Posts Tagged With: acceptance

South African Pearl of Wisdom: “Age Does Not Define You” (Another Jane Goodall-ism)

Age does not define you.

Sjoe, this is a big one for me. It’s particularly pertinent when you work in an industry where it feels like the median age is 22. For the longest time, I was always the youngest. I was the youngest child, the youngest kid in my grade, the youngest this, the youngest that. Now suddenly I’m the ‘older’ one. And it’s not seen positively.

It’s taken me a long time to be okay with the idea that my age doesn’t define who I am. Sadly, many people (woman in particular) are seen as less useful once they hit some subjective sell-by date, which is ridiculous. Some of the most brilliant work done in the world was (and continues to be) achieved by people well beyond the energetic youth stage. In fact, some were quite deep into their wrinkles.

I started touring as a musician at 25, which was practically grandma age for most of the people I encountered. I tackled welding for the first time at 32. I also faced down my first elephant, mamba, and lion at that same age. To be honest, the best and most challenging experiences of my life only happened once I was past my first quarter century. And that wasn’t for lack of trying. Yet I was always ‘past expiration date’ according to the norm for the industries I was in.

welding

The most challenging part of this is the way our society shames people not only for their age but also for their attitude about that age. Especially if society sees someone who they feel is not acting their age (though your guess is as good as mine as to what is acceptable and what isn’t and why at any age). It would appear, though, that anyone who travels more in squiggles than in straight lines and are thus perceived as ‘lacking direction,’ fall into the category of people who never grew up. They live forever in this negative spotlight, ever on the receiving end of a barrage of whispers and smirks. “Aw, they had such potential. Now, look. They’ve wasted their life.” Or “When is that person going to grow up and get their sh*t together?” The perpetual Peter Pans are beloved until they turn 30. Then they are a menace to society for some reason.

Let’s be honest – I have yet to meet ANYONE who really has it all together at any age, and who isn’t just saying it to make themselves feel better. In fact, I’ve started to think that having it all together is actually a myth. Kind of like the pursuit of perfection. It drives us, but it isn’t a realistic goal that anyone can actually attain. And that stems from many reasons, one of the biggest of which is that everyone’s definition of having it all together seems to be different.

Fact is, many of us do not have a straight path to follow in life, and age has nothing to do with it. At least not in the sense that it seems society THINKS it does. Ever heard the quote, “Not all those who wander are lost”? Actually, in many cases, age is the main reason many of us wander. It is the impetus that propels us to keep exploring, to keep pushing ourselves. We realize there is something amiss in our current life. And we act on that. As we gain more knowledge, we realise there is always more to know. Thus we push onward, collecting more stories, notching experiences on our proverbial belt. But this doesn’t age us. In many ways, it keeps us connected to the childlike fearlessness we lost somewhere between a bad experience at a grade school dance and our first failure on our first job. Age, if looked at in this way, can actually act to keep us ageless.

Cliché as it is, age brings us wisdom. It brings us a better understanding of who we are and what our true purpose is. And it gives us the wherewithal to follow our star instead of hitching it to someone else’s. Instead of clinging desperately to something someone else told we us we should do – but that we desperately hate – or forcing ourselves into a box of what is expected of us by people who aren’t living our life (and in many cases know nothing about us), we do our own thing. We experiment. We try different roads. Oh, the audacity, right? Heaven forbid we be ourselves and let our hearts guide us!

From the time I was a child, I was told I must choose a career; I must climb some ladder; I must stick with one thing; I must focus. Focus, focus, focus. On what?!? The answer to what, exactly, I was supposed to focus on changed with every person I spoke to. For someone like me, who is utterly enthralled with the process of learning, telling me to stick with one thing was like trying to herd 100 cats while being chased over ice by a pack of wolves. And it was a slap in the face to who I was. I know I am not alone in that.

I was also told I must grow up. I must stop being silly. This admonition I got when I was apparently using my imagination too much and thinking of outlandish things like making up an entire series of stories about a family of lint balls. Who draws the line between what is silly and what is not?

I don’t know. The lint tales were pretty damn entertaining. And my English teacher loved them! Too bad they got thrown away one day when someone in my family tossed out a bunch of my things without asking me. Ah well.

Anyway…

For years I have been told I must change. I must fit this mould. I must pick one thing and stick with it. Well, for me, who loves several what are considered completely divergent things (music, wildlife, science, writing, photography, education, to name a few), that’s an impossible proposition. Why must I choose ONE thing? The world is not made up of one thing. It is made up of many things that all work together and depend on each other. And to assume that a person can only do one thing is also a slap in the face to the beauty of humanity’s amazing complexity.

Not a single one of us excels only at ONE thing. Not a single one of us is interested only in ONE thing. The WORLD does not exist on the back of ONE thing. So why do we beat ourselves into a rigid submission, telling each other that we MUST follow ONE path? It’s illogical, impractical, and soul-destroying. Not surprisingly, I’ve been in revolt of that system ever since I was a child. And this is where someone like Jane Goodall stands as an inspiration to me.

Jane started out studying to be a secretary. But her mentor, Dr. Leakey, pulled her out of that role. Instead of her fighting and saying, “Oh, but this is what I studied; this is what I have to stick with,” she rolled with it. She quickly moved into an industry that she had no prior experience in, doing a job she knew not a whit about doing, at a time when women were pushed AWAY from the science field (and in many cases are still pushed away from today). Now in her 80s, she is still going strong. And guess what? She does more than ONE thing. And if she had stuck with one thing those many years ago, what would her life be like? Would we even know who she is? And what would be the fate of all the wildlife she’s devoted her life to saving? And all the people she’s educated and enlightened along the way?

In addition to any research work she does, Jane lobbies, she educates, she motivates, she fundraises. She gets stuff done, and not just in conservation. At 80 years old, she still jets all over the world to make a positive impact on the planet. If she let her age define her, imagine how different the world would be.

Dreams come at any age. And life happens. It doesn’t follow some prescribed plan; it doesn’t fit neatly into some preordained script. It is messy, unpredictable and often scary. It is exhilarating, exhausting and ever changing. If we let our age stop us from doing something, we miss out on all the fun. We essentially die before we are dead.

It’s a pity so many of us tell ourselves our time for dreaming ends the day we hit puberty. Or the day we graduate college. Or whatever other arbitrary date that gets picked for us by someone else. Age is a number, a simple way for us to count the seasons we’ve lived through and to keep a mental library of our own history. Don’t let a simple counting system get in the way of you living your life to the fullest.

If I wanted to depress myself, I could look at where I am in life and compare it to where other people my age are. I could think about all the vacations I had to forego, all the fun nights out with friends I missed, all the houses I would never buy, the new cars, the new clothes, the list goes on and on. I have not had those things, because I have chosen another path, one that is not about things and the acquisition of them.

What I do have, though, is a multitude of amazing experiences and a lot of cool memories. I have lived the kind of life people say they dream about when they gaze out their office window. And I will continue to live that life. And it will never be glamourous. And it will never be easy or stable. I will likely always struggle with the things so many of my peers take for granted, like buying a car that isn’t 5+ years old and laden with a hundred thousand kilometers on the clock; ordering a latte; getting a new pair of jeans when mine have seen the end of their days; having health insurance; being able to see my family (or even talk to them) whenever I want. I have given up a lot to be where I am. I have struggled massively. I have lived through dark times where I have been utterly alone, literally and figuratively. I have taken chances other people have been afraid to take. And I have paid for those chances, for better or for worse.

I stepped outside the lines when I was colouring my storybook. And I will continue to step outside those lines, forever refusing to live within the boundaries someone else has drawn for me. I draw my own pictures. I write my own story. And because of that, my age doesn’t matter. It never will.

And neither does yours. Get out there. Live your life.

 

20160531_092238All rights reserved. ©2016 Jennifer Vitanzo

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Categories: adventure, Africa, Jane Goodall, Life Lessons, South Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jane Goodall-ism and South African lesson for today: enter Santiago

mantid photo shoot

mantid photo shoot

In keeping with 15 Life Lessons of Jane Goodall, here’s another nugget of wisdom Dr Goodall drops on us, and one that is very relevant in my current situation – there are many teachers in life. My latest teacher has six legs and thousands of eyes. And his name is Santiago.

I love animals, but I can’t really have any pets in the bush. And to be honest, the longer I work with animals, the less I feel okay about having pets in general. However, I inadvertently became the ‘mom’ of a praying mantis several months ago when a stowaway nymph (baby mantid) came into my home tucked away on a flower. He was so small and well camouflaged, I didn’t even discover him for a whole week.

Not knowing where the flower came from, I had no idea where the mantid came from either, so I decided to keep the little guy. This was a very big step for me, as I have never been a fan of insects. Nor had I a clue how to raise one. Things did not look promising for the teeny invertebrate.

As a little girl, I spent a lot of time outside. But I was always told to NOT dig in the dirt, to NOT play with bugs. Bugs were dirty and gross.

And then I saw nature documentaries with really awful bugs that did really awful things to people. These bugs (which I later understood were actually parasites) were pretty much my worst nightmare.

So I stayed away from the insect world.

Then I spent a few months in Costa Rica as a university student. And I saw some REALLY big bugs. ‘Size of my hand’ big. Every morning I had to shake out my shoes, lest I put my foot into a dark, cosy space that had become home to a scorpion or tarantula overnight. Every evening I battled it out with my biggest nemesis, the mosquito. But having people around me who appreciated bugs (okay, not the mosquitoes – I’ve YET to meet anyone who appreciates mozzies) made me more tolerant. Also, being in such a wild place sort of weened me off of bug-free living. It was my initiation into what was to come many years later on the other side of the world.

Enter Africa. The insects here are not just plentiful in number. They are also plentiful EVERYWHERE. My initial reaction was to gently usher them out of my clothes, bags, shoes, house, wherever they might be congregating, and back into open spaces where we’d be less likely to conflict. I was happy to let them live, but I drew the line at having them share my space like miniature roommates.

However, when you live in the bush, you simply cannot avoid them getting into your stuff. So you can either learn to live with them, you can learn to live with them AND appreciate them, or you can be miserable. I chose the middle option, mostly because when I finally stopped and watched insects, I was hooked. They are fascinating, so completely alien to us (green blood, funky eyes, lots of legs, and all that), they could hold my attention for hours at a time. That in itself is impressive.

You know when people talk about watching grass grow? Watching insects is not like that (except in the case of watching a cocoon, since nothing happens there for a long time). Insects are alert. They are a whirring world of activity: little bulldozer spiders clearing out dens, little ant armies marching in formation, little artistic dung beetles rolling the most perfect ball of poo imaginable.

(I guess I should note that technically a spider is not an insect. While it IS an invertebrate, just like other insects, it falls into a different group called the arachnids. Scorpions are also part of that group. But for the purposes of this blog, all the creepy crawly invertebrates get lumped together as bugs.)

mantid and his grape

Santiago and dessert

And then there are the mantids.

Praying mantises get their names from their habit of sitting with their front arms folded, almost like they are in prayer. These ambush predators can sit still for hours, and the extreme patience with which they stalk their prey makes a person who DOES watch grass grow seem impatient.

When my little mantid arrived, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. Mantids eat live prey. Where was I going to get food? Believe it or not, my home does not teem with bugs, even though there are plenty outside of it. I would have to learn to wrangle crickets, flies and grasshoppers and lure them to their unpleasant death at the hands of my tiny ninja. So I was not only living with a bug, I also had to catch MORE bugs to feed him.

Praying mantises are also in the same family as cockroaches. So you KNOW I would have to have a serious change of heart about insects to be happily sharing my home with a roach’s cousin. It did not sound like a good plan. But I was up for the challenge; I was ready to start a new chapter of growth in my life – learning to love a bug.

Plus, I have to admit I felt an immense amount of guilt over displacing him. How could I not take care of him?

I shouldn’t have worried. He grew on me very quickly.

It was hard NOT to like him, honestly. He was so entertaining. When he was a baby, he hopped around on my hand, his little legs tickling like weightless feathers dancing over my skin. His little head would swivel around and watch the world, snapping to lock eyes on me whenever he heard my voice.

When I took him outside, he would get as low as possible on my hand and nuzzle his little face in my palm. And when I put him in the grass, he would freeze and look up at me, waiting for me to put my hand back to within bolting distance, and as soon as it was close enough, he’d come scurrying back into my palm. It was adorable.

It’s amazing, seven months later, how attached I have become to the mantid we eventually named Santiago (for no other reason than we liked the name). He sits on my computer when I work. At night he sleeps on the curtain in my room.

These days he only eats from my hand and is quite the discerning gourmand. He no longer hunts, refuses bugs, and instead insists on fish, chicken or some type of fruit. I worry if he hasn’t eaten in a while. And I make sure he doesn’t get too far out of my reach (because if I can’t get to him to feed him now, he will likely starve). And I have to make sure none of the other predators (birds, spiders, lizards) get to him, especially the female mantid that lives in the bush just outside my door. I’ve caught her checking him out now and again, and she has been informed that my ‘child’ is off limits; no eating him. She keeps her distance, but on occasion she does pop up on the window to say hello. He freaks out, rears up on his back legs, opens up his wings (the ONLY time I’ve even seen his wings since they sprouted, fyi) and puts on his best threat display. She is not phased in the slightest. He looks ridiculous, but he thinks he is protecting his family, so he gets points for trying.

mantises eyeing each other up

I hope that one day Santiago becomes a household name, an ambassador for the smaller, less attractive members of the animal kingdom that often get overlooked or demonised because they are so foreign to humans. A beacon for the creatures that aren’t traditionally cute and cuddly. (Santiago does NOT like to cuddle, fyi. You wouldn’t either if cuddling reminded you of being caught and eaten…)

So in going back to Jane’s life lesson, Santiago has shown me that teachers come in all shapes and sizes. And they don’t always teach you the lessons you think they will teach you. With Santiago, I have learned not just about bugs (particularly how to care for a mantid), but about my ability to see everything as valuable in the world. I have been reminded that we all must be more tolerant of what is so vastly different from ourselves. I have also been reminded that beauty is a feeling, not a face. And even the smallest, most unlikely bits in this world can steal your heart and make a lasting and profound impact in your life. And that’s today’s #buzzfromthebush.

#vivasantiago #onlyinafrica

Here are some choice shots of the little guy doing what he does, which is mostly preening, eating, and pretending to be a mantid model.

 

All rights reserved. ©2014-2015 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Conservation, Education, praying mantis, South Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South African lessons and another Jane Goodall-ism: You can get more done together

baboon snuggles

hugging it out in the forest

baboon bosom buddies

sticking together

Given what is going on in the world, I thought it best to focus on this particular Jane Goodall life lesson (you can get more done together) in this post. South Africa is riddled with violence at the moment, xenophobia cropping up and challenging even the most balanced and tolerant people. Baltimore is on fire, racism rife and intolerance overpowering. Nepal is under rubble, thousands of people with no homes, missing loved ones, and doing everything in their power to retain a semblance of hope. And there’s plenty more.

Every day I read headline after headline of some kind of trauma or drama: heartache, disaster, war, death, you name it. So little is dedicated to the good in the world (and yes, it is certainly out there, though most media outlets would appear to be allergic to showing it). That’s why I felt the need to talk about togetherness. It is time to speak of Ubuntu.

For those of you who’ve never heard the word, ubuntu is a philosophy that embraces and espouses human kindness, tolerance, understanding and connectedness. It is the thread that connects each and every one of us, a kind of social pact that posits that because we exist, we all matter and, as such, we deserve the respect of our fellow beings.

The fact is, whether it’s in a small town, a big city, or the middle of the bush, we all need to know we can rely on someone other than ourselves to survive. We are social beings; we need each other. So why we build up walls and do our best to separate, segregate and dominate one another baffles me.

I do realise that deep down we are all animals. On a fundamental level, we exhibit many kinds of animal behaviours we often like to think we are above. But we aren’t. We can be the lowest of the low when we want to be. However, we always have the choice. And when we choose to be amoral, cruel, bigoted, sexist, take your pick, we drive a wedge between what we are and what we can be. We turn our back on our tremendous ability to do great things and to rise above and take responsibility for ourselves.

Living in the bush has taught me many things. One is that I tend to be happy alone. I can spend weeks on end just me, myself and I. But when I think about it, I’m not really alone. I’m actually surrounding by life. I’m just not necessarily around other people.

However, at some point I do need to get a dose of human life, and it is in those moments where the bush can be unforgiving or bountiful. When you are stuck in the middle of nowhere, you can’t be picky and choosy about with whom you socialise. You don’t have a choice. So you either learn to drop the pretense and dig in with everyone, or you lose out. And given the dangers out here (those literal and metaphorical, as getting lost in the wilderness can mean many things on many levels, after all), that can mean losing out on a grand scale.

I’ve seen people who started out in the bush with their nose held higher than the peak of Mt Kilimanjaro. After two weeks, that nose dropped back down into the stratosphere and then, in many cases, that nose was eventually rubbed in the dirt, not physically, but psychologically. If you think you are better than anyone, you have no business in the bush. It’s a hard lesson to learn, especially for people coming from cultures that traditionally seem to think they ARE better than the rest of the world (and my experience has been that Brits and Americans are two of the worst offenders there). But once the isolation hits, a lot of the holier-than-though attitude melts away and people fall off their pedestals. Hard. Sometimes it’s a very long drop, too, so it ain’t always pretty. But I’ve yet to meet a person who lived in the bush and didn’t come out changed for the better. Nature does that to you, the supreme equalizer that it is. And it’s yet another reason why I feel people need to spend more time in the great outdoors – to keep egos in check and priorities straight.

What it boils down to is that we are not islands, as much as many of us would like to think we are sometimes. Yes, there are many things we could each accomplish on our own, but it’s always so much faster (and often the results are better) when you have more hands, heads and hearts helping. And so I hope that this message spreads to the people of South Africa who are hurting (those targeted and those doing the targeting, because both sides are in pain at the moment), and to the people in Baltimore and the greater United States (because though often violence isn’t the answer, when you’ve been robbed of everything else, sometimes it seems to be the only thing you have at your disposal), and to the people of Nepal who are holding onto hope in the midst of such despair. In fact, I wish this message spreads to everyone out there in the world.

I hope we can all take a moment to look at ourselves in the mirror and remember that every one of us is fallible, and every one of us deserves love and understanding. There is nothing scary about a different accent or skin colour or sexual orientation or religion. And unless we are willing to work together and accept one another, we fail individually AND collectively.

As the amazing Dr. Goodall is fond of saying, ‘The best way to deal with your enemy is to make them your friend’. And when you do that, you no longer have any enemies. Which is a pretty nice way to live, if you ask me. We are all part of one big story. So perhaps it’s time we start acting like we all belong in that story.

Ubuntu. Thina simunye. We are together. And that’s today’s #buzzfromthebush.

 

All rights reserved. ©2015 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, South Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

All things big and small – grace among the wild things

Lenny climbs out of his crib

Leonard, the little castaway

Lenny climbs to get a better view

Lenny climbs to get a better view

I read an article today that actually caused me to stop what I was doing. I focused. This doesn’t happen often. It was called “When Nature Speaks, Who Are You Hearing?” The reason I mention it is that something about what I read compelled me to start writing. For this, I apologise. There’s a good chance that no matter how hard I try to keep this post from rambling off into the stratosphere, it probably will, despite my best intentions. I blame my befuddled brain.

If you’re wondering where I’ve been, to be honest, I’ve been struggling to write lately. Too much work, too little energy, too much pressure on myself to produce something of Pulitzer calibre. Which, let’s be honest, is not likely. I mean, it’s not like I’ve ever let my fear of not saying something profound keep me from saying something anyway. But lately I’ve been feeling…I don’t know. Pensive? Apprehensive? Doubtful? Not sure what it is. Maybe it’s all of the above. But I haven’t wanted to write. Or, better yet, I haven’t felt I had anything to say that anyone might care to hear. I’ve actually been feeling lost in my thoughts. Like I’m in a full-on lexicographic labyrinth and I have no idea where I’m trying to go. I cannot find the magic words.

Since childhood, I have had a tenuous and tumultuous relationship with writing. Throughout life, I found myself using writing as an outlet for every ounce of darkness and light I had tucked inside me. And it seemed to scare people a little. Or a lot, if you were my parents. So it was something I was comfortable with, yet afraid of, if that makes any sense. It was yet another thing about me that made me different, and I was kind of tired of being different. I just wanted to be.

For as long as I can remember, I have found myself unable to grab the right word out of my brain to say exactly what it is I want to say. I don’t like public speaking for this same reason. And I always get told I speak too quickly, which is equivalent to being told you need to chill out, you need to calm down, you need to be someone you are not. I cannot help that my brain moves faster than my tongue is capable of keeping pace. But whether it’s something I can control or not, hearing those words has kept me from opening my mouth in the first place. And by extension, it’s kept me from opening my thoughts up to scrutiny. I’ve held in much I would’ve loved to have bled out over the page. Lovely image, I know. But a verbal hemorrhage is sort of what I feel needs to happen.

What does this all have to do with me being in South Africa, loving my wildlife, and writing a headline such as the one this post has? Well, perhaps all the energy I’ve kept tightly bound inside has finally broken through some poorly defended section of my brain. Lately, I’ve felt like my entire body is on fire, reverberating with these wild vibrations that are pushing against my insides and squeezing my heart and lungs ever tighter and tighter. I often can’t breathe. It’s the closest approximation I have of what it must feel like to jump out of your skin.

Sitting here, listening to clicking stream frogs sending their unanswered love calls into the cool night air, I wonder some times whether I feel so tightly wound because I simply do not belong where I am. I mean that in a physical and a metaphysical way. I love the pulse of a city, but I melt in the masses of people, industry, technology and closed spaces. I don’t belong in cities. In nature, I feel like my whole being suddenly feels a release. And yet in the bush I’m still bound. I can’t just wander off, unless I have a death wish. I must stay within the confines of a small space, still watching the world from what feels like a large, wide-open window. I’m stuck in between.

baby monitor lizard

Morning with a monitor

It’s in times like these that I relish the small things. And I really mean the small things: the lizards, the frogs, the birds, the rodents, and yes, even the spiders and snakes. I feel more connected to the animals and invertebrates that cluster around the warmth of my home than I do the behemoths of the land that everyone comes to Africa to see. By no means am I implying I don’t like the big guys. Elephants, lions, rhinos, buffalo…I love them all. But I am disconnected from them. I cannot reach out and touch them. In many ways, they are as close to me as are the stars in the sky. I can watch, I can admire. But I cannot connect.

The smaller creatures come into my world, sharing my space with me. They sit with me, they chatter away to me, they eat my soap and my mosquitos. They keep me company in what can be a very lonely, cold world. And this unlikely friendship, if you can call it that, blesses my life with a sweet, gentle grace. I feel alive. I feel part of something. I feel real.

These little things never get the attention of their much larger wildlife cousins. For some reason, so many other people I’ve met seem to feel they don’t matter. Or they aren’t good enough to care about.

Before Waldo became an indoor frog

Waldo’s wilder cousin

I think about my little baby gecko, Leonard. Most people I know would not enjoy having geckos hatch in their clothes. I love it. I think it’s amazing that, regardless of all the things humans do to keep our species separate from everything else in the animal kingdom, the animal kingdom still sticks up its middle finger to us and finds a way in. I don’t like getting bitten or stung, but I also don’t begrudge other life from sharing this spinning blue and green ball with me. I say “Good morning” to my resident jumping spider. I usher ants, crickets and scorpions out of the way. People look at me as though there’s something wrong with me for doing these things. Why?

Perhaps it is exactly this question that has kept me from writing. Why? Why do we not love all things, big and small? Why do we discriminate against the creatures we don’t find appealing (for whatever reason, whether it’s their scales, their multiple legs, their ability to eat holes through our bags of flour, etc)? Who are we to choose what’s worth saving and what isn’t? What’s important and what isn’t? Are humans simply that shallow? “Why” is a very uncomfortable question for a lot of people in this world.

Usually when I ask why, I receive anger. I receive vitriol. How dare I ask something that begs someone to think! To answer for their behaviour! To answer, period! Well, why not? People seem to have no problem demanding that of me. Why can’t I ask the questions?

So, with this in mind, I will have to find a way to keep writing. Because someone has to ask. Someone has to wonder. I hope you will wonder with me.

My morning alarm

my incessantly pecking friend

Friendly sea creature

in an octopus’ garden

Mantid vantage

World upside down

 

All rights reserved. ©2014 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, American, Animal, Expat, Frog, gecko, nature, South Africa, Wildlife, writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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