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Awards & Honors: 2008 Jefferson Lecturer

John Updike Interview

Jefferson Lecturer John Updike shares his passion for American art with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole. Updike, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and well-known novelist, has also written two volumes of art criticism: Just Looking and Still Looking.

NEH Chairman Bruce Cole: I think I may have told you that in my former life I was an art historian. While there are many Ph.D. art historians, the people I most enjoyed reading were the poets and the critics who brought great language to their description of art and were able to express the meaning of the art.

John Updike: I think it’s a field where to be an amateur is not necessarily a disgrace. Some of the best have been, in a sense, amateurs—Baudelaire and Henry James, to name two.

COLE: Right, many of my heroes in the history of art never had any art history courses. From Berenson, who’s one of my great idols, to Ruskin and John Pope-Hennessy. That was before the professionalization of the field.

UPDIKE: It all reflects our fascination with the visual in the last century and a half. It’s one of the reasons, I’m sure, that you’re getting such a good response to your program, Picturing America. Schoolchildren these days are raised on TV, they’re using their eyes from the age of six weeks on.

COLE: I did some teaching with these images in a school here. It was amazing what those kids brought out of the reproductions—and really gratifying.

What’s your earliest memory of actually coming into contact with art?

UPDIKE: Well, comic strips. And a reproduction of Gainsborough’s Blue Boy that hung in the house. I was raised in a suburb of Reading, Pennsylvania, which does have a rather small but attractive museum erected, I suppose, by the money of the mill owners in the region. It was within a walk of our house. My father and mother—I’m an only child—and I would take that walk on a Sunday fairly often. And so I began to go to the Reading Museum.

It contained not just paintings, but all sorts of cultural objects—things like Polynesian paddles and Chinese carvings. There was an Egyptian mummy, which was morbidly fascinating—all this on the first floor. It was the story of mankind in the form of a grab bag. Upstairs, there were paintings, which I looked at with kind of, you know, a child’s partial boredom; but something got through.

COLE: How old were you when you first started to go?

UPDIKE: I want to say six, but I might have been maybe eight or nine.

COLE: It sounds like a wonderful old cabinet-of-curiosities museum.

UPDIKE: It was. There were tiny doll-like duplications of people building the pyramids, living as cave people, or being ancient Mesopotamians, and it was in its way very instructive and, well, fascinating.

COLE: Did you ever think you wanted to be a visual artist?

UPDIKE: Yes. I don’t know at what age I began to look at the comic strips, the funnies so-called. I think my first coherent artistic ambition was to become a cartoonist. It was also the era in which the early Disney films were coming out—the animated shorts plus Snow White. Snow White came out, I think, in 1937, when I was five.

Anyway, all this imagery—these bouncy creatures, irrepressible little animations without any of the Depression worries that filled my household—all this seemed to offer real escape from my life into a better world.

My mother—she was another only child, raised on a farm—had artistic ambitions, literary ones. The local public schools offered art instruction in those days; there was no question of art not being one of the subjects you were taught. Depression or not, school budgets kept it in the curriculum. Not like now.

In addition to that, we happened to live across the street from the only artist in Shillington, a man called Clint Shilling; he was descended from the Shilling who created the town. At my mother’s request, Clint gave me some lessons when I was about eleven or twelve. All this was instructive.

It was instructive to try to look at something in terms of line and color. I remember one lesson—and I’ve written about this, and I don’t want to repeat what I’ve already put in print—where Clint put an egg in the sun on a piece of white paper and said to paint what I was seeing.

What he could see was a little rainbow at the edge of the shadow of the egg, which I couldn’t see until he pointed it out. That art lesson has stuck with me maybe more than any I’ve had since. The rainbow at the edge of the shadow of the egg. You can find it in a poem of mine called “Midpoint.”

COLE: That’s very interesting. One of the things we’re trying to accomplish with Picturing America is to show that to read a book is wonderful, and to hear a lecture is wonderful. But to see a work of art is different.

UPDIKE: Trying to see and draw shows you how much there is to see and how, as we proceed through our ordinary days, how oblivious we are to the visual facts around us. The history of art demonstrates how long it took artists to focus on what was actually there before their eyes instead of what they knew was there—that is, to move from the Egyptian way of putting down an ideological notion of what, say, the human body was.

In their aesthetic, you showed the body to the best advantage, so the profile was the best way to look at the face, and head-on was the best way to look at the chest. I was in Egypt not so long ago, and our guide talked about the idealism of the mode of representation, which was static for several thousand years.

They always showed the feet sideways, with the big toe outwards. You didn’t see the little toe, in classical Egyptian paintings, which gave the figures, depending on which way they were facing, two left or right feet. It’s only when the Roman and Hellenistic influences came in that you began to get little toes and anatomically correct knees and all the other realistic details that are so triumphantly present in Michelangelo and Leonardo and other Renaissance masters.

It’s not a natural thing to see what’s there. What’s natural is to represent what you know is there. And so this swinging back and forth now, between literalism and stylization, between representation and abstraction. When I was young, there wasn’t really much talk of abstract painting. Malerich and Mondrian, and Arthur Dove had done it, but it was still widely assumed that the duty of the artist was to become highly skilled at giving the illusion of thereness, of texture and space and perspective, and so on.

COLE: Yes.

UPDIKE: And so, in a way, it was easier to try to become an artist since it was fairly clear what you were trying to do. Norman Rockwell was reigning on the covers of the Post, and he was sort of the ultimate—the ultimate at least in illustration. And it’s taken some stretch of my own imagination to realize that there’s more to art than just this illusionistic accuracy.

COLE: In the Renaissance, you get the invention of one-point perspective, which also is not really the way we see. We see much more, I think, impressionist­ic­ally, but somehow we think that we see in perspective. It is amazing how these conventions work on us as well.

UPDIKE: That’s so true, isn’t it? Of course, the human eye moves all the time. It’s unnatural for it not to move. To paint in the very precise way of Holbein or Van Dyke is to freeze the seeing process in a way that is highly unreal. Surreal, one could say—Dalí and Max Ernst have this same uncanny precision, of the frozen eye.

Visual art is very fertile ground for this kind of philosophical—existential—speculation, especially now that the abstraction has spoken up so strongly on its own behalf. Now, we’re not really sure what we’re looking for. What is excellent—what is excellent about this piece of abstraction as opposed to this other piece? Why is Rothko so eloquent, for example, and Hans Hofmann not? Hofmann is a thrilling theorist but his paintings look like linoleum.

COLE: It seems to me that we don’t have any guideposts anymore. And I think one of the hallmarks of what we now call “modern art,” whatever that means, is that we want originality. But when artists are no longer bound by any kind of boundaries, when they break them, it’s not obvious what is originality. So we are kind of adrift, I think.

UPDIKE: In my own art criticism, if I can dignify it with that term, I really go kind of blank about thirty years ago. The last movement that I felt I dug one hundred percent was, I suppose, Pop, which was in the sixties. So it’s more than thirty years ago that I became personally kind of numb as far as gut response.

I recently read in the New Yorker a profile of John Currin, whose paintings are very meticulous and yet cartoonish and often bawdy. He’s terribly skillful. And yet I had to read the article to really begin to understand why he painted the way he did—why he would, you know, devote Holbeinesque attention to these forms. In one painting there’s an uncooked turkey, uncooked but prepared. And the shine of it and the look of it, you know, the little pimples on it, everything is there in this masterful way and yet . . .

COLE: A Holbeinesque turkey?

UPDIKE: It was an actual turkey; the people were a little weirder. At any rate, Currin has all the old masterish devotion to what seemed to be basically a very ironical and kind of off-putting subject. Funny. But why not, in the post-abstraction era, have all those old skills, you know, the underpainting and the overpainting and the glazes and all that technique work in his paintings? It has an element of a joke, saying, I’m going to do all this, and yet you still won’t like the painting, you bourgeois klutzes out there.

COLE: Well, that’s always something that struck me about abstract art. What it does is formalize art, removing all the annoying detours, like figures and narrative and all that. You just basically have the formal elements, light and color and the like. But that’s it. When you talk about that turkey, that’s what comes to mind.

UPDIKE: Yes, it seems at some level, for the reasons you’ve just given, frivolous to try to give a thing both formal qualities so that in some way the color itself speaks to you, and yet at the same time to make these accurate representations of real things, real people, real furniture. You just feel that some people did manage to do both things at once. Vermeer and Velázquez and others in which you can see, yes, that this presents object—things, people, clouds. You can also see the strokes; you can see the little pointilles that Vermeer uses, the individual brushstrokes. A painter was at work. At the same time, you’re moved—especially Vermeer. The women standing alone with the window over on the left and a letter or a delicate little scales in their hands. The images speak in the way that religious symbolism used to speak to believers.

COLE: I agree with that one hundred percent. When I look at one of those Vermeers—and I think that’s a great example, because it is almost abstract in the way that the forms are manipulated. But it sanctifies.

UPDIKE: There is a saintly feeling in Vermeer and some others—Rembrandt, too, or Chardin—where you feel that the act of putting down what you see in front of you at this point in history had a lot of cultural momentum behind it. There wasn’t a question of irony, but on the other hand it wasn’t a question of doing the church’s will either.

I mean, you were off on your own in the seventeenth century in a way that that hadn’t really been true before, because the patrons had requirements. You were a craftsman who was going to produce something to order. Christian art was almost Egyptian in the rigor of its formulas.

So, to arrive at a cultural place where you could make a living painting more or less what you wanted to is a liberation, but there is also a scary freedom to it too. And we’ve been living with that freedom for the last hundred years, ever since Picasso—a dreadful freedom.

COLE: One of the things that has struck me is that there is a great tradition of art. And whether it’s Egyptian art, as you just described, or Western art up to the middle of the twentieth century, there was a canon, and the canon formed subsequent works. And there was this tradition of art into art: You built on the shoulders of your predecessors. You modified it, you changed it, but there was always art into art into art into art. But there was a huge gulf created with people like Pollock who consciously broke that tradition.

UPDIKE: Pollock certainly is the figure to reckon with. But a paradox there is that he also was a news item. Life ran those dramatic photographs of him painting, and he had a celebrity quality that made you look at those big canvases of scribbles in a different way. They weren’t just art; they were fashion, the newest thing. There was a sexiness about Pollock the person that made his painting sensational in the same way that, around the same time, the topless bathing suit was sensational. It was a shock but somehow muffled by the very oddity of it. Pollock’s dripping was played initially as a joke, as a kind of Dada.

COLE: I’m reminded of that wonderful Rockwell cover where there is that man in the gray suit, dove-gray suit with a cane, I think, looking at a Pollock.

UPDIKE: It wasn’t a bad Pollock. Who knew Rockwell had it in him?

COLE: I’m a big fan of Rockwell.

UPDIKE: Well, he certainly gave you what I was just describing in that turkey. Come to think of it, there’s a memorable turkey in Rockwell’s wartime poster “Freedom from Want.” It’s a cooked turkey as opposed to Currin’s raw turkey, but i’s still quite a turkey, with a crispy brown skin.

This is a turkey we’re going to eat, this is a turkey that’s been processed and rendered safe for us to eat; and the Currin is raw. You don’t like to look at it for too long. But, yes, he gave a lot of value, Rockwell did, more than was asked for, in commercial art.

He was an artist, a real artist in that he went beyond the requirements. He could have painted with less loving detail; he could have had fewer little anecdotal touches and facial expressions in his work. But he went always to fill the glass to the brim—fill the whole canvas with warmth and enlivening details.

I think Rockwell is the standout in an age of great illustrators, because he never settled for a formula, unlike many of them. The late covers he did for the Post, just before it folded were really very painterly.

COLE: Well, you could see how he was trained in a classical tradition. I mean he could really draw and he knew how to put paint on canvas. I think he’s coming in for a little bit of a reappraisal, don’t you?

UPDIKE: I think it’s already come. He has his own museum. He was everything that art critics used to hate. But now, with so many representational artists, contemporary and old-time, coming into fashion, it’s a little harder to dismiss Rockwell.

COLE: One of my pet peeves is that there are a number of books on American art that don’t include Rockwell. I don’t see how you can really talk about American art without Rockwell. Most Americans, if you ask them to name an American artist, they’d probably say Rockwell.

UPDIKE: One artist I know went to the Norman Rockwell Museum and he was struck by how, as he put it, “horrible” the actual painting was. The application of paint was very displeasing to his eye, although, since it reproduced beautifully, he said it didn’t matter. The purpose of a Rockwell painting was to be reproduced.

COLE: Right.

UPDIKE: But there wasn’t any of that pleasure in brushwork, the sense of palpable paint, that you get from many painters—from all of the Impressionists, for example.

COLE: I am curious to hear your thoughts on Jackson Pollock and this shattering of tradition and also the importance of celebrity to art. But, for starters, could Pollock’s explosive rise have happened in any place but New York?

UPDIKE: I suppose it was tied in with the Manhattan ethos of buzz—even though the word “buzz” wasn’t coined, my impression is, when the Abstract Expressionists appeared. As far as I know, none of them got very rich in their prime. Pollock struggled for money when he was alive.

But the notion of the painter as a romantic figure was certainly achieved in the New York School. You didn’t feel that way about Pollock’s onetime teacher Thomas Hart Benton, who was also in his way an interesting man, a cantankerous, violent guy. But he was not a gorgeous creature the way that Pollock was, or Rothko, who, remember, committed a very bloody suicide, or Franz Kline, who drank himself into an early grave.

These men—and the movement had a macho side—were romantic, heroic. Their art was so unexpected, although there had been abstraction around for decades. They made art glamorous. They made American art glamorous to the rest of the world, which had not happened hitherto. They were the first American artists really, as you know, to be global trend setters and to influence European artists.

American art, for all the charms it has, especially for Americans—and it certainly speaks to me—until Abstract Expressionism didn’t speak much to anybody who wasn’t American.

COLE: Do you think Americans have an inferiority complex about their own art?

UPDIKE: I think that has been the American condition. Somebody like Copley paid great deference to the English and their dashing style. And then later in the century the French were the ones to imitate.

And rightly so. There was an establishment, a culture establishment, in Europe that didn’t exist in the U.S. The Founding Fathers tried to separate government from religion, and in the same spirit I think they didn’t underwrite art. The artist was unsponsored to a marked degree. He had to make his way on his own. Copley complained that the artists in Boston were merely tradesmen. Portrait painters, anonymous or not so anonymous, early on scratched out a living almost travelling house to house.

The American sense of an artist casts him as an outlaw, an outsider. The ones we love are outrageous in some way. They don’t all have to commit suicide or drink themselves to death, although that can help a posthumous reputation.

Look at the poets—all those hardworking, nineteenth-century, learned, respectable poets boil down now in the modern consciousness to Whitman and Emily Dickinson, who were both terrifically eccentric citizens. And so, in the same way, we tend to like painters who were hermits, as Winslow Homer became, or somewhat disgraced, as Eakins was, or pugnacious fops like Whistler or naïfs like Ryder.

We’re drawn to artists who tell us that art is difficult to do, and takes a spiritual effort, because we are still puritan enough to respect a strenuous spiritual effort. We don’t really want to think that the artist is only very skilled, that he has merely devoted his life to perfecting a certain set of intelligible skills. Sargent misses getting top marks because he made it look easy.

COLE: That’s interesting. Of all those hardworking poets, only two of them really remain. Yet we continually rediscover figures in American art who have now come into prominence. Last summer, I interviewed Bill Gerdts for our magazine. And when he was going to college in the forties, hardly any American art was being taught. And there weren’t many retrospectives and the like. But now the story is totally different. It is amazing, I think, the depth and quality of some of our lesser known American art and these artists nobody has actually ever heard of.

UPDIKE: Like Martin Johnson Heade. He was a painter who was known and had a studio in New York, and he somehow made a living, and went down to Brazil and painted orchids. But, yes, it took a hundred years for him to be seen as a great image-maker, in The Coming Storm, in his salt marshes. The entire Luminist School—Kensett, Lane, Gifford—they look awfully good now, at least to me. These were real painters, pre-Impressionist and yet somehow fresh in the same way that the Impressionists remain.

For me, the mid-century American landscapes are better than the European landscapes. Because they’re just—I don’t know—they had less junk to paint. They had fewer ruins; they just had a beach, the sea, cliffs, trees, mountains.

COLE: There is something I think wonderfully American about someone like Albert Bierstadt. It’s the frontier, it’s the West, it’s the rising sun, a kind of hope and optimism about it that you don’t see in European painting.

UPDIKE: Somewhere I read that Bierstadt made the mountains look taller than they actually are. And that was somehow helpful to me to realize he was a showman. He wasn’t just painting the Rockies as he saw them, but painting the Rockies as an epitome of splendor and drama. He was in a way selling the Rockies.

Church also was a showman. With these painters, there’s an element of the spectacular, of something that has never been seen before in paint. They are panoramic, with marvelous little details are worked in—a little cross in the corner of the huge canvas of the Andes, like God’s signature.

What is art supposed to do except make us say, Wow!—to strip the skin of dullness from what we see? And that’s showbiz, to get back to your point about the Abstract Expressionists. They were showmen in their fashion. They thought of themselves probably as, I don’t know, struggling, neglected, underappreciated artists, but then there is this boldness and their daring. You mentioned Rothko, and he still looks good, unlike some of the Abstract Expressionists; he is still spoken of reverently. Every museum of any size has to have a Rothko. One wonders, will there ever come a moment when people will look at a Rothko and say, Well, what’s so great about that?

COLE: A question you dare not ask. Talking about Bierstadt and Church, and their exaggeration and the like, I love Picasso’s definition of art, which I’m sure you’ve heard before: “Art is a lie that tells the truth.”

UPDIKE: Of course it’s a very accurate description of fiction, too, isn’t it? A lie, a set of lies that tries to tell the truth. And that was the excitement of fiction, when I was setting out to write it. There were still areas of life, as I had experienced it, that hadn’t yet gotten into print. There were things in life that fiction could still disclose—sex, for example.

I mean, it had been done here and there, but there was more to explore—how it fit in to the rest of our social intercourse. And the way people interrelate in general. And the fact that life isn’t an adventure the way you’re taught as a child that it’s going to be. It’s another kind of adventure.

Offhand, people don’t know that they are living the adventure, though the author does. Take the stories of Raymond Carver, all these ordinary people sitting around getting drunk together. Or the early stories of J. D. Salinger, which were a revelation to me when I was starting out—the Zen of the mundane. There was so much of life waiting to be turned into fiction, and now you wonder if journalism and television dramas have lapped it all up and left almost nothing to say.

COLE: Does art, I mean visual art, affect you at all when you’re writing fiction?

UPDIKE: Yes, at a certain level. Having tried to draw the rainbow at the edge of the shadow of the egg taught me how much there is to see. And I’ve been blessed with fairly good eyesight. So the visual element plays a larger part maybe in my narratives than in many.

But beyond that, well, I think painting remains the heroic modern art. I can’t speak for music. Musicians are very mysterious and wonderful people to me; I don’t know how they do it. I can’t imagine ever sitting down and writing a symphony, picking your keys, scoring the instruments. But as far as writing goes and wondering what’s been done, or overdone, or stale, or what is really potentially exciting that I could bring forth, going to a museum is what excites me. Going to MoMA when I lived in Manhattan in the mid-fifties really liberated and stimulated my sense of what was possible in writing. Modern art gave me courage. I would leave feeling buoyed up.

A painting you can absorb in a couple of minutes of looking and get most of it. Whereas a novel requires about ten, twelve hours to read. There is an instant quality to pictorial art that makes it I think popular among people who feel they should absorb culture. The artists in slower mediums, that unfold in time, look to it to lead the way.

COLE: Just to shift gears a little bit: Who do you like to read on art?

UPDIKE: Well, reviewers like Michael Kimmelman in the Times and Peter Schjedahl in the New Yorker. I marvel at somebody like Schjedahl who almost every week confronts what the Met, MoMA, or the Guggenheim offer him in New York. He is with an old master one week, and the next week he’ll be presented with an artist who is still very problematic—I mean, for whom there is no consensus, so the reviewer has to gamble on his own nervous reactions, his gut feelings. I think of Currin again, in this regard, and how his work does not just displease people, but makes them angry. This angry-making quality tells me that the art is alive and the artist is pushing the envelope, is trying to do something new. Anyway to be able to handle all that weekly I admire.

I read a few books about art that meant something to me. Herbert Read wrote a lovely book about the art of sculpture in which he talks about the haptic sense—we don’t really see a sculpture, we feel it with this sense of weight, of volume.

And I read André Malraux’s Voices of Silence when it was a fashionable book. I read it and thought it was really an amazing survey about the basic issues we are talking about. He writes beautifully, and in this grand geste covers all of art from Scythian belt buckles and cave paintings up to now. It really gave me my framework insofar as I have a framework.

COLE: Have you read Kenneth Clark?

UPDIKE: Yes, on Leonardo and the nude. And of course I followed his television series on civilization. It was in the days when there were some things in television we really didn’t want to miss, and his series was one of them. Like Malraux, he knew it all and got it all in. Clark is one of the few very wellborn people who has amounted to anything in the arts.

COLE: That may be true.

UPDIKE: I think it’s a matter of the kind of discipline and the kind of daring, the kind of patience that an artist needs; it’s not something that people who are aristocrats are often equipped with.

COLE: Do you collect?

UPDIKE: My wife and I have a few paintings, but they’re basically ones that have fallen to us. I don’t collect. I used to collect comic strips. As a boy, I used to write away to comic-strip artists and cartoonists and beg them to send me an original strip, and I had quite a little collection, actually; a number of artists would do it. It shows what an innocent world it was once.

COLE: If you were equipped with absolutely unlimited funds, who are a couple of artists you would buy?

UPDIKE: Homer, Hopper, Klee. I’d love to have a Pollock, and it wouldn’t have to be a big Pollock either. Some of the smaller things he did between finding himself and losing himself, in a rather brief window in the late forties and early fifties, when you see them are just exquisite, in the same way that Chinese porcelain and calligraphy are.

Speaking of Pollock, it’s odd there hasn’t been another. He has no followers. Nobody has been able to do what he did, and we think of him as this ill-educated, neurotic alcoholic. But he did know somehow when to quit on the canvas. It was a gift, a real talent that didn’t get enough credit. Sure, I’d like to own a Pollock.

COLE: It seems to me one of the great challenges that faces any visual artist is knowing when the work is finished. You can’t go look that up anyplace. That must be true also in your work. I mean your criticism and your fiction. How do you know when you’re finished?

UPDIKE: Donald Barthelme, I think it was, talked about the capacity for being bored as one of an artist’s assets. For a writer, there is nothing like the problematical quality I would think stopping is for a painter. You look at Lucian Freud and ask when has he put enough paint on paint, when is it crusty enough?

COLE: Right.

UPDIKE: It’s all too subjective, isn’t it? With abstraction, how do you know when you’re finished? How did Pollock know that it was time to stop dribbling? The Abstract Expressionists put the emphasis back on spiritual rightness: you knew when to quit because you were in a way with God, with the god of art. There was a kind of unanswerable rightness that you were looking for, and could get, although you could lose it too. An artist has to change, has to grow, and often you grow away from what you do best. Pollock certainly did. Pollock stopped dribbling and was revealed again as a very modestly gifted painter.

COLE: What are you working on next? More criticism?

UPDIKE: My mother didn’t raise me to be a critic, but I seem to have become one anyway. As I’m approaching my seventy-sixth birthday I would like to do less. But I must say that it’s nice to write something that you’re almost certain is going to be published. And there’s a kind of cheap comfort in acting the judge, instead of putting your creative work out there to be judged. And for me it involves leaving a kind of secluded, suburban New England life. It’s bracing to get on the shuttle and go to the Met or MoMA and look at something with an objective in mind, and to have your little notebook as a sign that you’re a serious person. It’s like taking a quick seminar. I suppose I enjoyed college enough to make the rest of my life somewhat like going to college. You read a book, you write a paper, you write a review of it.

COLE: It must be nice to know that it will get published too.

UPDIKE: You know, it makes it real. One trouble with writing poetry or fiction is that you can be kidding yourself. Or the air can be leaking out of your balloon and you don’t know it. There is always a chance of failure, of producing something totally unnecessary. But I guess that chance of failure is what makes tightrope walking, race-car driving . . .

COLE: . . . and doing criticism and . . .

UPDIKE: writing novels fun, interesting. You’re one level out, though, when you’re writing fiction. I called one of my collections Hugging the Shore. When you’re writing out of your head—imaginary stuff—you are alone out there, but you’re also the only person in charge. In this kingdom of one, you’re the boss. And the slave, too. You are the workforce.

You asked about what I was doing. I have a novel coming out in the fall, and I’m trying to write a story or two to round out a collection beyond that novel. That takes me into the year 2009, and that’s about it on my immediate desk. You get to the point where you should be wrapping up and delivering, you know, last words. At the same time you secretly hope you never reach that point.