Category Archives: Personal Reflections

State Leadership in Education: A Missoulian Op-Ed Piece

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Hi All.

I just had another op-ed piece published in the Missoulian Newspaper this morning. It’s about early childhood education. It may come as a surprise to you, but, along with John Adams, our second president, I’m a supporter of early childhood education.

If you’re interested in what John Adams and I think (we’re time-traveling buddies) about education, here’s the link: http://missoulian.com/news/opinion/columnists/state-leadership-in-education-our-children-deserve-better/article_fc8aeea4-7670-5a39-a7f5-bbb1c0875043.html

If you read it and like it, please pass on the link, especially to others in Montana and on Facebook and Twitter and all that.

Thanks . . . I’ll be getting back to the more normal counseling and psychology stuff soon.

John

The Missoula CASA Keynote

There are a number of problems associated with being asked to do a keynote speech for a local non-profit. Maybe this is all just me, but the pressure feels very big. Keynotes are supposed to be informative and inspiring and funny. Right? Well, to be perfectly honest, although I love to think of myself as able to be informative, inspiring, and funny, to actually have expectations to be informative, inspiring, and funny is miserable. That might be why, 15 minutes before stepping up to the microphone at the Doubletree banquet room in Missoula, I had a case of the complete BLANK MIND. I seriously had no idea what I had planned to say. Two days before the event I was sure I could memorize my 25 minute speech. Now, I looked at my notebook and words were there, but they seemed stupid and boring and not funny and I couldn’t help but wonder, “Who wrote this crap?” I suppose that’s an example of an unfriendly dissociation.

To top all that off, every speaker who offered introductions and who spoke before me was smooth and articulate . . . and I had decided to drink a cup of herbal tea which led to my bladder was telling me that I HAD to get to the bathroom right away. But I wasn’t sure how long I had before being called up as the highly acclaimed keynote speaker whose name was in big bold letters on the program. Mostly, I felt like crawling under the Crowley and Fleck sponsored keynote table or escaping to the bathroom. Neither of these options seemed realistic.

So I told my bladder to wait its turn and listened to Eden Atwood sing along with a group of fabulously talented and cute young girls. A man at the front table started crying. That’s what happens when you’re at an event celebrating and funding an organization that works with abused and neglected children. It was around then that Eden Atwood and her group (called the MOB) distracted me from my anxiety, calmed me out of my dissociative episode, and inspired me to go ahead and sing and dance around the stage as part of the ending of my keynote.

Just in case you missed it, the whole darn event was awesome. The best part was to be right in the middle of the generosity of so many people who help make Missoula a better and healthier and safer place.

And just in case you’re interested, I managed to deliver most my planned speech and people laughed and afterward offered big compliments. But I’m not certain how well I stuck to the script because at some point I remember saying “Of course, I’m lying about that” which I followed with, “But I understand that lying is popular right now.” I also recall, after one particular non-sequitur, saying something about the fact that because I was a university professor, I could say whatever I wanted and didn’t really have to make any logical sense. None of these comments were in the transcript to my speech. Obviously, I went way off script.

It might be surprising, but my plan to start singing and dancing actually was in the script. However, partway through the song my blank mind returned and I forgot the lyrics. The good news is that I’m fairly sure that everyone, including me, was greatly relieved when I stopped singing.

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Today, I am Captain America

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Today, I am Captain America

John Sommers-Flanagan

One of the hardest things about being a superhero is maintaining a secret identity. Sometimes I get so far undercover that even the Marvel Comics people don’t know who I am. This pretty much drives them nuts. But they deal with it, because, after all, I am Captain America.

I was born with the name John Sommers. This might be confusing to those of you who thought Steve Rogers was the original Captain America. That’s a myth Marvel and I perpetuated to help keep my identity secret. To further the deception, in 1985, I changed my name to John Sommers-Flanagan. This addressed the dual objectives of expressing an equal partnership with my wife and further obfuscating my identity.

Hyphenating my last name was a strategy similar to how my friend Superman is able to maintain his secret Clark Kent identity just by wearing nerdy glasses. Obviously, if you wear nerdy glasses, nobody will think you could possibly be Superman. Well, I wear nerdy glasses AND I have a hyphenated last name. Nobody in their right mind could possibly think I’m Captain America. Think about it. One time a guy I know asked me, “What sort of man hyphenates his last name?” I didn’t tell him because I was maintaining the secret identity thing, but the answer was and is: “Captain America.” #perfectdisguise.

I told Superman I was coming out of the secret identity closet and he asked me, “John, why are you choosing, at this moment in history, to give up your perfect disguise?” I said, “Hey Clark. . . ” (we’re on a first name basis because it always feels awkward when people call me Captain), “. . . radical times call for radical measures.” He just nodded thoughtfully. He’s like that.

The thing is, while growing up as Captain America, I realized early on that women were competent and I wanted to work alongside them, as equal partners. This eventually led me to be against the objectification of women and in favor of women’s rights to make their own healthcare decisions.

Being Captain American has also helped me clarify other values. I’m a big fan of the phrase “All men are created equal” but I’m inclined to substitute “people” for “men.” It seems only right that Captain America would support statements that Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence. Over the years I’ve had Gay and Lesbian and Transgender friends and family and colleagues, and you know what, I found that they’re kind and competent and respectful and loving and safe people to have in my life who are equal to everyone else. I’m also pretty big on liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people, and that includes Muslims and Mexicans and Native Americans who have sacred lands threatened by oil pipelines and other minorities, including sexual minorities and persons with disabilities.

It might surprise you to find out that I really love music. I’m not that much of a dancer—although I’ve cut a rug or two in my time. Now that I’m older, I’m more into lyrics than swinging my hips. Like that phrase in the Star Spangled Banner about America being “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” To me and most Americans, I think the meaning of those words is simple. We have freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to marry whomever we like, and we’ve got the courage to accept and embrace the goodness inherent in all this freedom and diversity. We also have the freedom to hate, although most people end up feeling so good about living in America that they usually find they prefer loving over hating.

Another musical reference that gives me tingles is the part of America the Beautiful where it goes: “May all success be nobleness and every gain divine.” That’s massively deep stuff, but right now it doesn’t feel like Wall Street, income inequality, and tax breaks for the wealthy fit with the idea of success being noble and divine. What would Jesus think? Well, along with Superman, he’s one of my besties and so I asked him. Wouldn’t you know, he got all analogy on me. He said something about rich people getting to heaven being as likely as a camel getting through the eye of a needle. My follow up question was about whether that meant it would be easier for Ant Man to get to heaven? At that point Jesus said, “Sure, Ant Man gets in, along with everyone else who makes himself or herself or their-self small and is interested in serving others instead of trying too hard to be bigly.” Then he giggled for almost a whole minute. Sometimes I’m not sure I get Jesus’s humor, but He thinks he’s funny, so that’s good enough for me.

Here’s another thing freedom means to me. Freedom means that we don’t have to register ourselves or be profiled or be put on watch lists because of believing in a particular God or because of having a particular color skin. It also means we’ve got the freedom to vote. And that means registering to vote should be pretty darn easy for all Americans and that voting lines should be equally short in poor and rich neighborhoods. Mostly we should be registering cars and college students, and, because I’m a superhero, I’m also in favor of registering guns. My reasoning is that in the real world it’s not as easy to sort out the good guys from the bad guys as it is in comic books and on television. What helps me is that I wear an easily recognizable spandex red white and blue outfit.  So I figure if you’re planning to carry firearms, you should register them and then at least have the decency to make it clear that you’re one of the good guys and if that involves putting on some spandex, so be it. That’s what my friend Thor would say. He always likes to say “So be it” in his loud, thunderous voice. He can be pretty convincing.

Here’s one last point on the gun thing. You may have noticed, I only carry a shield. Make of that what you will. I believe in the right to bear arms, but I believe even harder in gun safety.

Growing up, I went to public schools all my life. I even went to public universities. And as I’ve made clear, I ended up becoming Captain America. That’s not to say public schools are perfect, but Damn, American public school teachers are fucking amazing (I think that’s how my friend Pink would say it). Do you know how hard teachers work? Do you know how little they get paid? Did you know that John Adams, the 2nd President of the United States said something like (paraphrasing here), “there’s no way you can spend too much money on education for poor people.” Now, if you studied some proper history in a public school, you’d know that during his time, John Adams was just about the smartest and most persistent dude on the planet . . . and you’d also probably know the difference between educational measurements of proficiency and growth. Just saying.

I should confess right now that I’ve thought long and hard about whether to support the new president of the United States. The disrespect he’s shown for anyone he considers beneath him and who didn’t donate to his campaign make it difficult for me to endorse anything about him. But then I had an epiphany. I realized, “Wait, I’m Captain America, and that means I’m all about supporting values and not people.” This epiphany (BTW, “Thank-you Jesus”) helped me see and understand that I’m not a republican or a democrat and that I don’t support specific politicians. Therefore, whenever our new president upholds the values of equality for everyone, freedom for everyone, health insurance for everyone, gun safety, and better education for everyone—I’ll support him acting on those values. Also, whenever he sacrifices his own wealth and ego and treats women, minorities, the disabled, LGBTQ people, and everyone else with the respect they deserve, I’ll support those actions too.  However, to the extent that he advocates unequal treatment of individuals, restricts religious and other freedoms, meddles with women’s health decisions, or interferes with the common person’s pursuit of happiness, I’ll be opposing him along with my friends Jesus, Superman, and Pink.

That’s because I’m Captain America.

And you can be too.

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John Sommers-Flanagan is a clinical psychologist, a professor of counselor education at the University of Montana, the author of eight books, co-host of the Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast, and Captain America.

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Vulnerability and Magnificence from Rita

Hi All.

This comes from Rita. It’s her musing on life and death and spirituality. She tells me to warn you that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. This is true. But then again, who gets to avoid a cup of tea of life and death and spirituality.

You be the judge . . . if you want.

And if you like this, go to her blog and like it and become an email or WordPress follower.

Have a fabulous weekend.

John

Before the snow came, I burned rotten, misshapen wood. Dirty wood, not even worth cutting up for the woodstove. Wood filled with unremovable, wayward screws. Such fires are my last resort. Enduring the scorn of my carpenters, I save every scrap of wood—wood that was once a seed that grew into a tree that was […]

via Fire — Short visits with an honest God

Happy New Year (or Not) from Me and my Buddy Sigmund

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On November 10, 2016, I decided to read Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. I was suddenly interested in how and why individuals and society develop an urge toward the death instinct. It’s light reading. I mean, the book is light, and it’s short. So there’s that.

Some people are unhappy that I’ve chosen to read something by Freud. He wasn’t known for his progressive feminist views. He didn’t even make it into the first wave. Maybe I should have read Adler or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But Freud was on my bookshelf. Besides, the person who doesn’t think I should be reading Freud is the very same person who gave me this particular copy of Civilization and Its Discontents.

Having an impulse to read about the death instinct is ironic. Or maybe it’s funny. But if there’s one thing that’s not especially funny, it’s Freud. I know he has a book on Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, but I’m betting right now—without even looking at it—that it doesn’t make people laugh.  If Civilization and Its Discontents is any indication, Freud may have written about jokes, but he was no joker.

Here’s a little glimpse of his optimistic discourse.

Thus our possibilities of happiness are already restricted by our constitution. Unhappiness is much less difficult to experience. We are threatened with suffering from three directions: from our own body, which is doomed to decay and dissolution and which cannot even do without pain and anxiety as warning signals; from the external world, which may rage against us with overwhelming and merciless forces of destruction; and finally from our relations to [others]. The suffering which comes from this last source is perhaps more painful to us than any other. (1930/1961, pp. 23-24)

Okay. So maybe when Freud wrote this he was a little short on serotonin at his pre-synaptic cleft [as if I believe that neurochemical imbalance nonsense]. Seriously, what Freud needed was some regular aerobic exercise . . . and maybe yoga combined with mindfulness-based cognitive therapy so he could embrace nonjudgmental acceptance. I think Freud would have gotten into mindfulness because it would have allowed him to bask in nonjudgmental acceptance of all things except for people who didn’t practice mindfulness. Or maybe he would have been better served using individual emotion focused therapy with Leslie Greenberg; that way he could talk to a chair and emote. And if you read Freud, it’s easy to conclude he needed to do some emoting because his self-analysis was sort of like late 19th century self-injurious behavior. . . VERY PAINFUL.

In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud starts by confessing that he feels troubled over his apparent inability to have religious experiences. He seems to long for an “oceanic” experience of being one with the universe that might be attributable to God or religion. Although he seems rather reluctant to openly admit that. Later, he trudges through an analysis of “Love thy neighbor.” Unfortunately (at least for his neighbor), Freud ends up making more of a case for hating the neighbor. His logic is flawless, at least from his perspective. In the end, Freud embraces the likelihood of a death instinct which, in his time, was probably related to Hitler’s rise to power.

But what was Freud’s solution to the death instinct and Hitler’s ascension?

He had no solution. Or at least he had no solution in which he had much confidence. His last two sentences mark the battle lines. He admits to an incontrovertible aggressive and destructive impulse in individuals and in society. That’s much less fun than riding in a convertible. But more to the point, will hate, aggression, and destruction dominate? Freud seems to say—paraphrasing here, “Maybe so, maybe not.” The future, according to Freud, is in the hands of Eros.

With regard to the final outcome, Freud implies, “We shall see.”

This is like when your television show ends with the phrase, “To be continued.” Only now with internet streaming, rarely do we have to wait a whole week for the stunning conclusion. Sadly, Freud died before he reached the stunning conclusion.

But here’s where things get interesting.

Freud died on 23 September 1939 and John Lennon was born on 9 October 1940.

According to Buddhist philosophy, the soul can be reincarnated somewhere between 49 days to 2 years following death.

This leaves open the possibility—or even likelihood—that Freud was reincarnated as John Lennon and eventually, in 1967, wrote and sang, along with his Beatle friends, “All You Need is Love.” The point that Freud, reincarnated as John Lennon, was trying to make is that we all need to be liberally spreading Eros around as a Death Instinct antagonist.

There’s much more to say about this, but for now, I think the obvious take-home message is for us to all practice loving our neighbors even though we might be able to make a better intellectual case for hating them. We should probably love our enemies too. And I’m adding a twist to this for 2017: sometimes this isn’t going to be fluffy gooey love. It’s going to be some bad-ass, in-your-face tough love.

This is my New Year’s resolution—to be a practitioner of good-old Freudian in-your-face tough Eros.

Although I’m ending this with a wish for you all to have a Happy New Year, I’m also recognizing that the pursuit of happiness is aptly phrased because just when you think you’ve got it, it goes and flits off to somewhere else and you have to keep chasing it.

Good luck with the chase and good luck with that Eros thing.

The Sweet Spot of Self-Control

The Sweet Spot of Self Control (and Anger Management)

The speedometer reads 82 miles per hour. The numbers 8 and 2, represent, to me, a reasonable speed on I-90 in the middle of Montana. Our new (and unnecessary) speed limit signs read eight-zero. So technically, I’m breaking the law by two miles per hour. But the nearest car is a quarter mile away. The road is straight. Having ingested an optimal dose of caffeine, my attention is focused.

Slowly, a car creeps up from behind. He has his cruise control set at 83 mph. He lingers beside me and edges ahead. Then, with only three car lengths between us, he puts on his blinker and pulls in front of me. Now, with no other cars in sight, there’s just me and Mr. 83 mph on I-90, three car lengths apart.

An emotion rises into awareness. It’s almost anger. But nope, it not anger, it’s anger’s close cousin, annoyance. I feel it in my psyche and immediately know it can go in one of three directions: It could sit there and remain itself, until I tire of it; if I feed it, it could rise up and blossom into full-blown anger; or, I can send it away, leaving room for other thoughts and actions.

This is fabulous. This is the Sweet Spot of Self-Control.

Anger is lurking there, I know. I see it peeking over the shoulder of its cousin. “Hello anger,” I say.

In this sweet spot, I experience expanding awareness, a pinch of energy, along with an unfolding of possibilities. I love this place. I love the feelings of strength and power. I also recognize anger’s best buddy, the behavioral impulse. This particular impulse (they vary of course), is itching for me to reset my cruise control to 84 mph.  It’s coming to me in the shape of a desire—a desire to send the driver in front of me a clear message.

“You should cut him off,” the impulse says, “and let him know he should get a clue and give you some space.”

The sweet spot is sweet because it includes the empowered choice to say “No thanks” to the impulse and “See you later” to anger.

Now I’m listening to a different voice in my head. It’s smaller, softer, steadier. “It doesn’t matter” the voice whispers. “Let him creep ahead. Revenge only satisfies briefly.”

I feel a smile on my face as I remember an anger management workshop. With confidence, I had said to the young men in attendance, “No other emotion shifts as quickly as anger. You can go from feeling completely justified and vindicated, but as soon as you act, you can feel overwhelmed with shame and regret.”

A man raised his hand, “Lust” he said. “Lust is just like anger. One second you want it more than anything, but the next second you wish you hadn’t.”

“Maybe so,” I said. “Maybe so.”

There are many rational reasons why acting on aggressive behavioral impulses is ill-advised. Maybe the biggest is that the man in the car wouldn’t understand my effort to communicate with him. This gap of understanding is common across many efforts to communicate. But it’s especially linked to retaliatory or revenge-filled impulses. When angry, I can’t provide nuance in my communication and make it constructive.

The quiet voice in my brain murmurs: “You’re no victim to your impulses. You drive the car; the car doesn’t drive you.” That doesn’t make much sense. Sometimes the voice in my head speaks in analogy and metaphor. It’s a common problem. I want straight talk, but instead I get some silly metaphor from my elitist and intellectual conscience.

But I do get it and here’s what I get. I get that my conscience is telling me that this sweet spot is sweet because I get to see and feel my self-control. Not only do I get to see my behavioral options, I get to see into the future and evaluate their likely outcomes. I get to reject poor choices and avoid negative outcomes linked to aggressive actions. I’m not a victim of annoyance, anger, or aggressive impulses. I get to make the plan. I get to drive the car.

Now that other driver is far ahead.

Being on a Montana freeway, it’s hard to not think of deer. It’s clear now, but at dusk, deer will be everywhere. They have an odd instinct. Freud and my elitist conscience are inclined to call it a death instinct. Here’s how it works:

When I drive up alongside a deer on the side of the road, it dashes ahead, running alongside me; then it tries to cut across in front of me. This is the coup de gras of bad judgment. I’m in a big metal machine. The deer isn’t. So the deer dies. Not a good choice for the deer.

Yesterday, my phone alerted me to a Youtube speech by an unnamed alt right big-man. I watched and listened. So much smugness I was sick. In the end he shouted out “Hail Trump” and a few others jumped up and gave the “Heil Hitler!” salute.

Like a crazed deer, I felt an instinct. I wanted to drive to D.C. or Whitefish, Montana and find unnamed alt-right man and cut him off with some uncivil discourse. Instead, because I have a frontal lobe, I walked to the gym. Upon arriving, I discovered I’d stepped in dog poop. I’m sure this was an annoying but meaningful metaphor for something. At least that’s what my metaphor-loving conscience suggested. I didn’t buy it. Instead, I muttered “WTF” to myself. Okay, so maybe I muttered “WTF” several times. Then I walked outside in my socks and started cleaning the poop off my shoe. Not an easy task, especially if you’re wearing brand new trail-runners. I had to find a restroom near my office, an old toothbrush, lots of foamy soap, and mindfully scrub away the poop.

I was reminded of something my daughter Rylee once said at age three. She was being carried down a hill and there were many small piles of deer scat. She noticed, commenting: “I didn’t know the poop was so deep.”

Neither did I.

But the good news is that I (like you) own a functional frontal lobe that gifts me with the Sweet Spot of Self-Control. Many of us will be mindfully removing the metaphorical shit from our shoes for some time into the future. So let’s make some plans. Not revenge-laced plans; they don’t last. Yes. Let’s pause in the special sweet spot, evaluate our alternatives, and make some excellent plans.

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Emotional Dysregulation: Finding the Way Out

Sometimes we call it affect dysregulation. It creeps around like a metaphorical tarantula, sometimes popping up—big and frightening—and always best viewed from a distance. Just like shit, emotional dysregulation happens.

In counseling and psychotherapy, we throw around jargon. It can be more or less helpful. When it’s helpful, it facilitates important communication; when it’s not, it distances us from the experiences of our clients, students, and other mental health consumers.

So what is emotional dysregulation? Here’s what Wikipedia says:

Emotional dysregulation (ED) is a term used in the mental health community to refer to an emotional response that is poorly modulated, and does not fall within the conventionally accepted range of emotive response. ED may be referred to as labile mood (marked fluctuation of mood) or mood swings.

I hereby declare that definition not very helpful.

I have a better definition. Emotional dysregulation (ED) is the term of the month. Why? Because I’ve been intermittently emotionally dysregulated since November 9 and I see emotional dysregulation nearly everywhere I look.

I’ve seen many clients for whom the term emotionally dysregulated is an apt description. These clients report being frequently triggered or activated (more jargon) by specific incidents or experiences. Many of these incidents are interpersonal, but as many of us know from the recent election, they can also be political and, for many, reading about or directly experiencing social injustice is a big trigger. After being emotionally triggered, the person (you, me, or a client) is left feeling emotionally uneasy, uncomfortable, and it can be hard to regain emotional equilibrium, calm, or inner peacefulness.

What are common emotional dysregulators? These include, but are certainly not limited to: Being misunderstood, experiencing social rejection or social injustice, harassment, or bullying, or being emotionally invalidated. Consider these (sometimes well-meaning) comments: “Smile.” “What’s wrong with you?” “You’re overreacting.” “Chill.” “Cheer up.”). One time I overheard a father tell his son, “Do you think I give a shit about what you’re feeling?” Yep. If someone says that to you or you overhear someone saying it to a 10-year-old, that might trigger emotional dysregulation.

Emotional dysregulation passes. That’s the good news. But sometimes it doesn’t pass soon enough. And other times, like when I see he-who-will-not-be-named on the television screen or hear his voice on the radio, repeated re-activation or re-triggering can occur. It becomes the Ground Hog’s Day version of emotional dysregulation.

In the clinical world, emotional dysregulation is linked to post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, clinical depression, and a range of other anxiety disorders. Suicidal crises often have emotional triggers. The point: emotional dysregulation is a human universal; it occurs along a continuum.

The Fantastic Four

Emotional dysregulation usually involves one of the fantastic four “negative” emotions. These include:

  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • Guilt

To be fair, these emotions aren’t really negative. They have both negative and positive characteristics. In every case, they can be useful, sooner or later, to the person experiencing them. For example, anger is both light and energy. It can clarify values and provide motivation or inspiration. Unfortunately, the light and energy of anger is also confusing and destabilizing. It’s easy for anger to cloud cognition; it’s easy for anger to send people out on misguided behavioral missions. Funny thing, these misguided, anger-fueled missions often feel extremely self-righteous, right up until the point they don’t. Less funny thing, immediately after the punch, the flip-off, the profanity, the broken window or door or relationship or whatever—regret often follows. Ironically then, the emotional dysregulation (anger) leads to behavioral dysregulation (aggression), which leads right back to emotional dysregulation (guilt and remorse).

Dysregulation can be experienced via any of a number of dimensions. You can experience behavioral, mental, social, and spiritual dysregulation. What fun! Who designed this system where we can get so dysregulated in so many different ways? Never mind. It was probably he-who-will-not-be-named.

One of the most perplexing things about emotional dysregulation is that so very often, we do it to ourselves. We do it repeatedly. And more or less, we usually know we’re doing it. We seem to want to embrace our anger, sadness, fear, and guilt. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, that is, until we want out.

For most people, the fantastic four feel bad. They stay too long. They adversely affect relationships. They’re bad company.

There’s one best way out of emotional dysregulation. I’ll say it in a word that I’m borrowing from Alfred Adler. Gemeinschaftsgefühl. I’ll say it in another word: Empathy. Empathy for yourself and others. The kind of empathy that moves you to being interested in other people and motivated to help make our communities and the world better, safer, and more filled with justice.

Okay then. Let’s get out there and start Gemeinschaftsgefühling around. We’ve got at least four years of work ahead.

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For another, less profound way out of the Fantastic Four negative emotions, check out the Three-Step Emotional Change Trick: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2012/09/23/the-three-step-emotional-change-trick/

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