May 16, 2021
I was on a walk with my wife the other day discussing how “big” of a month this is for our thirteen-year-old twin boys.
See, it's their official “Rite Of Passage” month.
Working in close conjunction with my former podcast guest Tim Corcoran and his Twin Eagles Wilderness School, the boys have been preparing for a rite of passage into adolescence for several years now, primarily via immersion in wilderness survival training, plant foraging, nature awareness, and an overall unique but refreshingly ancestral approach to discovering how to creatively co-exist with the giant, magical garden upon which we humans were placed. The month of May will culminate in a solo, ego-dissolving excursion into the wilderness, followed afterward by a ceremonial “cutting of the cord” and recognition of each of them taking one more giant step towards becoming a man who can protect, provide, survive, and doing so in a spirit of full love for and presence with others.
Yet, on that same walk with my wife, we simultaneously discussed our observation that because of the boys' daily and constant immersion in an “analog” world chock full of unschooling, real-life experiences, time in nature, being with other people, tennis, jiu-jitsu, sauna, breathwork, cold pools, and trampoline parks…
…they're not very well-versed in the ins and outs of the digital world.
They don't have a smartphone.
They don't have a video gaming system.
They don't own any virtual reality (VR) technology.
Though they each own a Macbook for school, they're not really very good at using computers, at least compared to other kids their age, or, as you'll learn shortly, me at their same age.
They have social media accounts and a website for their online healthy cooking show, but have chosen to outsource any work on those platforms to a virtual assistant and business manager who they hired (with income they received from sponsorship advertisements and affiliate sales) so that they would have more time to, well, go outside and throw snowballs.
So yeah, they're kind of mini-Luddites.
I was raised in a highly digital world. One of my first memories is of playing Memory (ironic, I know) on one of the first personal computers that Apple developed (the 1984 Macintosh, to be precise), which my family promptly bought, along with purchasing just about every new fancy personal computer system that ever appeared in Costco, accompanied by high-end graphics cards, new modems (a smokin' 28.8K, baby!), multi-function joysticks, and all the latest games released by Wizard, ESPN Sports, Microsoft, and beyond to support our family's robust video gaming habits.
For most of my teenage years, I spent 2-3 hours on a computer each morning filing insurance claims for my father's non-emergency medical ambulance service, then another 2-3 hours each evening playing a cornucopia of video games, writing stories on a word processor, learning programming languages, and even tinkering with and taking apart my entire computer just to see what the insides looked like. When my father shifted to the telecommunications industry and began to sell the very first cell phones, along with pagers, modems, answering machines, and other hot new digital devices, our family vehicles were suddenly equipped with giant brick-sized cell phones and massive antennas on the roof of each vehicle. Our friends were absolutely astonished that we could make phone calls, while moving, from a car.
We also always upgraded to the fastest internet in town as soon as it was released, we were the first in the neighborhood to get caller ID (you mean we can actually see who is calling us on the phone?), and perhaps most comically, my two brothers and I were required to wear personal pagers everywhere, basically looking like little drug dealers when really all the pagers were for was so that mom could keep tabs on us and remind us to “pick up the milk” (my older brother eventually hurled his pager out the window of his truck during one particularly stressful grocery shopping list request from mom).
From Tetris and Frogger to World of Warcraft and World of Starcraft to SimCity and DOOM, I was not only an avid video game enthusiast, but even had a private tutor in computer programming to support the technology aspect of my homeschooling curriculum, and had my sights set in high school on being a computer programmer and game designer. I wasn't half-bad at playing strategy-based video games either, but became pretty disillusioned with the entire world of gaming when “cheat codes” got around (it always annoyed me when people didn't play by the rules), so I quit…which I'm sure is the only reason I'm not an e-gaming billionaire YouTube sensation now. 20-20 hindsight, I s'pose.
As a result of growing up in a digital, hyper-connected environment, I've certainly faced an uphill battle in my adult years to develop a true appreciation for the arguably far more real, palatable, enjoyable, meaningful, and natural analog world.
But slowly over the years (and ironically through the use of YouTube videos, phone apps, podcasts, and audiobooks), I've discovered how to identify edible and medicinal plants in my backyard.
I've learned how to shoot a bow and hunt small and large game.
I've learned how to navigate and interact with my environment using my senses of smell, touch, taste, and feel.
I've learned how to see trees as actual living entities that I can know by name rather than as one big patch of a giant green somewhat foreign and difficult-to-understand forest. Heck, I can't even walk down a nature trail now without taking my eyes off the dozen or so plants I can actually identify and appreciate. Currently, I'm learning elk language with my boys (they are also learning bird language, but if I have to choose one animal language I have the time to learn, I'll choose an animal that I can also barbecue).
Although I certainly also have a high amount of daily interaction with the digital world—such as owning cryptocurrency, operating multiple websites, blogging, podcasting, audiobook-ing, Clubhousing, Instagram-storying, and even “biohacking” with a dizzying array of self-optimization tools and toys—I also raise goats and chickens, store gold, silver, guns, and ammo, live on solar panels, well water and buried gas tanks, have pantries full of food for years, and spend anywhere from 3-5 hours every day living outdoors and embracing an escape from anything remotely digital except, admittedly, the audiobooks I'm constantly listening to on my smartphone, which to me, doesn't feel very digital at all, and more like somebody following me around and peacefully reading a book to me while I'm working out, walking, shopping for groceries, etc.
And I have to admit that despite my continued heavy reliance upon the digital world to operate my health “empire” of podcasting, blogging, speaking on Zoom, consulting on the phone and internet with clients, researching and interacting with a virtual team of contractors and employees (you could probably play a drinking game out of the number of times on my podcast I've said that I “blend ancient science with modern wisdom”), I actually now like the analog world a whole lot better than I like the digital world.
Long term, I think I'm better for slowly embracing a bit of fully analog Luddite-ism and making a concerted attempt not to be one of those who live in the Matrix.
Yes, I said it: the Matrix.
OK, I'll briefly assume you may not be familiar with the Matrix. If you are, feel free to skip this somewhat spoiler-alert-free paragraph. In the early 21st century, a war between humanity and intelligent machines broke out, which humanity lost, after which all surviving humans were subsequently captured and pacified in a “Matrix,” which was basically a shared alternate reality designed to simulate the world as it existed in 1999. Folks could just live their whole little, pleasant lives happily plugged into the Matrix, blissfully unaware they were floating naked in a glass human pod with IV vitamins and calories being pumped into their bodies to sustain their brains and bodies in what was actually a purely digital existence.
Quite concerningly (to me at least), we don't seem to currently be that far behind these films. Allow me to give you a few examples of what the future of humans living digitally (and virtually) could look like if we remain on a path of nature-distancing, technology-infused, analog-obsolete existence—examples that we all would perhaps have heartily laughed at twenty years ago but that now seem to be inching their way towards becoming a very real part of our everyday life.
…not that I endorse sex before marriage (I don't, for a variety of important reasons I describe here), but you can just Google “Youth Having Less Sex” to see examples of what rampant internet access to pornography, virtual reality headsets, haptic suits, and decreased levels of hormones due to a relatively sedentary, digital lifestyle are doing to young humans. Supposedly in Japan, “love dolls” or “sex dolls” are evolving into highly advanced beings capable of giving a man or woman all the carnal pleasure they might desire from intercourse with an actual, real human being. Doug Wilson's new book Ride, Sally, Ride (which will soon be made into a movie, and I bet it'll be good) describes quite hilariously the slippery slope we are sliding down as identity culture and sex doll advancement results in these little love robots being legally classified as actual artificially intelligent humans. Should us fellas desire to conceive in the future, perhaps we'll be able to just pop a bit of sperm off over to the local sperm bank, swipe left or swipe right to select the perfect mother we desire from our Instafamily phone app, and grow us a little baby from that mother (who may or may not be a robot equipped with a digitally functioning uterus), or perhaps we can just buy a stored embryo with a bit of bitcoin that we can sprinkle our seed on when the time comes. Of course, this birth of new life will only be permitted so long as our environment, home, and banking sensors detect that we have a low enough carbon footprint, adequate amounts of crypto, and enough food in the refrigerator to responsibly introduce a new carbon-consuming parasite into the world.
Why undertake the laborious measures necessary to harvest, grow, prepare, chew, and digest food, when the food of the future can simply be a symmetrical brownish-orange block of perfectly comprised carbon molecules with a customizable and highly engineered protein, fat, and carbohydrate composition? This sustenance will not only match your exact biological needs but when paired with your VR goggles and a haptic headset that triggers neurons responsible for taste sensations of food will allow you to experience all the bliss of happily mowing down a prime rib roast and Bordeaux, blissfully unaware you are just eating brown soy mush and drinking tap water? Fortunately, you will be able to engage in family dinners as your children eat their virtual macaroni and cheese, your spouse their special diet of digital spinach and blueberries, and your entire family plays a rollicking round of battleship, inside your headsets.
Soon there will be no need for a gym, health club, backyard, park, or garage workout space. All you'll need to do is pull on your electrical muscle stimulation suit lined with haptic sensors, pair the suit with a virtual reality boxing, tennis, or Himalayan hike workout (the hike will of course be synced with synthetic essential oil diffusers that mimic a walk in the forest), and voila! We can all stumble—pale, clammy, electrocuted and, sore—out of our basement from our six-mile trek up to a pristine mountain peak, just in time to refuel with a post-workout meal: two purple pods of engineered meat and a fabricated chain of maltodextrin beads blended in the perfect protein to carbohydrate ratio, containing as a pleasant bonus (when paired with our haptic tasting headset), the addictively succulent flavor of roast chicken and dark chocolate. Beat that, Rocky, with your stupid jogging suit, freezing cold Russian snow workouts, and raw eggs in a blender.
Reminiscent of the old-school Duck Hunt Nintendo game, you will be able to take your bow with the fake rubber-tipped arrows to a virtual hunting range, shoot at digitized animals of your choice, take part in online hunting competitions, and have your supper that night be comprised of a virtual meatapalooza that allows you to track, hunt, shoot, and subsequently eat elk (soy elk, that is) in the span of a pre-dinner hour. For those of us with ample acreage, our virtual hunting headsets may possibly blind us to the fact that our entire backyard garden has been eaten by a recent infestation of whitetail deer (a quite common occurrence now that hunting land doesn't need to be managed quite as intensively anymore) but it sure beats having to get up at 4 a.m. and trudge through the hills to find food, and at least it wasn't the stray wolf pack who ate your neighbor's dog last week while he was in the same state of blinded indoor digital hunting oblivion.
Why embark upon an expensive and time-consuming trip to Peru for an Ayahuasca immersion when you will be able to simply strap on an Oculus Rift and use a software system like Tripp paired perhaps with a carbon dioxide Carbogen-like or xenon gas inhalation device to create a virtual reality, highly psychedelic, and hallucinogenic experience in which you can dissolve ego, simulate death, and release trauma—all with none of the plane tickets, the mosquitoes, or the puking. Heck, if you get to be a really good psychonaut perhaps you can, while nestled in the comfort of your basement couch, or perhaps while floating in a Matrix-esque tube with electrodes attached to your head, be utilized and employed by a high-ranking government agency who can take your medicinalized ramblings and use your thoughts and ideas to create an oracle-like scenario in which you help them predict the future, brainstorm difficult problems, or solve crimes, somewhat reminiscent of the CIA's secret MK-ULTRA program (a 1950's search for a mind-control drug like LSD that could be weaponized against enemies).
Sheesh, even if, 50 years from now, some global governmental entity isn't planting us in giant tubes at birth and feeding us baby food through an umbilical cord we never got cut off so that they can harvest our mitochondrial ATP energy to build new servers, our neural firing patterns and brainwaves to design better AI, or our blood cells to develop new vaccines, sometimes I wonder if a.) we will eventually get to the point where we gladly volunteer ourselves and our children for that flavor of digital living because, well, it's paid for, we're fed, and get to play video games in our head all day, and b.) if we're simply repeating the Tower Of Babel scenario again.
Yeah, the Tower Of Babel.
The Tower of Babel story—as told in the Genesis 11:1–9 narrative—describes a united human race in the generations following the Great Flood, around 1285 BC, who spoke a single language and eventually migrated eastward, where they then agree to build a city and a tower tall enough to reach heaven, saying,
“Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
But God came down to see the city and the tower the people were building, and He said,
“If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
So God confounds their speech so that they can no longer understand each other, and subsequently scatters them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city and the Tower Of Babel.
But isn't an attempt to create a digital living scenario in which we have safety and complete control over each and every possible outcome—as opposed to the unpredictability, chaos, and actual danger we may encounter when in a less controlled environment such as nature – an attempt to be a sort of god, or worse yet, to be God, just like the folks building the Tower of Babel seemed to want to be?
I don't know about you, but I'd personally rather exist in a slightly dangerous, unpredictable, and chaotic analog world in which I know everything is real and in which I could get along just-fine-thank-you without so much as a single smartphone, compared to a safe, clean, predictable, yet ultimately fake and relatively unimpactful digital world. Hopefully, I'll never have to choose between the two and can simply continue to embrace the analog while responsibly utilizing the digital.
The Hows of An Analog World
Right then, so, how does one embrace analog in a world gone digital?
I'll share with you a few tips of my own, and of course, would be happy to hear (in the comments section for this post) your own tips for living an analog life.
- Connect to nature. No, I mean really connect to it, in a sensual way. Go outside, gather a handful of dirt up into your cupped palms, and take a giant whiff of that rich, earthy smell. Go for walks in the wind and the rain and embrace those elements too. Next time you've got some privacy to yourself, lay outside naked in the sunshine in your backyard. Every time you step outside, think of yourself as a newborn baby and curiously, fearlessly soak in something new every time.
- Create real stuff you can feel, touch and smell. Yes, yes, I know that NFT's are digitally attractive, but deep down in your soul, don't you know that it's more meaningful to get a framed photograph from your loved one, as opposed to a digitally SMS'd snapshot? Humans built with the ability to see, touch, taste, and smell created art, so despite how simple it can be to pride yourself upon an epically-edited Instagram gallery, perhaps instead try to dust off your physical creativity and take hands-on moments (with your opposable thumbs and all) in life to paint a watercolor postcard, carve a wooden spoon, learn how to repair a bicycle, or even take a pottery or glass-blowing class, and to embrace the flaws, imperfections, and slight chaos that arises when building with objects other than 0s and 1s. For inspiration, check out the books Why We Make Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman and Making Good: An Inspirational Guide to Being an Artist Craftsman.
- Know the dangers. Educate yourself on the massive amount of unnatural EMFs you're likely exposed to if your digital life far outbalances your analog life. Here are my favorite three podcasts I've recorded about these so-called “non-native electromagnetic fields”:
- Hunting Down EMF In Your Office, Bedroom, Gym & Beyond: Is Your Home’s “Dirty Electricity” Wrecking Your Sleep, Your Recovery, Your Health & More? The Official Ben Greenfield & Brian Hoyer Low-EMF Home How-To.,
- The Shocking Truth About You Getting “EMF*D”: 5G, Wi-Fi & Cell Phones – Hidden Harms & How To Protect Yourself, and
- The Non-Tinfoil Guide to EMFs: How to Fix Our Stupid Use of Technology (& The Real Research On WiFi Health, Cell Phones, Dirty Electricity & More!).
Dr. Mercola's newer book EMF'd is also a fantastic overview of exactly how to choose wisely when selecting things like wearables, smart appliances, and home electronics, and how to protect your cells from the ever-increasing volley of electronics exposure. Trust me: it's so much easier to place your phone in airplane mode and trade the VR headset in for a bicycling helmet when you understand that your cells have a surprisingly finite capability to be able to withstand 24-7 bombardment with manmade electricity.
- Learn to survive in an analog world. Really, if you're following tip #1, you'll ideally also want to learn basic skills such as how to start a simple fire, how to identify edible or medicinal plants in your own backyard, how to negotiate with or even defend yourself against threatening people or animals, and how to be prepared for the inevitable unpredictability of the analog world. Neil Strauss's book Emergency, in which Neil lives “off-grid” in the middle of LA for several months, could be an inspiring read for you to get started. You can also Google “NAME OF YOUR TOWN wilderness survival,” take a local hunter's education course, or even sign up for something like a Sheepdog Course, which my wife and I recently took, to learn how to engage in close-quarter combat, identify potential threats or escape routes in areas such as parking lots or theatres, and how to handle basic weaponry. You don't have to necessarily earn a “Hard-To-Kill-Badass” badge, but generally, I don't think there's much wrong with having that moniker floating around in the back of your mind, or at least committing to having some sort of dependable chops that allow you to thrive even with a computer, a smartphone or a grocery store.
- Use your memory. Look, I'll readily admit that by digitally outsourcing the rote memorization tasks we normally would have struggled for much of human history, such as “what are the step-by-step directions Grandma's house” or “what's my phone number,” “what's the square root of 1000,” we likely have freed up our brain to engage in more creative or meaningful tasks. In other words, that brain surgeon whose job was replaced by a fully automated, AI-driven robot may be a physician who instead goes on to cure cancer, or develop a safer drug, or discover a better vaccine and that New York taxi cab driver who can now outsource to Google Maps may have just a bit more creative steam left upon arriving home from work to paint something inspiring for a local gallery. But science has also repeatedly demonstrated that memorizing facts and skills does indeed keep the brain young, so you shouldn't assume you should just use Google and Siri everything. For example, I personally memorize chords on the guitar, memorize Bible verses (I tell you how I do that here), memorize card game and board game rules, and memorize names of plants, trees, and even physiological mechanisms I may need to describe on a podcast or in a speech. Build memory into your life, somehow. For me, that's generally with music, nature, and facts that I find myself frequently needing to recall anyways. Author Arlene Taylor's work is good for getting good, fun quick tips for memory development and maintenance, as is Jim Kwik's book Limitless.
- Go analog with entertainment. Entertaining yourself with non-technology options can be an entirely different, multi-sensorial experience, especially when compared with digital entertainment immersion. So while you don't need to completely eschew your Kindle, you should also read paper books and feel those pages turning in your hands or feel your pen scratching in the margins on the paper. Get a turntable and play a few records. Get a Polaroid camera and print out some real photos (ironically, those cameras seem to be gaining in popularity once again, anyways). Go to a live concert or play. Sure, you can’t quite so easily fast forward or quickly scroll to get to the parts you want, but this can force a sort of mindful attention that is often difficult to come by in a scroll and click existence.
- Play a ball or balance sport. I'll admit that Peloton bikes, Tonal cable machines, Mirror workouts, Ergatta rowing, Fightclub boxing, Katalyst electrostimulation, and other forms of relatively digital fitness are convenient and can even be highly efficient “hacks” for getting fitter faster, but none involve the same level of the personal interaction, social environment, hand-eye coordination, balance and unpredictability of playing an analog sport, particularly a ball or balance sport that fully engages your senses, such as pickleball, tennis, volleyball, ping-pong, pick-up basketball, tossing a pigskin at the park, kicking a soccer ball with your kids, throwing a paddleboard in the river, or finding a new mountain bike trail.
- Learn to navigate. Despite the nervousness and mild panic that may ensue if you try to so much as leave to shop for groceries without your precious phone, you really should try to rely just a bit less on the little voice in the phone to tell you where to turn next and actually pay mindful attention to where you are in the world, and how your city and neighborhood is generally laid out. As I discuss in this podcast, in a manner quite similar to birds, bees, and sharks, human beings are equipped with a bit of magnetite in our “snouts” that actually allows us to sense directions such as north, south, east, and west magnetically. Most humans, save for a few Aboriginal tribes, have lost touch with this capability due to its modern lack of necessity in an era of GPS and Google Maps, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't at least have a rough understanding of basic navigation skills. Know where the sun rises and sets. Know the major constellations and their positions in the night sky. Take a quick way-finding, map, and compass course, such as at your local REI or even online via YouTube (yes, I get the irony), to learn daytime and nighttime navigation. Ask a real person for directions (trust me, they won't bite). I guarantee you'll find it slightly empowering and confidence-instilling to know how to find your way from Point A to Point B without the use of digital technology.
- Live with people, in a culture. Knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities, habits, and traditions are a crucial part of family, legacy, and community-building. While there's nothing inherently wrong with working from your laptop on an isolated beach in Thailand via a digital nomadic lifestyle, you may also want to think about actually setting up roots somewhere and a place you call home—a place with neighbors you frequently see, a coffeeshop you visit each day, or the same set of friends your children might play with each week. Take your family out on the town to restaurants and tennis outings and farmer's markets. Go to a local church. Throw dinner parties. Plant a garden. Mow your lawn. Volunteer in the community. Go pick up trash somewhere along the road. Engage in activities like this that constantly remind you that you are a real human, living a remarkable life and culturally evangelizing those around you with the peace, love, joy that comes from loving others, loving God, and savoring His creation.
Ultimately, technology isn't bad. I use it every day. More than most, actually.
In our digital world, it is easy for us to believe that technology must always take the form of tools such as digital smartphones and computers. But even crude tools such as cooking knives, shovels, rakes, hoes, hammers, nails, and saws are all technological innovations. Arguably, one of the most important pieces of technology in all of human history is the printing press, which revolutionized the world, allowing books and other printed materials to be mass-produced cheaply and efficiently, and making them available for mass distribution, not just for the wealthy or those with high societal status. Just imagine how much good has been done in the world now that everyone can own their own copy of a Bible, and have access to libraries of other knowledge that kings of old would never have possessed in their wildest dreams. Similarly, social media, despite its increasingly common vilification, can be used to encourage others, bring together neighborhoods, spread news, rally community volunteers, share inspiring photographs, and communicate in ways that can be largely positive and even world-changing.
So technology itself isn’t evil, but it can be used by broken and sinful people for nefarious and evil purposes. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:23, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify.” Just watch a flick like The Social Dilemma to see what I mean. Technology, especially digital technology, can also take us so far away from savoring God's creation that we can slip into a pitiable existence in which we aren't fully tapping into the wondrous body, brain, and senses that God has blessed us with because we are simply too immersed in a somewhat fake world. Even AI, as described in the book The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity is being used in countries like China, Russia, North Korea, and Egypt to demean certain people or deny them fundamental human rights. But this same AI technology can also be used ethically to identify criminals, stop terrorist threats, or allow you to pay for a meal at a restaurant by simply smiling at a camera.
If we are in union with God and acting in a full spirit of loving others, we can redeem just about any human invention—including technology—for noble and righteous use, especially if we resist the temptation to become so attached to that technology that in its absence we cannot fully function as a human being, or at least cannot walk ten steps without imagining that our phone is vibrating like a biological implant in our pockets so we had better check it.
Look, barring a solar flare or some other kind of natural or manmade disaster, we'll likely continue to experience an onslaught of new technologies and digital infiltration into nearly every crook and cranny of our lives. AI and VR, extreme automation, sex dolls, and smartphone addictions may very well become the status quo in society.
But you can choose to live analog in an increasingly digital world.
You can develop a deeper connection to nature in your own backyard and beyond. Go dig up some dandelion greens and toss them in your salad. It's OK. Even if UberEats didn't deliver it, you won't die. You can engage and train your senses by foraging plants like this, and also by growing your own vegetables and barbecuing your own meat.
You can create real stuff that is more tangible and meaningful than 0s and 1s, like cartoons, drawings, carvings, paintings, musical compositions, and handcrafted gifts. Nobody cares if it sucks. They care that it's coming from you and that it's real.
You can look people in the eye (even if you can't see the rest of their face because of that darn mask) and see them as real human beings. Do that, as much as you can.
You can play tennis and golf and volleyball and badminton on a real lawn with real friends, no devices required.
Yes, you can continue to live a remarkable analog life…
…while still being grateful for and retaining a responsible use of the conveniences of the digital world.
After all, God made us His divine image-bearers, and as tiny creators who are inspired by our Creator, as I describe here, we humans have learned to forge earth's elements to fashion technology and computers and phones and circuit boards and all other manners of other digital magic, and it is all a gift from God. But any gift from God can become a sin, an idol, and a curse, particularly when we grow so attached to that gift that it becomes a god from which we are incapable of detaching ourselves.
So know how to detach from digital, and embrace analog. Your life will be more full as a human because of it.
How about you? Do you prefer the analog world and eschew the digital world? Do you try to elegantly blend both with responsibility? Do you think, based upon our extreme reliance, addiction to, and seeming irrational embrace of every new technology, we're all going to hell in a handbasket? Leave your questions, comments, and feedback below. I read them all!