What I Learned About Pro Wrestling

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When I was a kid, I was into pro wrestling. But this blog posting isn’t really about that.

Instead, it’s about a temporary assignment I completed last week. When I got to this assignment I had no idea how much I would be making, so I was disappointed when talking to others on the job revealed that it was much lower than what I’m used to. Worse, trying to talk to other also reminded me that as much as I pride myself on my ability to make friends, you can’t win over everybody. Some people there just didn’t want to talk. Others were downright hostile. And still others were boorish know-it-alls that frankly, I didn’t want to talk to. There was a brief training that I did poorly on, confirming my reoccurring fear that I am just no good at “common sense” tasks and that my best days are my behind me. When I ended up spending more on lunch than I’d be making in an hour because I wrongfully assumed cheaper food would be available, I was upset. And when I was unable to perform the basic function of the job because none of the people we were serving seemed to want anything to do with me, I felt even worse. To me, I had absolutely hit rock bottom. I was done.

And there were six more days to go.

Though the job part of the job didn’t get any better the next day, I overheard a conversation between two people about pro wrestling. It was an interesting coincidence (I am going to call it that for now, but spoiler alert, I’m writing someday a blog posting about what I think so-called “coincidences” really are), because just days before, I watched John Oliver’s very moving video about what becomes of pro wrestlers and how badly they’re mistreated. As I said, I’d been a big fan of wrestling in my younger days, though as with all of the other “male power fantasy” genres I was into, I’d long since outgrew it. Still, I like poking my head in every now and then and seeing what’s going on in that world, so my ears perked up when this conversation began. It was started by a self-proclaimed wrestling geek who runs a website where he sells wrestling memorabilia. He’s self-employed, and just supplements his income with temporary assignments when business is slow. As a result, when he talked, I could barely get a word in as he went on and on about wrestling trivia and dismissed all of my viewpoints on the subject. To be honest, when I learned he was ex-military and I checked out his skinhead haircut, I really didn’t like the guy much, and assumed that would be the end of it.

But I was intrigued.

As I said, I’ve checked in on pro wrestling off and on over the years, and besides John Oliver’s video, I recently watched one of ESPN’s “30 For 30” documentaries about “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, a pro wrestler who typically branded himself the best there is, but actually had the longevity and titles to make a case for it. His daughter, as it turns out, recently became a champion in the WWE, and I was moved near to tears at his pride in knowing that he was able to pass something on to his child, despite the hard life that wrestlers lead. Being always on the road and subjected to tremendous punishment doesn’t leave much room for parenting, as Jake “The Snake” Roberts knows, having lost any relationship with his own daughter (as chronicled in the documentary Beyond the Mat (Barry W. Blaustein, 1999). In my experience however, wrestling can teach you a surprising amount about the media business in general, as I learned from former wrestling promoter Eric Bischoff’s 2006 autobiography Controversy Creates Cash.  It was in that book that I first learned about the creation of the “N.W.O., a wrestling crew that I never even considered had any relevance to me beyond being a ’90s rip-off of Ric Flair’s famous “Four Horsemen” group. As with most other things about those first few days at that temp assignment though, I learned very quickly that I was really wrong about that.

So the temp assignment continued, and though we hadn’t gotten off to a great start, I was determined to show this wrestling jerk that I wasn’t just a jobber. I really knew a thing or two about wrestling, having collected Pro Wrestling Illustrated magazine for two good solid years back in 1988-89 or so. I knew all about the indy promotions of the time, the AWAs, the Mid-Souths, and the various promotions that made up the NWA (READ: not the same as the NWO you see pictured above or “the world’s most dangerous group”). More than that, I had checked in long afterward too, when the ECW was in its heyday, and even after, when Rob Black created the XPW and I was introduced to Sabu and Rob Van Dam before he was actually anybody, and the Lightning Kid long before he bulked up and became X-Pac. I even remembered DDP back when he was just managing, and not yet wrestling! I’d seen Wrestling With Shadows (Paul Jay, 1998)! Again, as with role playing games or heavy metal or superhero comics, I never fully let any of my male power fantasies go – while I may not be up on things anymore, I’m never a complete n00b either. Worse, my ego doesn’t let me allow people to think of me that way. While I can laugh off people questioning my intelligence because of the sheer absurdity of it, and I can get used to the idea that not everybody is going to like me, if you think I don’t know anything about an area of pop culture I was once into, them’s fightin’ words. I got back into the squared circle with the King of the Ring, and I was sure I could get him to submit.

And then… I learned something.

As the wrestling champion broke me down with fact after fact about the ins and outs of the business, he mentioned something that struck a chord and had me on the ropes. He said that Eric Bischoff had gotten the WCW to be competitive by letting its wrestlers do what they wanted to do. That threw me, because an editorial tantrum written by a comic book writer (not remembering who at the moment) said that it was Vince McMahon letting Steve Austin (who I refer to as “The Artist Formerly Known as ‘Stunning’,” because again, I know wrestling history like that) create his own character that led to “The Attitude Era,” as the late ’90s and early 2000s are often referred to in wrestling circles. I was wrong though – Eric Bischoff had started all that, which led to the creation of the N.W.O, a group of has-been wrestlers who got new life after taking control of their own personas. More than that, they made the WCW competitive, actually beating Vince McMahon’s WWE until he bought it out rather than try to compete with it any longer. As Eric Bischoff said in his book, had the merger with Time Warner not ruined Ted Turner‘s media empire, it might still be beating and even supplanting the WWE today. And it was all done with wrestlers perceived as washed up, or put another way, who had hit rock bottom. Who were done.

Sound like someone you know?

As I said at the outset, this blog posting is not about pro wrestling. As with all things that happen in my life, it’s about me. I made an attempt to change careers after a major change in my health nearly a decade ago, and I failed at it. I wasn’t able to make the transition. I did it in the first place though because people had been telling me for years that I was overqualified for what I was doing, and too talented to let that go to waste. I failed, and thought that I was washed up. I forgot my own life rule of, “there is no failure in failing, only in not trying again,” moved back in with my family, and was reduced to trying to get back into the career I left behind. During that period however, a friend of mine from Middle School referred me for a writing job, and I absolutely loved it – to this day, I see it as the best job I’ve ever had. It was fun, it paid really well, gave me freedom (as I was working from home), and best of all, I was good at it. I only lost it because my employer realized that they could get an intern to do it for free, and since I was making $25 an hour and setting my own besides, there was obviously no way I could compete with that. They liked me though, and agreed to serve as a reference as I searched for future writing jobs. Though I haven’t found one yet exactly (I’ve done some transcription, which at least draws from my typing skills), I know I could. Better still, I met a group called Independent Writers of Chicago at a Meetup, who teach writers how to find writing jobs if you join their organization. You just have to be able to pay their very reasonable writing dues. Not impossible if you live with family, temp often, and have your health care covered by the Affordable Care Act. I’ve always said that my only real talents were writing, public speaking, and making friends. Now imagine if I was able to do all of the above on my own terms, like the wrestling nerd does? I think it might start a New World Order for me, no?

Suffice it to say, the wrestling site holder and I ultimately ended the week on the path to becoming friends. Hey, wrestlers turn from hero to heel on a regular basis, so why can’t we? He runs and markets his own business, and if that’s the direction I’m ultimately heading in, he’ll be a good guy to know. If I could get to the point of making my own income and calling my own shots, I wouldn’t have to worry about whether I could do a job to a boss’s specifications. I wouldn’t have to do demeaning temp work, and I might even be able to recreate a personal life like the relationship we saw in The Wrestler (Darren Aranofsky, 2008). I always liked that movie, because it’s about two has-beens getting a second chance at love. If a washed up writer like me can get a second chance, why not? The wrestling heel who turned out to be my hero showed me that as long as you do you, a championship is always possible. You just have to reserve self-judgement, trust yourself and trust your ability to get you that chance. Fight on!

What I Learned About Judging a Book By Its Cover

If you’d told me a week ago that I’d dedicate a whole blog posting to the actress Krista Allen, I’d’ve told you that you were crazy…

I’ll confess: I first learned of Krista Allen from a softcore adult film role she did early in her career.

Just as she isn’t perfect neither am I, and that’s kind of why I like her.  In the past week or so, her podcast has become a favorite of mine, one in which she reviews – or more appropriately, discusses and analyzes – a different self-help book every week, as reading self-help books is kind of her hobby.  As it turns out, Krista Allen and I have three very big things in common: 1) we both dabbled in adult entertainment, 2) we both moved around a lot as children, and 3) we both have struggled with low self-esteem.  This is why Krista Allen reads so many self-help books, and in listening to her discuss them on her podcast, she’s reminded me of a key lesson I learned in my first relationship that I’d like to write about today: that I believe people are enriched by dealing with people who are different from them.

My first serious girlfriend and I were more different than we were alike.  She honestly had more in common with Krista Allen than she did with me.  She came from poverty; my father was an engineer and my mother was a doctor.  She was a pretty and popular girl in high school; I was the king of the geeks.  Most importantly, while we both shared a love of film, my ex wasn’t a nerd about it.  She didn’t know or care what a director was before she met me, and would get annoyed by the trivial “fun facts,” as she called them, that I would often share with her.  While I am so willing to share every detail about myself that I had to force myself to be anonymous in this blog, my ex didn’t even like having our curtains open because others could then peer in and see how we lived.  Yet despite our differences, I probably learned more about life, both directly from and just by being with her than I ever did in my decades of school and growing up in seven different places before I finally moved out and was on my own.  While I don’t miss her personally, I miss the astounding number of things I learned from being with her, and that’s kind of what I get from Krista Allen’s podcast too.

Allen has shared that she’s from Texas, the red state I call “California’s evil twin.”  It’s big, it’s rich, it has a huge undocumented population but it’s not friendly to them like California is, which I attribute to people like Krista Allen and her family: poor Caucasians, the Trump supporter stereotype.  Like me, Krista Allen was essentially raised by a single parent, but in that “country” way that I have typically find repellent.  She’s not super educated, and growing up these attractive redneck-type women never gave me the time of day.  Yet when I listen to her podcast I realize she’s sweet!  And funny!  And easygoing!  Open-minded!  And honest, like I said.  Like my ex, she strikes me as generally a pleasant person to be around, and although that relationship went south for me, I believe that had more to do with our youth and inexperience than any personal defect on my ex’s part.  Unlike my ex, Allen is inquisitive and interested in learning, but again, I’d never know any of that from looking at her or if I judged her by the roles she’s played.  Krista Allen strikes me as a person who’s made the best of what life has given her, both in terms of her appearance and her background, keeping her from being a cynic.  She stumbled into entertainment after a disastrous ending to her first marriage, and “Forrest Gumped” her way into a career as a working actress, one that got her on “Friends” and “Frasier,” and in movies like Liar Liar (Tom Shadyac, 1997) and Anger Management (Peter Segal, 2003).  Were they great, major roles?  Not usually.  Were they bimbo roles?  At first, yes.   But does she still work to this day, and without having to go back to doing nudity?  Absolutely yes, and as most actresses in Hollywood will tell you, “bimbo” or otherwise, that is not easy to do.  Regardless of her work not being my cup of tea, I have found that meeting and knowing people like her allows me to be more open-minded myself, and look at the world from new and unfamiliar perspectives.  That has made me better at making friends, coming up with new ideas, and surviving in a world so different from mine.

I also like Krista Allen because I feel that she’s a survivor and not a quitter.  Again, her career is indirectly the result of a failed marriage, and I’ve never heard her hold her success up as proof that she’s exceptional or better than anybody else.  Like me she’s very candid about her failures, and that authenticity is something I value in everybody.  In fact, I personally believe that an inability to be authentic is the reason so many human relationships fail and conflicts develop.  Moreover, despite her failed relationships, Krista Allen continues to get into them – she doesn’t become cynical and give up on the idea of love and companionship despite thus far failing to really achieve either.  As I’ve said in the past, like me she rolls with it and keeps going, and though this hasn’t brought her ultimate success in relationships as yet, I believe it’s why she’s continues to succeed professionally, thus buying herself time and money to ultimately achieve her goals.  I admire all of these qualities, and I believe that they are a big part of what draws people to her.  Many of her podcasts are co-hosted by her friends, and many women have taught me that women are generally a lot meaner to other women than they are to men, a sad reality that Allen herself has shared.  I think the fact that she has so many friends of both genders is why she succeeds, and speaks highly of her character.

Bottom line, if you’d told me a week ago that I’d dedicate a whole blog posting to my fandom of Krista Allen, I’d’ve told you that you were crazy.  I’m a film geek with a minor in cinema studies!  I consider myself an intellectual, and I’ve only had one girlfriend (who I didn’t usually get along with) that looked anywhere near as pretty as her!  What could I possibly get from engaging with a person like that?

They say you should never judge a book by its cover, and Krista Allen’s podcast proved that to me.  And besides, it saves me a lot of money on books…

 

 

 

What I Learned About Eid ul-Adha

Last week was the Muslim holiday of Eid ul-Adha,

which commemorates Prophet Abraham (Peace Be Upon Him.  Yes, the one from the Bible) sacrificing a calf because God saved him from sacrificing his son, which God had asked him to do to prove his faith.  Muslims celebrate this by making a pilgrimage called Hajj to the holy city of Mecca, which we’re expected to do at least once before we die.   If you aren’t doing it this year, you’re expected to pray with the rest of your community, or Ummah.  What did I do?

Nothing.  I wasn’t even aware of it until my aunt wished me a happy one.

This has been the case for the last several Eids I’m ashamed to say, and yet I don’t really understand why I feel ashamed.  Because what I learned in California is that I’m an Agnostic more than anything else.  I’m not sure when it happened, exactly.  All I remember is that one day, it occurred to me that to believe in Islam means believing that at some earlier point in human history, magical things used to happen, and now they don’t.  No reason, no explanation, they just don’t.  When I asked myself if I believed that, really believed that, I had to admit that I just plain didn’t.

But I feel bad about it.

See, while I believe that my father has always struggled with religion himself, my mother’s side of the family are the Muslim equivalent of evangelical Christians.  Everything is about religion to them, and not only is every single aspect of Islam true, to say otherwise is blasphemous.  I try not to talk about religion with them, but whenever they discover that I haven’t prayed, or gone to the Mosque, or that I’m not a virgin (which they discovered in California when they accidentally ran into my then-girlfriend), it breaks their heart a little.  As I said, their family is extremely devout, so my mother was no exception, and because my father wasn’t it was always a point of friction between my parents and I always felt caught in the middle.  Now that my mother is gone, her family believes that it’s their duty as Muslims to try to save me from my father’s wicked ways, and my not being on board with them has always made them, and by extension me, feel bad.

Ironically, as a result of this conflict, I actually know a great deal about Islam.  Among other things, I know that the scene posted at the top of this page, a clip from the Bollywood film Coolie (Manmohan Desai and Prayag Raj, 1983) well-represents why I struggled with Islam so much.  You see, my “film geekiness” wasn’t born in a vacuum – my father loved going to the movies, and his brother even went on to become a significant figure in the Indian arts film movement of the 1950s and 60s.  My father would see American and Indian movies regularly throughout his childhood, and passed that love of film and arts and literature and entertainment on to me.  The paradox?  My grandfather’s job in India was to take care of the Mosque, so he taught my father that film and singing are both sins in Islam, hence my problems with Coolie: what you see in this clip is non-Muslim actor Amitabh Bachan lip-syncing a song about attending Hajj in an inherently sinful film, one that I watched with my dad growing up.  Long story short, I grew up learning that everything I like, everything that I would argue makes me me, and which I inherited from my father was sinful.  I believed these things to be the best part of him, and that in and of itself was as sinful as my dad to my late mother.  Since I feel we now live in a time when people wear their religions on their sleeve, her family has even completely stopped watching anything on TV other than educational or news programming.  Or put another way, my whole identity is built on something they see as a sin.

Like I said, that in and of itself didn’t cause me to abandon Islam, but it created tremendous internal conflict.  Even though logic, as I said, suggests that Islam doesn’t describe reality, I spent my life learning it, and I still love my family. In fact, after my mother died I went through a phase where I was determined to connect with the religion and make her proud.  It didn’t end well, as fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadaan directly led to my being diagnosed with Lupus (as always, more on this later), but even then, I could never abandon Islam completely.  To this day, I don’t eat pork, drink alcohol, or engage in any major sin beyond sexual activity.  It’s more of a “better safe than sorry” level of practice than anything else, but I still adhere to it.  Why?  It’s like this:

At the end of the day, I think that regardless of how “true” Islam is, it represents a decent moral compass, promotes discipline, and creates a sense of identity, unity and safety among all other Muslims.  I have been fortunate that the many Muslims I’ve interacted with, whether Sunni  like me, or other sects like Shia or the Nation of Islam, or Sufs, or even Rastafarians and so on have treated me well based at first on my status as a Muslim.  Like other religious people, I also admit that I still intuitively believe there might be something more than what we see.  Coincidences, validated intuitions, and even my continued survival despite unbelievable adversity have all suggested that to me.  Islam may not be it exactly, but I’m not convinced that science has described everything there is to know.  Though Islam only affects my behavior in terms of morality and my ability to interact with other Muslims, this still counts for a lot.  If my father, who has questioned it at many points, hasn’t given up on it yet, who am I to?

To me, that’s the bottom line too – I have found that people choose to believe what they want to believe.  That’s why I can still proudly consider myself Muslim.  God isn’t going to fall out of the sky and kick me out of Islam for my following what I want to and discarding what I don’t.  I don’t even think He’d sent me to Hell, because I believe the point of the story of Abraham (PBUH) is that God is not a jerk!  Though human beings have the capacity to judge, I learned in California that because people are so different, we tend to get along better if we refrain from judging those whose beliefs aren’t hurting anybody else.  Terrorists acting in the name of Islam I can condemn because by hurting others I believe they forfeit the right to be left alone.  My family though?  My father? My sister?  My friends who are of other faiths?  My friends (and relatives – my famous uncle’s son is an Atheist) who don’t believe at all or are Christian or Jewish or Hindu?  I may not share their beliefs, but I feel that I know about as much as they do about what God actually is, what He wants, or if He even exists.  Who am I to judge anyone else?

And I’ll be doing Hajj when I’m ready to, not when anyone tells me I should. 😉

What I Learned About Fear Itself

A close friend of mine recently put an extra property of hers up on Airbnb, and I’ll admit it, I got SCARED.

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You see, my friend is an itty bitty thing, single, lives alone, and yeah, I’ll admit, there’s some sexism on my part built in too.  Sure it’s a good idea.  Sure she could use the extra income.  Sure she’s smart and can handle just about anything.  But in the back of my mind I kept thinking: what if something happens to her?

That fear haunted my mind throughout the week that her tenants moved in, despite the fact that they weren’t staying long, and nothing about them seemed shady.  The thing is we live in a society where people kill their children, where terrorists and crazy people murder dozens of strangers, where there’s a rape culture – every negative thing about modern life raced through my mind: she’s a woman, she’s all alone, and frankly, you can’t trust anyone out there, right?

Then I watched “What Would You Do?” on ABC.  You know the show, right?  Reporter John Quiñones sets up hidden cameras in public places, and then gets actors to pretend to be in difficult situations around unsuspecting “regular” people.  For example, there’d be like a man berating his girlfriend or a parent verbally assaulting their kid, and then he records the encounter to watch what people do in these “real life” situations.  Last Friday the first story featured an Indian actor, no different from myself or anyone in my family, trying to get a passport photo taken while wearing a Muslim cap or “topee,” when another actor playing the photographer clerk gives him a hard time, clearly racially profiling him for being Muslim in front of other customers, while Quinones records how those customers react.  Situations like this naturally make me mad.  Why?  Because I have yet to meet a Muslim like the one this clerk supposedly fears.

I’ve heard the counter- argument: “well, your experience is anecdotal!  You don’t know every Muslim!”  Maybe not, but I literally have grown up all over this country: I was born in Chicago, and lived both in affluent Lincoln Park and the South suburbs.  My family then moved to Southern Illinois so that my mother, a doctor, could take a job in Carbondale, where we recently had the eclipse.  From there we moved to St. Louis, then a suburb of Flint, Michigan, before we returned to Chicago.  I earned my bachelor’s in central Illinois, then got my master’s in Syracuse, New York before moving to Southern California, where I lived in the San Fernando Valley, the west side of LA, both ghetto and affluent  parts, and finally Orange County.  Like me, my mother was compulsively social, so wherever we moved, my mother found other Muslim families and we made friends; I did the same whenever I moved.  My father came from a family of fifteen originally; my mother a family of eight.  My father came to this country in 1969, with all of his Muslim friends from India, who ultimately migrated all over the country and had families of their own, so I have countless uncles, aunts, cousins, and Muslim friends.  And like I said, of all of those people, I have yet to meet an actual terrorist or terrorist sympathizer.

I’m not big on aphorisms or “words of wisdom.”  A Professor of mine really hated “Founding Father” Ben Franklin, pointing out that Poor Richard’s Almanack was unnatural, as life is too complex and multi-faceted to be summed up into simple rules like “a penny saved is a penny earned.”  Yet watching that show, and then thinking about my reaction to my friend renting out her room suddenly made one expression crystal clear to me: there truly is nothing to fear but fear itself.

I don’t believe that the media has a Liberal or Conservative bias – I feel that as Jon Stewart suggested, it has a sensationalist bias.   Another expression that I think applies here is “if it bleeds it leads” – news organizations, particularly broadcast ones, are owned by publicly-traded Fortune 500 companies (hence the absurdity of their having a Liberal bias, in my opinion).  More than anything, they need ratings to make money, so the unusual – “man bites dog,” as another expression goes – is what they sell.  That’s why Donald Trump got so much free press when he was running for President – the networks all made a killing in ratings by covering him.  By that same token, I think stories of murders, rapes, terrorists and so on dominate the news because they’re unusual and scary, thus emotionally engaging a large audience, and ratings rise with them.  Fox News has argued that their Conservatism is why they’ve been the highest rated cable news network, but I’ve yet to see them do Fox News without reporters who look like models with skirts hiked up, angry pundits, and stories of terror around every corner – you know, the sensational.  As every critic of Fox News argues however, that stuff is questionable because it’s not reality.

So what is reality?  When I was in second grade, back in aforementioned Carbondale, I got lost in my neighborhood.  I had just moved there, and didn’t know my way around.  In fear, I approached a friendly looking guy on a riding mower, and asked him for help.  Minor kid, talking to a stranger, in direct contradiction of everything every grown-up had taught me to that point.  His response?  He asked me for my address, put me in his car and… drove me home.

He never even met my parents afterward.  Once I confirmed that we’d arrived at my house, he let me go and I never heard from him again.  Why?  Because in my experience, the vast majority of real people are decent.

The reason the people who applauded the clerk on “What Would You Do?” made me mad is because I know that in reality, only a minuscule percentage of Muslims are terrorists or have terrorist sensibilities.  Even the ones who are I only know about because I saw them on TV  – despite how devout my extended family is (they’re the Muslim equivalent of evangelical Christians, with one living near the Muslim holy land in the Middle East and everything), they wouldn’t hurt a fly.  That’s reality.  By that same token I vaguely possibly remember hearing somebody hurt by an Airbnb tenant, but the company has become extremely successful because the vast majority of people aren’t dangerous.  My friend also lives in a big city, feet away from her neighbors.  I think the likelihood that anything would happen to her, in reality, is as small as the likelihood that the next fifty Muslims you meet are potential terrorists.  Why does society go there though?  Fear.  The reality, as the saying points out, is not what we need to be afraid of – the fear is.  Why?  Because fear causes people to behave irrationally.  Fear causes people to accidentally shoot people they know or led to the blackballing of artists in the classical Hollywood out of fear of Communism creeping in through the entertainment industry.  Fear of Communism is also why the U.S. went to Vietnam and Korea, when decades later we realized that the notion of Soviet military might was just a fiction the Soviet Union created to scare us.  Fear is why terrorists attack the federal government or Western nations they’re afraid of.  Fear, I believe, is even why human beings aren’t able to connect like they once did and are so lonely these days, but that’s a topic for another journal entry.

Look, I’m not saying that the world is 100% safe – recently I heard “The People’s Court‘s” judge Marilyn Milian espouse the idea of “trust, but verify,” which is why my friend, and Airbnb themselves, screen all their renters and housing providers in advance.  Once thus verified though, I believe that it’s to your benefit to trust that the majority of the people you deal with aren’t going to be dangerous jerks, and that things are not as bad as the much-maligned media makes them seem in the name of ratings.  As long as you verify anything that makes you suspicious, I believe there really is no good reason to live in fear.

The only thing I truly believe we have to fear is fear itself, and the sooner we can learn to accept that and get over our fears, the better a chance I believe we’ll have of living in peace and handling the real threats when they do occur.  Do I believe we can accomplish that if we don’t though?

‘Fraid not.  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)