Aspirations of Justice

I have worked in a law office for almost two years now.  I have no preconceived notions of glory that will happen when I am a lawyer.  I know that clients will be needy and rarely ever grateful.  I know that clients will sometimes be their own worst enemy.  I know that even when they aren’t, there are plenty of other enemies out there wanting to pounce.  I know that you will go from being busy to having fifteen things that need to get done in the next fifteen minutes.

I know that you will never feel like you are caught up on your work, and you will always feel like you are forgetting to do something important.  I know that this work is exhausting, it is emotional draining, it is mental taxing, and some days it will break you.  But I also know that this work is important, because at its foundations is justice and fairness for all.  It is work that is worth aspiring to.

We as Americans tend to have an idealized idea of how our justice system works.  We like to think that we have the great leveler of justice right at our finger tips.  A place where the truth will also prevail and good will always win.  This is the courtroom of America that we put on a pedestal.  But I see a different courtroom.  I see a place where the innocent go to prison and the guilty go free.  I see a place where the victims are often victimized a second time by the justice system.

I see a broken justice system.

You may wonder why if I have lost so much faith in our justice system, why oh why am I so eager to jump in with the throws of attorneys and join it.  I will tell you why.  Because it breaks my heart to watch it happen, and I am sick of sitting on the sidelines.  I am sick of being the girl that complains about our justice system instead of being part of the solution.

I know that I can’t fix an entire broken system, but maybe if I can just fix it for one person, maybe that will be enough.  I know that truth and justice are unattainable aspirations, but that does not mean that we should aspire for them any less.  

My boss once told me that visibility brings change.   Meaning that if the common person in America knew what really went on behind closed doors, there is no way they would not demand change.

We fool ourselves into believing that we don’t have a voice, or that our voice doesn’t matter.  We don’t believe that we have any power to change anything at all.  Change will not come by us playing small.  Stop playing small.  Stop playing scared.  Stop pretending you voice doesn’t matter.  Stop sitting there telling yourself that this is just how life is, and stand up and demand change.  Get angry.  Get vocal.  Not in a way that we are fighting with against each other, but in a way that we are fighting with each other.  Demand visibility.  Demand change.  Because until we demand change, change will not come.   

Philly

Photo Credit: Lori Rensink

 

 

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Memoirs of a Prison Intern Part 3 – Battling the Social Stigmas

*** In case you missed Part 1 or Part 2 check them out by clicking the links. 

He was thrashing and screaming, throwing himself at the bars.  It reminded me of a caged animal.  Watching it made a knot form deep in my gut.  I could barely choke the sight down.  All I could think was what did a human have to go through to end up here?  What had he lost?  What had he given up?  What had to be taken from him in order for his very humanness to slip through his fingers?

I spent a week working in the Segregated Housing Unit (SHU pronounced shoe) and that was more than enough for me.  The SHU is were those who have lost everything go.  It is where we put the inmates we want to forget.

The philosophy behind segregated housing is that you take everything from the inmates and then slowly reward those thing back as they behave.  Only you start taking things and pretty soon you take their dignity, then their humanity, and what are you left with?  A ghost of a human thrashing around in a cage like an animal.  Let me tell you – it isn’t pretty. 

There are some who think that prison is too soft.  There are also some who think that it is too harsh. To be honest I don’t know where I stand on the spectrum, but I do know what I saw.  Prison should help rehabilitate one’s humanness, not rob them of it.

In my last post, I talked about the day that I finally stood up for myself.  Ever since that day, the inmates started to take me more seriously, and dare I say even respect me.  A couple months later I would have a surgery to remove a cyst from my jaw.  I came back in pain, barely able to talk.  But I also came back to find lots of get well notes waiting for me in my box.  No matter what kind of trouble they got themselves into, I never once believed they were bad people.  These notes proved to me that I was right.

The hardest thing for me about working in the prison was actually not the inmates themselves, but rather the way that everyone on the outside talked about them to me (hold on let me climb onto my soap box).  I was told over and over again by so many well meaning people that the inmates I worked with deserved to be there.

The sociologist in me was screaming.  It is easy to judge and stigmatize inmates when they are a collective group.  It is a lot harder when you know them as individuals who come from backgrounds that would turn even the best person into a criminal.

Sometimes we have to fight like hell to combat the things that don’t sit well with our soul.  Sometimes we have to speak up for those that can’t talk.  

I want to shake those people and tell them to open their eyes to their life free of hardship and then ask them again if they want to point their judgmental finger.  Maybe I should, but I don’t.  Mostly because I use to have similar thinking, and I don’t know how to explain everything that I have experienced while working in a prison.

I don’t know how to explain to them that there is a difference between doing bad things and being bad people.  I am allowed to believe this – to be this naive, because I am not naive. I have seen the worst and still believe in the best.

If you have your health, if you have your family, if you have safety and have the luxury of enjoying a semblance of freedom, then you owe it to those that don’t to make sure that they know that there are people in the world that give a damn about them. Not a group or country that pretends to care about them simply to gain something for themselves, but by people who realize that beyond governments, religions, ideologies, and agendas, there is a commonality that cannot be exploited. Not by greed, nor tyranny, nor terror, nor the propaganda of powerful nations. That people simply give a damn about those that, were the world spinning differently the day they were born, might have been them.” – Matthew Good (Originally post on Of Whiskey and Words)

Inmate

Photo Credit: Sean Kernan

**** I was talking to a good friend who I asked to give me feedback on my blog.  He told me, “Its good but I am left feeling like I want to know more about you.”  Huh I guess I didn’t realize people would care about that stuff.  So I decided to write a series of memoirs about my life experiences, because I some how find myself doing things like catching chickens in Africa or running to stop a fight among inmates.  

Thank you for reading,  and please feel free to comment below.  If there are any stories you have that you would like to share, or any stories from my life you would like to read about please let me know.

Memoirs of a Prison Intern Part 2 – the Good, the Bad, and the Crazy

A weird thing happens to me in life.  People either don’t take me seriously at all (I blame the blonde hair), or they hand me the keys to an entire unit of inmates.  I wish that was just a metaphor, but no they literally handed me the keys.  Because why not put a 20 year old white girl in charge of a unit of inmates?  What could possibly go wrong?

One of the COs came to me to tell me that they were short kitchen staff.  It was apparently my job to walk into the commons filled with hungry inmates and tell four of them that they needed to serve in the kitchen line.  Don’t worry we will pay you a whole $0.25 an hour.  I don’t understand who wouldn’t love to do that.  I am of course oozing with sarcasm as kitchen duty is hated by all.

“I have to do that?”

“Well you are the big boss.”

Yes that is me, the big boss.  Watch out, big boss is on the move.  Don’t mess with me.  I mustered as much confidence as I could, and then walked into the commons.  I told the first four guys I saw that they were on kitchen duty and then left before anyone had the chance to argue with me.  I thought I had made it out alive, when the room erupted into whistling.  I was not in the mood for this today.  Well any day really, but especially not today.

One of my gifts is the ability to give someone a look that shuts them up faster than any words could.  I don’t really do it on purpose, nor do I have any idea what it looks like.  But my siblings have told me it exists, so I believe them.  This look came out in full force the moment I turned around.

For the first time since I started working there, I think I saw slight traces of fear in their eyes.  I had my finger up pointing it like a disapproving mother. I put on my big girl pants and yelled, “The whistling stops here!” and then turned around and walked out.  One inmate had the audacity to bark at me, but never again did they whistle.

Luckily for me, there were no more naked inmate fights.  However one day I would arrive at the scene of a fight to find that someone had already loosed their entire can of pepper spray.  Oh that burns, that literally burns everywhere.  My eyes, my lungs, everywhere.  I turned around and ran straight outside.  It didn’t help.  I was coughing up pepper spray for the rest of the day.  So were the rest of my co-workers.  Weirdly enough those were that type of mutual suffering were the things that bonded us together.

Needless to say, there was never a dull moment. Here is an example of a “normal” conversation:

Let’s call him Fred.  Fred was a nice guy in his 50s.  He came to my office first thing in the morning before my brain had enough coffee to wake itself up.

Fred looked like he was going to ask me about something, but then got distracted and said, “You look like you should be barefoot and pregnant somewhere.”

“Excuse me?”  My under-caffeinated brain was trying to process if I heard what I think I heard.

“I just mean that you look like the type of girl who shouldn’t be working in a job like this.  You should have a husband who goes to work for you as you sit at home barefoot and pregnant.”

It takes quite a bit to leave me speechless.  This was one of those moments.  I could tell Fred was not trying to malicious, he was just making an observation.  Fred was also old enough that he probably came from an era when that was normal for a woman to do.  I just stared at him for a while.  Once my brain caught up to what had just happened, I muttered something about female rights and how I wanted to be working.

Fred just said, “Well anyways have a good day miss Lori.”

Did Fred come into my office just to tell me that?  Yes, yes he did.

I survived all of it – the good, the bad, the crazy – all of it.  I am not sure how, but I know that I did.  During my first month there, one of the veterans told me that this place would change me.  I will never forget that conversation.  He was right, but it didn’t change me in the way that either of us expected it to.  It forced me to look at the world with eyes wide open, and I have always been grateful for that.  

Prison

Photo Credit: Francois Delbar

**** I was talking to a good friend who I asked to give me feedback on my blog.  He told me, “Its good but I am left feeling like I want to know more about you.”  Huh I guess I didn’t realize people would care about that stuff.  So I decided to write a series of memoirs about my life experiences, because I some how find myself doing things like catching chickens in Africa or running to stop a fight among inmates.  

Up next is Memoirs of a Prison Intern Part 3.  I was only planning on doing two parts, but part 1 brought up some very good discussion on social stigmas of criminals.  This is something that I am very passionate about, and I simply could not fit it into this blog.  So Part 3 will be more serious, but something I believe is important for everyone to understand.  

Thank you for reading,  and please feel free to comment below.  If there are any stories you have that you would like to share, or any stories from my life you would like to read about please let me know.

Memoirs of a Prison Intern Part 1 – Jump In and Don’t Drown

When I was a sophomore in college, just barely 20 years old, I accepted a internship in a state penitentiary.  I had been a criminal justice major for all of three semesters.  Obviously I was ready for this (that is sarcasm in case you missed it).  Apparently my professor thought I was because he is the one who encouraged me to apply for the internship.

It all happened very quickly.  Within about a weeks time I applied, interviewed, and got the job.  I didn’t have a chance to stop and think about what it would be like to work in a prison.  I didn’t stop to wonder if this was something I could even handle.  I had absolutely no idea what I had just signed myself up for.  

Working in a prison was very hard.  One should expect that, but I didn’t.  I didn’t know what I expected, because like I said I didn’t have a lot of time to build expectations.  Still, I was naive enough to think that it would be easy.

That the job would be easy.

That working with inmates would be easy.

That it would be easy to walk away every day and just be fine.

How very wrong I was.  It was anything and everything but easy.  And yet working there was one of the best decisions I have made so far.

Walking through the prison gate is something that becomes normal very quickly, and yet is a feeling that you can never quite get use to.  The gate slams behind you as you walk into the prison, and the despair is palpable.  It hits you like a wave, and it is suffocating.  It is if the very oxygen you breathe has been replaced with every regretted decision and unheard cry for help.

And how can one naive girl walk into that feeling prepared?  The answer is, you can’t.  There is nothing that could have prepared me for something like that.  Just as there is nothing that could have prepared me for every hard decision I would have to face.

How to help those which you cannot help.

How to show mercy without showing weakness.

How to fake enough confidence that I don’t get eaten alive.

How to stop the whistling, the tears, the fights.

How to pick the black and white answer when everything around you seems to be a swirling mass of gray.

I walked up to the gate, and tried to very confidently hand them my ID badge to let me in.

They just gave me a look, “Who are you?”

I mean seriously, this happened about every day for my first month working there.  I know I don’t look very intimidating, but my badge says Unit Manager Intern.  So I would have to embarrassingly stand there (again) as they called around to confirm that yes, this girl is our intern.  Thanks for the confidence boost everyone.

Today was my first day actually working inside the prison walls. I had maybe been there an hour when a Code Red, Code 3  was called for our unit.  Which meant that somewhere two inmates had started fighting.

I headed towards the scene, only half running because lord knows I was not going to be the first one to arrive there.  Correctional officers were flying by me like lightening bolts, yelling at me to move out of the way.  Each time I tried, I would almost run into a different CO that was sprinting down the hallway.

When I arrived at the scene, I just saw a huge pile of men.  I am sure somewhere under that pile of COs were the two inmates that started fighting.  One by one they started to peel themselves off of the pile.  They handcuffed the two who started the fight, and started to walk them out.

And that is the moment when I realized, oh that man is not wearing any clothes.  He got into a fight naked, and now that very naked man is walking right towards me.  In that moment the only thing I could think was what the hell have I gotten myself into. 

I learned that life is 98% of having absolutely no clue what you are doing, but doing it anyways.  There are somethings  Most things in life are impossible to prepare for.  I learned to not be intimidated by those things, because those were the moments that I found out what I was truly made of.   Most of the time we don’t know what we are capable of surviving until we do.  However, this was only the first of what I would experience.  So until next time.

Wire

**** I was talking to a good friend who I asked to give me feedback on my blog.  He told me, “Its good but I am left feeling like I want to know more about you.”  Huh I guess I didn’t realize people would care about that stuff.  So I decided to write a series of memoirs about my life experiences, because I some how find myself doing things like catching chickens in Africa or running to stop a fight among inmates.  

Coming soon is part 2 of Memoirs of a Prison Intern. 

Thank you for reading,  and please feel free to comment below.  If there are any stories you have that you would like to share, or any stories from my life you would like to read about please let me know.

The Question about Truth

I ran into one of my old professors at Barnes and Noble the other day.  He works there part time because that is how much he loves books.  So every now and then I run into him, and he is always happy to see me.  He always asks me if I am still writing, and he always tells me to write more.   He teaches LAR, which is a general writing and literature class that all freshman at USF have to take.  So I am honored that after five years of teaching many different freshman, I am still one of his more memorable students.  He was the first professor to tell me that my writing was good, and he has been encouraging me ever since.  When I started writing satire pieces for the school newspaper, he always read them and always told me the same thing, “keep writing.”

However, the other day he told me it was more than just my writing that vaulted me to his student hall of fame.  It was my response to the question he asks every class on the first day.  He asked if I remembered, I said vaguely.   He told me that every year he writes the word truth on the board, and asks his students to come up and write in one word what the word truth means to them.  He told me every year he has waited for someone to have a better answer than me, but no one has yet.  The scene was starting to come back to me.  I could see a shy freshman me, nervous to go up to the board because I hadn’t yet learned how to share my thoughts.  But I couldn’t remember what I wrote.  I felt a little guilty that over five years and hundreds of students, this professor thought I had the best answer and I couldn’t even remember what it was.  As if to rub salt in my wound, he asked me if I remembered what word I wrote.  Ashamed, I said I didn’t.  “Void,” he said, “You wrote that truth is void.”

I have always been a little bit of a rebellious thinker, the type that likes to think outside of the box.  So while this didn’t quite surprise me, I was curious as to what freshman me thought when she wrote that truth is void.  I know I didn’t mean truth is void in the sense that the world is a hopeless place where you can’t trust anything or anyone.  I wasn’t quite that angsty as a teenager.  And although I wasn’t a science major, I do know that there are some truths in science that are more or less absolute.

Truth is a big word, one that is scary for me to talk about without people thinking that I have completely dropped off the deep end.  But I am going to try, so here it goes.

Since I relate my thinking to the social sciences, I think I meant that social truths are more static than we like to believe.  Meaning that truth can so easily be skewed depending on the perception we have at the time.  There is no absolute truth when it comes to our perception of the world.

Let me give you an example of this from my own life to better make sense of this.  I was a criminal justice major, and like so many people in America, I believed that criminals deserved to be locked up.  Then I spent over a year working in a penitentiary, and my perception changed.  Because suddenly I didn’t see inmates as dangerous people who made the world a worse place.  I knew a lot of inmates that were better people than some of the people that strut around in a suit and tie.  Suddenly I saw inmates as the people that society had forgotten about.  The people who grew up in foster care or on the streets.  The people that we as society don’t know how to deal with so instead we just hide them behind prison bars.

My perception changed, and so did the truth attached to it.  Now it breaks my heart if someone tells me that they think a criminal deserves to be locked up.  I just want to shake them and say, “You don’t even know what you are talking about.  You have no idea of the horrors that are locked in the closets of their childhood.  Who are you to judge?  You who have grown up with a place to call home and a family that loves you and supports you.  Who are you to say what they deserve, because it certainly wasn’t the childhood that they got.  So yes they grew up as deviants, but who is to say that you would have not turned out the same if you were in their shoes?”   But I don’t, I just bite my tongue and try to offer grace because I know they do not have the same perceptions as me.

My point is that sometimes we can think one thing to be true until we experience something that shows us a different side that we never considered.  So I don’t want you to think that I am saying we should never believe anything.  Not at all.  Instead I want you to look at the world with open eyes and discover what it is that you believe and why.  Because I think so often we accept things as “truth” because we are told to, but we never stop to think why we believe something to be true.

Maybe it is just the way I am wired to see the world as gray instead of just blank and white.  Maybe for others truth is more set in stone.  But for me I have to analyze everything from every point of view before I am willing to set an opinion on something.

Truth is a big word, one that holds a lot of punch because truth holds such promise.  It is the promise of something to believe in, something to put our faith and hope in, something that we can trust to always be true.  Until one morning we wake up and realize just how empty truth can really be when we just accept it without hesitation.

So five years later, do I still believe that truth is void?  Yes, yes I do.  This is just some thoughts about truth, but if truth is indeed based on our perceptions, then I would love to hear yours.  How do you view truth?  In keeping with my professors original question, what one word do you associate with truth?  Please leave your comments below I would love to hear them.

A Call for a Little Bit of Perspective and a Whole Lot of Grace

First let me start out by saying that my purpose for this blog is not to start an argument.  The truth is that I haven’t spent hours pouring over the details to be able to promise that I have ever fact straight.  I have however read enough.  I could get all of my facts down to a science and start throwing them at you, but let’s be honest, it wouldn’t actually sway you in any direction other than the one you are currently at.  Instead you would just throw more facts back at me.  We would get angrier and angrier at each other, all the while not making any sort of progress.  I am asking that agree to skip that part so can begin to have an open conversation about these issues.

This is not me trying to defend either side by saying one side was justified is their actions.  A young man was killed.  I think we can all agree that is a tragedy.  Just as I am not trying to justify either side, I am also not trying to deem the tragedy of Freddie Gray’s death.

I am trying to bring some perspective, and hopefully act as a mediator.  Because I do understand both sides of the story.  I do want to stand up for the rights of the little guy, the rights of those who have been silenced under the foot of powerful.  Please believe me when I saw that I know that police brutality and racial profiling are real issues that also need to be addressed.  But I am also a criminal justice major who understands the the type dangerous situations that police officers have to face.  I also know all too well how easily the media can make our perspective of right and wrong all of a sudden seem very fuzzy.

In addition to being a criminal justice major, I also worked in a prison.  Admittedly it wasn’t a very dangerous prison, but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t people in there who wouldn’t stop to hurt me if they had the chance.  You never know what is going to happen and who is really dangerous.  It is unfortunate but true that many of the best criminals are masterminds at deception.  The horrifying truth is that most of the time you only have a split second to decide if this person is truly innocent or just good at acting like it.  In the hindsight it is easy to see one action as an overreaction.  When we have time to process all of the facts, it becomes obvious which party was in the wrong.  Time is a luxury that many of our police officers do not have.  They have to react in the time given with the facts they are given.  And sometimes that will mean they make mistakes.  I wish with all of my heart that those mistakes didn’t cost Freddie his life, but the reality is that a mistake in the opposite direction could just as easily cost a young police officer their life.  It is unfortunate reality, but it is the reality that we live in.

I have read about a lot of angry people who want the police department to step up and punish those in their force who did wrong.  And I can agree with that, to a certain extent.  There are a lot of things that should have been done better in that situation, things that might have potentially saved his life.  Someone needs to take responsibility for those mistakes.  However I also understand the horrible position it puts the police department in.  As soon as you start throwing officers under the bus for defending themselves, you have officers who hesitate to defend themselves when they should, and soon you have officers who end up dead because of that hesitation.

We could argue until we are blue in the face about who deserves what punishment, but that isn’t going to bring  Freddie back to life.

Being human is hard, it is so very hard.  Being a human in a minority group is even harder, just as it is harder to be a human who goes to work every day with the risk that they could die.  So instead of judgment and pointed fingers, I am asking for a a little bit of perspective and a whole lot of grace.  Despite how many facts we think we know about the situation, we can never completely understand that circumstances that caused each party to react the way that they did.

But I mean what do I really know?  Not a whole lot if I am being honest.  I realize that admitting this does not do much for my argument.  Which is just my point, because I am not trying to win an argument.  I am trying to create an open discussion in which we can understand each other so we can decide what needs to be done to help this not happen again in the future.  You can hate me for it if you want.  If hate makes you feel better.  My guess is that it won’t.  But if you feel that you need to, I am not going to stop you. Before you chose how to react, think about these words from my pal Ghandi,  “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the Beautiful

It is weird to say that I am sad to leave prison, but as I left on my last day I found myself tearing up a bit.  Most of that is probably because I am just a sap who will tear up at anything.  It is weird how something can be so awful and so wonderful at the same time.  How something can change us for the better, but maybe also change us for the worst too.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I accepted the internship over a year and a half ago.  I thought, oh it is just prison what is the worst that could happen.  Then next thing I know I am surrounded by inmates who are all staring and whistling at me, guards are flying on their way to break up a fight yelling at me to get out of their way, and naked inmates are being walked out in handcuffs.  And I am just a little college sophomore in a little Baptist college from a small conservative town wondering what on earth I had just committed to.  Lori you stupid idiot, did you expect working in a prison to be easy?  It is not like you can just play with puppies all day (oh wait. . .)  I almost quit multiple times, but I am not a quitter.  I didn’t want to admit that I couldn’t handle it.  So instead I just cried, because I am a crier.  During my first couple of weeks there one of the trainers took my under his wing and gave me some real honest advice about what I was about to go through.  However the most important thing he told me was, “This place is going to change you. It might change you for the better, it might change you for the worst, but it will change you so you might as well accept that now.”  And he was so right.  This place has changed me so much, and it has taught me so much.

You would think that working in a prison would have made me less naïve. It did, but not in the way you might expect.  It has taught me that the “good” guys are not always so good, and that the “bad” guys are not always bad.  People at their very core are all pretty much the same.  We are all a little  crazy, we are all a little evil, we are all a little good, and we all laugh to keep from crying.  At their very core people just want to know that they are appreciated, valued, and listened to.  Like I said I am a sap, don’t say I didn’t warn you. When I first imagined myself getting changed, I imagined myself ending this internship hardened against all inmates as I saw many of the employees act towards the inmates.  However to my surprise, I came out on the other side of the spectrum.  The more I worked there, the more I saw the inmates as people.  Inmates are often stigmatized by society, holding the view that they deserve the punishment they received and more.  It is easy to stigmatize inmates when they are just a collective group, but that view changes once you have not met the inmates and know their stories.  Knowing the life situations that the inmates come from makes it harder to believe they are getting what they deserved.  I wish that you could have had the chance to meet a few of them, and hear their stories.  They are by far the craziest stories you will hear, and the most unique people you will meet.

That is not to say that it was easy.  There were many times I became extremely frustrated and discouraged while working with inmates. There were some days when I just wanted to give up on humanity, and I found myself changing in a bitter person.  I did not like that part of me changing, and I had to work really hard to hang out to it.  Sometimes we have to fight like hell to combat the things that don’t sit well with our soul.  Not being naïve and not believing that the world is a place is one of those things worth fighting for.  Because if I hadn’t fought for it, well that would have been like not being me, and I was just not okay with that.

Looking back, I asked myself, “If I could go back would I stop myself from ever setting foot inside those walls?”  When I think about how much I have grown from working there, it is hard to imagine what my life was like before setting foot inside the walls.  I vaguely remember my first day and the person I was back before I started on my first day, but I know that back then I had no idea what was in store for me.  I did not know anything about the criminal justice system or what it would be like to work in it.  Here I was a naïve criminal justice major with no experience in the criminal justice field, and for some reason I thought it would be easy. As I said before, nothing about this internship was easy.  It was a constant battle, and some days I did not know if I would make it.  I still have a lot to learn, but as I finished up my last couple of days working there, I know that I enjoyed my time there and I will miss it.

The world is full of adventures to had, lessons to be learned, and memories to be made.  We tend to coast through life waiting for something amazing to happen to us, but we don’t realize that amazing things are happening all around us.  We simply need to open our eyes and take it all in; the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful.