sailing_nz_001
Not an Oxymoron
These Grand Men

Walking the Walk, Sailing the Sail

I sometimes give short shrift to the idea that one of the key factors in determining a person’s success in life is the impact of seeing the successes of others who are like them. Let’s not disregard the power of personal initiative, of talent… both by nature and by nurture… and the random events that turn a dream denied into a dream delivered. However, I want to acknowledge the idea that when the weight of low expectations seems a bit much, it helps to look at someone who has felt that same weight and realized that, yes, what you’re looking for can be found, even if… or especially if you didn’t know you were looking for it.
I found what I was looking for on a boat in New Zealand.

Sailing of the coast of New Zealand
Sailing off the coast of New Zealand on the Higher Ground

On its face, the idea of a blind sailor seems as unfathomable and counterintuitive as… well, OK, a blind filmmaker. Spade, I call you spade. Learning to read the water by the feel of the wind has been the ongoing challenge of my 5 to 9 life as much as learning how to communicate my vision with a considerable lack of same has been in my 9 to 5 life. I’m not quite sure what it is about the hard way that appeals to me, but sailing fits the mold perfectly.
I should note that, as I write this, I’m on a United flight from San Francisco to Chicago. I’m heading there to compete in an international sail racing championship, a competition for blind and visually impaired sailors. Learning to do this – to helm a boat with the same proficiency and skill as a fully sighted skipper, has been a consuming effort since last summer, back when navigating my way from the Mission to Union Square was still a major challenge.
the bigger challenge, though, was far more internal. I was still very much in the “don’t stick me in with the blind… insert activity here” category. Hikers, bloggers, Monopoly players, whatever activity you care to mention. If it involved palling around with other blind or visually impaired folk,I was so not interested. My catchphrase at the time was a variant of the following: “I don’t want to be in a blind hiking group. I want to be in a hiking group. Period.”
And while I am still stoked about being in a hiking group of any kind, sighted or otherwise, it’s taken since last year to get over that feeling of shame that first wraps itself around most visually impaired people when they’re invited along with others who are like them. It seems to be a forcible shove to a lower rung on the ladder. An implicit assumption that since “normal” activities with “normal” people are no longer possible… well, at least you can enjoy a special day out.
How amazingly conceited of me.
I have been on a quest to find blind people who don’t act like other blind people. This is not uncommon among the visually impaired, especially those new to the game. There is a startling lack of solidarity. It’s not that there aren’t blind people who hang out together, and it’s not that there aren’t advocacy groups (big hugs, NFB and AFB, not to mention the Lions Centers and Lighthouse organizations, which do the yeoman’s work of advocating and support, as well as being patient with people like me). However, there is a lack of what, in my film, I call “blind culture,” the way a phrase like “deaf culture” is a recognized phrase. We have heard the stories of deaf and hearing impaired individuals who turn down treatments that would return significant amounts of their hearing. I have yet to learn of a single blind person who, given the opportunity to see again, has said “Nah, I’m good.”
And here I’ve been, in San Francisco, learning to regain old skills and acquire new ones, in the face of a tug of war. On one side is the group of people, and there are a lot of them, who just want to be left alone with their handicap. On the other side are the passionate advocates who fight the good fight.
Enter blind sailing, which sits pretty squarely in the middle.

 

Blind sailing
Blind sailing is a combination of teamwork and independence not often seen on shore

The Marin Sailing School and its sailing program for the blind and visually impaired has been, at least metaphorically, a lifeline because it starts with the assumption that on a boat, there is no such thing as a handicap. That there’s the water, the boat and the wind, and that picking up the skills behind racing a boat is right there for the taking. That’s why I’m on this plane…because the boat is a unique… or at least a rare place. It’s a place where low expectations are left on shore.
When the Palette Project hit New Zealand, our first shooting goal was to meet the Kiwi equivalent of what I had immersed myself in back in California. Auckland is one of the places where blind sailing really took off. Local sailing classes started in the 1990’s and thanks to the work of men like Don Mason and Dick Lancaster, and now continued by Vicky Sheen in the UK, the sport has gradually grown into a worldwide and organized endeavor in locations as varied as Japan, Italy and Texas. I would be directing the Blue segment in Auckland and Picton, on the North and South islands, respectively, but I still wasn’t sure what I was going to encounter. My cinematographer and I were enjoying a royal breakfast alongside the docks at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, awaiting the arrival of the six sailors – four of them visually impaired – who would be taking me on the water today.
“Hey, are you the blindey?” came an inquiry from behind me.
That’s how I met Davey Parker, lifelong Kiwi, B2 sailor (about which more anon), and someone who was utterly comfortable with his visual impairment.
Meeting someone who was just as comfortable joking about his handicap as I am. It was like having a baseball cap two sizes too small which I didn’t know I was wearing yanked off my head. I didn’t even know I was looking for the kind of easygoing equanimity, And here’s the thing: they were all like that. It was the first time I had spent time with a group of blind people who did not, as a group, act like what I thought a group of blind people acted like.
Freeze frame for a moment. Truth in advertising again requires me to admit that these are my own misguided perceptions and lowered expectations building a brick wall in front of reality. As one man we interviewed in Adelaide said, “I didn’t know what a blind person was supposed to look like. I just didn’t want to look like one.” Again, kettle, this is the pot. You’re black.
Okay, roll tape.
What I want to say is that being with these sailors, taking Lou Gehrig to heart and unashamedly cribbing from his speech… spending just one day with these grand men… on a 35 foot keelboat in the middle of Auckland Harbour, watching them jibe around the mark, hearing them trim the sails to perfection and gauge the dead patches of water by the feel of the wind on their faces. It made me see just how far I have to go. Not just in honing my own skills on the water, but in overcoming my own prejudices about what is possible, and it reminded me if I… who am living a life which is dedicated to convincing the rest of the sighted world to change perceptions, raise expectations… and for goodness sake hire a blind dude or dudette to pour your coffee or sell you an iPhone, I better do some internal maintenance first. The frustration I feel when I do something as simple as cross a busy street or find the dino kale at the Safeway and someone says that’s “amazing” or something similar? I better remember easing the mainsail by 25 degrees is not amazing or inspiring. It’s just the result of hard work.

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However, I am maintaining my right to be inspired. I think the only people who have the right, or at least the duty to be inspired by the achievements of others are the ones who are like them. I believe I have a duty to be inspired by a champion blind sail racer even if a sighted person shouldn’t be, because it helps to know there are other people like me who just want to do fun… not inspiring, but fun activities. I also have a duty to be inspired by a blind Fortune 500 CEO, a blind welder and a blind barista… if only I could find them, or the people who hire them.
Here’s what I… at long last… am trying to say. Just to get on this plane, I encountered four people… a pretty normal number… who wanted to offer me a seat, guide me onto an escalator or walk me down a jetway, when all I wanted was to know if the correct direction was at 11 o’clock or 10 o’clock on a virtual clock face. When I walk down any street in Chicago, San Francisco or Auckland, there will be wonderful, friendly and very well meaning people who want to help, because watching me find the correct route by finding the obstacles with my cane is not pretty and it’snot fun to watch.
However, the minute I step on the dock, along with fifteen other visually impaired racing teams from around the world, it’s out of my head. It’s out of my head because sailors, for whatever reason, seem to get it. Sighted sailors, as a group, seem to know the water is a rare place, where expectations start high. I’m competing with a bunch of blind and sighted sailors, but I’ve sailed in mainstream races too, and I sail to win. My opponents give me no quarter and none is expected.

Lou Gehrig had it right, whether it's baseball or not.
Lou Gehrig had it right, whether it’s baseball or not.

I came to New Zealand to film Blue for the Palette Project. As this segment of the story continues, I want to tell you what Blue is all about.
Spoiler alert… it ain’t sadness.

The Palette Project

The Palette Project Trailer

This post on The Palette Project Trailer was updated on February 9, 2016
The Palette Project
One of the many stunning landscapes. this one in the Australian outback, we saw while shooting The Palette Project

I am so glad that only scant portions of the original Palette Project trailer have survived to version 2.0 as this video posts. When the Kickstarter campaign for this documentary began last October, I was so very uncomfortable with the idea this project was going to look like it was all about me. that this was going to appear to be a documentary about Michael’s vacation around the world.
I went to great lengths to explain at every opportunity that my twenty-five year long refrain… be the storyteller, not the story… was still intact. However, that trailer sure was pretty me-centric. The problem, as I saw it then, and see it now, is the editor’s curse. You cut the story with the video you have, not the video you wish you had. It’s pretty difficult to cut a promotional trailer about traveling the world in pursuit of good stories and good causes when you haven’t left the United States yet.
I’m happy to report I’m getting closer to my goal of taking a back seat in this story. It’s because the story,of course, is not about me. Oh, there’s still a little to much Michael in this trailer for my tastes, but I am so moved by the generosity and spirit of the people we’ve are meeting along the way – their willingness to share their time and their stories with me.
You’ll get this first chance to meet a few of them in this trailer, and you can rest assured that as the balance shifts away from the storyteller and to the stories themselves, there are more interesting people to meet along the way.

I’m also so in love with the idea that, for the most part, I would actually have to tell you that any of these people are handicapped in any way. That truth allows me to fall back on my preferred use of the word “handicap,” the way it’s used in golf, as an extension that levels a playing field so that everyone can compete on equal footing. These fine men and women are not handicapped. They are living with handicaps… they are employing tools, skills and abilities that allow them to declare that they are not impaired.
Thank you for allowingme me to introduce you to some of my favorite people around the world.
Onwards!

Some notes on the shooting:

Te header image for this post was shot with a Canon EOS 44i, an excellent camera for landscape videography. There are newer generations, bis camera has really held up, especially with the Canon 18-135mm lens.

One of the many reasons I found myself here, on the route to Uluru, was the description of the Australian outback by Bill Bryson. His book, In A sunburned Country, about traveling in Australia, is a great read

Uluru Sunset Northwest
Uluru
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Uluru – Part I

I’ve always enjoyed Bill Bryson’s writing style, but I’ve often thought it would save a lot of time if every travel essay he ever wrote was titled “Things I Didn’t Get To Do OrSee Because I Didn’t Do Even The Minimal Amount Of Planning Ahead Of Time.”  On the flight to Australia, I was reading Bryson’s travel musings in his book on Australia, and I found it hard to sympathize with the plight of only being able to spend an hour at Uluru, thanks to a shortage of hotel rooms at the nearby Yulara hotel complex. His disappointment seemed akin to maintaining a diet based on Pringles and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and then wondering where all that extra weight came from. What do you expect, is what I’m getting at.

Uluru is one of the most remote places on earth. It’s a five hour drive from anywhere – the definition of “anywhere,” and the only one that matters, being Alice Springs, which is itself more than a thousand kilometers from the next largest town –  on a two lane road in the middle of the Australian outback. You have to want to get there. Once you do arrive, be prepared to stay a while, and don’t plan on finding many of the comforts of home. If you can’t find what you’re looking for at the gift shops, you aren’t finding it. That’s not necessarily bad, but it’s information you should have on hand, and well ahead of time.

Uluru
Uluru is big. It demands your full attention.

Here’s the tradeoff, and it’s a good one: you’re in the presence of one of the world’s natural wonders. Uluru, once known as Ayers Rock, and still called simply “The Rock,” is a starkly singular Continue reading “Uluru – Part I”

Muscle Memory, One Line at a Time

Learning to sail, both in the company of as well as completely apart from the world of visually impaired sailors, has been one of the most freeing experiences of the past year. Being an active part of both groups has taught me to experience and value the world in new ways.

As I’ve written previously, the color blue in The Palette Project is going to be represented by the ocean. Specifically, it has turned out that the nearest land mass will be New Zealand. I’ve been very fortunate that there have been so many men and women who have been so very generous with their time and skills, and crossing from Australia (representing red for the film) to New Zealand makes the first two legs of the film come together in an exciting way. New Zealand is the birthplace of the blind sailing community… at least, that’s what my research for the film is telling me right now. I’m sure there have been individual sailors with vision impairments before Don Mason gave it a go, but as I understand it, he is one of the central figures who helped create competitive racing crews composed of blind and visually impaired drivers and helmsmen. Today, there are established crews in Auckland, San Francisco, Newport, Boston and Tokyo among others.

I learned about the sport while the idea of trying to cross a busy intersection with a cane was still a formidable challenge. It’s still not always easy, and I imagine in a world of total sightlessness, if and when that day comes, it will be yet another seemingly impossible task to master, but one which is of course a skill which necessity and simple pride of independence will require handling on a daily basis. However, crossing the virtual street, or dock, to helm a sailboat is the kind of activity that lets people with handicaps assert in a very concrete way that the biggest barrier to physical accomplishment is one’s own mind. On the water really can steer your course by the feel of the wind. You can be the literal captain of your destiny.

To date, I have been part of two different crews. The first crew was via the Marin Sailing School’s nonprofit sailing program for the blind and visually impaired. I’ve been so fortunate to have been a part of this group that I wanted to give back in any way i could. That’s why the New Zealand leg of the film is being undertaken as an advocacy partner for this group. MSS teaches sailor who can compete in national and international competitions, and the logistics of supporting a local, Bay Area team are challenging. Working with these fine men and women is the chance to make sure their, now our, work continues.

I’ve also been incredibly fortunate to have been added to the crew of a boat that competes in races on San Francisco Bay and the surrounding area. This experience has been equally valuable.

When I started this particular journey, I had made a point of saying things like “I don’t want to be a member of a blind hiking group. I want to be a member of hiking group that doesn’t care that I’m blind.” I think it’s time to amend that position and say that what I really want is to be a member of both. The ear lie way of expressing that sentiment now seems disparaging to the former in the pursuit of the latter.

Sailing with both a crew of blind sailors and a crew of sailors in which I’m the only one with a physical handicap offers two unique perspectives. Blind racing and conventional crew racing are unforgiving environments, but I mean this in a positive way.

I have always had a rather black and white view of team competition: if a team did’t win because of you, then the team won in spite of you. This is a pretty harsh way of putting it, and it sounds like I’m pushing the ego button with both hands, but what I mean is that every member of a team has a significant role to play. If you do everything that is expected of you to the best of your ability, and maybe even beyond what you thought were your limits, and your team wins, then the team won because of you and everyone else on the team who also performed to those standards. However, if you do not do your job to the best of your abilities, then even if the team wins, there was a drag on performance.

I’d like to think I’m honest enough with myself to say that so far, as part of a fully sighted crew, three of four races our team has won have been in spite of, not because of my performance. I don’t like admitting it, but truth is truth. It speaks volumes that the crew is hanging in there while I work up to their standards. A lot of what happens on a conventional sailboat is, naturally, based on sight and visuals. Everything from spotting pockets of dead water (and hence, dead wind), trimming the sails so the telltails stream backwards to the very simple job of seeing where each line leads to which sail. These are basic sailing skills for which most people can be forgiven if they take those skills for granted.

I don’t have those skills. It’s a credit to the two crews I’ve sailed with that there is an openness to the idea that there are other ways. There’s always another way, but it sometimes takes some pretty creative thinking. That creative thinning has happened as part of the two teams.

I have to follow the advice of one of my forerunners in the blind community, Erik Weihenmeyer. He’s the climber who summated Everest and who, this past summer. successfully completed a solo kayak run through the Grand Canyon. In his book, “Touch the Top of the World,” he wrote that the mantra that gets him through his challenges is that the things he can’t do, he’ll lean to let go of, but the things he can do, he’ll learn to do well. The key to this idea is that the challenge of one’s life is to work every day to assume that the list of things one can do is ever growing. The example he gave was setting up a tent in subzero environments when he can’t take off his heavy padded gloves that deaden his sense of touch. He learned to do this task well so that his teammates wouldn’t have to do it for him. This, in my mind, is winning as a team because of, rather than in spite of you.

What I’m learning to do well is run the lines on a boat. The sighted crew on this team can look at a line and see where it goes and how taut it needs to be.  I can’t do that, but I can learn through practice and repetition, exactly where each line sits as it runs across the deck and through clutches, winches and cleats, and what it feels like when the lien is set correctly for a meaiver. I can compare what the wind feels like when I do this correctly. I can learn when an action by the sailor on the foredeck requires my cooperation on the mid-deck so that I can do my part without being asked exactly when the time comes. I can, in short, learn to do a skill well. It’s this this hard earned process of forming muscle memories on this boat that has been so gratifying and, dare I say, fun. Practicing the movements over and over so that when the time comes, locating the correct line by feel is second nature, locking and unlocking the lines and setting them to an optimal position is easy and feels right to me, and also helps shave precious seconds off our time. That goal of saving seconds appeals to me. I did it for years as a reporter, bargaining for an extra three seconds for a story or cutting down a piece when those extra seconds were not available. Speed and accuracy matter, and as an editor who has worked with a deadline that is inflexible and inviolable, this also speaks to me.

When you’re a reporter, the first reality check is that nobody ever tells you that you did a good job. Usually, the best you can expect is nobody excoriates you for doing a bad job. Everyone is too busy looking at the next deadline to worry about what already happened. I’m looking forward to the day I do my job on the boat so effectively I don’t hear the words “good job.” It’s just assumed that of course I did a good job… on to the next hurdle.

As a team.

Everything but the Twins and the Hedgerow Maze, Part II

Anyhoo…

When last we met, my shooting partner and I were approaching our first indoor accommodations in quite some time, following a long stint of shooting our way through most of Big Sur and the Sierras. A fun ride, but the prospect of a real bed and a hot shower loomed large. Our destination was the small town of Bridgeport, not far from the northern edge of Yosemite, an area we presumed would be fairly hopping in rally August, the height of the high season for Yosemite tourists. We had felt pretty fortunate to be able to snag an actual hotel room, but after a late departure from Yosemite proper, it was doubtful we would reach the hotel at anything even remotely approaching a reasonable hour. In the waning light of the high Sierras and the patchwork quilt that is cellular service in the area, I made a quick call to the hotel to let the powers that be know of our delay.

No luck. Judging by the voice on the answering machine (and I use that term specifically, because the clicking and whirring noises during the message made it clear that voicemail was a technology that would have been considered an almost otherworldly advance with unimaginably futuristic implication to whoever left the message I was listening to. The voice was old. Very old. I imagined him taking a day or so to carefully step out of his coffin in order to make his way to the machine, figure out how the danged thing worked, and with any spare reserves of air left in his long deceased lungs, rasp out a request to leave… (wheeze)… a (cough)… message (clunk)… after the… (wheeze) beep.

Odd.

I explained who I was, where we were and that we would be a late arrival, and apologized. Hey, we had done our best. time to settle in for a long evening of staring at each other on the way to Bridgeport. Three hours later, having memorized each lien in eahother’s aces, along with every possible place to hide a quarter in the rental car, Bridgeport revealed itself on the horizon. Sort of. Downtown Bridgeport on a Saturday night is not the center of the universe. I’m not sure it’s even the center of the Bridgeport. While there weren’t exactly public works crews literally rolling up the sidewalks as we pulled onto the main drag, it wouldn’t have surprised us at all if that had been the case. Business after business with the equivalent of their courtesy lights on. Very quiet is what I’m saying. At the hotel, when we found it, we noted with some dismay that there was not a single light on outside.

More odd.

As we got out of the car and mounted the porch steps, we saw an envelope taped to the doorknob. On it was scrawled “#6.” Inside the envelope were two keys.

“Think that’s for us?” I said.

“Only one way to find out,” Bobby said, taking both keys and trying them in the locke. The second one worked. Peering inside, we saw a dim foyer.

“OK,” he said. “Let’s get out stuff.”

“Don’t you thin k it’s a little strange that nobody’s come outside to se who just unlocked the front door?” I said in a whisper. It seemed a little strange to be whispering at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night alongside a public street, but human beings are remarkably adaptable animals. It seemed appropriate.

“Don’t know, don’t care,” Bobby said. “Come on, let’s ditch our stuff in the room. I’m starving.”

I had to agree. Our emergency rations at this point consisted of three bananas well past the yellow stag, two packs of jerky and a roll of cinnamon flavored dental floss. Grabbing our more stealable gear, we breached the foyer.

The front desk was unmanned. A single light with a Tiffany shade, the kind you imagine Scrooge McDuck hunched over while counting coins to throw into the dollar sign embossed sacks on the floor, hunched on the coiner. There was not a sound anywhere, but I have to admit that I jumped a bit when the air conditioner kicked on somewhere down the hall.

“Do we check in?” I said.

“”How do you suggest we do that?”

A good point, and well made. In the near total darkness, we made our way up the narrowest, steepest stairs I’ve ever seen that weren’t in an M C Escher drawing. The darkness, however, was not total enough to obscure the fact the ratty carpet tacked to the stairs was well past its prime, probably last having been cleaned when that young whippersnapper Kerouac was hammering out copy by the pound onto a roll of butcher paper, but it was a qualitative match for the cranberry red carpet on the second floor, and I use the adjective “can berry” on purpose because comparing it to blood is just too easy. At the far end of the hall, we saw a door with a big brass “6” on it.

“We’re going to die tonight, aren’t we?” I said.

“Maybe,” Bobby said. “Come on, let’s find something to eat.”

Bridgeport did not disappoint when it came to dining options, in the sense that it exactly matched our expectations at this point by not having any. Wandering into the one bar that was open and seeing it occupied by the forlorn female bartender you see in every movie that has ever run out of ideas, the one wiping down the one corner of the bar again and again, she told us the kitchen had closed at 7. Natch.

“Might be some food at the gas station. If it’s open,” came a voice from the far corner of the bar, where the other half of this archetypal scene – the two lonely sad sacks nursing beers and not talking to eau other – had taken up residence. I was pretty sure Edward Hopper was hiding in the shadows with an easel and a look of grim satisfaction.

Muttering our thanks, we left the bar, only to confirm the gas station was, as was the custom, closed, and would not have had any food even if it were open. I’m not sure when the last time I saw gas pumps with actual dials was, but it’s been a while.

We trudged back to the hotel, and while I know creative writing teachers like to have their students avoid using words like that when they should use less obstructive words like the perfectly serviceable “walked,” I’m telling you, we trudged. We had forgotten to lock the hotel before we left, but hey, it’s not like the deed was in our names. and the place seemed to be in the same shape we left it. Without a word, bobby crawled into one of the beds and pulled the sheet, the one sheet, over his head. IMe? I enjoyed a good flossing and called it a night not long after that.

Morning came quickly and was not much better. We were up before sunrise again, and this seemed like an especially good idea, not because of the lure of the magic hour, but because our strong feelings were that sunlight would not be this hotel’s friend. Or a blacklight. The three or four trifles of water that emerged somewhat reluctantly from the shower were not welcoming in any sense of the word. We were clean,, but only in the sense we wren’t as dirty as yesterday.

The slowly approaching sunrise that greeted us as we emerged on the porch was wan and seemed slightly apologetic, as if it were saying it was really sorry that this was the world it had to greet us with, and that it would try to make it  up to us later. Agan, nobody was at the reception desk, although we noticed that there was a sign out card. with, and by God this is true, a survey.

“Did you pay for this room online?” Bobby said.

“Yeah.”

“Then let’s get the hell out of here.”

I had to agree. I felt more exhausted when we left than when we arrived, but that may have just been the dental floss talking.

There was coffee on the wind. Our senses had become so finely attuned to the whiff of any sustenance by now that the aroma beckons to us like the tendrils of pie from a windowsill in a Petunia Pig cartoon. there was a  bakery about three blocks away and we practically made Bobby and Michael sized holes in the plate glass as we stumbled in and practically cleared out the pastry rack. thirty minutes later, we were on our way to the nearby hot springs for the next shoot.

In the time that has passed since that night, we have reflected on the fact that we had entered, slept in and departed a hotel without ever seeing another human being. We remind ourselves it wasn’t technically breaking and entering because we had a key and had paid for the privilege, but still…

Someday, and  I  absolutely convinced of this, I’m going to meet someone from Bridgeport and when I share this story, I completely expect the response to be as follows: a long, puzzled and quizzical look, and after a long pause, “but… that place has been closed for thirty years.” This is not even up for debate. I’m sure there was some awful incident, and the remaining ghosts have somehow learned how to use hotels.com for their amusement. I don’t know why they didn’t nab us, but perhaps they found something wanting in us and decided to let us enjoy the award winning cobweb art, the crepy hallway and the shadowy stairs which, if they were in an amusement park, would have a name like “The Paralyzer,” or “The Widowmaker,” and wouldchortle with Lovecraftian delight as we tossed on the mattresses last used before the brutal slayings of that nice family from Sheboygan who just wanted to see El Capitan and maybe a grizzly bear or two, but found something rather more unpleasant in Bridgeport instead. Perhaps they just wanted to get the word out. Bridgeport? Keep movin, buddy.

Whatever the reason, next time, I’m staying in Fresno.