The morning after the Houston floods…

For three days, Hurricane Harvey’s fury was unleashed over Houston, dumping 50 inches of rainwater, flooding homes, submerging cars and turning highways into deadly waterways. People all across the world watched in horror as boats rescued people stranded on rooftops and porches calling out for help with children and pets in their arms.

Morning after

…and finally sun came out

The morning after the storm, the sun came out bright and warm as if the last three days were just a bad dream and now everything was just the same. However, nothing was the same. Thousands of people were in shelters, hundreds of cars were water-damaged, countless homes had flooded, and all the businesses had “closed” signs dangling in their windows. Signs of shock and despair were everywhere. I found it hard to shake the feeling off myself.

volunteers in line

“What is this line for? food? shelter? clothes? No, it is to volunteer.”

Then I saw a photo showing a long line of people in front of the George R. Brown Shelter with the caption, “What is this line for? food? shelter? clothes? No…this line is to volunteer!” And I knew right away that we were going to be okay.

Our Emergency Management Team at the University of Houston had been working day and night to assess the storm, alert people and harden the campus infrastructure. No one had time to focus on themselves. Staff members in campus residence halls and dining facilities had gone without rest for days. By now, students were themselves helping out in dining halls by cleaning tables and assisting servers. Our first responders had been fielding phone calls and monitoring the situation without blinking.  They too were exhausted not only physically but also emotionally from the suffering they had witnessed.

As the sun came out, we all took a long, deep breath, knowing in our hearts that the road to recovery would be as daunting and draining, if not more.

It was clear that the storm took no mercy and spared no one. In my own office, every single person was impacted. My chief of staff was forced out of his home with his young family due to mandatory evacuations. My executive assistant was out of her home with her husband and two young children after her home got flooded. Another one escaped the flooding but saw a tree fall on her car. The transportation assistant was out of his own transportation, for flood water reached his garage and totaled his car along with his home.

Devastation

No one was spared!

Many of my cabinet members and members of the Emergency Management Team had the same stories of lost cars and lost homes. And yet, during the storm, no one shared their own pain. They were on duty working for the University from the Emergency Operations Center, or their phones and computers from home, while managing their own families and property losses on the side.

One of the senior team members took my call from the second floor of her home where she and her children had taken refuge as water soaked the floor below. I told her that I would be diverting students’ inquiries to someone else because she needed to take care of her family.” She replied politely yet firmly, “Please keep sending them to me. My computer is working and I would like to help students as much as I can.”

The morning after the storm was the first time we had time to check on one another. We did so but immediately got back to work, this time in the context of recovery and rebuilding.  Overnight, the Emergency Management Team had turned into the Recovery Management Team focusing on three things: (1) accurate, timely, and compassionate communication; (2) taking care of our own—students, staff and faculty; (3) helping rebuild the city. While the Recovery Team was organizing institutional initiatives around these three goals, the SGA (Student Government Association) and Faculty Senate were busy putting up Facebook groups to let people connect with one another and help.

UH students volunteering

Students were volunteering at shelters

Within hours, people were offering their guest bedrooms, spare cars, ride shares, pet care, child care, laundry, storm clean-up and much more. Our students and staff, donning their red shirts, could be seen at many shelters and distribution locations. The mood was upbeat, optimistic, gracious and hopeful.  Indeed, there were tears and sufferings, but for the time being, people had put them aside for the collective good of the community.

Even though the campus infrastructure weathered the storm reasonably well, we knew that our people did not. Classes and all campus activities were cancelled for another week. We had to postpone the first football game of the season even though it was to be played in San Antonio. Our players, having relocated to Austin during the storm, simply needed time to heal by hugging their families and helping their neighbors.

By now, we have seen more sunrises and with each one, there are more stories of suffering but also more stories of resilience. The city is trying to regain the sense of normalcy. There is traffic on roads, cars in parking lots and “open” signs flickering in shop windows. I am resolving to never complain about traffic or lack of parking, for I cannot forget how dreadful these deserted roads and parking lots made me feel.

Now, as we reopen the campus, we intend to do so with three core values in mind: support, flexibility and compassion. Yes, we can ensure some of these institutionally, but the ultimate test will be to see if we can execute them locally in every unit and department where it all eventually matters.

My hats off to my team that amazes me with its dedication and to the city of Houston that inspires me with its “can-do” spirit!

A UH alumna

Her house was destroyed by water, but her UH regalia was hanging proudly outside. “It was important to save it”, she said

Clean up

Bonner program students from UH Honors College have been cleaning up homes

 

 

 

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Houston floods and the saga of 200 stranded Indian students…

On August 25, 2017, Hurricane Harvey made a landfall about 160 miles south of Houston. The storm traveled to Houston and stalled over the city for the next three days, pouring 50 inches of water on an anxious community. By August 27, city’s bayous broke their limits, water entered homes and roads turned into deadly waterways. No city could be prepared for such a downpour, and Houston fell victim to this natural calamity.

As Chancellor of the University of Houston, I was faced with decisions that impacted the well-being of more than 71,000 students and 10,000 staff. My Emergency Management Team worked around the clock, sent out alerts, warnings, and information preparing our apprehensive students, faculty and staff. I closed the University in time to allow people to secure supplies, harden homes and find shelter if they so chose. Houston was not evacuated, mandatory or voluntarily. Nearly 2,500 students living in campus dorms chose to stay with us. I joined my communications team in reaching out to students and staff using social media and email.

On August 27 at 10:30pm, I was glancing over my Facebook page when my eye caught a post by the Consul General of India-Houston, Dr. Anupam Ray, reposting an entry from Ravi Shankar and asking for help for stranded Indian students at the University of Houston. Understandably concerned, I immediately entered a comment to the post asking Ravi to call our police. I posted a similar message to Ravi on Twitter, which I use for official communications. I also called the University of Houston Police Chief Moore, who established contact with Ravi within 5 minutes. Ravi also reached out to me – and all of this within 10 minutes!

Ravi serves as president of GISO (Graduate Indian Student Organization) and was not staying with the students at the time. He involved Riken Pandya, an alumnus of the University of Houston, who was with the stranded students. The two of them exhibited extraordinary leadership in organizing students and handling all the logistics. Our Police Chief asked them the names and numbers of all stranded students and contacted them to identify the level of emergency.

I spoke with Ravi and Riken personally. Not all of them were University students. Despite media reports to the contrary, they were not living in university housing. They were tenants at a private apartment complex approximately 3 miles from the University.

Police Chief Moore reported back to me with additional information: (1) students were safe and dry on the second floor of the building. They had food and water but no electricity. (2) Streets were flooded and water was at the doorstep of some apartments on the first floor. And (3) students were scared (which was natural) but were in no imminent danger. With this information in hand, the police and the Coast Guard decided that a night-time water evacuation was not warranted. They put students on the list for morning evacuation and turned toward attending to calls from those who had life-threatening and medical emergencies.

Students remained in direct contact with the Consul General, the UH police chief, and myself for the remainder of their stay at the stranded property. I spoke with students personally at night and again in the morning. They were concerned but calm, worried but comforted.

Meanwhile, a Houston leader, Jiten Agrawal, also heeded Consul General Ray’s call. He established contact with students and arranged food and water delivery. At the time, Jiten was evacuating an American family with a child on a ventilator that was about to shut down because of a low battery.  Jiten’s heart was big enough to handle both types of crises, attending to meeting the immediate needs of the Indian students while also saving an American family.

The morning of August 28 was a different story. Bayou water receded and roads approaching the apartment complex were cleared. Power was back in the apartment complex and a water rescue no longer seemed necessary.

Harvey6

With students

In the morning, the stranded students were visited by Ravi and then by Consul General Ray. I made calls to Ravi, Riken, the Police Chief and then headed to the University of Houston campus to check on 2,500 students in the university housing. From there, I proceeded to the apartment complex where Indian students were stranded. It was 2:30 p.m. by now.

It was heartwarming to see the students sitting in a circle feasting on the hot meal sent by BAPS Swami Narayan Temple under the decoration of blinking Christmas lights. Since

I had not eaten anything, the aroma of vegetable biryani lifted my mood and made me long for India. In the spirit of true Indian hospitality, the students offered me food and one of them even said, “I can make you some fresh coffee.” Of course, I declined, for I was too overwhelmed to eat. Students were together, strong, comforted, cared for and in no panic.

I learned that 15 of the students had cars and could transport 60 students to a safer location immediately. While most wanted to relocate, with hot food in front and power back, they appeared to be in no hurry to do so. I had a police escort and offered to guide the cars using dry roads to the new location, but they needed more time to pack and get ready. Only one car was able to follow me.

I made a call to Dr. Durga Agarwal, a prominent Houston leader and also a regent of the University of Houston System for further assistance. Within 30 minutes, Dr. Agarwal, his son, daughter, neighbors and friends showed up with additional vans to transport students to other locations. They took many students home.

Harvey2

Students being relocated

As I look at this in the rearview mirror, I am inspired by what happened on that one night. Consul General Ray set an example of how a well-functioning government takes care of its citizens by deploying resources from the local community. Ravi and Riken set good examples of how volunteer leadership organizes itself in times of crisis. UH Police and Coast Guard demonstrated how first responders manage multiple calls for help assessing each one in its own context and providing each what is needed. Indian Americans in Houston set a good example of generosity by opening their homes and hearts to strangers.

Harvey5

With Anil Agrawal’s family

And finally, the stranded Indian students set an example of maturity way beyond their age and experience. Some had been in the USA for only two weeks. They took care of one another and, once safe, turned around to help others in shelters. They went door-to-door, called 911, transferred elderly to their apartment on the 2nd floor and helped the rescue of a cancer patient.

I, for one, am humbled beyond words. Hurricane Harvey is leaving us with many memories and this one will be sketched forever in my heart. Thank you everyone for a job well done!

As if someone had just opened a window…

Earlier this month while going through the daily ritual of reading my mail, I found a brown campus envelope. Inside was a book titled Before We Visit the Goddess, by Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni. As I held the book in my hands, I felt the sudden gush of cool air, as if someone had just opened a window. The feeling was familiar, for I have known it since my childhood.

Growing up in a small town in India without television or the Internet, I had limited opportunities for exposure to the outside world. Books and magazines, carefully selected and mail-ordered by my parents, were the only introduction to the magical world that lay outside 3-mile radius of our town. Each month, I waited eagerly for the arrival of the postman who brought these books neatly wrapped in brown envelopes. The time between these deliveries was filled in by magazines, unceremoniously slipped through the crack in the door by the newspaper delivery man.

As much as I loved magazines, the books brought me the most joy. Stories, poems, novels—I read them all and then reread them until the characters became a part of my world. I remember tearing open the envelopes, holding the books in my hands, staring at the covers and feeling lost in anticipation of what lay inside. The sensation was … exhilarating. Every time, it was like the gush of cool air as if someone had just opened a window.

Those books were my window to the world, a world that was outside of my reach, a world that was more a mystery than reality to me, but a world I very much wanted to be a part of.

Now, standing in my office and holding the proof copy of Chitra’s latest novel, I was feeling the same exhilaration. As an avid reader of fiction written by Indian-American authors, I have followed Chitra’s writings since 1995 when her first collection of short stories, Arranged Marriages, was published. I knew Chitra before she ever knew me.

Almost nine years ago, I received my first correspondence from Chitra. I had just been appointed president of the University of Houston and was taking a few weeks off before formally undertaking the new position. In preparation for the impending leisure travel, I stopped by at the neighborhood bookstore and picked up two of Chitra’s novels. What better time to indulge in some good literature.

The next morning when I turned on my computer, the name “Divakaruni” flashed in my email inbox. I stared in disbelief. I knew no other Divakaruni and Chitra had no reason to know me. So who is this email from? I eagerly opened it.  

It was indeed from the one and only Chitra Divakaruni, congratulating me on my new position. She introduced herself as one of the professors in the famous Creative Writing program at the University of Houston. I remember calling my husband and telling him that it looks like the job has come with more perks than I had negotiated for.

For the past eight years, I have enjoyed Chitra’s writings with additional familiarity. Chitra’s characters either live in India or have migrated from India and have the power to take me on journeys that are familiar and unpredictable at the same time. Her characters are easy to like—they are Indians…they are women…and they are strong!  

Before We Visit the Goddess is a multigenerational story of women in an Indian family. Sabitri, the grandmother, lives in India keenly aware of the many miles that separate her from her family in America. Bela, the mother, migrates to America under dubious circumstances and experiences the hardships most Indians coming to America to study or work are unfamiliar with. Tara, the daughter, is born and brought up in America and faces all the confusion that can surround the first generation of Indian-Americans. All three experience the complex emotions of “falling in love” and “falling out of love” with equal intensity and pain. All three lean on someone – someone outside the family – during tough times, but in the end each one discovers her own unique identity, an identity that is hers and hers alone.

What a powerful piece of literature from a wonderfully humble author! And she is part of our family, a member of the University of Houston faculty! Our Creative Writing Program is one of the best in the nation, and we know why.

Chitra has won multiple awards for her work and each one is a tribute to her extraordinary talent. But for me, she is a friend and an author whose books continue to open a window to the world, except now the world I see is the world that I have left behind, a world that remains as real as my own identity. And that sense of exhilaration remains as strong as ever.

Behind the Scene: The Republican Primary Debate

On Thursday, the Republican presidential candidates’ debate will air from the beautiful campus of the University of Houston. And yes, we are excited. The campus is already buzzing with excitement and activity. As I walked around the campus Monday, visiting the debate hall, the media center and the operations room, it reminded me of Indian weddings. With trucks pulling in, boxes lined up the walls, people rushing from one room to another and temporary tents getting secured on lawns, it felt festive and chaotic at the same time.

I kept checking nervously with my staff as well as those from CNN and RNC, “Is everything under control?” And yet, I knew that like all Indian weddings, everything will pull in at the last minute making it a perfect production.

It was less than three weeks ago that we got the final go ahead from our partners—RNC, CNN and Telemundo. Yes, just three weeks ago! But kudos to our UH team who took the challenge and are now driving it to a new level. Our faculty and staff are busy coordinating the logistics and supporting the event, but most importantly, they are busy ensuring that this event and everything surrounding it turns out to be a rich learning experience for our students.

We knew that tickets will be limited, but “25” was a much lower number than I was ready to hear. Even though we gave a portion to the tickets to students/faculty/staff for random drawing, it barely made a dent in the demand. So we had to think of every possible way to get people engaged and involved.

Yesterday, our faculty participated in multiple academic panels and debated a wide variety of topics from political philosophies to the United States Justice System to civic engagement. On Thursday, there will be a forum with CNN’s Anderson Cooper and a watch party for students. Another watch party is planned by the Faculty Senate. I know that many professors have integrated the debate into their classrooms as part of their research or learning assignment.

More than 400 media outlets have set up their desks in the media center, which looks as impressive as central command offices you see in movies. More than 70 students are working as volunteers hoping to rub shoulders with journalists or get selfies with the candidates. One told me he can’t wait to put the debate volunteerism on his resume.

Dr. Temple Northrup, Chair of Valenti School of Communication, made my day on Monday as he summed up the opportunity the debate has offered to his students in an email on Monday:

First, journalism students will be live tweeting the debate, providing student insights into the event. Second, our students will be creating a live poll that will be shown to the students at the watch party. The students at the Student Center will get to text votes in throughout the evening as our students question them about what they’re seeing. Lastly, all of this will be done with a live streamed broadcast using our talented broadcast journalism students. During commercial breaks at the Student Center, they will hear from our students, who will be broadcasting live from our building.”

It is not to say that bringing the debate to campus has been without challenges or controversies. Many faculty members had to adjust their classes, many staff members had to give up their offices, many administrators had to divert their time from other pressing projects, and many students have had to search even longer for parking. I also wonder if I have personally made more enemies than friends by denying them tickets and instead letting those tickets go to random drawing for students.

In the end, however, we hope that the opportunity for our students to learn, for our community to engage and for our university to be showcased to one of the largest national audiences ever will outweigh whatever challenges and controversies we faced. All things considered, I must say that our faculty, staff and students have been awesome!

So, even if you are not politically inclined, you may want to tune in for the debate because it is coming from one of America’s most beautiful urban campuses! At UH, we place a premium on community engagement. Often, that means our own neighborhood or city. But Thursday night, the community we are engaging is the entire country, and UH is especially proud and excited to play an important role in our national political conversation.

What can aspiring leaders learn from Baseball?

Having been brought up in India, I followed cricket with all my passion. Baseball was confusing to me–too similar to remind me of cricket and yet too different to comprehend.

However, everything changed this year when our University team, the mighty Houston Cougars, started to show their red color and win some tough games on the road. I started to take an interest and follow the team. As the season progressed, this interest began to turn into an obsession. I started to juggle my calendar to get to Cougar Field for their games.

The only problem was that the game involved too much specialized terminology for me.  To solve that, I found a “Baseball Glossary” online and attached the webpage to my IPhone home screen so I could refer to it any time as I listened to the unusual words and phrases.

Then one day, things changed.

I invited a friend to join me for one of the games without knowing that he had played baseball in college. He realized quickly that my knowledge of the game was elementary at best, so he asked if I would like for him to give me some pointers. I happily consented and that is when baseball became really interesting.

By the time, the season ended, our team, the Houston Cougars, had won an outstanding 48 games along with the conference championship and the NCAA Regionals. They played their hearts out and had the best season ever.

For me, the team not only won the season, but also taught me that baseball is much more than “America’s Past Time.” It provides an important lesson in leadership!

Why?

First and foremost, baseball is a game of teamwork!  The winning team does not win because individual hitters hit home runs; it wins because hitters and runners sacrifice their own time on the field in order to let the team score. In baseball, individual effort means a lot, but team effort means everything. Successful leaders have to do the same—get people to do their best, but also make them believe that the collective outcome of their actions is better than the sum of their individual bests.

Second, baseball requires multidimensionality in thinking and in execution…so many things to consider…so many players …so many moving parts! There are limited resources (pitchers and hitters) and the strategy revolves around knowing which one to deploy when and where to make the most of the ever-changing circumstances. Similarly, leadership is much more than garnering resources; it is about using what you have in the most impactful manner. It is about moving the needle!

Third, baseball is not about beating the clock; it is about finishing the task. One strike at a time…one pitch at a time without ever looking at the time!  Similarly, successful leaders don’t count their success in terms of years served or papers published. Instead, they focus on goals achieved!

Finally, baseball is about cashing in on rare opportunities. I noticed that the bases don’t always get loaded. But when they do, the team has to take a chance and go all the way…there is no reward for simply loading the bases or going half way.  Every person and every organization get rare opportunities. Some are not able to see them, others are not prepared for them, and still others are just too scared to act on them. Successful leaders take chances, they act and, consequently, they win.

To my Cougar baseball team—thank you for giving us all a thrilling season and for me, personally, these insights about leadership.  We’re so eager for the next season to start. As we baseball fans like to say, “Wait till next year!”

A Gourmet Night to Remember…

I am invited to many black tie events every year. Houston loves to dress up and raise funds! But my favorite black tie event every year is the Gourmet Night organized by the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management here at the University of Houston. Nearly 400 students make this a night to remember.

Student Manager Team

Student Manager Team

Let me take you to this year’s Gourmet Night with me.

The theme is Route 66. The invitation itself takes you back in time – very retro, very nostalgic! You are requested to dress in theme-appropriate attire or black tie. I was raised in India, and therefore have nothing in my closet that could be called “theme-appropriate,” so I opt for a red gown. One can never go wrong with red!

Upon arrival, you notice that there are no professionals running around because no event planning companies or outside vendors are involved. Every little detail has been planned, and is now being executed, by the college’s students as part of their training.

We are offered a glass of Champagne and are given a number that we can use to bid on hundreds of items displayed in the silent auction. I am drawn to the section on vacation packages and restaurants – too many to count and each one under fierce bidding. What else would you expect from a hospitality college? I stop in front of an item, called “A Collection of Wines by the Faculty.” Before I can place a bid, I hear someone calling my name and asking if he may introduce himself. I turn around and greet him and forget the bidding.

With Martina Bahr, sous chef

With Martina Bahr, sous chef

In few minutes, the sound of the dinner bell invites us to the ballroom which has been transformed into Diner 41 in celebration of the 41st year of the Gourmet Night. Women in poodle skirts and men in 1960s hair style greet us in the hallway. We stop for a quick photo, one being taken with an IPhone and one with an old-style camera. We find our table, decorated with records and candy jars. A loud band plays familiar songs and I can see people moving in their chairs to the beat of the music.

With Katie Proctor and Diego Cardenas

With Katie Proctor and Diego Cardenas

Now we are ready for the gourmet part of the night. Five courses accompanied by five wines please our eyes and taste buds. Hundreds of students offer synchronized wait service on multiple tables in an expertly choreographed fashion. They are eager to explain any wine or food item in front of us.

Here is the part that I always wait for. The student general manager takes the microphone and introduces all of her managers – the food manager, the beverage manager, the service manager, the marketing director, and on and on. Then she calls on all the volunteers and a parade of 400 students enters from one side of the ballroom and marches across to the other side.

We all sit in amazement as this night comes to an end. Students start to plan this event as a part of their curriculum almost a year earlier. They compete and audition for leadership positions. They take responsibility, form teams, delegate tasks, hold each other responsible, manage conflicts, and finally produce an evening that is unparalleled in experience and elegance.

In order to pass, students are judged by a really tough group, because the room is full of big names in the industry, from people who manage their own restaurant to those who are the owners of the largest franchises in the world!

As we walk out of the ballroom, we are handed a Coke bottle reminiscent of the good old days. We thank the students and walk to our car, proud and happy in the knowledge that all of the managers will get job offers – if they don’t have one already! Because, after all, they are the best of the best!

 

 

People who make buildings come alive

Today, I want you to meet a very special person, a person who can make any building come alive, but in order to do so, you will have to come with me to one of my favorite places on campus.

Come with me to The Fresh Food Company, a new student dining facility (No, it is not a cafeteria that you and I remember from our college days).

As you reach the entrance, you are greeted by a bold splash of red. In fact the red is so bold that it forces you to check your clothes just to make sure you are wearing red today. The vibrancy of the place makes you feel like being a student again. After I treat you to a $7.50 for you (or $5 if it is Red Friday and you are wearing red), you arrive at a bright open space. As you glance from left to right, I tell you that there are nine stations–from international to vegetarian to a tempting salad bar–are staffed by chefs preparing food for you as you wait. No garlic? No problem! They will hold it for you. Vegan? Yes, indeed! What about dessert? Wait a minute and watch that timer on the oven get to zero. You will be rewarded with a melt-in-your-mouth chocolate chip cookie with no calories (at least you won’t care while you are eating it).

Now that the last bit of your cookie is gone, you focus on your surroundings and notice that hundreds of students are sitting around, studying, chatting and working on their laptops. They are in no rush to leave. It is the gathering place! “Impressive,” you say without effort.

And then you start to complain that you have eaten too much and that you would need a siesta. I smile because I know the feeling too well.

Now I take you to meet Ms. Dorothy.  She stands behind the salad station, refilling items as fast as possible.  In between she raises her head and smiles at everyone and talks to some when she gets a chance. She does the same when she sees us.  Her soft voice is hard to hear over the noise, but it reaches our heart. She does not expect you tMs. Dorothyo acknowledge her or return her greetings.  She is there to give unconditionally.

A few weeks ago, I asked the manager if Ms. Dorothy could spare a few minutes of her time for me. I wanted to know the person behind the counter.  She was hesitant but complied and came. When I pulled a chair next to me and asked her to sit down, she was really puzzled.

Once we got going, she told me that she has been working now for 51 years. She was proud to have raised five successful children. Her eyes lit up, especially when she spoke about students. “They are so special and I would do whatever I can for them,” she told me. “One time, a student came to give me $10 that I had loaned him 8  years back when he had no money for lunch. I didn’t take it ’cause he gave me the joy when he got his degree,” she said in such a casual way that I had to hold my heart. How can an institution not succeed when there are people like Ms. Dorothy making its success their daily business!

That day, we sat and chatted for 20 minutes and during that time, many people passed by, saying “Hi, Ms. Dorothy!” It was only as an after-thought that they would glance at me and say, “Hello to you, too.” While I was focused on learning about Ms. Dorothy, she was pulling her colleagues aside and introducing them to me and telling me how good they were.

Now back to today, I watch as Ms. Dorothy comes from behind the counter and says a polite “hello” to you. I step forward and steal a hug from her.  I can use it today.

Thank you, Ms. Dorothy!  No matter what anyone else says, I know that you and your colleagues are the reason why our dining facilities are inviting places. We build them, but you all make them come to life!

(PS: Ms. Dorothy is one of over 300 employees of Aramark at the University of Houston. The Fresh Food Company serves 4,800 meals per day, giving Ms. Dorothy a venue to reach out to so many.)