The Midnight Sun / As the World Burns

I’m pleased to share that my poem “The Midnight Sun” was published in the Indie Blu(e) Publishing anthology As the World Burns: Writers and Artists Reflect on a World Gone Mad. Thanks to those of you who provided valuable feedback for the final draft. It’s wonderful to see many of your works in this collection! (For a full list with links to the authors, see The Feathered Sleep’s comprehensive post here.) This is the first poem I’ve had published in print since I was sixteen, so I’m grateful to my sister from another mother, Candice, for inviting me to submit something at a time when disability, and just the daily trauma of living through this era, so often gets in the way of my creativity. It is a tremendous collection, and I hope you purchase a copy, particularly if you support the Black Lives Matter movement (50% of the royalties, once they reach their break-even point, will go to BLM-centered organizations).

It has been an interesting time since my last post of substance. A few weeks ago, in preparation for a likely decision to retire with disability in April rather than being laid off from my job May 1 (a stay of execution from the original date of Jan. 31), I went through a neuropsychological evaluation for the first time. (Sidenote: the tests totaled more than $4,000 in my case; if you ever need one of these, you might want to make sure your insurance will cover it before you go. I have yet to see the final bill.) The results, which I was given immediately, revealed one surprise and one thing I knew already — which was largely responsible for my plan to retire.

The surprise was that my memory is better than I thought; in remembering lists of words, recall was apparently off the charts. I scored lower, though, on my ability to come up with words on my own, and that was telling. But my complex problem solving ability, especially when fatigued (and I was plenty fatigued after the second hour) was well below average — or average for me, as the neuropsychologist explained. The ultimate conclusion was that if I could manage my fatigue, and my quality of sleep, and my depression, I might do better at work, for as long as I need to, but all in all I’m in pretty classic company with all the other MSers out there who leave the workforce because of cognitive dysfunction.

So here I am on my second week of Amantadine. I think it’s working, but not to manage the symptom it’s supposed to. Oddly, for an anti-fatigue medicine, it’s improving my sleep. (In fact, one of its more hilarious/terrifying potential side effects appears to be falling asleep suddenly, in the midst of any activity.) I usually can’t get through a night without waking up after a few hours and my brain going into panic overdrive, but with the exception of one rough night after an especially brutal day, I’ve actually been sleeping soundly. So, one piece of the puzzle at least is in place. The rest, I guess we keep working on.

Hopefully I’ll be able to shake some new poetry out of my brain to post here in the coming weeks. I’m also doing #NaNoWriMo this month, trying to bang out as much as possible out of the sequel to “The Beast” before finishing Book 1 this winter. (If they are in fact two books; that remains to be seen.) I hope you are all keeping sane, and healthy, and celebrating every little triumph of reason and love over madness and intolerance that the world delivers.

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It was her, all along

The plant that is growing over the Elsewhere Throne has been known to me now for some time: Rhus typhina, the Staghorn (or Velvet) Sumac. When I was close enough to the naked branches this spring, it was clear to me how it came by both its Latin and English common names, evoking the velvet of deer antlers. Now, with autumn in full swing in my neighborhood, I look hopefully for a few buds that will flower into those classic Dr. Seussian crimson clusters.

Perhaps you are rushing things, Jian Qing.

“Yes,” I say, admiring the play of light over the subtly reddening leaves, “perhaps I am rushing…”

My mouth snaps closed. I peer sharply through the dappled shadows concealing the abandoned chair’s tattered seat. Jian Qing (簡晴) is my Chinese name, given to me by a Taiwanese friend almost thirty years ago when I was a Linguistics major studying Mandarin. (The characters mean Simplicity and Clarity.) It is also a name I have heard spoken by only one person in the last few years… and she is not mortal. The forms of Disenchantment are myriad, but I have often seen her take no shape at all but sunshine. Few things, for an alter ego, would be more suitable.

“Jing Huan Xian?”

Oh! So formal… Disenchantment smiles in her incorporeal way, a brightening that I feel down to my marrow. It takes a great deal of self-restraint not to hurl myself into the chair and immerse myself in that long-lost warmth and light. I don’t want to crush the sumac.

“D. you are killing me. Have you been here all along?”

Theoretically. You, on the other hand, have been elsewhere for a long time.

“I’ve been dead, D. I died — the last time — in February of 2019, was reborn as someone I’m not, and now they’re going to kill me again on January 31, with a stake through the heart this time, and you know what? I am actually elated about it. Terrified, but elated. I’ve been having a lot of conversations.”

I know, the Fairy of Disenchantment replies quietly. Are you okay talking to me in the middle of the sidewalk, or should we go home?

Laughing, I turn on my heel and head back up the hill to my house. I have Angélique Kidjo’s version of the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light still playing on my headphones: Tin guidi guidi guidi tingui tingui, Zo yéli yéliShe is only partly human being… She describes the possibilities… The light follows me up the hill.

I have indeed been talking to a lot of people lately, most helpfully at my local Aging and Disability Resource Center. There are a few missing pieces of data from my employer’s benefits office, but the way I’m seeing things now, going on disability is actually looking like a viable possibility.

It seems like a perfect time for a certain someone to come back into my life. You will find that other blog here: The Fairy of Disenchantment (Apologies for all the missing image links; I’m slowly working on replacing everything lost in the WordPress export…)

The Wormhole in the Lindens

Since I’ve been too preoccupied with life lately to spend time here on WordPress (how busy and creative y’all have been!) and have continued to struggle with content that’s up to my all-but-unattainable standards, here is a post from my erstwhile blog, Fairy of Disenchantment, which I have been missing a lot lately. It does still exist, hidden away, though the export broke all the associated image files. It would be work to revive it, but sometimes I think I’d enjoy hanging out there instead of this new space. It was a good blog… And the Fairy was a good friend…

Anyway, the post was written around my birthday five years ago and still feels relevant except that the lindens this year don’t seem to be flowering at the same time and currently the scent is quite subtle. Hopefully in another week I will be gloriously overwhelmed.

Many scents are portals, but in summer, the heat sketches so many of them into the air that I’m damned if I don’t pass through a hundred places just traversing seven city blocks.  Crossing a steaming parking lot, the tarmac almost fluid under my feet, I pass through cities from Athens to Phoenix, with a short stop at the Dane County Fair.  Before heat became my mortal enemy, I loved it unconditionally, as one might expect of anyone who was born on the summer solstice.  I imagine that even in that first season, while my ears were full of the music and laughter and chatter of birds, insects, and my family, the chemical language of all living things that thrive at high temperatures was penetrating my senses.  And the aroma that’s worked its way deepest into my into psyche — that says, irrefutably, this is the start of your season — belongs to the linden tree.

I’m a little surprised that it took me 43 years to realize that linden blossoms are olfactory wormholes in space/time.  I know I’ve always loved these trees, though I didn’t always live right next to one.  It was certainly the only saving grace of the house we last lived in (though we cursed the sap and feathery seedpods it dropped on our car).  Now, I have to walk a few blocks, but at the bottom of our street, there is a convocation of about ten of them, and when I turned the corner the other day, their scent in the air hit me like a Mahler symphony — specifically, the Third, which belongs to summer.  That was my first stop.  My second was Mahler’s city, Vienna — where I have persisted in believing that the hotel my parents and I stayed in when I was a teenager — and where I tasted my first Pilsner Urquell and my first Hasenrücken and Spätzle — was called “Die Drei Linden”.  In fact, this hotel was in Nürnberg, Germany (West Germany, then), where I discovered I was madly in love with a centuries-dead artist named Albrecht Dürer, who inspired a sculpture by Jürgen Görtz that I found delightfully horrible.  Ten years later, when I was studying for a month at the Goethe-Institut in München, I’d jump a train and go back to that spot, fleeing from a crazy landlady with electric blue eyeliner — only to find that in the summer (it’d been spring the first time I went) the city arguably resembles that statue of Der Hase with tourists pushing like little rabbits out of their overgrown hutch…  I ended up retreating to the peace of München’s many pleasant parks and ended the day, somehow, with an Afghanistani boyfriend — so it was one of those days.

You might think that was the last of my destinations but oh no, because thinking about any of that time — when my father worked a customer service job for United Airlines that no sane person would perform without substantial travel benefits — takes me a hundred places, on three continents and several islands.  Only this time, I didn’t have to fly stand-by or sleep in any airports, though truthfully, I never minded that part; I’m German and it just wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t suffer, especially for a privilege I didn’t earn.  (Incidentally, Father’s Day and my birthday coincide every 7 years; there’s no card or t-shirt or CD that could repay him for even one of those trips.)  In the end, and inevitably, my whirlwind tour left me with a crushing nostalgia.  Many people think that the origin of the word nostalgia is Russian; it’s actually a compound of Greek words, but that didn’t stop me from thinking of Russia as I passed under the lindens.

I’ve never been there, except through music. But there’s a tune I first heard when I was 20, on a great album of Russian folk songs sung by Dmitiri Hvorostovsky, called “The Lime Tree.”  Something about the play of light in the leaves and the scent and the sound evoked that recording, and of course I went home and listened to it instantly, and was satisfied.  I had no notion, though, until I started looking up other versions of the song, that ‘lime’ is just another name for ‘linden’.

But either all this virtual travel has tired me out a little, or I’m still a bit hungover from the longest day of the year.  So I think I’ll close now with a nice video of the song, performed by a classic Russian folk orchestra.  If you haven’t yet passed through your own summer portal, linden or otherwise, bon voyage!  Send me a postcard.

The elsewhere throne

Apparently we are about to enter the ninth week of our ‘sheltering in place’. Nine is nothing, my inner Persephone says breezily as we make our way to the coffee shop for the weekly curbside pickup. I can do that on my head. I decide that, the older I get, the more I like her company — maybe the most of a lifetime of invisible friends. If you carry a piece of winter with you always, the next deprivation never takes you by surprise.

I hold a secret hope that last night was the last killing frost, but this being Wisconsin, I don’t bank on it. I’ve seen our lilac bushes laden with snow, this time of year, though this at least doesn’t seem likely as the lilacs are late in budding. This after our magnolia bloomed weeks early, for whatever reason. Every flowering thing on our path today seems to be following its own eccentric schedule, which seems like good advice.

Our route is equally random, usually driven by avoiding other people (though I continue to be ludicrously happy when someone actually sends a smile or a greeting across the distance). But we make sure we pass one house, and one yard, and one thing in particular, just to assure ourselves that it’s still there, and to see how it might have changed.

I’m convinced it’s a throne, in another place and time.

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Or it’s art, or it’s simply something abandoned in an unconsciously artful way, next to a pot that once grew something intentional, or perhaps still does, augmented by weeds. Having just finished The Overstory (seriously worth the effort, especially during such a time), I respond fervently to any green thing that’s allowed to grow wild.

You know you want to sit on that, Persephone smirks, but I never will. Or not yet. It doesn’t feel like mine. For one thing, it’s not near enough to the sidewalk to convey an open invitation; I would probably be trespassing. I’ve never seen the people who live in the house, and can’t vouch for their forbearance of neighbors with fey compulsions. In fact, I’m not sure anyone lives there at all. But all that aside, I’m also convinced that this really is a throne in another place and time — possibly Faery itself — and what sort of thing am I getting myself into if I set myself down on it? Persephone agrees, ultimately, that this is a healthy apprehension. Not all kingdoms are the kind you’d actually want to rule.

There are days, of course, when I think just about any world would be an improvement over this one. But for now, I bide my time. For one thing, I’m curious about the shrub that just might be budding beside the throne, in this world. I can identify more plants and trees than most people, thanks to a whole family of gardeners, but this one in its naked, brutally-pruned state eludes me. I’ll come back and show you when and if it blooms.

I leave you now with my favorite illustration of why one should be cautious touching inviting-looking objects with fae origins. (Also because my mate Martin fucking hates Radiohead and this, in his view, is the best thing that could ever happen to Thom Yorke. ^_^)

Intermission

Like only 80% of the world right now, I miss going to the movies. Or more specifically, “me ‘n’ my baby” are keenly feeling the lack. All of the best films that I’ve seen in the last 7 years have been in her company. Right now, we’re separately binging on The Untamed on Netflix and texting during scheduled must-not-miss episodes. It is a travesty of the sacred covenant of the movie theater. Post-pandemic, I keep my wishes even more than usually modest, so when the current crisis finally abates and we’re free to venture out again into the embracing, illusion-laced dark, we will go see anything, and stay all goddamn day.

That is all. Except I will never miss any opportunity, ever, to invoke Olu Dara. I hope he is well and safe, and so are you.

Soon

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A month or more
till I see you again
is unthinkable. But
there are places,
even just down the street
from my house,
when the sun is high
and the grass is dry,
where lovers might still
be together,
six feet apart.

What can I say? I can be with only one of my life-mates during the lockdown. Through the week, at home, I work overtime and sleep, with hours snatched to watch The Untamed and marvel at how quickly Chinese comes back to me after so long. (Jeezus, 25+ years’ study ought to count for something. But seriously, I ache for it. I’ve begun to dream in Mandarin again.) Two blissful days of writing love and magic and stealthy revolution, sending my final product to my dear beta-reader and writer-in-arms in Washington state (she’s OK). Playing music with my present love. Texts and emails to my absent love. Lean into the pain. Start again.

Close with music. Someone, I think my favorite coffee roaster (who is still open, a 20 min. walk away), captioned something on Instagram “Spring is upon us…” and it made me happy to imagine that I was not the only one who thinks of this song after the vernal equinox:

Reclaimed

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You said you love reclaimed
spaces, and this old feed mill
is dearer to me than most.
There is no light like this,
anywhere in this old town
so suddenly all new, like us.
Even without you, I smile,
feeling the sun on our lips.

* * *

It was an exceedingly pleasant day today. There are more to come.

Commonplace Books Should Be More So

I learn more from Shelf Awareness newsletters than almost anywhere else on the web, probably because just about anything book-related is guaranteed to be more useful than anything I will ever read in the daily speculations (I’ve long ago ceased calling it news).

Case in point: their most recent email gave a name to a something I never knew had one: the commonplace book. These are journals that collect lines from books that have struck you powerfully for one reason or another, whether it’s a brilliant turn of phrase, or some thoroughly novel perspective. I’m pretty sure I’ve never kept a proper commonplace book, though I’ve filled all my portable notebooks with a slew of lines from the books I’m reading, mostly on the bus, in the midst of notes to myself about my book in progress, random glimpses of future poems, and occasional records of WTF conversations actually overheard on the bus between two ostensibly human adults. 

So when I recently snagged a notebook from Redbubble printed (on both sides!) with the photography of one of my current favorite artists on WordPress, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it.

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Photo: Bear R. Humphreys, Streamflow 1 / Pen: Cross ‘Century II’

When I first ordered it, I was thinking, Perfect! This will be the book I carry in my bag for those days when I’m screen-poisoned and still need to work on The Beast or maybe some other future story — in short, Something Important. No pressure, oh no, not at all… Honestly, I’m a little proud of myself for recognizing so quickly that I was setting myself up for failure. Nooo, I gently told myself, you do not consecrate your most beautiful notebook to your own very best words. You keep putting those, and your not-so-best words, in that scruffy, perfectly sized little memo pad with the mermaids on it that a friend gave you last year because for whatever reason (fantasy writer = mermaids?) she thought you liked them, and you enlist the Beautiful Book as a record of all the glorious lines you wish you’d thought of.

So I started. But not with the book I’m reading that feels most important (Richard Powers’ The Overstory really is all it’s hyped to be, but at the end of a long day it will demand the very last joule of your energy). No, I ended up with the one I’d just picked up from the library that I couldn’t believe came onto the hold shelf so fast — a new epic fantasy by A.K. Larkwood called The Unspoken Name.

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This book. It didn’t just have my name printed on a little slip of paper on the Holds shelf; the whole barking book was screaming it. There isn’t just a map on the first pages. There’s a facsimile of a torn-up-and-pieced-together map. (Oh gods, there’s treasure.) And following that, there isn’t merely a cast of characters with names like Csorwe. There’s a pronunciation guide so you know the C is [k] and that name rhymes with doorway. I just about hurled it across the room in disgust at how many ways I could be seduced so quickly. And then we went to bed.

Mind you, as a genre writer, I have high and brutal expectations. There are a million 500-page works of epic fantasy out there, all clamoring for my attention; I can only give each new book about 10,000 words to make me feel it’s worth my time. But so far, about that far in or maybe even less, I’m in it for the long haul. And sure enough, not even two chapters into it, I came across a line that spoke to me loud enough for me to write on the first page of my commonplace book:

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I think I loved the line so much because my home could also measure this description. Well, ‘monument’ may be a bit too grand. It’s more of a shrine to entropy…

Maybe the commonplace book would actually be more commonplace these days if it didn’t sound so boring. (The Wikipedia entry lists a few alternative names for it, including ‘hodgepodge book’ and ‘zibaldone’, which just means ‘heap of things’ but is at least Italian.)  I think it would be great if the idea of such records got just as much play in daily life as journals and diaries. But I’m skeptical that it would truly catch on when people are generally more interested in filling up books about themselves. Me, I’m in a very different place. At this point in my life, the only “I” I want to write on a blank page refers to someone else. 

Closing with, for no particular reason except books with maps in them…

 

 

 

Screen-poisoning

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I like to think that the above is a photo I’m unlikely to ever take again, because I seriously doubt I’ll be setting up a used 2014 Macbook Air bought on eBay for my aunt Sam on any kind of regular basis. While using my own 2014 laptop to see how I can further overburden my to-read list with suggestions from today’s “Shelf Awareness” newsletter, and checking work email on my iPad, and taking photos with my phone that give me techno-social anxiety. (Meanwhile texting my aunt and my girlfriend simultaneously, which could’ve had disastrous and/or comedic results.) By the end of the night — and we haven’t even talked about my hours of computer-time at work — I was suffering from a serious case of what I call screen-poisoning. 

I never experienced the phenomenon before MS, but I also never spent half as many hours subjected to unnatural lighting as I have in the last eight or so years. Some of this, of course, is my own doing. I really wish I was one of those writers like Neil Gaiman who’s able to put down large chunks of his books in ink on paper. And I still do earnestly try that, from time to time. For the most part, though, if I can’t type, I can’t write. Over the holidays, when my laptop reported that my screen activity was averaging 6 hours per day, I chose to interpret this not as the warning it was designed to be, but as a cause for celebration. That was 6 hours of writing that I’d achieved every day!  But the fact is, I knew damned well that the news wasn’t all good because around that 6th-hour mark, pretty much every day, my body had already performed an intervention.

What happens is, by mechanisms I may never understand, Body decides I’ve had toxic levels of screen-time and proceeds to make me literally, physically nauseous until I step away from the machine. Not just for a break (which I do try to take now and then); I’m completely cut off. It might, in fact, be a form of headache-less migraine — I have one friend that’s been diagnosed with that, and mean to ask my neurologist about it one of these days. Whatever it is, though, it’s barking obnoxious. And at its worst, disabling. I’ve gone home from work ‘screen-poisoned’, more than once. But when it comes to the book… it’s adding insult to injury.

I realize that I ask a lot from Body. Particularly my brain. Like Sherlock, ‘I crave mental exaltation.’ But unfortunately, while simply turning off all my screens will instantly kill my nausea, it’s not going to stop me from bullying my brain into some kind of exercise, no matter how tired I am. There’s always unfinished knitting (Just a few more rows!) or music practice (I can’t believe you’re still on Vol. 1 of the Christopher Parkening guitar book!) or a language to keep up (Where are your Chinese flash cards?)  Sometimes, I can get away with just reading a book. Or even better, listening to one. But even there… (Are you really listening to The Starless Sea? You just read it two months ago! You’re never going to finish The Overstory!)

Speaking of The Starless Sea, though, I blame that book, or perhaps more specifically its author, for poking a long sleeping temptation, which can’t possibly be an antidote to screen-poisoning. And yet. I miss video games. Every time my friend Audra talks about Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I get itchy.  (And maybe I shouldn’t listen to the soundtrack for writing background music.) And part of me is saying, Hey, if Erin Morgenstern can be addicted to Skyrim (I’ve never actually played any of the Elder Scrolls but I think they’re madly beautiful) and still finish her second book… and in fact find the inspiration for that book in the playing… there could be something OK about this? In moderation?

Fortunately, at the moment, I’m liberated from answering the question by the fact that I can’t actually afford buying a system to play anything on for at least the next few months. By that time, maybe I’ll have discovered a compromise with Body that might actually help me finish this book faster. I’ll report any breakthroughs. For the time being, though, I’m going to go rest my eyes.

 

 

 

In the Middle of the Night

I came across an old memo pad that got sucked into the household general purpose pile of notes, and was surprised to find, among the usual variety of song chords and grocery lists, what appear to be the first lines of the first chapter of my novel-in-progress (most recent draft) — clearly written down in the dark, in the middle of the night, while I was wrestling with insomnia. There’s a second page, but this will do for a glimpse of my atrocious wee-hour handwriting:

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It makes me feel good about myself that I actually made something out of this. And since there are readers here who remember a much different start to this book, and whose encouragement got me through some tough times, I thought I’d post here the first section of my first chapter (final draft) of Tuning the Beast as a sort of celebration of tenacity:

Chapter 1. Prelude (Thirdmoon, 1929)

The land speaks in thorns, razor-edged leaves, bristles, and spines. Its thirst is quenched but once a year. Coruscar says: “Expect no comfort here.”

Tsavor Marl, An Unnatural History of Coruscar

The peace will drive us mad if it lingers much longer. In these miserably sober morning hours, before the day opens itself properly to debauchery and musical distraction, Master Euclase has taken to moving his chair in front of the kitchen window, where he rocks precariously on its back legs, tossing back cup after cup of black coffee as he reads journals of past Tunings, or snickers at my summaries of the gossip columns – always with one eye trained on the red dirt road from Sphene for the first sign that our long winter lull is over. So it is that he sees our visitors first, and even before he snaps his fingers and speaks the words “Mica, we’re on!”, I’ve felt the rush of his excitement and sprung from my seat to join him.

Crossing the high-desert scrubland, at the center of a cloud of dust, is an ink-black joffy, sprinting at such speed that its rider lies almost prone against the bristly pelt of its high-shouldered, pantherine back. Only a service commission could necessitate a formal message from one of the Keeps, but in the six years I’ve been apprenticed to House Kalekai, I’ve never seen one arrive with such dispatch. The old man’s anxiousness dovetails with mine as we squint to see the color of the messenger’s livery: Smaragda’s emerald, Larimar’s milky blue, Realgar’s vermilion. But when the dust clears, and the rider dismounts in a whirl of Garanat crimson, our hearts freeze for two entirely different reasons.

“God of Octaves…”

The Master’s strangled oath takes the very words from my mouth. Swiftly locking down my panic, I slow my breathing until the sole anxiety I betray is the one that we have in common. It has been nine years since Garanat commenced his boycott of our Tuning House, barring our very presence from the Keep. It would be naive to think that by summoning us after all this time, the Beast has any intention of letting either of us – least of all the old man – walk out unscathed.

Old man, I say – and have done since I joined him, a girl of thirteen – but at forty-five he is ‘old’ only among Tuners. His curly brown hair, worn much longer than mine and with significantly more care, shows no sign of grey, and the faint wrinkles at the corners of his hazel eyes – these, too, betraying our distant cousinship – are more the work of kindness than of time. But his face manifests a wear that extends far beyond his years, and reveals a lifetime of exposure not only to Coruscar’s sun and wind but to the more singular hazards of our profession.

Pulling himself together with almost mechanical precision, he gives me a tight smile made all the more ghastly by the scars that furrow his right cheek like peach pit. I have not forgotten who made them.

“Well, cub?” he says, gripping my shoulder almost painfully hard. “It seems we’ll be trying out those new Number 12s sooner than we thought.”

Gathering up some of the swagger that has seen me through more than twenty Tunings, and much of my public life, I summon the proper amount of Bring it on into my grin. But my fearlessness is not the only deception I must work on the old man – that I have been working on him for the better part of a year.

The dread that twists my stomach is more immediate and more personal than he can ever know. I turn on my heel, and stride to the door, and prepare to meet – as coldly and professionally as I can – the girl I love.

Speaking of the old blog and the new one, I’ve made some improvements here since my last post. First, I found a theme that will hopefully be easier to read. Second, I ditched my ‘Subversions of disability’ tagline in favor of the present, more reliably true one. (Frankly, sometimes I’m just too tired for subversion.) Next, I reworked my first post into a new About this blog page, and also created an About MS: A cast of characters page since I still want this to be an entry point for people with MS looking for something beyond the mainstream. Can’t promise that all this will make me post more often, but it can’t hurt.

And because this song got stuck in my head just writing the title to this post, here’s John Hiatt: