The Country is Sick

It has been a week now since returning from my month in the States and of the myriad of wonderful conversations and experiences and reunions, one topic has stuck in my mind: health care. Maybe it is because I came back home to a letter telling me my application for a “cure” had been approved by the national health insurance. That means that I will be spending three weeks in a “cure spa” in the mountains near Salzburg exercising with trainers, getting physiotherapy, eating healthy, and learning to replace my bad old sedentary habits with better and healthier ones. And yes, the whole thing is covered. My copay comes to $9.35 per day.

There are other reasons that health care in the States has been on my mind. In conversations with friends and family, the subject came up often. A lot of us are nearing or at retirement age, slowly winding down our careers and making decisions about “the right time to go”. In the case of two couples, the husbands were working into their 70s – putting off retirement till the day their wives qualify for Medicare. Another woman wanted to stop working and had saved enough of a nest egg to do so – she just couldn’t afford the private health insurance in the interim. One woman who was basically self-insured through her own business talked about how much those costs ate into the company’s earnings. Two more women – one with a pre-existing condition and another with a special needs child – knew that losing their jobs would have more than mere ripple effects – it would mean a financially ruinous tsunami washing over them.

“People like the health insurance they get through their employers.” How many times have I heard that statement since the start of the health care debate way back in the Clinton era? 100 times? 500? 5000? And I have never understood it. I know very few people with 100% job security, so if the employer decides whether or not you continue to have a job, don’t they also decide whether or not you continue to have health insurance? Doesn’t that yoke you to your place of employment and limit your own freedom and self-determination?

The last school year was not the best for me. There were even times when I considered leaving – to the point where we had a mini family conference about it. It would have meant bridging the last two and half years of my professional life with other “unofficial” work (tutoring, translating, etc.), but what to do about health insurance was not one of the considerations. I find myself wondering now what my situation would have been, if I were on my own and in the States . . .

 

https://smartasset.com/taxes/wisconsin-paycheck-calculator#eOxo4LJPs8

I decided to make myself a fictional 57 year old single woman with no dependents, living in Milwaukee and earning $50,000 a year. A nifty paycheck calculator online told me that I would end up with $3,196 a month to live on. Ouch! That seemed pretty low. I thought Americans paid a lot less in taxes, but this was only slightly more than the Austrian equivalent of this fictional woman would take home. In her case, about $700 a month would be skimmed off the top to pay for her health care and pension.

 

From there, I went to the Healthcare.gov website. After first figuring out what “deductibles”, “out of pocket” and “copays” meant, I entered my fictional information and clicked on “See Plans”. Of the 24 options, here were two at the opposite ends of the spectrum:

The cheapest Bronze Plan – “only” $709 a month. (Gasp!) But if I understand deductibles correctly, I would have to pay my own medical bills up to the tune of $650 a month before the insurance ever kicked in. So . . . why am I paying the additional $709??

 

The best of the Gold Plans. If I’m doing the Math right, I could technically afford this one with my $3200 monthly take-home pay – that is, as long as I never go to a doctor. Or take any medicine. Or own anything requiring maintenance. Or go on vacation. Or eat out.

Again. I don’t understand.

People protested last year to save this system. They camped out at congressional offices and marched on streets with signs saying “Don’t take my health care away”. They clearly supported this system in which they pay what seems like exorbitant prices to keep insurance and pharmaceutical companies profitable. I assume many of their employers have to pay such high prices too. It must make the cost of labor a burden on their bottom lines, which in turn incentivizes downsizing, relocating, outsourcing and all of the other euphemisms for “You’re fired!”

Navigating this system, making financial or life decisions based on this system, being constantly worried about losing this system . . . that all must create a great deal of stress in people. Anxiety too. Sleepless nights. Depression. All things that can lead to other, more serious illnesses . . . but never fear! The pharma industry is on it! Whatever your problem is, they’ve got a pill for that. What’s that? You don’t know what your problem is? Well, here’s an array of possibilities to choose from . . .

I only watched about three or four hours of TV during my month in the States – but that was more than enough to get a picture of what is going on. Rachel would do her 20 minute A block without interruptions, but from then on it was a constant flow of commercials broken up by sporadic 3 minute news segments. And it seemed like a third of those ads came from pharma companies. So here’s what the experience was like:

Rachel tells me about an explosion during a Russian nuclear missile test and how the radiation is spreading in my direction.

Then a nice woman in a commercial asks me if I ever feel anxious. If so, I should ask my doctor for xxxxx which, in some cases, might lead to dry mouth or mysterious sounding “sexual side effects”.

Then I see a short report about an immigration raid with desperate crying children, after which

a pharma commercial guy asks me if I am feeling sad. If so, I could try yyyyy  (but I should watch out for such side effects as fever, confusion, uncontrolled muscle movement, decreased white blood cells, seizures, impaired judgment, coma, suicide or death).

The next news report is about a recent mass shooting by a white supremacist, followed by

another nice lady asking me if I am having “racing thoughts” and trouble sleeping. I should try zzzzz (but beware of tongue swelling, memory loss, and/or hallucinations). Her successor knows what I could take for my “restless leg syndrome”, but it might increase my gambling urges or make me fall asleep while driving.

In the final news report, I hear that the pwesident is leaving to go on vacation. He has done nothing in his 2½ years so far to combat the country’s widespread addiction to painkillers, but never fear,

there is now a treatment for OIC (opioid induced constipation)! Just watch out for nausea, vomiting, stomach tearing and constant pain.

 

I think most people -me included – have a touch of hypochondria (aka “Illness Anxiety Disorder” or IAD) in them.  Who doesn’t hear of some new disorder and think briefly “Ooh! Maybe I have that!” So I wonder what the cumulative effect of all these messages must be. And then to continually hear these gruesome lists of possible side effects which often seem to end with “death”.  It’s unbearable. Four or five more hours of watching this stuff and I’d have started tearing my hair out.

Which, thanks to a sign in a Chicago el train, I now know is an official thing: trichotillomania or “hair pulling disorder”.

The industry is working on a treatment for it.

——————————————

I appreciate living in a country with a social welfare economy, but that doesn’t make me a Socialist. I also don’t believe in Capitalism for Capital’s Sake. From everything I have seen, a healthcare system that is privatized and profit-driven has every inducement in the world to keep the country sick. As long as it continues on like this, there will be no cures.

 

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Jungle Taming

Summer vacation is here! I can finally turn my attention to my flower beds (the ones Mean Neighbor Lady prematurely praised) which I have unfortunately neglected and allowed to grow wild. Despite my prediction – or maybe because of it (let’s face it: I am terrible at foretelling the future) – the final two weeks of the school year were not easy sailing. Not primarily because every day brought a special event requiring organization and overtime, and not because my remaining free time was used to write 28 individual letters to my students, but because my coworkers had not had the benefit of two weeks of convalescence and were at their frazzled nerves’ ends as they faced the same work load as me. To make matters worse, they made the curious decision to “co-write” their letters.

My part being in English, I had no choice but to go it alone, which was the way I wanted it anyway. As all of you blogger/writers out there probably know, the more people involved in a writing project, the harder and less efficient it gets. My colleagues spent hours and hours, day after day huddled around a laptop, formulating, reformulating, discussing the finer points of German grammar, allowing discussions to wander off onto irrelevant subjects, getting distracted, getting punchy, working themselves into exhaustion, slowly losing their ability to function normally. When I had to ask one of them a question, I often just got a blank stare in response. They would turn and leave the room in the middle of a discussion or come into a room and brutally interrupt a conversation in progress.  I began to keep my distance.

Meanwhile the kids were mentally already well into their upcoming summer vacations. They required entertainment and more than the usual amount of cajoling. On one day, we went to my husband’s school for a day of sports. The junior class there spent the whole morning with us, training our kids in tennis, volleyball, track & field, etc. They were so nice, but, unfortunately, a few of our kids acted up, refused to participate or moaned when they did. One boy in particular, I’ll call him Silas, got aggressive and insulting, even swearing at one of the trainers during an argument he had started. Since none of my coworkers had the capacity to deal with the situation, they left it to me.

A few days later, I sat down with Silas and talked to him about the day. He was defensive and apparently suffering from pretty major memory loss.  I told him that his behavior was unacceptable, disappointing and an embarrassment to whole school. He would not be allowed to go again next year. Unless, of course, he made some effort to make things right. I told him I was driving over to the school to give the students some thank you presents and that it would be nice if he came along and helped me. He could carry the watermelon. And maybe there would be a chance to make peace with trainers he had clashed with. Silas weighed his options and decided he would rather accept the future ban than have to apologize. I’m sure he pictured some humiliating scene in his mind – maybe him standing in front of the entire class, head down, blushing and mumbling. I knew I was not going to convince him to come with me, so I just said I was sorry to hear his decision and then went to the school without him.

Back at my school in the afternoon, I cooled my heels and twiddled my thumbs as my colleagues put the final touches and edits to their letters. I had to wait because I was the one who would then format and print them out. Over those hours, all four of my fellow teachers came to me separately to give me their thoughts on the Silas situation. All of them had had several confrontations with him this year and he had used up pretty much all of their good will reserves. I needed to call his mom right away and tell her. There had to be consequences. He’d been making this kind of trouble all year long, necessitating more than his share of after-the-fact talks and parent/teacher meetings even if his parents just split up this year they needed to know that his bad behavior went outside of the school’s walls it affects everyone there had to be a follow up this can’t go blah blah blah blah blah  blah   blah    BLAH.  And blah.

None of them, apparently, were interested in hearing my response.

Which would have been that, of course, there will be a follow up. But not today. Not on the eve of the last day of school. I would wait till the timing was right.

 

The letters did get done, as they always do. The final day of school with our little graduation ritual and subsequent breakfast went smoothly. The buses arrived and the kids started heading toward them. I stood talking with two fellow teachers when, out of the blue, a body appeared right in front of me. It was Silas, looking toward the ground, his head tilted slightly, his arms extended partway and sort of lamely towards me.

“OH!” I said in surprise. “Silas! Do you want a hug goodbye?” I didn’t wait for his answer but just leaned down and gave him one. He returned it. And then he ran off toward his bus.

One of the other teachers looked at me and said with wide eyes and a little laugh: “WHO was that?!! What in the HELL was THAT?!!”

Who was that?

Just another neglected thing allowed to grow wild.

What was that?

My absolute favorite moment of the day.

Reeling from Time-Out to Time-Out

 

So here’s a possibly original take on the classic “why I haven’t been posting lately” post: I have just been so busy with one getaway after another.

First there was the sick leave, which, if I am honest, (and now that the memory of pain has faded), was really kind of nice. I have several crocheted animals to show for it.

That lasted about a week until boredom set in and sent me back to normal work for a few days. The week after was spent with two colleagues and twenty kids between the ages of 10 and 15 in an unheated house on an icy lake in Carinthia. Crap weather kept a lot of us in the one warm dining hall / arts and crafts / common room for most of the time. I taught a lot of kids to crochet and carve hiking sticks and make juggling balls with rice and balloons while my two coworkers took care of sports activities, homesickness and conflicts. We shared the task of kicking boys out of girls’ rooms and vice versa in the nights.

Back home, there followed an abnormally  over-excited week of work, thanks to the fact that the sex education experts were coming on Thursday and half the school kids were in a permanent tizzy – until the workshop was over, that is. Thursday at 12:30 pm they all casually emerged from their daylong sequestration in a state of feigned blasé whateverness.

(Note to future self: schedule the sex workshop BEFORE the trip to Carinthia!)

The following weekend – last weekend – was spent with my husband in some long overdue twosomeness at a nearby spa – my birthday gift to him. It was really perfect timing. With a long work slog just behind him and a mammoth one coming up, this was his one chance to unwind and unplug for a few days. Experience has taught us that we don’t see much of one another in the last weeks of the school year. For us teachers, June is the cruelest month.

Upon arrival at the spa, the first realization was that he had forgotten to pack swimming trunks. He rejected my idea to simply buy new ones. He didn’t really want to spend time in the water anyway, he said. He would start his training for an upcoming mountain bike tour and take long runs instead. He checked his cell phone and email.

“Whatever you want,” I said, and secretly hoping that the spa would work its magic.

It did. By Day Three he was napping on a lounge chair by the pool.

June could now begin.

Back home again, I stared at my calendar for the upcoming month and became confused. It slowly dawned on me that – at least in my case – this year was as good as over. First off, three long holiday weekends all fall in June this year, so I only had 10 more school days – and those were mostly excursions and sports days and special projects. Written into my calendar were some concerts and fests, a recital, one play and a canoe trip. There was a day at the public pool. There was a high school graduation ceremony and a big family celebration. There was the last day of school and the sentimental ritual that includes.

June was going to be a breeze!! Or so I thought.

 

The way I see it, Life is not a pathway forward but a curve-filled trek, always spiraling back toward some earlier point in time, though maybe on a higher or lower plane. That idea is behind the name “circumstance” and the way my blog entries often tend to end at or near the place they started.

In the case of this post . . . I am back on sick leave. Whatever caused my hip problem (which is much better now) has wandered up to my left shoulder. I’m back on anti-inflammatory meds and have new specialists and tests ahead of me next week. I assume there are also some hefty antibiotics in my future and some physical therapy. Olga will probably be beating me up again.

On the bright side . . .

. . . my earlier experiences tell me the worst of the pain involved (with the exception of Olga) is probably already behind me.

. . . I assume I will be able to take part in all of the events in my calendar that any one-armed person could manage and that is most of them. The canoe trip is probably a no-go. Shucks.

. . . I have this new duck:

 

Sick Leave

I was just standing in the kitchen Saturday evening and talking to my daughter when a fairly intense pain suddenly flared up in my left hip. It came out of the blue and was strong enough to make the trip up the stairs a bit of a struggle. I muttered to myself, once again, about how it sucks to be growing older and hoped a good night’s sleep would take care of it.

On Sunday, I could barely walk.

Having gone through something similar with my shoulder a few years back, I self-medicated with some expired anti-inflammatory pills, checked my doctor’s office hours for Monday, and then called my boss with the potentially, probably, bad news. With three of my colleagues away as it is, my absence meant a lot of scrambling and improvising for the few remaining teachers.  But then, what else can be done? As my boss said to me when she called back later, my only job for the moment was to take care of myself. Health comes first.

Sunday night, in bed, my condition reached peak pain. It got so bad that I actually panted. At 2 am, I stumble-schlepped myself to the bathroom and back, took another pain pill ahead of schedule and then somehow managed to fall into a shallow sleep.

I had to wait till 1 pm on Monday to see my doctor. When she heard I was having yet another one of these inflamed joint bouts, she announced that she was going on a mission to get to the bottom of it. Over the next four hours I was pricked with needles three times, I gave up a substantial percentage of my blood supply, and I peed on demand. I also posed (almost) nude for hip and lung x-rays. I allowed Vaseline to be smeared on me repeatedly for thyroid, hip and breast ultrasounds. I was shanghaied into my very first mammogram. Finally, I was also informed that I am officially on sick leave until my doctor informs me otherwise. I was ordered to come back on Thursday with another urine sample and to take it very easy in the meantime.

Strangely enough, I came home feeling much better.

Two of my thoughts since have been that 1) a person in pain will do pretty much anything a doctor tells them to and 2) the Austrian health care system is something of a miracle.

Take the mammogram part, for example. That’s a procedure I have been successfully avoiding for decades, despite the reminders I get biannually from my insurer. But today, when the doctor’s receptionist swiped my insurance card, a notice popped up in her computer that I was eligible for the examination at no cost. She asked me if I wanted to get that over with too while I was there. It would only take an extra five minutes. Of course I said no, but my husband, who was there with me, intervened and said I should just do it. I was trapped. Whoever designed this breast cancer prevention program knew what they were doing – how to reach the resisters and rope in the unwilling.

Now, of course, I am happy that the long war within me was ended by this surprise attack.

My own doctor’s reaction to my condition also fits right in with the design of the system as a whole. One of the policies intentionally tries to maintain enough general practitioners and to distribute them around the country where needed. My doctor knows me well by now and she admitted that she was taking full advantage of my visit to check everything she wanted – because she knew it might be years before I showed up again. She ordered all the tests and examinations; she made sure I got them done right away at the nearby health center in the brand new, state-of-the-art radiology office. And because she ordered them, everything was covered. All the results will be sent back to her and she will decide on my treatment, if any, with a complete picture from all the various experts at her disposal.

 

Back at home, I started googling about the costs of all these tests in the States. Of course the information was all very complicated depending on where you live, whether and how you are insured and how much your co-pays are, but it was pretty clear that those four hours of tests could have set me back as much as $2000 dollars. In contrast, all I had to pay for that Monday was the prescription fees: a grand total of $9.

Maybe the greatest miracle of the health system here are the thoughts that never crossed my mind as I headed toward the doctor’s office in pain. Can I afford this? Can I afford to take a day off of work? What a gift it is that for everyone – and I mean everyone – such factors don’t even make it into the equation.

 

Halftime Report

Never fear, Ladies. This post has nothing to do with the Super bowl. To be honest, the only things I know about it are that Maroon Five was boring and everyone hates a guy called Tom Brady. I couldn’t tell you what teams played, but I saw Tom Brady on Colbert doing Hamlet’s soliloquy and thought he was charmingly awful.

 

The reason that “halftime” is in the title is because I just had a week off for semester break. It was a welcome relief after what has been a somewhat crappy school year so far (only with the adults, not with the kids). I know I have been declaring my love for my job forever, but this year started off badly with a bunch of conflicts I barely understood. And from there it got worse, culminating in yet another somehow obligatory group therapy session. The moderator lost control of the discussion, so we all ended up suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous accusations. Afterwards, I found myself pondering “To quit or not to quit?  That is the question.” Of course the problem, at its core, was not life or death. It was just about money. And all arguments about money suck by definition.

I didn’t want to spend my whole break brooding about work, so on the first day, I invited my two female coworkers over for coffee and a long chat. We all converged on the realization that we three were married to working men and financially secure, whereas our other two colleagues were single earners with housewives and families to support. The whole situation was not an existential one for us. Although we agreed that everyone is responsible for their own life decisions, this new insight gave us three a patience with their behavior and the situation as a whole. The talk did me a world of good and allowed me to put all work-related questions out of my mind for the interim.

Let the vacation begin!

As tradition dictates, we headed to my husband’s aunt and uncle in Tyrol for some skiing (them) and dog walking (me). A five hour drive westward took us from relative spring into the deepest winter. Ten straight days of snowfall in previous weeks meant white walls were lining all the streets and walking paths  – some of them up to five feet tall or more. The snow returned while we were there, giving us all another excuse for taking it easy (as if we needed one). While my husband took the kids skiing and sledding, I took long dog walks with my aunt and cousin and . . . that’s about it. Otherwise it was just reading and Sudoku and Level 8 and podcasts and wonderful meals cooked by Austria’s greatest chef.

My one excursion was to the big flea market where, last year, I found my old dial-up phone (which works!) and which I absolutely adore. This year the pickings were slimmer. There was a nice set of hand-carved wooden crèche figures, but with the baby Jesus missing. I already bought one of those this year. Later, I did find a cool vintage children’s sewing machine – but then the seller not only wanted too much for it, but he was also fairly unfriendly about it. He had turned his back on me to talk to another potential customer, but I remained standing there, mulling over whether to make a counter offer or not. While waiting for him to finish his conversation, I picked up a wooden box from his table and opened it. Inside were a bunch of big carved wooden objects. It slowly dawned on me that they were penises. I quickly shut the box, dropped it back on the table and moved on.

So . . . no new mini-sewing machine.

After four gloriously relaxing days, we hugged our goodbyes and thank yous, and piled into the car to head back east- and homeward. A five-hour drive later, we landed back in spring. Temperatures in the low 50s quickly lured us out into the garden to do post-winter clean-up. One of my projects was reopening bathing season for our ducks.

 

And speaking of clean-ups, I came home to discover my chicken on the wrong side of the front stoop, my glass jars in the wrong formation on the kitchen counter, and all the bottles of cleaning supplies empty. There was a message from Vera that she needed more. I went out and replenished the whole stock. Here they are:

Notice the hostage-picture-style of this photograph with the newspaper in front to prove the date. You are all my witnesses. The next time Vera comes (and has gone), I’m going to line up all these bottles again and compare them to this picture. If it turns out that they are all half empty, I’m gonna . . .  I’m gonna . . . seriously think about saying something to her! But then again . . . I think her husband is unemployed and she is working two or three jobs just to get by. So I’ll probably stay silent. Just like I did at work when it started up again.

Conscience does make cowards of us all.

Happy New Year!

Ever so slightly belated.

Clearly, “stop procrastinating” was not on my list of New Year’s Resolutions this year. That might be because I didn’t actually make one. While listening to some podcast over Christmas vacation, I heard a funny woman say

“To Do lists are a weapon you use to beat yourself up”

– which somehow hit home. And what are new year’s resolutions if not simply more ambitious and glorified versions of the daily tally of undone intentions? So there is no piece of paper lying on my desk this year, commanding me to start jogging or give up coffee. That’s a relief.

Which is not to say I don’t have a few ideas about how to tweak my daily routine and rid it of a few ruts . . .

There are certain gaps in my education and experience that I am considering doing something about. I have never seen the movie “The Godfather”, for instance, which I keep hearing quotes from in political news shows. Another example from the category Must-See-Films-I-Haven’t is “The Big Lebowski” (which, my being from Milwaukee, is apparently an almost unfathomable sin of omission).  And then there is the fact that for thirty years, I have lived 5 minutes away from the largest hot springs spa in Austria, with a special, luxurious, adults-only section for which I have a lifetime 50% discount – and I have never been there. Similarly, for the past 4 years, a beautiful grand piano has occupied half of my living room and I have only played it once.

I’m a creature of habit for sure. Every day begins with the same movements – the donning of the same blue bathrobe, the trip to the bathroom, the petting of the dog on the stairs en route to the coffee machine and the swallowing of a daily vitamin and thyroid pill. From there it is off to the laptop for a quick email check and a Good Morning, Rachel . . . (thanks to the time difference, Maddow is my morning news show). So far none of this requires much tweaking, but other habits have snuck into my days that don’t do me much good. For instance, the additional daily doses of disillusionment that Donald delivers. I could do without those. And those educational gaps I mentioned above? Well, I have thought about these so many times over so many years that one could argue I have made a habit of not doing them. Not keeping up with this blog is another bad habit in that category. It’s the one I’m planning to quit today.

I binged some “Big Bang Theory” over Christmas and had to laugh about Sheldon’s quest to find the perfect date (with mathematical symmetry) for his wedding. I do the same thing all the time – a habit I started back when I was a smoker and repeatedly looked for a memorable date on which to make my next attempt at quitting. (Just as an aside here, the date that finally worked was my daughter’s birthday.) Well, this blog post was written on the 19th and 20th days of 2019 – how is that for symmetry?

I hope it is not premature to say that it’s good to be back.

Unceremonious Endings

Two of my activities today got me thinking about all the times I have lost jobs. Technically I have never been fired – at least in the sense of someone looking me in the eye and saying “You’re fired!” But that is only because two of my former bosses were simply too chicken to do so. One of them took 9/11 as an opportunity to quick give my class to someone else. (I had missed the start of the semester because I was stuck in the States waiting for a chance to fly back to Austria.) That new teacher ended up calling me to tell me the news. Never heard a peep from the boss about it.

About 10 years later I got fired by forwarded email from my boss’s boss instructing me to clear out my office and give back any of the Institute’s stuff I might have. The layoff itself did not come as a surprise to me, but the way it was done was galling. A particularly nice sendoff after 25 years of employment . . .

Today, a new twist on this form of email termination was born. I wrote an email to my boss requesting that the university course I have been teaching be cancelled. In other words, I basically fired myself. This was not the easiest thing to do because I always loved teaching this particular course. Unfortunately the whole program is winding down and the number of students has been dwindling for years. Last year I had to go and proactively look for students – corral a few warm bodies into my classroom to teach. This year I didn’t want to do that anymore.

So I am down to one job now. I would be feeling sorry for myself if not for three of our chickens who have had an even harder day. Remember those four chicks we got for the purpose of keeping our one incubator chick company? Well, all four of them turned out to be roosters. Three of them had to go and today was the day.

We grabbed them, stuffed them in a box, and my husband drove them to the local . . . Chicken Ender. A half hour later, he was back home with a bulging plastic bag.

Tomorrow one of the roosters is going into the oven and then comes the moment of truth. I am not convinced that I will really be able to eat him. My husband is determined to cultivate a realistic attitude about it all. He says if he can’t handle the fact that animals – even those he knew when alive – are killed and eaten, then he should become a vegetarian.

I, on the other hand, am considering turning the meal into a little ceremony. I will take a moment to remember and honor this rooster for his many contributions to our family enterprise. I will thank him for his good work and give him the thoughtful sendoff he so richly deserved.

I’ll try hard not to gag.