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Behind the Son

10 December, 2017 (17:49) | Music | By: Ian Burdon

In 1985 I bought Heaven In A Wild Flower, a compilation of tracks drawn from Nick Drake’s 3 LPs. I was smitten in the way only people who hear Nick for the first time can be. I immediately recorded the album to cassette for listening to on a Walkman, and so my copy of the LP is in mint condition (I still have the cassette).

Of all the songs on it, and they are his most famous, the one that caught my attention then, and still does, was Things Behind the Sun. I can’t articulate exactly what it is about that song in particular that speaks to me, but part of it is the lyric that is both allusive and elusive, that hints at meaning without letting you in on the secret of what it might be. Sometimes I wonder if there is any meaning there at all, if it isn’t just an exercise in rhyme made coherent by the insistent guitar pattern that gives the song momentum. Or perhaps it is just the pregnant image of “the things behind the Sun”, of what lies behind the light you see when day is done. Is it too fanciful to find an echo of Genesis 1. 6-7 and the waters over and under the sky? Probably.

In recent years it has become clear just how much Nick followed a trail blazed by his mother, Molly. The full force of her writing was unknown to me until I saw the Unthanks performing some of her songs with recorded readings of Molly’s poems by her daughter Gabrielle.

Just released (and just received here) is The Tides Magnificence, songs and poems of Molly Drake, a glorious 2 CD set and 195 page hardback book. Aside from the quality of the book and cd package in its own right, the revelation for me has been the force and beauty of Molly’s poems. I already knew some from Gabrielle’s recordings, but the collection shows an obvious talent at work, a talent that reveals the woman behind the words and meter, a surface wistful melancholy giving way to distilled observation, reflection and heart.

Much more than Nick, the poems and songs of Molly make known a person whom I should have liked to know; a woman who did not dwell on unspoken things behind the Sun but, in possibly my favourite of her songs, sang instead

There’s a road to the stars
But I don’t know the way…
…We might get a sight
Of the brightness of Heaven

Here’s Molly:

It may seem hokey, but…

6 December, 2017 (11:44) | Goggle-eyes | By: Ian Burdon

In the mighty Once More With Feeling, Buffy worries that a training session will morph into a training montage from an eighties movie. Well. says Giles, if we hear any inspirational power chords we’ll just lie down until they go away. The writers of Supergirl, which I’ve now caught up with, seem to have forgotten the wisdom inherent in Giles’s teaching, and developed a penchant for background music-drenched scenes that aspire to be montages when they grow up. Alas, the music they used doesn’t even rise to the depths of power ballads, but instead reinforce one of the saccharine qualities of the show.

Although I like Supergirl, I did find myself fast-forwarding through a disturbing number of scenes in the most recent episodes, not something I recall doing with seasons one and two.

When I first found Supergirl, I commented on the prevalence of the “Linda Gray school of facial emoting”, and this hasn’t gone away. Unfortunately, the current sufferer of the malady is Melissa Benoist herself. We get her smiley face, her stern face, her puzzled face, her concerned face, all of which function as a shorthand, and serve only to help the plot zip by until the next ad. break. It is all the more obvious because the other lead cast give their performances more nuance than the show sometimes deserves. I don’t know why this has started happening because Benoist has been, and is, very good as the show’s lead.

The tenor of my criticisms of a lot of this stuff is that, in a golden age of television, including genre television, too many shows aren’t rising to the challenge and being all they could be. I would expect writers, producers and directors with ambition and talent to look at how genre TV has developed since Babylon 5, through Buffy, and The Wire, and in more recent times through Twin Peaks, Game of Thrones, Jessica Jones, The Deuce and Sense8, and raise their game accordingly (and I note in passing J Michael Straczynski and David Simon were each responsible for two of those). No doubt there are budget issues, and studio expectations, and Supergirl is pitched at a different audience to those I cite, but that doesn’t negate my expectations as a viewer. And it’s not just writers et al: my expectations run to choice of lenses and camera angles, lighting, and sound design.

31 years ago I saw a production of Macbeth at Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre . It featured a minimalist, though highly stylised set, and lacked what one normally thinks of as the trappings of a production of Shakespeare. But I remember it because of the performance of Julie Covington as Lady Macbeth, attempting to feminise a character who typically is portrayed as the scheming villainess. In fact Covington dominates my memory so much I just had to search extensively in the online archives to find out it was Jonathan Hyde playing the lead. Hyde is also in ‘The War That Never Ends’, a minimalist version of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponesian War that was on TV in 1991 just before the first Gulf War. It’s strength lay in the writing and the performances (you can watch it all on YouTube, or try only the chilling Melian Dialogue). My point, to push it home, is that budget is a context not an excuse.

Having said that, Episode 9, Reign, was a humdinger which, wonder of wonders, actually put our heroine in real peril rather than just facing fisticuffs on a Vancouver rooftop.

But Supergirl still flies high above what I’ve seen of the other shows in the CW stable. For the most part this has been their ‘crossover’ events, the most recent of which, Crisis on Earth-X, I described a couple of posts ago as shite.

Now, I understand that the principle function of the crossovers is to try and attract viewers to the other shows and thereby attract and retain the advertising income that pays for them in the first place. I also understand that I’m not the target demographic, but that is all by the by. There is really no excuse for this nonsense.

The story envisions a parallel world in which the Nazis won WW2, and there follows a four-episode slug-fest which is no more than “Hulk smash puny Nazis”, with some heavy-handed musings along the lines of ‘who would have thought it, Nazis in America…’ The writing is perfunctory, the characters cyphers in service of the story, the acting barely worthy of being called such, and the whole is a colossal waste of your time and their effort. To echo my earlier point, if you’re going to do Nazis in America, your modern touchstone must be The Man In The High Castle, in which Rufus Sewell’s John Smith has more menace in his measured stare than legions of one-dimensional masked stormtroopers stomping around to be annihilated by a group of one-dimensional heroes. The one (only) thing that Crisis on Earth-X did get right, was that the battle exacted a toll in the death of a featured character. Happily, this happened to coincide with the actor in question accepting a role in a Broadway musical, but it was worth noting nonetheless.

Fathers and sons

3 December, 2017 (13:01) | Uncategorized | By: Ian Burdon

Dad; Whitley Bay, late 1920s

My dad died 34 years ago today. He was 58 years and 4 months old. I had just turned 24. I am now 58 years and 2 months old.

He’d been ill for a long time; he had several major heart attacks, that brought me rushing back to East Kilbride from Edinburgh, as well as surgery, including an aortal graft. But this time I was home because my friends John and Gill had got married the day before.

Dad had been in bed for a while and liked to have a bottle of Irn Bru or similar by his bed. He’d been in a funny mood: our pet dog who used to lie on the bed with him had died the weekend previously, as had the father of one of my friends who, like Dad, had done time in the Navy in the Med. at the end of the war. Colin’s dad was on HMS Ajax and Dad on HMS Ocean during the creation of Israel, when Dad was nearly court-martialed for bringing the Navy into disrepute, though he never told me that.

He’d run out, so I said I’d go down to the supermarket to get him another bottle of Irn Bru, and he said he didn’t think I needed to. I did anyway, knowing what he meant but trying to ignore it. Not long after I got home he another heart attack and I called the doctor while Mum, who’d been a nursing assistant, gave him CPR. While the doctor was examining him Dad died. Mum and I were with him, and he looked at me, and I’ve never, ever, forgotten the look in his eyes just before he went.

A fine winter morning
The sky clear and blue.
Breakfast in bed and a laugh and a smile,
These memories stay true.
And Christmas was coming,
Time for last minute gifts.
It’s an eternity away from us now
On a night such as this

And I heard you were frightened,I saw you were scared.
All the nights that we thought were your last
But still you were there.
And all of the hopes and the fears and the warnings
We tried to dismiss
Are all lost to the chill of the wind
On a night such as this.

On a night such as this,
When starshine is dimmed,
And the empty heart fills up with clichés
And yearning begins
For just one more moment,
For the words that were missed:
Now scattered and lost in the heart
Of a night such as this.

I usually say at this time of year that I still think of him every day, and that’s true. It can be all sorts of memories and flashbacks, triggered by music or smells or something that’s close to déjà vu but isn’t–some combination of sense perceptions that find a resonant echo in memories I don’t know I have.

I have a handful of regrets in life—who doesn’t? These almost all revolve around times I treated someone badly when I was an adolescent. But no regrets are deeper or more present than not knowing Dad as an adult. He saw me graduate, but not married. He never knew his grandchildren, whom he would have loved.

And I have some photographs,
A lifetime defined:
The child then the boy then the youth then the man
Captured in time.
Did you do all you wanted?
Was your life all you wished?
Oh I wish I could talk to you now
On a night such as this.

And fathers and sons
Don’t take time to reminisce;
They just steam through the fog with their running lights on
And hope that they miss.
I was twenty four then
It’s been twenty four since
I still hope that you’re proud of me now
On a night such as this.

On a night such as this,
When starshine is dimmed,
And the empty heart fills up with clichés
And yearning begins
For just one more moment,
For the words that were missed:
Now scattered and lost in the heart
Of a night such as this.

I’ve never written about this before in any depth. The verses in this post are a song I wrote some years ago which are the closest I got to it. I like the verses but they elide some things, most notably the memory of the look Dad gave me as he died, even though I don’t know if he was conscious at that point or already gone.

I remember him being very moved after his first near-fatal heart attack, when he was in the ICU at Hairmyres Hospital (with hiccups that went on for two days and distressed him, when he could see the second hand on a clock ticking around), to learn how many people in how many churches had prayed for him. He had a near-death experience there: he told me afterwards that it was the classic sense of travelling up a tunnel towards a bright light only to reach the top and hear a voice saying not yet Stuart it’s not your time. It was an uncharacteristic thing for him to say, which is why it made an impression on me.

Dad, 1982

We had some difficulties for a while: he was High Anglican by inclination and disappointed I’d dropped my candidacy for the Episcopal priesthood. But after I graduated, before I got a job and moved back to Edinburgh, I was the main person in the house looking after him through the day, and cooking tea, as Mum was working, as was the eldest of my sisters. My youngest sister was at school. I never really discussed the reasons I dropped my candidacy, but essentially it was because I realised I didn’t believe the things I would be called upon to preach, that I wasn’t a Christian. And I did not, and still do not, believe in an afterlife.

The consequences of this didn’t become clear until 5 years later when I underwent training for the Children’s Panel in Lothian Region and was talking to a psychologist and it suddenly hit me hard. Not believing in an afterlife is fine as an intellectual position, but has powerful effects when someone close to you dies.

The two photos I’ve uploaded are sort of bookends to Dad’s life—in Whitley Bay in the late 1920s and East Kilbride in the early 1980s. I never asked him the kind of questions I’d ask as an adult about his life, about his regrets and joys. But I know the feelings I still have after all these years, about hoping he would be proud of me, are as good a legacy of his life as I can think of.

As we were leaving the crematorium in the funeral car I started to turn to look through the rear-view window but Mum stopped me: don’t look back, she said. And I didn’t. Nor have I ever been to the place his ashes are scattered: I don’t need to. He’s still with me before midnight, stewing the left-over tea in the old metal teapot on the gas hob, Navy-style, rolling up a tab, complaining about my hair and the music I listen to, edging towards the unspoken thing between fathers and sons, all the things he didn’t say to his own dad.

Crisis? What Crisis?

1 December, 2017 (18:45) | Goggle-eyes | By: Ian Burdon

My TV watching is even more sporadic and random than usual since the end of The Deuce, which disappointed only by being so short at 8 episodes.

I watched the first half of Marvel’s The Punisher on Netflix, which is good, if brutal. Beneath the melodramatic surface is quite a good and nuanced portrait of PTSD in veterans. I have the second half of the season still to watch, though. Likewise I watched the first episode of Godless, also on Netflix; I enjoyed it too but it was also brutal with the prospect of more brutality to come. I’m getting a bit worn out by fashionable brutality so it may be a while before I watch the rest. Michelle Dockery was very good though.

I wrote previously about a “CW Crossover” event featuring assorted DC superheroes. I didn’t like it, so it was with trepidation that I watched the first episode of their latest effort Crisis On Earth X which seems to demand to be emboldened. It had its moments, shown to their best advantage by fast-forwarding through a lot of other stuff. The question now is will I watch the other episodes, if only to see if they really can live down to the example of last year. I do need to catch up with season 3 of Supergirl though.

(added: I’ve now seen the rest of Crisis on Earth X and it is, indeed, shite, although I enjoyed Chyler Leigh going full John Wick on the bad guys’ asses.)

On Alpha Ralpha Boulevard

24 November, 2017 (16:17) | Books, Dead Water | By: Ian Burdon

Someone asked me what originally attracted me to science fiction. This is by way of a partial answer for them.

My introduction to SF (yes, I’m going to use that abbreviation: bite me) in writing, as opposed to TV, was almost certainly when my school friend Peter recommended Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. I guess we were 11 or 12 at the time, maybe 13. I can’t remember the full detail of my other reading then (it was 45+ years ago), but I certainly remember SF supplanting Arthur Ransome, Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming in my affections.

Foundation Trilogy in Panther. Art by Chris Foss

I guess I also read the usual Alistair MacLean thrillers that were around the house, as well as Tolkein and then Dennis Wheatley. But I was an avid user of our local library, and they had a decent SF section, which I plundered more or less at random. Most of it was pulp space opera, but there was a lot of it, for the most part in yellow-jacketed Gollancz hardback editions. I think that was when I first read Colin Kapp’s The Patterns of Chaos (Gollancz 1972) though my tattered old copy is a Panther paperback with a cover by, of course, the great Chris Foss.

I also read quite a lot of James Blish: the Cities In Flight series was one I enjoyed, especially the closing section of A Clash of Cymbals.

A turning point was Walter M Miller’s classic A Canticle For Leibowitz, which was qualitatively different in ways I recognised but couldn’t express at the time; the writing had a residual pulp quality, but it was much more speculative and interesting than the usual alien-bashing fare I’d got used to. In my 5th or 6th year at High School I wrote a short story that my English teacher praised, heavily “influenced” by Canticle (which I assume she hadn’t read).

At some point in my teens I discovered Brian Aldiss (The Dark Light Years I think, and Space, Time and Nathaniel) and some other British SF writers who were forging a different path. Christopher Priest was one, who I still buy in hardback when a new novel comes out. An Aldiss story from the early seventies that really got under my skin was Sober Noises of Morning in a Marginal Land, a story that still lurks in my mind. A For Andromeda (and its sequel The Andromeda Breakthrough), based on a 1960s TV series, was an often-read favourite too. Likewise I read and reread a collection of Fritz Leiber short stories, and always there was John Wyndham–The Kraken Wakes was and remains a fantastic short novel, as is The Chrysalids.

The Patterns of Chaos. Cover art by Chris Foss

I was heavily involved with the church at the time and read a lot of CS Lewis, who wrote 3 interesting SF novels, of which Perelandra, or Voyage to Venus, was probably the best, even though, as a po-faced piece on Wikipedia informs me, Lewis’s description of Perelandra as a world capable of supporting a floating Garden of Eden is not consistent with current knowledge of conditions on Venus. You don’t say.

And of course there was lots of SF of greater or lesser quality on TV. According to my mum I watched the first episode of Dr. Who, though I was 4 at the time; and 60s and early 70s TV could be downright weird. I fondly remember Timeslip (incidental music by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson, and Cheryl Burford was an early TV crush of mine) and The Changes (theme and incidental music by Peter Howell of the Radiophonic Workshop) amongst others.

A lot of the SF I read in my teens hasn’t aged well; I loved Dune when I was 17, but rereading it in my 50s was a major disappointment, although it is an interesting reversal of the Hero’s Journey in that it is an anti-hero’s journey. Almost all of Heinlein I find unreadable now, though Starship Troopers remains a focused, tightly written novel that may, or may not, be intended as satire.

I still like pulpy space opera (EE “Doc” Smith is a reliable standby, reluctant genocides and all, if I’ve had flu and don’t have the energy to read anything else), but my preference is for the weirdly speculative. These days I don’t read in genre for its own sake, to the extent I ever did; my favourite of the novels I’ve read in the last couple of years, regardless of label, was Edna O’Brien’s A Pagan Place.

Whatever I read, a lot of it comes from writers who push the limits of narrative and craft in interesting and beguiling ways, some of whom get labelled as SF as a lazy shorthand. I’ve already mentioned Christopher Priest, but there’s also M John Harrison and Ian R MacLeod, amongst many others. But I see them on a continuum with other writers I like who are not above subtle weirdness, such as George Mackay Brown, probably my favourite author, and certainly my favourite Scottish author.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying that I think what appeals to me about all of the SF that stays with me, apart from the pulps, is either a certain obliqueness in literary form, or the use of scientific concepts as a core metaphor for something else, for explorations of uncertainty. I also tend to favour the notion of “speculative” or “slipstream” fiction over SF, because the latter is a much more tangled and baggage-laden label.

But in the end the label doesn’t matter too much, and I’d like to let my 11 or 12 year old self know that Asimov’s Foundation and Smith’s Skylark of Space, Chris Foss covers and all, were a gateway drug; that Hari Seldon and Richard Seaton were sprites who’d lead me along Alpha Ralpha Boulevard to uncertain inner worlds and a lifetime of reading.

Added: to correct gender balance in this reminiscence, I must add that two of my favourite writers of anything are Dorothy Dunnett and Muriel Spark. My teen self hadn’t discovered them yet, though. I did read Ursula LeGuin at the time, and Earthsea is something I come back to even now.

Silent Running

19 November, 2017 (22:20) | Uncategorized | By: Ian Burdon

After my last, I’ve taken some actions re Twitter. One is a 14% reduction in the accounts I follow (and I wasn’t following many). Another is muting several accounts I don’t want to unfollow or block, but need to tune out for a while. A third is to mute lots of specific words. I think this only works on my computer and doesn’t feed through to the settings on my phone. The words muted include Corbyn and Trump.

More generally, of the people I’ve been friends with longest, from school or elsewhere, I remembered I’m the only one who had a Facebook account and I’m the only one using Twitter. It’s easy to get drawn into the thing of seeing a microcosm of opinion as representative of the society as a whole.

One of the things I noticed on our first visit to China was that I kinda missed Facebook from the perspective of posting pictures from holiday, but didn’t miss Twitter at all. Now, just like Facebook, I don’t want to delete my Twitter account entirely, because there are times it has its uses; but the option of doing a wholesale cull of the accounts I follow is getting some traction in my thoughts.

In the meantime, I was heavily invested in reading Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series but got distracted. I’m re-engaging with that. Book 4, Scales of Gold, is straight in with subterfuge and manoeuvring, with two assassination attempts in the first 30 pages. There’s a writing lesson there. Also, you learn all you ever need to know about Renaissance banking and trade in the process, in a good way.

Faults in the Clouds of Delusion

17 November, 2017 (10:54) | Facebook | By: Ian Burdon

(added: since writing the post below, I’ve reduced the number of Twitter accounts I follow by around 70–about 14%–and muted several more.)

Tomorrow will mark a year since I deactivated my Facebook account.

I haven’t been away completely–I logged in a couple of times for family events and photographs, but on the few times I’ve gone back in recently, I’ve only stayed around 10 minutes max.

The process of deactivating is an interesting exercise in emotional blackmail, culminating in the display of several FB “friends” who’ll miss me if I go, which only goes to demonstrate the limited intelligence of algorithms. Optionally, you can also advise FB of the reasons why you’re deactivating the account. Sometimes I used quotes from Twin Peaks (This is the water, this is the well; drink full and descend. The horse is the white of the eyes and the darkness within). Most recently I went with the Grateful Dead (Dark Star crashes, pouring light into ashes. Reason tatters, the forces tear loose from the axis. Starlight casting for faults in the clouds of delusion…).

Anyway, I have no desire to reactivate the account, except for those family occasions when it has its uses.

My main social media interaction is on Twitter, which I also try and limit. I  think I’ll try and limit it even more. This morning, scrolling through the feed, I found myself experiencing the same build up of tension and irritation that led me to drop off Facebook.

The nature of the way Twitter is changing, letting me see everything that people I follow like or respond to, means that my timeline, which I tried to develop to be fun and informative, is increasingly full of toxicity, and I don’t see any need to subject myself to that. Another thinning of the numbers of people I follow is long overdue, but I don’t think that will solve matters in the long run: the medium is being gamed by poisonous people and I don’t need that in my life.

In the meantime, here’s Zeynep Tufekci to cheer you up.

A Review! A Review!

29 October, 2017 (22:05) | Writing | By: Ian Burdon

The Estate of Edward Moorehouse gets a review?

This is a thoroughly modern story with Facebook ™ and SIM cards, but ancient evil has adapted to the new technology.

The full review of Respectable Horror, by SKJAM, is here:- http://www.skjam.com/2017/10/29/book-review-respectable-horror/

Couch potato update

24 October, 2017 (14:26) | Goggle-eyes | By: Ian Burdon

The Deuce continues to impress as it comes towards the end of its first season. Multiple story arcs all flowing naturally from character are developing, all the cast are tone perfect, the direction and cinematography inventive, and the music outstanding. I’m going to miss this until season 2 comes along. If I have a complaint it is that the short season means some truncation of storyline.

Late to the party as usual, I’ve started watching Season 1 of The Exorcist. I’m not normally one for horror TV or movies, but I’m quite enjoying this, albeit I’m not drawn to binge watch it. Alfonso Herrera, who stars, is very good, as he was as Hernando in Sense8.

Episode 3 of season 3 of Supergirl, Far From the Tree, seems to have been well received though I thought it clunked somewhat, the contrasting tales of reunions with fathers being just a bit too unsubtle, and the main story somewhat sketchily, if stylishly, told. Loved the retro spaceship though (below)

The chances of anything coming from Mars…

Write about what you know

23 October, 2017 (00:30) | Dead Water, Writing | By: Ian Burdon

I’m writing a novel. I tried doing this a while back but got nowhere and instead wrote a heap of short stories, two of which have found publishers. I would be happy to stick with the short stories but, at the risk of being precious, you go where the story takes you.

I’m not making any great claims about it; I write for fun not profit, but also write because in putting stories together I can sometimes find myself working out things that have sat unresolved in my subconscious for years.

Anyway, with this one I find myself working through issues I first grappled with in the late 70s when I was at Coates Hall, an Anglican theological college in Edinburgh. I was there two years before leaving to complete my degree without any thoughts of ordination. Although I left the church and have never gone back, nonetheless I remain close to thoughts about faith and belief and what might loosely be called spirituality, though that word drags baggage behind it.

Write about what you know, goes the old adage, but in this area I don’t know what I know or even what I think, in the sense of being able to crystalise it into a statement of belief. So there’s fertile ground for fiction exploring some of those issues in a somewhat fantastical setting. Fantastical or not, it’s remarkable what memory and the subconscious can throw back at you, either as half-memories or sudden flashbacks to things done or the embarrassments of being young and stupid.

When I was 19 or 20 I realised with abrupt clarity that, whatever else I might do with my life, ordination was not the right thing for me to seek. My protagonist made a different decision. However in the course of writing, I’ve become aware that I really have to make sure that I play fair by those called to ministry. I’m not interested in aggressive abuse of a life of faith; I am interested in some of the questions that still, nearly 40 years on, remain current for me.

I also, as part of my research, did something I don’t remember doing before, ever: I read the 4 gospels straight through, end to end. As far as I recall I’ve only ever read them in discrete passages before, not as complete documents. In any event I hadn’t looked at them for decades. Reading them now I am struck by two things: how very, very deeply they are concerned with Judaism, and also how all four are concerned to put Jesus firmly in the tradition of John the Baptist–all of gospel writers went out of their way to stress this, and I find myself wondering why.

When I was a student back then, one of the texts was Sartre’s Existentialism and Humanism. I don’t recall a great deal about it except that Sartre was inordinately concerned to stress the extent his thinking was compatible with Marxism. This puzzled me until I realised it was because Marxism was a keystone for his audience of Parisian intellectuals, something of primary importance for them. I’ve come to think something similar is true of the gospels and John the Baptist: for reasons not now remembered it was of great importance to the audience for whom the gospel writers wrote, to establish that Jesus was not only compatible with the Baptist’s thought, but also recognised by John as the Lord whose way he prepared. Tales of Mary and the Magic Baby ( (c) Francesca Stavrakopoulou ), raising the dead and healing the sick, and Jesus’s own resurrection weren’t enough, John’s blessing was important too. The most interesting thing about John the Baptist in the gospels is therefore that he is there at all.

I’m not sure if this will feature in the novel yet, though other aspects of early ‘Christian’ thought will, but it’s fun to get into this, and see what lurks unresolved somewhere deep inside me.