Onward and upward

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A big thank you and best wishes from this year’s writing coaches.

The 2016 school year is coming to a close: the freshmen have gotten through their first year in high school, the sophomores have survived the drudgery of APUSH, the juniors have finally emerged from the Onslaught of Junior Year, and the seniors will be walking across the stage of Grace Church tonight to be given the title of alums.

As much as we’d like to be sentimental, we know you all have created memories at MHS this year just like we have, and have experienced some of the same feelings: of seeing your friends in the hallways every morning, of walking to class, of greeting your favorite teachers, of getting food at the Cove, of pep fests and dances…we don’t need to reiterate it all for you, because you know how it felt. So we’ll keep this short and sweet.

We want to leave with a final thank you: thank you for making the Writing Center a home within MHS this year. Thank you for sharing your writing, for reading each other’s writing, for stimulating conversations and smiles. Writing it Out has been a place where we can share our thoughts and insights with MHS students in different ways, and we’re grateful that we have a place to share writing and a place where others can read it.

Keep writing, keep reading, keep imagining…

Best wishes, your editors, Sam, Elise, and Anna

 

A Grateful Goodbye

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MHS seniors waiting to sign-up for Senior Serve

by Alanna Anglum, senior writing coach

My final post on this blog is incidentally the perfect wrap up. I’m a senior coach whose time here at Minnetonka is coming to an end. I write this at 5:30am, as I sit on the “iconic” speckled floor of Minnetonka High School with hundreds of fellow classmates. Needless to say, I’m TIRED, and I clearly procrastinated–even my last task as a writing coach was semi-behind the 8 ball. It’s a legacy (I think). So what am I doing here? What would possibly compel hundreds of seniors to drag themselves out of bed, camp outside, huddle on the concrete floor of the school we often loath, and still be willing to face the whole day to come after? On paper, we are doing it to score the best volunteer project (which frankly on its own is an impressive feat). I can safely tell you though, I didn’t do this for the chance to volunteer. I didn’t do this because I was “afraid of missing out” on some shenanigans. 

We’re here because that’s what we do. 

We show up. There will always be drama. There will always be a test. There will be work or other less exciting obligations. There will always be plenty of reasons to get a good night’s sleep. 

I’m just now starting to appreciate the reasons to stay up late and get up early, sadly a little too late. Any Junior will tell you they too have figured this out, but that’s not true. They do it because they have to; we seniors are here because we want to. 

I know some would be reluctant to admit it, but there’s a lot of love in these hallways. I mean genuine love. Personally as I reflect, I own up to the fact that I’ve been somewhat of a lonely Minnetonka student. I love my classmates more than I can express at 5:30 am, but I get back a different kind of love. A lifelong best friend is not something I’ll leave Minnetonka with. There is no one that pulled me out of bed this morning and told me, “Alanna, you HAVE to come with us!” I showed up by myself. But more often than not, the things you do aren’t really about you, and there won’t be someone dragging you out of bed. Maybe this is where the volunteer aspect of our “Senior Serve” camp-out comes into play. Again, the things you do aren’t about you, but they’re about how they make you feel. 

As Minnetonka, I didn’t find a lifelong BFF but I found a community. I found a sense of urgency in showing up.

You can barely hope to scrape the surface of our deepest gratitude as outbound seniors. The greatest gift of all our clubs, classes, friends, and teachers have given us is this sense of power in our presence. We don’t recognize the fact that we have it yet, this gift of active passion, but the amazing thing is that we will be able to pass it on. Minnetonka, you’ve stirred something in all of us. For that, me and my future self thank you.

The seniors are turning from giddy to crabby as we speak. The initial novelty is wearing off. But as you walk down the halls in mere hours, the buzzing conversation will circle around the seniors that DID show up. They’ll forget the sticky floor, the ungodly 5 am hour, and the sight of exhausted faces. They’ll be talking about this and all other Minnetonka events with the perspective of accomplishment in showing up and participating. 

Thank you for showing us the value in ourselves. Even if we don’t completely understand it yet, you got me out of bed at 4:45 this morning. 

Handwriting or Typing?

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by Anna Barnard and Elise Johnson, junior writing coaches and blog editors

Overview:

With the technology revolution of the last few decades, computers and word processing have taken the world by storm. Notes can be jotted down and kept on our phones rather than in notebooks, and documents can be saved all in one place together. However, with this new use of typing, many have neglected the tried-and-true practice of handwriting. There are benefits and drawbacks to the use of both methods in today’s day and age; today we will debate and explore the two sides.


Anna’s argument: With handwriting, you can process and retain more in-depth information through motor memory, have more freedom with use of space, and use style variation.

Elise’s argument: New technology now allows you to write faster, more eloquently, and more confidently, and improve your overall creativity through the volume and ease of typing.


1st point:

Anna: When taking notes, handwriting is often proven to be more effective for retaining large amounts of information. When typing, note takers end up typing verbatim what they hear in a lecture while not processing any of the information. Handwriting allows your brain to process the information easily and to give more time for the information to sink in.

Elise: The problem with handwriting notes is that teachers often talk too fast for students to keep up. Although it helps you remember information better, there’s no point if you don’t listen to the whole lecture because you’re too busy writing. Typing allows you to get the info down quickly while still listening.


2nd point:

Elise: Typing allows you to see what you’re writing more clearly. Handwritten brainstorming and notes often become illegible and confusing. Clear, typed information is easier to move around and edit. You don’t have to erase or rewrite anything, you can just copy-and-paste. This allows you to write confidently, without fear that you’ll have to rewrite things that you wrote in pencil or ink.

Anna: Although typing result in a more clean and clear final product, handwriting provides for more freedom with use of space. It is much easier to draw diagrams and make side notes with handwriting, as you are not bound by formatting or margins.


3rd point:

Anna: Handwriting ultimately allows the writer more ease of creativity and variation: with handwriting, you can use multiple writing utensils and write without being limited by fonts, sizes, or symbols.

Elise: Although typing isn’t quite as organic, it allows the neat-freak in all of us to stay organized and see the overall picture. Even if all your ideas are flowing quickly, you don’t need to worry about messiness and confusion on the page. This gives way to more creativity, as you can just let all your ideas out, without second guessing yourself.


There are clearly advantages to using both handwriting and electronic word pressing, and often times a mix of the two can be most beneficial! Obviously, both writing systems work differently for different writers. What is your preferred method of composition, and why? Comment on this post and let us know!

Bridging the Gap

Gap Year

by Reid Johnson, class of 2015

Last year I graduated from MHS. At the start of August, a few weeks before most of my friends started packing their belongings for college, I began stuffing some clothes, books, and notebooks into a backpack—the backpack from which I’d live out of for the next twelve months. Nine months ago I began a gap year, deferring my admission to the U of M to give myself a little time to do whatever I saw fit… a little adventure in between two big blocks of education.

I looked at the big future-college collage outside of the media center last June. Out of the roughly 700 kids who graduated with me only eight were under the label ‘gap year.’ So deferring college is not the norm. But the coolest things in life never are the norm anyway. Writing as a former MHS student, I know how our status-quo culture expects kids to move as a herd rather blindly down the path out the doors of high school directly onto the campus of a college.

I did not consider a gap year as being a legitimate option for me until about the start of my junior year. But even then I had no idea how to go about it, my perception being that all kids who do this type of thing had previous connections, clear goals, and specific expectations before taking action. Because no one, well-marked route exists I thought it was rather inconceivable that I could do something so daring. A good way to start is asking for a sheet in the College and Career Center and googling volunteer/intern programs or sweet places to travel. In Europe, gap years are much, much more common than in Minnetonka. People are doing this, and they are having the experiences of lifetimes.

Each person is unique, and each person should deliberately make unique choices depending on their personal passions… so for sure gap years are not the best choice for everyone, but gap years can/should be considered as a real and reachable path.

The freedom is huge. Education is fantastic, but it demands more time than a ¾-time job. Without a school schedule I’ve rediscovered the lost art of free reading, worked on a little novel, researched what I’m interested in, all on my own time through my own motivation. I’m not special, but I think it is a special chance for a 19 year-old to have so much personal time to devote to developing the way I work. Passion is something worth finding and cultivating, and gap years give us the chance to find the time that system-based education doesn’t provide.

Right now I’m writing this blog snippet sitting in the jungle of southeastern Peru. There is a pet monkey making faces at me from across the hallway and currently it is a little hard to concentrate while flocks of macaws and a stunning sunset slip past outside my screen door. It is a crazy neat deal being in the ‘real world’ traveling alone, walking into a hotel to book a room for the night, buying a plane ticket, crossing a national border, bartering for lunch at a market in rural Colombia. For the first time I am in a situation where I can take full control of my choices and full responsibility for their consequences. It is sometimes scary, potentially dangerous, often lonely, completely unpredictable, and always an adventure.

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A market in Huancayo, a mountain city of Peru

For six months I taught English in a small Christian school in a gang controlled community of Tegucigalpa, Honduras as a missionary. For the last few months I have traveled solo around South America. Before this year I did not know the alphabet nor the colors in Spanish, and now I am able to have pretty natural conversations and translate for missionary groups. I’m not special, and I am not a courageous person (the hardest part even now is working up my nerve to talk to a stranger). I am simply convinced that the quickest way to learn, and the realest way to live, is to jump in, sink or swim style.

I think taking a gap year was a spectacular decision. I’m not selling anything, I just get excited about finding opportunities like these and so I’m passing on my story to you. Get out there, make memories, and make an impact.

Adios,

Reid

Writing Clichés: Avoid Them Like the Plague…?

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by Emily Boismier, sophomore writing coach

What is a Writing Cliché?

Many writing professionals and writing centers around the world have posted articles on writing clichés; but first, what are they? A writing cliché is a phrase that is so overused it has lost its intended meaning, and has become very general. This happens by desensitizing the reader through repeated use, so it’s not new or exciting anymore. To many people, these are a big no-no. And that’s understandable; they have quite a few downsides. However, I think they can also be used strategically once we understand how they can affect pieces of writing.

Some examples of writing clichés are…

Idioms

Idioms are found more often in fictional works and less often in academic writing. An idiom is traditionally a phrase used to convey a different meaning than the word stated. For example, if I say that it’s raining cats and dogs, I mean it’s raining hard…not actual furry animals, as one might expect. A few more examples that are commonly found in writing include:

*In the nick of time

*All walks of life

*Jack-of-all-trades

I, and many others, have found that using idioms generally suck the life out of my writing like a literary vampire. They are too general, and specifics are so much more widely appreciated in literature. For example, if I wanted to say it was raining hard, I could describe the rain: how it blurred the backdrop behind it, the way the concrete undulated with every drop, etc. Instead, an idiom says something about cute animals. Which do you think is better?

Imagery/Personification

In literature, imagery refers to using sensory details in order to describe something, and personification is when you give an inhuman object human characteristics. However, writers can get lazy. And, let’s face it, writing can be hard. We tend to apply imagery and personification clichés because they’re fairly easy to use: many have been used countless times, so we often just plug familiar ones in. Here are some overused examples of these:

*The snow crunched underfoot

*The door creaked

*The wind howled

Though our purpose is to seem profound and give a more powerful description, we actually achieve the opposite effect. Because they’re so overused, readers tend to glance over them and not really absorb the impact that the author is hoping to provide. Once again, to fix this problem, specifics and originality are key.

Academic Writing

I’m sure that teachers can recognize these ones easily: academic writing clichés! As a writing coach and ‘the friend who’s good at editing,’ I’ve seen quite a few papers that suffer from the influence of academic writing clichés. Here are a few of the big ones:

*In a nutshell

*Since the dawn of mankind

*In this day and age

Although 2AM speed-writing sprees often welcome shortcuts, laziness is rarely rewarded in writing. These clichés are indeed used out of laziness, or out of a half-hearted attempt to be original and quirky. Using clichés in academic writing can weaken your work because it lacks specificity. Your paper becomes interchangeable with anyone else’s, and it doesn’t have your unique voice. That’s something you want to avoid. Try to think of your own way to say what you want, or pick up a thesaurus and find a nice synonym.

How Can We Use Clichés to Our Advantage?

Now that I’ve told you all about why to avoid clichés…don’t. At least, not always. I believe that since they have such potent effects, they can be used for good instead of evil. For example: they’re overused, so that means most people know them when they see them. Therefore, we can use clichés to express complex ideas in an easily understood way, so more people will be able to comprehend. Or, since they lack power and seem fluffy, we can use them to end a paper on a lighthearted note. Maybe you can even use them to describe a character’s personality in a work, as a dialogue or a thought. Either way, I believe they do have some use… even if your English teacher yells at you for using them.

Satire vs. Irony

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Ironically, this image is only an example of irony, and does not contain any satire.

by Patrick Brady, junior writing coach

Whether it’s in English class or from some form of social media, you’ll likely hear the terms “irony” and “satire” thrown around. You might hear, for instance, of how “ironic” a classmate’s joke is or how someone really appreciates the satire of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I personally had a pretty murky understanding of the difference between those two terms until I just recently decided to do a little research in my spare time.

According to the resourceful Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, irony is found in language or circumstances that are humorous because they are in “a way that seems to be the opposite of what you expected.” Satire, on the other hand, can be used to describe both “a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn” and the devices of sarcasm and irony that such a work would contain. In this sense, satire uses irony and includes it, but does so with the clear purpose of criticizing something in a sarcastic, mocking way. It is also important to note that irony comes in several distinct forms: situational irony, where expectations for a given situation are flipped; cosmic irony, which involves misfortune due to fate or God; dramatic irony, where the audience’s knows more than the characters, which creates double meanings to their words and actions; and lastly, Socratic irony, a teaching method of pretending to be open to a foolish idea. A satire can utilize any of these, but the crucial factor that differentiates satirical irony from the non-satirical is that it criticizes a certain issue or component of society.

With the upcoming presidential election, you’re bound to see some political cartoon or late night talk show mocking one of the candidates, and there is almost always a satirical piece in our school’s Breezes newspaper. Irony is even more common, and can usually have a lighter subject than discussing deep issues of society. The first things that appear in my mind for the subject of irony are memes, and while the mere mention of memes is usually dismissed as being “childish” and not taken seriously, I believe that they bring up a valid example of the ways irony permeates our day-to-day lives. Memes themselves rely on a certain expectation; they often are created with a distinct and recognized background picture or video, and use sounds or captions to evoke a humorously unexpected joke. I personally consider them a prime demonstration of irony, and their popularity and spread throughout social media shows the immense appeal and power of it.

Even more important than knowing the difference between satire and irony is using them to enhance your own writing. Go ahead, and try experimenting with satirical writing — you might just discover an unknown passion for writing, or find a release in the act of expressing your opinion. As with all critical writing, common sense and good judgement are key in keeping satire provocative, yet insightful, rather than just plain mean and hurtful. And never doubt the power of irony, which can be just as effective as adding humor to a story as it is at brightening someone’s day in the form of a quick joke. In the end, it’s always a good idea to explore and experiment with satire and irony, as you will grow in your knowledge and appreciation of literature, and perhaps even encounter some humor in the art of writing.

English as a second language

By Mari Ferrer-Lugo, sophomore writing coach

Anyone who has tried it knows that learning another language takes a lot of work and it doesn’t come right away. I can tell you from past experience that this is true. I was born in Venezuela. I then moved to Mexico and after that, Puerto Rico. I spent the first 12 years of my life speaking only Spanish, aside from what little English I spoke during my English class. But everyone that takes a different language class knows that learning a language well and especially how to write in it is hard and takes a lot of time.

I used to say that I would never speak English because there wasn’t any way I could learn it. I was sent to camps and to soccer tournaments specifically in the U.S. to try and practice my English. I hated it. But, when I moved here I was forced into a new situation. I could have either chosen not to learn the language or I could have chosen to do my best with it. I chose to accept the challenge. First, I started reading a lot of books which gave me a lot of new vocabulary and different context for that vocabulary. But, that wasn’t enough. As in learning any language, practice is key. For me, writing sentences is the thing that really helps me remember the words. So, when I have to write essays, I try to incorporate new words to keep practicing them.

Through writing, I have been able to meet new people and have had more opportunity in my life to communicate with those people. Even though we don’t notice it, when teachers make us write essays or paragraphs, they do so to show us how to express ourselves and how to communicate with others. My teachers in middle school would sit next to me to try and help me with my writing; if it wasn’t for the fact that they believed in me, I don’t think I could have finished a single essay. I’m glad they helped me, because now, I love writing. You sometimes have to keep trying, no matter how hard the language is. If you work hard, it will pay off in the end.

Now that I know that I can learn a new language, I am learning my third one. There’s no limit to how many languages you can learn other than the limit you place on yourself. It all depends on how much work you put into it. I thought of sharing this with all of you, to show that learning a new language is possible, and that it is worth it. If you want to learn a language well and you are struggling or you don’t know what to do, remember to never give up. Start by reading books and after that, practice with writing. I promise that if you start from there, you will be able to learn any language you want.

Less is More

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by Kate Schiltz, sophomore writing coach

The majority of the time in writing, less is more. I realize this seems like a cliché–and it is–but many of us still struggle to unearth the essential words and cut our papers’ length down, sometimes by half. So, I decided to dedicate this blog post to the simple idea that “less is more”.

While I was (stressfully) attempting to come up with a topic for this blog post, my friend reminded me of one of my common sources of inspiration: my brother. He has Down syndrome, Autism, and Apraxia, so it can be difficult for him to communicate with us and for us to understand everything he wants to say. One way he can get his thoughts across, however, is through email. At his school, he does exercises where he writes an email responding to a prompt and sends it to our family. Here is one of his emails:

“Tuesday moing question Afternoon ried car the bid.”

To an untrained eye, this may seem like gibberish and nonsense. But to my family, it contains a boatload of information: In the morning, he had a group time, where he and his classmates were given a question and shared their answers with each other, and in the afternoon, he rode the bus to a field trip. From eight words we could understand his entire day.

My brother’s emails are just one example of how “less is more.” But the most common situation I see of this is when I am asked to read essays by fellow students. A common misconception is that if an essay is longer, it has more intelligent arguments or a deeper analysis. I myself am guilty of this way of thinking. Yet some of the best quotes from best novels are only one sentence. For example, one of my favorite books, “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, has many amazing one-liners that go much deeper than their surface meaning. My favorite quote from “To Kill A Mockingbird” is the perfect example of this. Everyone has those nights where they’re stressing about every little thing in their life, or they just have one huge problem they cannot seem to solve. Harper Lee knows this, and offers the sage advice to sleep on it, since in the morning everything will be clearer and will seem less dramatic. However, Lee writes everything I just described in a single sentence: “Things are always better in the morning.”

With this simple phrase, Lee creates more of an impact, and gets her point across clearer and quicker than any paragraph on the subject would, proving that less really is more. So next time you find yourself writing a twenty-two page paper when it really only should be eighteen, try to see if you can eliminate any of the “fluff” to make your point more clear and concise.

 

The art of writing

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One of the character mood boards I’ve created this year.

by Anna Barnard, junior writing coach and blog co-editor

Pretty things are fun to look at. However, we rarely realize how our visual perception of things contributes to our perspectives, outlooks, feelings, moods, beliefs…it’s almost something we take for granted. Everything we fix our eyes on changes how we feel. That blanket sitting on your bed makes you feel sleepy and cozy; the sight of that textbook on your desk irritates you to no end because, ugh, school; a painting in your home makes you feel secure because you see it  day after day, without fail. I feel better when it’s a sunny, spring day than a cold, rainy one, because things feel different. Things look different. Many of us feel more confident when we feel beautiful, when we believe we look good.

Sometimes we attempt to “observe” things, to think less and to simply look. In class, you may be prompted to “just observe, don’t analyze.” And while I do believe this aim towards simplicity is commendable, it does a certain disservice to the act of observation. Speaking by definition, to observe means to “notice or perceive (something) and register it as being significant.” Not just to look at something, but to recognize something’s meaning. So while observation seems simple and calm, it’s also enlightening: when we stop and look, we see and feel things, we notice and determine things, we learn and we connect. Without even trying, we can discover things much more easily and clearly than when we force our brains to think, to derive some implication from something.

When we see and look and observe, we find stories. Most of my memories stem from certain things I witnessed or saw; I associate what I did in the past with colors and faces in addition to words. Significant words or phrases I’ve heard oftentimes have visual representations or connotations of some sort of feeling in my head. As much as things can simply exist, they also carry things with them: ideas and senses. Your writing is like this, too.

Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been working on writing a piece of fiction with my fellow writing coach, Jessie Wang. We’ve planned and listed, poked and prodded at our different ideas…and still haven’t gotten to any writing yet! Still, our planning has paid off: we’ve explored the world that we are writing about with great depth, and have names and places and people inside of our heads, waiting to be written about. One of our most helpful planning devices that we used was that of a mood board (refer to the picture above!).

A mood board is basically a collage of sorts, a collection of pictures that are organized together in order to get a better idea of a part of a story. In our case, we made our mood boards for characters. Notice how they are not called “picture boards” but rather “mood boards;” the important part is that when viewed as a whole, they evoke a certain mood or feeling and help you get a better sense of what you’re trying to define.

Mood boards are just one way you can make use of the inherent connection of visuals and moods. On a much broader standpoint, you can find stories by looking anywhere: you may see a new poem written somewhere in a blooming flower, or even discover what part of your essay was throwing you off by observing a pattern.

In any case, getting to the point or the heart of your writing is not simply done by just thinking; it is done by seeing. By seeing and noticing, the thoughts come faster and the words are clearer. Visuals and words do not come separately, but work together to complete the understanding of a piece. Next time you write, whether it be academic or not, strive to find inspiration from the world around you rather than just ruminating on wording and structure.

Whoever instructed to “paint a picture with your words” was definitely onto something: when you have visuals in your head that you can evoke through words, you have encompassed not just the act, but the art of writing.

Looking back, but also forward

 

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A younger version of myself clearly enjoying the snow

By Jessie Wang, junior writing coach

Just like 75% of the junior class, my spring break was filled with college visits. Big schools, small schools, rural, urban – so many choices about my future thrown at me. I don’t know about you, but whenever I think about college, I shrink back and wish I was a kid again. I think that by nature I’m more nostalgic than other people, and I couldn’t help but be exactly that over spring break.

Along with the looming threat of college, I’ve been missing the fun spring break trip I had last year. I’m newly 17, and for some reason, I miss my brother out in California more than ever. But as much as I wish I could, I can’t travel back in time. At the moment I feel very far away from what I hold close to my heart.

I can’t help but wish that I had spent my time better in the past. I feel like I had it all as a little kid – the freedom and energy to play all the time, the privilege of being young and ridiculous, and the ability to be carefree and adventurous with my family and friends. I wish I had used the full potential of my freedom. My younger self also didn’t realize that Siblings-Going-To-College was a thing that was going to happen, and I wish I had used my time with my brother better – gone to all his concerts, connected with him more, celebrated all of his successes. Though much more recent, I wish I had taken more pictures on my trip last year, journaled during my time there, and memorized all the sights and the laughter and the feeling of being there.

But, as we know, the past is unrecoverable. Suddenly, this blog post has morphed into Willa Cather’s novel My Antonia (this has become much sadder than I intended). Coming to terms with feelings of nostalgia and change is a constant struggle; it’s the main topic of so much classic literature.

So I’ll give you my current understanding: of course, there’s no way to recreate the past and no way to perfectly transport yourself back there or remember every detail. But here is what is possible for us: cherishing memories and cherishing the present. Right now, as we’re on the brink of testing season at Minnetonka, everything seems very thick and inescapable. I do not always want to get out of bed and go to school every morning, and I can imagine you don’t either. But from the way I now feel about my past, I know that there will be a time when I will miss seeing my friends every day, heading to the Writing Center, and getting to go high school. I think there will be a time when we all will.

With this in mind, I’d encourage us all to take things a bit more lightly. Let’s work to see the best of our days and take in what we have right now. If we can appreciate the present, we’ll be happier for it, both now and looking forward.