensities of character.”

“The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful.”

 

A Handbook of Disappointed Fate

There is nothing disappointing about Anne Boyer’s uncategorizable work. Poetry, philosophy, humor, jammed together in a sandwich of words. Plato rubs shoulders with the Occupy movement who wave at Bo Diddley who muses about the genius of Willie Nelson who sings about Colette.

The flashes of genius will surprise you and make you giggle, like her Difficult Ways to Publish Poetry, wherein she suggests various ways to make poems more scarce and thus worth more (shoot poetry through pneumatic tubes to world poetry capitals like Oakland, Brooklyn, Tallahassee; choreograph whales’ blow holes to look like words from above; hack traffic lights to blink out morse code poems; put poems on post-it notes slapped to the back of mourners at a funeral, etc.)

She writes of cancer treatments and sweating on the bus in LA, writing a poem about Mathew Barney’s shit sculpture show as an excuse to sit longer in the air conditioning: “maybe Normal Mailer on a river of shit is the art that we deserve.” There are pieces on reading and writing and poetry and art. “To read a book is to acquire the manifest of a ship full of trouble.” Her book of choice while battling cancer is the perfect companion, The Magic Mountain, but in Mann’s world the character can simply sit in the Alps and recover while Boyer must try to earn money in order to afford her chemotherapy.  “Cancer cells refuse to die, proliferate wildly, take over every territory they can… Their expansion—that wild, horrible living—has as its content only the emptiest death. ‘Like capitalism,’ I tell my friends, and mean, by capitalism, ‘life as we know it,’ and I mean, with ‘like capitalism,’ that among other things, ‘it’s dead inside.’ ”

I’m tempted to copy wholesale some of my favorite parts, like Click-Bait Thanatos (luckily already written out elsewhere):

As much as capitalism’s humans seem to generally suspect we should or will die off and take the world with us, many of us also want to live, at least in a manner.

We spend our days searching the engines that search us back. We look for instructions, click-baited by fear and trembling, propelled by whatever force allows the ruins of rust-belt factories to be taken over by vetch, the landfills to be filled with rats and sparrows.

Poetry, which was once itself a searching engine, exists in abundance in the age of Trump, as searchable and as immaterial as any other information. As it always has, poetry experiments in fashionable confusions, excels in the popular substitutive fantasies of its time, mistakes self-expression for sovereignty. But in making the world blurry, distressing, and forgettable, poetry now has near limitless competition.

Verse poetry once served a social function as memory structure and didactic aid. Its songishness was useful to memory, and memory was necessary to a kind of cultured thought. This memory-use began to fall away with the printing press, then crumbled underfoot with screens. Changes in memory and the human relation to it under industrialization corresponded to changes in poetic form, which underwent multiple rearrangements in the 20th century as social cognition was also rearranged. Our minds were exteriorized to the paperwork, then indentured to Silicon Valley’s safety-blue empire. As thinking fled mnemonics, so did poetry, and the new poetry of fracture, parataxis, and ragged complexity, if it had anything to do with memory, seemed to always be saying one thing about it: “Don’t remember me.”

And there’s this from Questions for Poets:

“Is the trial of today to flood ourselves with the vast oceanic tides of the marketplace and false feeling and scripted hellos and the aerosolized and the ambulatory and shipping containers and social practice and smile scanners? Is it the vital and great, the epic, or the minor, the depreciated, the commodious,the scatological, the blithe or the charming? Is it a trial of weaponized data entry? Is it the testimony of pdfs?”

The Bug in the Rug: Notes on the Disaster Genre

Maurice Yacowar’s essay is collected in Barry Grant’s 1977 Film Genre: Theory and Criticism. Besides giving me an extended list of disaster movies to check out, he lays out several (16) conventions of the genre which I note the relevant ones here: features cross-section of society, often dramatizes class conflict, gambling is a recurring device, the idea of isolation (“disaster film draws its anxiety from its conception of man as isolated and helpless against the dangers of his world.”), a family is beset by disaster, there’s conflict between the characters, savagery underlies man’s pretense to civility, there’s usually a specialist involved, occasionally religious figure, a romantic sub-plot, and contemporary significance.

Disaster Movies: The Cinema of Catastrophe

Research for a project I’m thinking about, or perhaps just because I’m interested in the 1970s disaster movie genre. Stephen Keane starts his exploration of disaster flicks with the earliest of cinema, saying the silent films from Italy lead the way (1908 + 1913 Last Days of Pompeii, 1910 Fall of Troy, 1912 Quo Vadis), where the visual spectacle even without sound showed the power of those images to translate across the world. Audiences watch rapt, safe in their cozy theaters, removed but entertained.

Keane makes the point that disaster movies are born out of times of “impending crisis,” the tension of what’s in the air helping to draw in audiences. Thus 1930s and 1950s were ripe, but Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima’s actuality crowded out the need for faked disaster. The movies in the 1970s brought disaster films into the present time (1930s was about the ancient epics/Biblical/Greek/Roman, 1950s about future with sci-fi). With the shift to present day, people more apt to believe it could happen to them.

He relies heavily on analysis from Nick Roddick’s ‘Only the Stars Survive: Disaster Movies in the Seventies’ from 1980, quoting Roddick: “A sort of post-Watergate depression, a national inferiority complex after the Vietnam debacle, even a ‘bread and circuses’ attitude caused by ‘the erosion of democracy and the Western materialist way of living’…” as contributing to society’s need for these films.

Another Roddick-ism is calling out the elemental forces at play: “the threats arise without exception from earth (Earthquake), air (Airport, Airport 1975, The Big Bus —which ends up hanging over a precipice, fire (The Towering Inferno, The Hindenburg) or water (The Poseidon Adventure, Juggernaut, Airport ’77).” I can think of an exception (Two-Minute Warning).

Discussing Airport, Keane calls it “disaster as therapy” where the movie shows you the path to living a better life. Other points to consider: how traditional roles/patriarchy is used to reinforce middle class values; how religion is used.

All disaster movies seem to follow the formula of using big name stars in their spectacle. It’s a shortcut for having the audience to feel something about the characters—they know Steve McQueen and Paul Newman as good guys already. There’s also a type of game audiences play when they see all the archetypes on display—which ones will die, which will survive. A bingo card of deaths awaits.

I liked the call out of how today’s movies employ green screens but earlier ones meant you KNEW the actors had worked hard in those scenes.

Also discussed: The Poseidon Adventure and Earthquake where apparently Walter Matthau had a cameo; he appears in the credits under his real name: Walter Matuschanskayasky and all he does through the film is drink toasts to film stars (need to rewatch this!).

Disaster movies morphed into action movies in the 1980s (he does a nice segue with the Die Hard franchise) and then had a resurgence in the 1990s (Titanic, Independence Day, Armageddon, Volcano, Twister, etc.).

Manfried the Man

This cute graphic novel was exactly the palette cleanser I needed after a few brutal days. The concept flips the ownership of cats by people and it’s cats that act like humans and who have tiny men as pets. The main cat in this gets ridiculed for being a man cat (kind of like a cat person), his co-workers yawn at all his stories about his man. He does silly things like pile stuff on top of his sleeping man and try to walk him in a harness. Eventually he gets fired for not doing his call center job well, and his man runs away from an open window. The cute “lost man” posters end up netting the cat a freelance gig and he’s reunited with his man, so happily ever after.