The Art of Asking Questions

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”
― Voltaire

A Skilled Interviewer

Are you good at asking questions? Can you strike up a conversation with a stranger and learn something about him or her? It’s part of primate cognitive ability; one of those things that thankfully separates us from apes.

Asking on the spot leading questions is an important skill and not as easy as it first seems. I think I should be good after all; the interview process was always a critical part of patient care when I was working. And yet, outside the hospital setting I pretty much retreat into my own little world mostly because my experience talking with strangers usually is met with surprised stilted conversation or worse, I discover that I monopolize the dialogue and discover I forgot to ask questions of the other person. Bob is great at small talk and is especially adept at conversing with strangers but even he is overshadowed by the skill of my mom and her ability to ask the right questions, learning much about the other person.

Watching the master at work...no, not the stylist, the customer.

Watching the master at work…no, not the stylist, the customer.

Case in point: Last week Mom needed to get her hair trimmed so we ran over to the local discount stylist shop. As we walked in I noticed immediately how quiet it was. There were three stylists, two were with customers and the third was sweeping the floor. There was no conversation except for hair related questions like, “Do you want it shorter around your ears?” The stylist who had been sweeping invited Mom over where they spent the first few minutes talking about hair, length, etc. But as I sat there watching I saw Mom in a very unassuming manner start really talking to the gal. Before I knew it I overheard that not only was this woman pregnant but she was a high risk and she was openly discussing and even asking advice on all these personal issues with Mom.

It was a wonder to watch. And I was reminded of a conversation with Rebecca where we laughed when I told her how I stood in the same line as Mom a while back (for some unforgotten reason), got my item and walked out. A short time later Mom comes out and starts to tell me about the guy behind her and in that same short line she pretty much had learned his life story.

Come to think of it, I think Mom would have been a good spy with the ability to obtain information divulged during a casual exchange. Or maybe she could have been the ‘good cop’ in a good cop-bad cop scenario, the person you would feel comfortable talking to while the other guy’s questions were offensive causing you to clam up.

All I know is that I am going to start working on my own questioning skills and instead of standing in line reading the latest rag mag maybe I’ll try again and strike up a conversation with the person behind me or maybe I’ll just continue to learn from my mom.

Not only a good interviewer but a great grandma!

Not only a good interviewer but a great grandma!

WWMD –What Would Matthew Do?

WWMD

Or, “What would Matthew do?”

Most people are familiar with the slogan WWJD (What would Jesus Do?) and many of my friends use this as a great moral code for their lives. I like it. It’s a good pause before doing or saying something really dumb.

View from the top!

This summer though, I have been thinking on a different line. Matthew and I have been here in the mountains alone during the week and we, meaning I, have been up on ladders painting, cleaning etc.  It may be a little house but there always is plenty of upkeep. Remembering that no one ever called me Grace, sometimes what I do is, well, a little precarious. It takes a whole lot of angels to hold me up on those steep extension ladders.

And so I have been thinking, “What would Matthew do?” What would he do if I fell or was severely injured?

It’s a scary thought for me, often haunting the back of my mind. Those who know Matthew know and regular readers likely have gleaned that he does not talk. Even though he is very caring he shares many of the frightening autistic traits including introspection. He lives in his own little world. If the TV is on, if there is food available and if his computer runs, he is content. No doubt, visitors to our house have seen Matthew come to share news of something exciting on television or to show a great find in his TV Guide. But he only shares things of interest, convincing him to do something else, well, that’s a bigger challenge.

So would he come just to check on someone? I’m not sure. I know if I was conscious I could count on Matthew to seek out the phone but what if he couldn’t find my phone? (Yeah, a common occurrence in this house.) Would he walk down the road to Grandma’s by himself? If he did would he stand outside the gate because emotions are so intense that he can’t stand any extra attention?  (When Matthew sees someone he loves i.e. Grandpa or even Dad his first inclination is to run and hide only coming out after they call his name. Strong emotions are very difficult for him to handle.)

Computer AND TV in one spot. Life is good!

Computer AND TV in one spot. Life is good!

Are we any different from so many of our caregiver friends? Or those who live alone? Am I just whining too much as usual?  There is no doubt we are fortunate in that Matthew’s brain injuries came with birth allowing us to adapt and accept with him over time. We see daily the television commercials with the wounded warrior veterans whose severe injuries caused swift change and upheaval for the families. We can’t imagine their trials. We also know we are lucky that Matthew’s problems do not confine him to a wheelchair and that he can be mobile.  We are blessed to have this son. Our lives and our focus on what is important are so enriched because of him.

Still, as I get ready to put the ladder away having finished painting I have to wonder. WWMD?

PS Now dear friends, do not go into a panic that tomorrow morning I might fall off the ladder and be stuck there for days. Our folks live just down the hill and you can be assured they check up on us regularly. In fact, if we don’t check in by three o’clock the phone rings and I’d better answer it 🙂

Greetings and Salutations!

Thanks to the prodding of several (you know who you are) I am today sitting again at the computer. The six month (yikes! nearly nine month) hiatus really wasn’t planned. It started simply enough. We came home from the mountains deciding it was time to start some major updates to our home and well, one thing led to another and before you know it it was spring and now it’s already summer again. If you are a homeowner there is always work to be done.

As you may remember, I think life is like a Galileo thermometer. 100_3556Projects percolate up to the top as a priority just like the temperature bubbles do in my thermometer. For some reason last fall the project bubbles filled all the available space. It started with the fact that I NEEDED to get rid of the popcorn ceiling in the house. “Why?” you ask. Well, it’s those darn DIY shows we keep watching: Popcorn ceiling out of date. Clean smooth ceiling up to date. I blame the DIY channels. Curse you HG TV for planting all these ideas in my mind.

But I digress. I will write about the popcorn ceiling project soon. I have pictures. It something you can do. This winter we also made the huge time investment to train the new dog. There will be pictures and hopefully some good descriptive visuals of that little beagle Sophie going to school. It began on the first day of class, very much like many kindergarteners, started with crying, yelling at the other ‘kids’ and hiding under the chair when the teacher called on her. Fortunately, the teacher did not kick the troublesome hound out of school, and though Sophie will always be the food sniffing, counter surfing hound after much, much work she actually passed the test and received her Canine Good Citizen certificate. It’s on my list to share with you… Somehow, I also managed to convince Bob to redo the window and door frames (still a work in progress) to Craftsman style… More pictures and yes, it is another project you can do yourself.

Those are for another day. Today I just wanted to tell you that we’re well just endlessly busy with those danged projects. I have not forgotten you.

Oh, but before I get back to that never ending list I want to tell you about what happened the other day. It all started when one of my ‘friends’ posted the scary fact that a person is never more than three feet from a spider. Then another ‘friend’ posted a picture of a GIANT centipede. Bugs were on my mind…

You know how you aren’t quite awake when you need a drink of water in the middle of the night? You leave your glasses on the night stand and walk by memory lightly touching the walls to the sink. That’s exactly what I was doing when, thanks to the light of the moon I spotted a giant black bug in the corner of the bathroom! So surprised was I that when I went to run to get my glasses (and turn on a light) I kicked over the cat food as well as knocking everything off the counter. It looked like a hurricane had passed through. But time was of the essence…I didn’t want that nasty bug wouldn’t hide on me and I ran to get my glasses then back into the room. Thankfully, lights turned on, the big black bug looked a little different:

Kill it!

Kill it!

Yes, it was the broom handle in the corner where I had left it.
Whew. I survived another crisis.
Have a great day!

Five Years and I’m a Survivor!

Please note: almost everything I ever write is wrapped up in two pages. Today’s story got carried away. Hang in there.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. It is also the month I was diagnosed.

Five years ago. It seems like forever and it seems like yesterday. So much changed that fateful day.

They say hindsight is 20/20 and looking back after the diagnosis certainly made everything clear. For me the cancer was insidious, sneaking in slowly, so slowly that when the fatigue and need for naps was explained away as just part of nearing 50; the shortness of breath was just the darn altitude in the mountains and being out of shape. It was easy to excuse everything.

I even managed to excuse the thickening in my breast. I was certain it was due to an ill-fitting bra. Until finally the Good Lord got my attention saying, “Hey dummy! That’s not just an irritation and look, it’s only on one side…Get it checked!” (Yes, I heard that voice clearly.)

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Like the temperature balls in a Galileo thermometer my priority list rises and falls.

Interestingly, I had an order for a mammogram given to me more than six months ago at my last visit. I went because my hands were bothering me and the doctor thought it was probably early arthritis for which she prescribed an anti-inflammatory and ordered an xray. She also suggested that it was time for a screening mammogram. Even with no family history she thought all women over 40 should have that first check. Well…priorities… Life for me is like a Galileo thermometer. Priorities bubble up to the top and only those that make it to the top are worried about. As a caregiver scheduling that mammogram just never rose to a top priority. I carefully filed those orders away.

Until that day.

Lesson learned: Just because you are a mom or a caregiver to someone else doesn’t mean you can let your own health slip. Don’t put it off. Don’t be like me.

So I had the mammogram. Let me tell you that, as a former mammographer I already knew what the xrays would show. And when the radiology office called to tell me to get in ASAP to see my doctor I was doubly sure. Within three days of my ‘awakening’ I was in the doctor’s office where she said, “I have your xray report. Yes, you have a little arthritis in your hands BUT THIS and she pointed to the one inch mass…” then she went on to tell me that I needed to go back to the radiology office for more tests and then to a surgeon. My priority bubble had shifted suddenly.

Warning: these are my real insides. You don't have to be an expert to see the picture looks a lot different from the one on the left.

Warning: these are my real insides.
You don’t have to be an expert to see the picture on the right looks a lot different from the one on the left.

The next month changed to getting a diagnosis. Ultrasound, needle biopsy and surgery were scheduled as I had the most frightening disease. First you get the diagnosis and then the staging. It’s quite a pace changing situation. Hurry to get one thing scheduled, then wait impatiently for the results knowing that if A happens you go on to the next step but if it’s B then there’s another detour while everything is evaluated and then you start all over again. As an aside, all of my doctors pushed for expedited care something for which we were very thankful.

Six weeks and four surgeries later I was finally to the next step.

Another lesson learned: Early detection means less surgery and easier treatment options. Don’t be like me.

I told Bob, chemotherapy takes you to the brink killing off all the cancer cells and then hopefully your healthy cells take back over. It’s rough.

But I didn’t feel any different. I wasn’t sick. At least not initially. The effects of chemotherapy are cumulative. Some of the medicine used is so toxic they have to make sure your heart can tolerate the damage it will do. Some of the effects are long lasting. But with newer treatment methods and better pre-chemo medicines the therapy is tolerable and the staff makes sure your body is well enough to handle each dose. In my case the nurses told me my hair would fall out. They guaranteed it. It depends on what drug is being used but they were right. Within two weeks I looked like a Chinese Crested Dog. I held on to the little hair I had until it finally dawned on me that bald was a much better look than tufted.

After sixteen grueling weeks I did finish. Then it was time to jump right into six weeks of radiation therapy.

Another lesson learned: if the tumor is small and if you don’t have any spread of the cancer there are much simpler radiation treatment options including one that only takes a week. The surgeon never did give me much hope for that treatment because the tumor was too big and it had spread to the lymph nodes.

Yes, this is me. Poster child of what not to do. No hair, sad puffy face. Toxic chemo drugs running in. Ugh.

Yes, this is me. Poster child of what not to do. No hair, sad puffy face. Toxic chemo drugs running in. Ugh.

So, for gosh sakes, don’t be like me.

The radiation therapy was fast and definitely easier to handle, which is not to say it was without challenges. Basically it’s like you are sitting out in the sun for hours on end. Depending on the location of the tumor a person would have more or less burns. Mine were mighty. You could still see the redness a year later. Along with the radiation burns comes scarring. I still have to consciously s t r e t c h the muscles in my affected arm. They don’t move like the other side.

To be alone during this ordeal would be miserable. I could not have done it without the support of family and friends. Going to my folks and telling my family the news that first week was the most difficult thing. My parents immediately went into gear pulling up stakes and came to take care of Matthew. We also realized how great our friends are. Every treatment day one friend (who is the busiest person I know) would bring a crockpot of food because she knew I wouldn’t be up for cooking afterwards. When I started whining about food not tasting good another friend brought a whole Butterfinger Tree! The surprise packages and mail were tremendously encouraging. Interestingly, some people admitted that they were afraid to come visit. Better, some people admitted they were afraid to come visit but did it anyway. (Be the second person.)

Nearly eight months after finding the lump I was finished with treatment. Eight months of my life gone in the blink of an eye. You can’t beat yourself up for ‘should‘ve, would’ve, could’ves’. But I know it’s hard not to. Sure I wish I’d done things differently but I expect the Good Lord above had some plan in mind. After all, caring for a sick mother really worked out well when it came time for Rebecca’s life story in her medical school application. Who knows.

Enough of that. Let’s skip forward a few years. Just imagine that I had MRI’s regularly and in my claustrophobia induced panic pushed the RED EMERGENCY button more than once and know that once these doctors get hold of you they don’t let go so visits to the clinics, doctors and labs continued until today.

Here we are today. Five years is no longer the magic cure length of time. But it is a major milestone. I no longer have to take the chemo pills that make my head feel like it’s being held on by a toothpick. Mammograms and the cancer check labs are finally annual. And with this new schedule I don’t expect to see the chemo doctor again after December. Still, there is no doubt that always in the back of my mind is the idea that the cancer could come back. This has been a life altering change. Earlier detection certainly would have made it less impactful.

But that said, life changes are not always bad. We now celebrate life. We use our good dishes instead of saving them. And what’s that saying, “Life is short; drink good wine.” Or maybe it’s cheap wine…or maybe it’s just wine… Something like that. But I’m rambling…

Something about wine...  Salut!

Something about wine…
Salut!

So what’s your take away if you managed to read this far? Two things, I hope. The first, that if you are a woman or know a woman who reaches the age of 40, get that screening mammogram. Don’t let your mother tell you she’s too busy. Don’t let your sister slide on this just because you have no family history, remember I did not. Don’t put yourself at the bottom of the priority list. YOU are IMPORTANT. Take care of yourself. And secondly, there is hope. You can have a mass that is 2.5 centimeters that has spread and survive. The doctors told me at each step what my odds of survival were. Each point improved my odds; I had surgery, if I had chemo and each different drug’s impact, if I had radiation, etc. Modern technology is amazing. I don’t know where they put prayer on that list but when our friend invited the family down to the altar and prayed with us and I felt a peace wash over me. Take it to the Lord. Prayer is powerful and I recommend adding it to your arsenal.

Along with that hope is where we are today. Physically I don’t need those naps anymore and have energy to work on all the projects that piled up, though my list still is long. Each morning we walk on the treadmill. When I say we I mean Matthew and I take turns. He walks 2.5 miles and I walk 5 or 6. He has trimmed down to a lean fighting weight…me, well, I’m still ‘full figured’. I blame the chemo. In fact, I blame the chemo for every health issue I now have from having thin hair to a short memory. Is it unfair? Probably, but too bad. I can still garner sympathy points with my family and you bet I use them.

And that’s my story. As Breast Cancer Awareness month comes to an end you can now say that you know far more than you ever wanted to know about one woman who putzed around and didn’t get her tests done in a timely fashion and ended up being put through the wringer due to her own negligence. But that you also know she managed to scrape and crawl her way back out of the dark hole and today she sees every sunrise as a fresh chance to begin a new chapter.

And for crying out loud don’t let a year pass without pestering your mother, sister, aunt to have her mammogram.

Love you all!

I hope Maxine doesn't mind that I borrowed her picture.

I hope Maxine doesn’t mind that I borrowed her picture.

One Woman, One Pry Bar and Determination

Today’s post is a “What I did this summer,” story. But the truth is it began over five years ago.

We have a small home in the Arizona mountains. Like much of the land in Strawberry it is on a steep hillside as it backs up to the Mogollon Rim. When the house was built we had to have fill dirt and rock brought in to give us a somewhat level foundation. From the back to the front of the house it’s still a three foot drop, but it was workable. As you can imagine where the bulldozer stopped leveling the ground there was a steep drop off with this fill dirt. In my eyes it wasn’t a very pretty sight. But it also wasn’t a priority.

Until the summer five years ago when I looked around and decided to make good use of the natural sandstone found everywhere on the property and build a stone wall up the hillside. The sandstone was so plentiful it seemed an easy job to level and stack. But it was not. The pry bar immediately gave a resounding thump as it bounced off a big rock. It was so heavy that after less than fifteen minutes I was ready to cry in frustration. Of course, Bob ran over to help (that’s how he is) which only irritated me more. This was to be my project but I couldn’t even move one single stone. There was a big ‘woe is me’ pity party, blaming myself for being out of shape and unable to manage the 5000 feet altitude.

You know how hindsight is 20-20? A short month later I had one of those moments. Yes, that’s when I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. Ah ha! It was a moment of clarity. Suddenly, the fatigue, shortness of breath and lack of strength made sense. If only it had been recognized sooner…but that’s a story for another day except to say, if you are a woman get your mammogram. My doctor had recommended a baseline study and with no family history of problems my prescription had been sitting on the counter waiting for the opportune time. Because of, well, priorities… Don’t be like me. Make your health a priority.

Fast forward five years to this summer.

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Planting a little peach tree right in the middle of the wall.

Other projects finished, my attention turned back to the front yard. I dug out the pry bar and headed back over to the hillside. Five years of better health brings with it strength and to my surprise, ability. Ability to pound the pry bar into the ground. Ability to move big rocks. And ability to persevere. I began stacking the sandstone, learning as the project moved along how to make them level and how to lock them together. At first, I would wait on Bob to help move the big rocks and then came realization that one person can do a whole lot using a lever and fulcrum. Learning that the same small stone that keeps a rock wiggling when you stand on it can also be used as a pivot for a much larger rock. Slowly, and some days, ever so slowly, the wall began to take shape. Bob would call and ask what we accomplished that day and I’d tell him, “I moved one rock.” Some days I imagined myself like the ancient Egyptians building the pyramids but thank goodness I wasn’t. Still one rock at a time it was built.

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The finished product?

As summer ends is my rock wall finished? Maybe. Maybe not. I still haven’t decided. It’s far enough over and close enough to the brambly manzanita bushes that it could be done. Or it might be continued next summer. In the mean time we planted some vines in the cracks and a few lilacs dug up from Mom’s yard. Hopefully they will become well established over the winter.

Before leaving you’ll get a laugh from this picture that comes with an explanation. I asked Bob to take a flattering photo I could share (Rebecca says if I wanted a flattering picture I should have looked at myself in the mirror in those pants…) But I gave Bob my camera, the one he never uses, with instructions to take a panoramic picture, something he has never done. He tried to figure it out but my directions were pretty poor as was my impatience. Ha. As you can see, the picture turned out so terribly that it’s funny.

100_3425And that’s what I did this summer. Just call me the stone stacker.

In the Midst of Tragedy

It’s been over 40 years but I remember it like yesterday.

September 4, 1971.

Our family had recently moved to the fishing town of Sitka, Alaska. We were there to start a new life as my parents looked forward to joining together in marriage. The plan was that my new stepdad’s father would come for the wedding and then stay for a visit. I only knew John the elder, as a grandpa; a kindhearted story teller who would sit back with his pipe and entertain the children with stories of his adventures. We all looked forward to his visit.

But, it was not meant to be.

It was a typical rainy fall day in Sitka clouds low in the sky limiting visibility even at the ground level when we headed to the airport to meet the plane. What should have been a short half hour trip turned into an agonizing affair marked by extreme darkness. Today, it’s hard to imagine, but back then we were without the benefit of 24 hour news running in the terminal or the immediacy of social media, even cell phones. As we waited with other families for the flight’s arrival we began to observe whispering agents in the small one-terminal airport. Late planes were not unexpected in our rural setting but the continuation of the flight from Juneau to Sitka should only have taken thirty minutes so when hours had passed we knew nothing was right. Eventually, our family learned that the plane had not reached Juneau. Officials still just told us it was delayed though my parents knew better.

My sister and I were sent home with a cab driver friend who shut off the top news story on the radio, but not before we heard the announcement that a plane was feared crashed on approach in the rocky mountain range near Juneau. It helped prepare us for when our parents returned home in a very shell shocked and unbelieving mind. The announcement and the reading of the passenger list on our town’s one radio station also alerted friends who immediately surrounded my parents with amazing love and support. As they gathered together they learned that the folks could be flown by the airlines where ever they needed to be with the rest relatives while waiting for confirmation but only ‘immediate family’ was included in the airlines offer. This was in the days before a ‘significant other’ could count as anything important and for a few moments they all pondered the situation but only a few moments, because it was realized that my parents, already planning to get married, had their wedding license in hand. If they got married we would be immediate family. And with amazing speed the wedding was organized.

Each day has only 24 hours but it seems this day lasted far longer as that evening we proceeded to the little Lutheran church we had been attending where we were met by Pastor Ted. One of the church members had been cleaning up the church when she heard the news and quickly rearranged the altar with flowers for a wedding. Small town news travels fast and another friend arrived to play the organ while several others appeared in time for the ceremony. It almost seemed like a real wedding.

I don’t know how much my parents remember of their ceremony but my young impression was that everyone in attendance, rather than being seated, was gathered around them in a circular arrangement, like angels shielding them from the pain. After the service a friend who worked in the jail next door provided an impromptu reception with jailhouse cookies and juice. It continued to rain but I remember the church appeared to glow that night. Was it from the lighting…or was it from the outpouring of love? We were not deserted in this time of heartbreak breaking pain; even in our worst grief we could feel the comfort of peace. God was with us and there is no doubt that Jesus was carrying our family through this trial.

The disaster ended, as they do, with a huge painful loss, sorrow not just for our family but the many others impacted by the crash, followed by a slow recovery marked often with regret, guilt and survivors remorse. In the short term, it was tremendously difficult; many families never do overcome such sorrows. Still, over the years my parents chose to embrace a life well lived and move forward with the help of their faith, family and friends and on this day they also celebrate 43 years of marriage.

Today I am reminded that in the midst of tragedy, there is still love.

4th of July family gathering. After 43 years they still hold hands. There is love.

4th of July family gathering. After 43 years they still hold hands. There is love.

Postcards from Home

This is the time of year many of us have kids or grandkids moving out for the first time. It can be an adjustment as it was for Rebecca when she made the move to the college campus. Away from home for the first time can be a little lonely. At first I wrote letters but in today’s digital age where we could talk regularly, Skype and see each other, plus email it soon seemed that there wasn’t enough news to compose an entire page. Eventually it occurred to me that Rebecca, who still wanted to find mail in her box, might enjoy postcards from our past travels.

Postcards.

Why didn’t I think of this sooner?

And so began my Postcards from Home project. I remembered that when Rebecca was in camp we would send her notes and cards but what always received the most comment were the postcards, particularly the ones from her brother with the Ninja Turtles or Pokemon characters. After all, my ‘girly girl’ daughter didn’t seem the type to be a Power Ranger, etc., fan and her fellow campers delighted in seeing this other side of her. With this in mind we began sending postcards more regularly until now, if I remember; we put one in the mail each week.

It’s a simple project especially if you are like me and collect postcards every time you see them. When we were homeschooling we often shared postcards with families from other areas increasing our variety. As I became organized I began adding inspirational quotes related to my daughter’s current situation. (Because I have a short memory, I copied a whole bunch to my word processor and then add the date when I used it in order to not use the one favorite saying over and over…)

Superhero stickers are added to each card to let the recipient know Matthew is thinking of them.

Superhero stickers are added to each card to let the recipient know Matthew is thinking of them.

Over time this little project grew when I realized that people still do like to get mail and others could easily be into my week. I admit that I am probably the world’s worst when it comes sending a get well or anniversary card in a timely manner but these postcards were right here in the house and as long as I keep a sheet of the less expensive postcard stamps in stock it takes less than five minutes to put one in the mail. When my postcard selection began to dwindle some of my well-travelled friends were happy to share from their stash giving me an even greater selection.

Postcards—they’re not just for travelers.

You can do this too. We know the elderly aunts love to hear from us and just a postcard is enough to elicit a newsy letter from them. We have lots of instant communication via the social media with family and friends across the country but they still like to get something to hang on the frig, a little reminder that they are loved. If you have friends going through a trying time or maybe with health issues like chemo a postcard can be a little smile in their day.

My friend Megan liked her card so much she shared it with everyone on Facebook!

My friend Megan liked her card so much she shared it with everyone on Facebook!

Buying the stamps does require a trip to the post office and then you have to find your stash of cards which, if you’re like me, are not sitting neatly at your desk waiting to be used. Even an arthritic hand can usually manage to write one postcard. Oh, and I do have one caveat. If you are sending cards to someone who is so unimpressed as to not even send you a text message then cross them off your list (unless it’s your grandson).

Life is short. Send a postcard.