#SecondThoughts: Bridge of Spies

One weekend a while back, Himself put on the film “Bridge of Spies” telling me he was interested to see how they handled this piece of Cold War history. Now Himself being a military history buff and the Cold War being his specialist area, I’m entirely used to being less knowledgeable than he, so I watched the film as just another spy thriller. Tom Hanks puts in a good turn – doesn’t he always – and I thought no more about it.

To be honest, there’s long been a large vacuum around the Cold War for me as, having spent my childhood in the third world where we had actual conflicts to deal with, the Cold War mostly whooshed by. But a person can’t spend as much time as I do around Himself without that Cold War knowledge rubbing off and, bit-by-bit, it did just that.

There were two recent triggers …

For the last few years, Himself and I have visited a Nuclear Bunker in Cheshire where they hold a Cold War themed re-enactor event. I’ve had a brief wander around indoors but – for me – it’s mostly been about keeping warm and dry. This year the owners invited the re-enactors to set up stall indoors … and the bunker was brought to life. For the first time it was clear how it would’ve looked should the worst have happened. The owners asked those re-enactors who were young (and so looked realistic) to pose wearing their historically accurate uniforms at the sensors and monitors. That – combined with the large images lining the corridors depicting recreations of city streets before, during and after ‘the blast’ – had a somewhat chilling impact.

Attending that same event was a podcaster – Ian Sanders from Cold War Conversations. I’ll not pretend otherwise, I initially engaged with him to pick his brain on podcasting and the equipment which would be necessary and/or recommended, as it’s something I’m considering getting involved in. But then we got talking, exchanging cards (as you do), when he mentioned “Bridge of Spies”, Gary Powers and the downing of the U2 spy plane in the same breath. Naturally, I nodded knowledgeably, only admitting to Himself later that I’d not really remembered the Gary Powers bit at all. So, we listened to Ian’s interview of Gary Powers Jr – son of the downed pilot who now runs a Cold War museum in the US – and then watched the film again …

There is no way I’ll have the same feelings as someone who grew up in the UK during the Cold War, who lived through the fear, the warning leaflets, the everyday stocism, CND, the Aldermaston marches, the cuban military crisis – for all those cast a shadow that I never got to feel. But the second time I watched “Bridge of Spies”, I looked at it with a new set of eyes – as something that had happened to real people and not just characters in a spy novel, as a time my contemporaries had experienced first-hand while they were growing up.

It’s still a good film, but now it’s also a film I’ll remember … for I’ve had a chance to take a walk around in their shoes.


© Debra Carey, 2019

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#FF Photo Prompt

The Shrine

They’d followed the path for what seemed like hours. Even though they’d been going only just over the hour, the mutterings and grumbling had grown to a level which had begun to infect even Jim’s famous positivity. He’d really wanted to get them out of the wood before nightfall, but had to acknowledge their current pace wouldn’t get them close to achieving this aim. Accepting he’d been a touch over-optimistic, Jim suggested they stop at the next clearing for a rest and a brew. Almost immediately, the mood of the group raised and the pace picked up, which was just as well as the next clearing was further away than Jim had expected. They’d been appearing at what he’d started to think was suspicious regularity, so this last leg had both covered more distance than he’d expected and settled his concerns.

The clearing was larger than any they’d passed previously and there were signs in the middle of previous fires. Jim quickly nominated the freshest to gather wood, reminding them not to stray out of calling-out distance, before he turned his attention to settling down the older and less fit of the group as comfortably as was possible. He got Jen to distribute a square of chocolate to each member of the group, with a little extra for those who needed the boost, while he sorted out the kettles and flints, and reassembled the little framework he would erect over a portion of the fire for boiling kettles. Jen returned earlier than expected and gave him the bad news that there was no way their little group could travel further that day. Time was needed to dress sore and blistered feet, and some proper nourishment would be needed to fuel any further walking.

Sighing, Jim nodded his assent, before diverting a few of the returning wood gatherers and setting them to gather ground covering in order to provide the group with more comfortable bedding upon which to place their sleeping bags. With the wood gathered so far, he laid a fire and got it started. Having filled the kettle from the stream on the other side of the path, he got them boiling for tea. Leaving Jen to manage the fire and tea with a few helpers, he assembled their foragers for a foray into the woods. Grabbing a few decent-sized branches, alight from the fire to guide their way, he split the group into pairs, each setting off in different directions to see what they could find. They found mushrooms, a wide variety of berries and something that looked – and smelled – like rosemary growing on the higher and drier bits of ground. His foragering partner had him dig up some tubers which she decided would be safe to eat, and they collected some bones and two carcasses of recently dead small birds off the ground.

On their return, the kettles were removed, all but the one which made tea for the returning foragers, and large pots were placed over the fire. Other members of the group refilled the kettles and soon the mouthwatering aroma of mushroom soup filled the clearing. Wary of attracting wild animals, Jim ensured that lit branches were placed at intervals around the clearing, before settling down to his own bowl of soup. Hunks of bread from various backpacks got handed round, and the group settled down for the night with relatively full bellies. Having checked the supply of wood was plentiful enough to keep the central fire and the circle of lit branches going through the night, Jim divided the group up into sentries for 2-hourly stints throughout the night. The elderly were excused this duty, although old Josh insisted on taking his turn. That made Jim smile. Josh had been a great leader in his time and Jim had hoped to rely on his wisdom and experience on this trek.

The night having passed without incident, Jim had agreed the kettles could be refilled and a brew enjoyed before they set off once more, but not before he’d made clear they wouldn’t be stopping again until they’d cleared the woods. The foragers distributed the berries gathered the night before to provide some energy for the day ahead, before carefully storing the remaining herbs, mushrooms and extra bones around the group’s backpacks.

It was a tired and footsore group who finally broke clear of the wood as the sun was setting. Ahead of them the plain seemed to stretch out for miles. Despite the golden light of the sunset, it seemed barren and overwhelming. Jim ensured that wood was gathered, a fire lit and a surrounding circle of lit branches set up once again. Tea was brewed, a soup made after the foragers had returned, and Jen with her team of helpers had re-dressed the wounds and tended to the old and unfit. Even after soup and bread, and more of their valuable chocolate was distributed, the group remained unusually quiet. The sight of the vast plain had struck fear into all but the bravest of hearts. The night’s sentries found they weren’t alone in their wakefulness, for most of the group found it hard to sleep that night.

In the morning, old Josh took Jim aside for a quiet word, after which Jim invited Jen and the most experienced of their foragers – Cecilia – to join them. While tea and berries were distributed among the group by the remaining foragers, they discussed the problem of what lay ahead from every possible angle. In the end, Jim had to agree – they’d hug the edge of the wood for it provided them with abundant wood for fires, a stream for fresh water, and a source of food to be foraged. It would take them in a different direction to the one Jim had set his heart upon but he realised, now, that this group didn’t have the strength and stamina to cross that terrifying plain.

By the time this decision was made, most of the day had passed, so a decision was taken to make it a rest day. Mid-afternoon, Jim told Josh he’d scout ahead as this was a different path to the planned one and, leaving the group in the care of Jen and Josh, he’d set off, promising to be back in time for the evening meal. He’d made good progress alone and had soon scouted two days ahead. Then realising it would be dark soon, he rushed into the woods to find a suitable branch – both to light his way back and to signal to the group that he was returning.

Stopping at the stream to drink his fill, he noticed the far bank was now rocky. Gathering up some brush, he’d applied a spark. The burning brush lit up the area allowing him to notice the shallowness of the stream. Rolling up his trousers, he’d crossed the steam to investigate. The rocks were higher and smoother than he’d expected but as he cast his branch around, a greenish glint caught Jim’s eye. Moving in closer, he found an alcove, inside of which sat the greatest surprise of all. In the middle of the woods, miles away from civilization, was an extraordinarily beautiful bottle. Triangular in shape, with multiple sloping facets, Jim guessed it was made of crystal. Some of the surfaces glinted green, others blue, while most were clear. There was a large round stopper and it sat on a delicate square base.

Jim was drawn to touch it and, finding it cool, he’d moved his hand all around it. Finding no booby traps, he’d picked it up. Surprisingly heavy, he realised it was filled with a clear liquid. Removing the lid, he’d poured a small amount into his tin cup. Smelling it, he was surprised by the scent – it was entirely natural, not chemical, so he risked wetting his lips. Although it’d stung the cut on his lip, he’d swallowed a small sip. Instantly it warmed first his throat, then his stomach. Knowing he couldn’t delay without causing tremendous concern in the group, he’d poured the remaining liquid into his flash and, replacing the bottle, he’made his way back to the group with a decided spring in his step.

Having apologised for his delayed arrival and supped his meal, Jim was keen to take Josh aside to share his tale. Having offered Josh his flask, he’d been surprised when the old man had burst out laughing. Calling over Cecilia and the other foragers, Josh‘d asked them to smell and taste the liquid in order to identify the ingredients. Citrus offered one, coriander another, liquorice a third, angelica and juniper berries Cecilia stated firmly with a grin.

Jim looked at them puzzled “What are you lot on about?”
“Gin” said Josh, “it’s gin m’boy. You never tasted it before then?”
“Bombay Sapphire, if I’m not mistaken” chuckled Cecilia, taking another sip “it was my mother’s favourite.”
“But what’s it doing out here?” demanded Jim, trying to drag them back down to earth. “Well, from your description of the bottle, I’d imagine some uneducated savage thought it was the elixir of the gods and created a shrine for it.”
“Be serious you lot, are we in trouble do you think?”
“If no-one saw you take it, they’ll probably never notice it’s gone. Let’s hope so eh?”

© Debra Carey, 2019


 

#FF Photo Prompt

IMGP5653

The photograph is one of mine which I took … actually no, I don’t want to lead the story you’ll write by telling you anymore.

So, what do you think it is, or better yet – tell us the story it inspires you to write. Any style or genre, just nothing NSFW.

 

Word count: say up to 1,000 words
Deadline: 2pm GMT on Friday 8th March 2019

Don’t forgot, if you miss the deadline, you can always post your story to our #TortoiseFlashFiction page


Post your story on your site and link to it here in the comments below, or drop us a line via the contact us page and we’ll post it for you.

#secondthoughts: All Quiet on The Western Front

I’m very parsimonious in handing out 5-star reviews, but Erich Maria Remarque’s masterpiece would’ve got twice that many if they’d been available – for yes, I do believe we need a 10-star rating system for books to properly rank them, but that’s a ramble for another day.

Last year, the Reading Addicts site took a poll of their members from which came this list of recommendations of 10 books set during WWI :

Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
The First World War – John Keegan (non-fiction)
Goodbye to All That – Robert Graves (memoir)
A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemmingway
Testament of Youth – Vera Brittain (memoir)
The First Casualty – Ben Elton
The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to War in 1914 – Christopher Clark (non-fiction)
Private Peaceful – Michael Morpurgo
The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry – Various authors (poetry)
All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque

The Penguin poetry collection formed part of the set reading for my English Literature ‘O’ level all those years ago, and I read the Vera Brittain when about 20 – her age when WWI broke out; unsurprisingly, it had quite the impact on me and it was years before I chose to read about WWI again. I’ve since read a number of the other candidates and wouldn’t argue with the list, except in one aspect – Remarque’s book should, now and always, top it.

Of those listed, half are fiction, and only Remarque’s was written from the perspective of the ‘bad guys’, the aggressors, the war-mongering Hun (I’m British, and that’s how I was taught to perceive the ‘other side’ in both world wars) … and it’s all the more important a read for that very reason, for this book provides the balance which is sorely needed.

otto dix skull

A couple of years ago I wandered into an exhibition of prints by Otto Dix, and this book reminded me of that experience. The obvious common ground is their sharing of the same subject matter – WWI. Others are that their work was produced later – between world wars, both were banned by the Third Reich, and both depict subjects which make you want to look away while having a power that draws you in.

All Quiet on the Western Front was written from the point-of-view of Paul – an educated and thoughtful young man – and what stayed with me were his observations.

How soldiers literally reverted to animal instinct as they get nearer the front, with Paul commenting that indulging in thought before acting could leave you dead. It made me wonder, does being a ‘successful’ soldier mean you must lose your humanity? Paul’s experience in the shell hole with a French soldier he has stabbed, and who dies slowly, demonstrates that conflict between the human and the animal all too clearly. How the fighting of a war makes one scornful of those who continue to insist on the petty military parade-ground rubbish. How those who actually fight can view the older generation, who’d whipped them up on the glory of serving their country and sent them off to a horrific war without a single thought. How going home on leave could be such a viscerally painful experience. Paul had mused previously that the older soldiers, those who’d already started their adult lives, had something concrete to return to if they survived the war. But the younger men, the ones on the brink of adulthood had nothing. They’d been schoolboys, they’d not had a chance to develop yet – and becoming a soldier, fighting in a de-humanising war, had left them empty. Paul’s experiences on leave simply served to remind him of who’d he’d been before, demonstrating that he was unable to re-connect with his past, how that person was gone forever.

No wonder it was banned by the Third Reich. Described as one of the greatest pieces of anti-war literature, it’s strength is in its subtlety. There’s no speechifying, no ranting and raving. It’s neither a gore-fest nor gung-ho, we see soldiers simply doing what has to be done. But seeing the impact that has on them and whether it can be OK for those of us who do not fight to ask that of them, is just one of the many questions you end up asking yourself.

I was recently watching Indy Neidell’s excellent ‘Great War’ channel on Youtube, when he made mention of Remarque’s book. I hastened to his review and was interested to see that, despite coming to the book from the perspective of a historian, he had the same reaction which I, as a reader and writer, had.  What was particularly interesting is that Neidell spoke of the research carried out by Remarque – research which allowed him to write such an accurate depiction, despite his own very brief involvement. Do take a moment to watch it …

 

In short, if you only read one book about WWI – this is the one. It’s an absolute masterpiece – a work of fiction, but positively dripping with historical accuracy.

© Debra Carey, 2019

Your lucky … what?

“I wish you wouldn’t mumble …”

Jen flashed Scott a look that said “shut up” before changing the subject “two cappucinos please, chocolate sprinkles on one.”

Waiting till they sat down, Scott tried again “Your lucky what? Is that another one of those things you don’t want to talk about, so you just mumble until I give up asking?”

This time the look Jen gave Scott read ‘panic’ and indeed, she got up and headed rapidly for the Ladies. Sighing, Scott switched round their cups so that the coffee with chocolate sprinkles was in front of her, not him – barristas always got that wrong – and added a couple of sugar lumps to his cup, before stirring vigorously. Luckily Jen was in the ladies for she always ragged him about messing up the creamy head of his cappucino, asking why he didn’t just order a latte instead. To be honest, he didn’t really have an answer, he guessed his coffee order had become a bit of a habit. That and the fact he didn’t like change …

Later that day, just before they knocked off shift, a call came of “officers down”. Scott and Jen joined the rush out the door to go to the assistance of their colleagues. It was a good thing they’d gone mob-handed as it turned out the bad guys had turned out mob-handed too. After a very brisk and hot fire-fight, Scott whispered across to Jen “Got any ammo? I’ve run out but I’ve got a clear shot at the guy who appears the boss. If I can take him down … well, we may be able to bring it to and end.” He watched Jen pat down her pockets and start to shake her head.

Just as he was turning away, he noticed her pull something out from in the depths of her clothing. It was a bullet – just one bullet. As she carefully threw it to him, Jen made eye contact “Don’t waste it y’hear. It’s my lucky bullet … yeah, yeah … that why I always mumble.” Making a mental note to follow that disclosure up, Scott loaded the bullet into his gun, taking careful aim … and the guy dropped where he fell. Turned out Scott’s belief that he was the boss was right – the fight immediately went out of the remaining bad guys and they were soon mopping them all up.

As they were all drifting away from the scene, Jen seemed to be waiting for something, or someone. As the morgue attendants arrived, she quickly rushed over and spoke with them. The conversation got a bit lively, to the extent that the Examiner went over to them. Scott decided it was time he joined Jen, so when the Examiner asked her “you want the bullet that killed this guy given back to you after we’ve done the autopsy ‘cos it’s your lucky bullet, that right?” he stepped right in saying “Yeah, that’s right. It’s her personal property, not government issue. D’ya think you can do the paperwork to make it happen, or do I need to speak to my captain?”

© Debra Carey, 2018

Look at the moon … it’s so beautiful!

You’ve been sleeping fitfully for a while now, right on the edge, and far from rested. Something has kept nagging away at you, but you’ve no idea what it was until the phone wakes you up. Even as you reach for your phone in response to the alert, you realise what’s been bothering you is the persistent buzzing of your phone. You glance at it before answering the call and see that the number of notifications is off the chart.

“Garrett” you bark into the phone, shaking away the final vestiges of sleep. A voice you recognise but which doesn’t identify itself, says “Do not look at the moon!” Before you can question them, the line goes dead. You check the source of the alert and it is Them, so you know the message isn’t some random drunk playing a prank.

Fully awake now, you wonder what it’s all about. Your bedroom is still clothed in darkness – unsurprisingly as you’d invested in curtains with black-out linings to improve your sleep – and you can’t think clearly. You decide to go to the bathroom and whilst there, you take a look at those notifications – they all seem to be talking about it being a beautiful night and how gorgeous the moon is. There are so many notifications, you quickly realise that most of them are from total strangers. Then you notice one is opening an image and you quickly close your messages. “What the hell is going on?” you exlaim to yourself.

Deciding you need an injection of caffeine to work it out, you head for the kitchen. But as you reach your bedroom door, you stop, your palm still gripping the handle. Did you close the living room curtains before going to bed last night? If not, there’ll be a clear view of the night sky through your windows. Edging the door open a crack, you’re relieved to find not a chink of light coming through; it looks like you may well have closed the curtains. Still, you go back to your nightstand for a torch – just in case. You decide you’re not going to be turning on any lights and you’ll use the beam of your torch to navigate your way across the almost certainly cluttered living room floor. If you keep your eyes assiduously turned to the inside wall, you should be safe, even if there’s a chink in the curtains. The kitchen, once you get there, will be fine as it’s all interior walls. You’d not been keen on that aspect when you bought the flat, but it seems like a positive bonus now.

Going through the routine with your Moka pot, you think through what you know. The alert was brief, so they were probably having to make a shed-load of calls. As you’re more of a grunt than a heavyweight, they must be getting to the end of their call list soon. Hmm … with luck that would mean either a second call, or an opportunity to call in and get some answers. As the pot did it’s thing on the stovetop, you cautiously check the living room curtains through the kitchen doorway. Although not black-out lined, they appear to be thoroughly drawn, so you decide there’s no reason not to take your coffee into the living room, where you can switch on the laptop and see if They have sent anything out to support the alert.

They had. It wasn’t much though. What they knew was anyone who’d looked at the moon that night had gone loopy – not aggressive or zombie-like, more silly, out-of-control happy, like on some sixties drug trip. So far as they could tell, people who’d only looked at electronic images appeared unaffected, but probably still best to avoid if possible – TV news feeds in particular, so best to get news from the radio. Finally, the instructions were to stay indoors and to stay alert and available.

Finishing the first – much needed – cup of coffee, it was time to re-fill and start brewing the second one, and to take the opportunity to get dressed, re-check the grab bag and your weapons. Working on automatic pilot, you smoothly get those tasks completed, before taking a quick look at supplies – food, water, batteries, camping gear, fuel in and for the back-up generator. All that done, you toast some old bread and cook a couple of eggs and bacon for an early breakfast. Sitting down with your third cup of coffee, you check for messages again. This one’s more detailed. It seems to be just the US being targetted, although all operatives are being encouraged to reach out to any reliable international sources they have for confirmation. It seems completely unfathomable that the moon in their skies was having this impact, whilst the moon in other skies was not. Neighbouring countries were suffering the same issue – although patchily – places like Canada, Mexico and parts of the Carribbean. Whilst easy to come up with candidates who’d want to put the US in such a state, figuring out the “how” was proving to be a real headache.

The message closed with a list of personnel who were to report once the sun rose, although with reminders to avoid looking up into the sky – just in case – whilst those not on the list were to remain at home and indoors. Sighing to yourself, for you’re in the remain at home and indoors category, you ponder on one final odd touch – the message closed with a “Be careful out there”. You recognise it as a line from Hill Street Blues – a line which hasn’t been used since 9/11. Clearly They were not just rattled but genuinely worried.

You decide to take a nap. The fitful night wouldn’t help your level of concentration and readiness, so your best option is to get yourself into peak condition for when you are needed. One final check that the flat is secure, and you get your head down on the sofa, quickly switching off and falling asleep.

The next few days follow the same pattern. You sleep, eat, exercise – all indoors, all with the curtains tightly drawn. You get regular updates by message from Them. News filters in from overseas assets and there’s been the usual little spat with the Russians, but no-one seems any closer to knowing what the hell is happening. Scientists working long into the night came up with goggles which filtered out the harmful effects of the moon. Key workers get drafted in to manufacture the goggles in bulk. They arrange for the goggles to be distributed around all Their people – with a spare set in case of breakages. Eventually the technology is made available more widely, although it’s likely that someone, somewhere was making a financial killing – Them probably. But that’s how They operated, how They ensured they always had an unlimited operating budget.

Either way, you’re grateful the self-imposed purdah is over. Your goggles on, with the spare pair safely stowed in your backpack, you go out for the first run in weeks. Despite the strenous exercise programme, your legs feel stiff, and your relish the ability to stretch them fully. You reach your destination where Viktor is waiting. You wonder what he has for you as he catches your eye while holding up a cup of coffee. Just as you sit down, you realise his goggles are of a different design to your own. Had they been made before? And if so, how … and why? “You’ve lots of questions to answer Viktor …” you say as you take a sip of your coffee.

© Debra Carey, 2019

#second thoughts: Seasonal Reading

Full disclosure: this is a #secondthought on a #secondthought I had back in 2016, only this time I’m coming at it from the viewpoint of a grandparent.

My granddaughter’s first Christmas was last year and, at 8 months, she had no real idea what was going on. It was a just a big family gathering where the gift which most diverted her was the remote control car Himself got for her and which the grown-ups were happily ‘driving’ around the room. Her little eyes followed it everywhere. But now, at 18 months old, she just loves books – which obviously gives great joy to this reading grandparent. After my initial over-enthusiasm when I purchased every single children’s book on my daughter’s amazon wish list, I’ve been better behaved. But now it’s Christmas … and let’s be honest, there are Christmas book traditions to be started.

My first stop had to be the Christmas book “The Night Before Christmas” by Clement C Moore …

I was drawn to a pop-up version in board book format, illustrated by Gina Bordicchia which I thought could be perfect for surviving enthusiastic young hands. I was disappointed, though, to discover that it’s an abbreviated version of the poem as, ideally, I’d wanted one copy of the book which would last throughout childhood. On the positive side – the illustrations are really rather lovely and the pop-ups look not just great but robust. As the book is relatively small, it would also work well for a small person’s hands. There are other board book versions, but I discounted them after reviewers commented about spelling errors (unforgivable) and glitter (no-one needs that stuff getting everywhere). I decided my best option was to buy this for one for the early years, and to buy another – more older-child-suitable version – in due course for keepsaking.

Then I came across an alternative version of the poem written by Kes Grey (illustrated by Claire Powell) which I think has may earn the right to go on my older-child-suitable version list alongside the traditional poem – and then realised this is exactly how I get into trouble over there being so many books …

Next, I checked to see if her favourite CeeBeebies characters – Sarah & Duck – have a Christmas book. Hurrah! They do, so Sarah & Duck and the Christmas Lights – also in board book format – leapt into my shopping basket. If you aren’t familiar with them (I wasn’t), all I can say is that they make my granddaughter smile.

Then, on a trip to my local National Trust property on a cold but gorgeous autumnal day, I wandered around snapping pics with my new (landscape-suitable) lens, before seeking sanctuary from the cold in the festively decorated shop. There were books … who am I kidding, of course there were. There, yet another in board book format was to be found leaping into my shopping basket – “A Christmas Wish: A Peter Rabbit Tale” – for after all, a person can’t go wrong with Beatrix Potter surely?

And there I felt I had to stop the actual shopping – for this year at least.

For next year, there are a number of books in consideration – Allan & Janet Ahlberg’s “Jolly Christmas Postman” for one. A number of people have recommended “Lucy & Tom’s Christmas” and “Alfie’s Christmas” by Shirley Hughes as nostalgic options. As someone who was more influenced by Christmas USA-style than by Victorian-style English, these don’t immediately tick my boxes, but an in-the-paper browse is probably required before making any final decision. I can see that seasonal book buying could become one of the many joys of being a grandparent.

© Debra Carey, 2018

 


In closing, we hope this festive season has provided you with some wonderful reading or some gorgeous writing materials (both for the luckiest of us) and that 2019 provides you with the time to make the most of them  😀