*Despite my earlier heartfelt pleas and cogent arguments, the pointyheads at Astronomers-R-Us or whatever went ahead and delisted Pluto as a planet anyway. So, for those of us who memorized the handy sentence "My Very Elegant Mother Just Served Us Nine Pickles" back when we had NINE PLANETS, may I now offer this mnemonic as an alternative: My Very Ethnic Mother Just Served Us Nachos"? When faced with such an exigent, we must needs make do. Sigh.
*I started back to work on Friday. It was made oh-so-evident when I went to log onto my computer. After typing in my username and password, I had to click on the button which said
SUBMIT. I had no choice. !CLICK! Summer was over.
* Thursday night, lying in bed, sleepless as usual the night before going back to school after summer vacation (even after 25 years in the biz), I hear scuffling and scraping out on the deck right outside the bedroom window. "Rick!" I stage-whisper to my husband. "Did you hear that?" Rick, after a pause, says sleepily, "Yes." I wait a moment. Then I say, "Well? Don't you think you better see what it is?" He leans over and grabs the flashlight and directs it out of the window while still lying prone in bed. "I don't see anything," he says, and turns the flashlight off. I lie there, incredulous. I content myself with the knowledge that, if it is a bear that claws through the screen, it will get him first.
*Lots of colleagues who remember I went on an Alaskan cruise this summer ask me about it at school. I encounter severe vocabulary distress due to my self-imposed boycott of the word "amazing." Because, as you know, if anything IS that word, it is Alaska. I vow to make a list of synonyms--good ones--this weekend.
*I sat in meetings all morning on Friday--as expected--at school. I surprised myself with my level of patience and maturity. Am I growing up?
*I went to the Shaw Festival a couple weeks ago at Niagara-on-the-Lake. I saw two plays, one of which was The Crucible. It was a very good production, but I have to admit that I was more than a little dismayed when I noticed that the director chose to add two lines to the play. Okay, I was outraged. One does not mess with the work of a great master of the theater like Arthur Miller. Would she have added lines to Shakespeare? To Williams? To Marlowe? Anyway, I told my buddy and department head Sue about it on Friday. In my diatribe I included the exact lines and exactly where they were in the play. Of course. She grinned and said, "Nance. How many people in the audience do you think have the entire play memorized?! BESIDES YOU!?" We both laughed. Naturally, that is not the point, we agreed. But it is such an English Teacher Thing.
*I think I am over Nutella.
*Why do my children buy the same computer game every single year? Madden Football. All it is, is football. Some of the players are the same. It is ridiculous. They spend hours playing it. Sometimes they fuss for hours designing new uniforms and logos. I am going to buy them a Barbie Fashion Designer Game and I bet they love it.
Okay, that's it. I think. Be patient with me now that I'm back at The Rock. Allow for some re-entry time. Monday is the Big Day with Kids. Empty Vessels. Wish me good classes, low humidity, and superhuman stamina. Only 185 days to go!!
Saturday, August 26, 2006
Monday, August 21, 2006
This rather lengthy video is a clip from "Scarborough Country." It puts up for debate the question of whether The Angel of Death is an idiot, or if he simply is inarticulate. The evidence presented is a series of hilarious clips where he does battle with the English language and loses, miserably. Two guests, each taking opposite sides, offer their analyses. Scarborough mediates.
Friday, August 18, 2006
Holy Crap! I took a look around The Dept. and suddenly realized that I have been blogging for a whole year now. A little over, even: August 6th, 2005 was my first post.
And they said it wouldn't last.
Since then, I have been regaling visitors with accounts of phallic Christmas trees, the furor over whether or not Pluto should be a planet, musical mail trucks, left-leaning politics, the world of helpful pharmaceuticals, my sometimes self-actualized sons, my all-out war on backyard rodents, the three distinctions among beers, and most recently, my awesome cruise to Alaska.
And where would you all be without them? I shudder to think. As should you.
I hope you have a chance to waste a little time and wander back among the things On File at the Dept. (see sidebar). Heaven knows, next Friday I'm back to work and posts will become fewer and farther between! ;-)
Thanks for sticking around! And when you drop by next, bring a new recruit.
Monday, August 14, 2006
We awoke the next morning early to disembark. The cruise ship had a very orderly and swift system to get everyone off the ship in Seattle. They knew everyone's flight information and had placed passengers into groups, starting the disembarkation process at 7 AM. We were urged to have as much luggage prepacked and ready the night before, and to have set it outside our staterooms for the stewards to pick up. The rest we would have to hand-carry off ourselves. Breakfast would be available starting at 5 AM in the buffet and one dining room, but coffee and tea would be provided in many public areas, such as lounges and the night clubs. Those were the areas we were encouraged to wait since disembarking might run ahead of schedule. And it did, by almost 45 minutes! Before we knew it, we were off the ship, on a shuttle, and headed toward the airport. Our cruise had ended abruptly and a little unceremoniously, but we would never, ever forget a single minute of it.
On the shuttle to the airport, Rick and I sat quietly in thought about all we had experienced. Suddenly, the tiny elderly woman with the incredibly red hair in front of us whipped out her cell phone. "HelLO Jill!," she squawked loudly. "Jill! Jill! It's me. Yes, I'm in Seattle now. No, I couldn't call you yesterday. We were in Canada. In enemy territory. Now that we're back on American soil, I could call you. What? No, Alaska is part of the US, so I could call you there. So, now what about the cabinets? Was there much damage? What? WHAT? " We went under an overpass. She was oblivious. "Jill. JILL. HELLO JILL!!!" She turned to her husband. "I lost her."
"Thank God," my husband muttered under his breath. "I wish we were about to cross into enemy territory because I almost couldn't stand one more sentence of her conversation with the famous Jill."
"Really?" I murmured softly. "I am all aflutter about the cabinets. What if there's significant damage? Then what?"
Soon, the cell phone was deployed again, and Jill was back on the line. My husband closed his eyes, and I let my mind wander back to Alaska (still part of the US, remember!). I knew there were long plane rides ahead of us, and a layover in Atlanta (aka "Hellanta"), and I wondered if I should be doing some writing during all of the travelling to try and capture my thoughts while they were still fresh. I had done and seen and experienced so many things, both on the ship and off. I knew I wouldn't forget them, but time has a way of blurring and morphing and coloring things.
Finally, the bus arrived at the airport. We located our luggage, double-checked our flight, checked our bags, and then went to our gate. We were truly on our way home now. I'll spare you the horror stories of late departure, lost luggage, delay on the tarmac, the rude guy who almost punched my husband in the airport, and coming home to a cat later diagnosed with ideopathic vestibular disease...or maybe I will tell you that last one sometime! My Alaskan Adventure was definitely the best vacation I've ever had.
But, I look forward to trying to equal it. One last Alaska photo for you:
Thursday, August 10, 2006
We sailed all night and at about 3:45 the next afternoon, the ship stalled enough to pick up a Victoria Harbour Pilot. Interestingly, each time the cruise ship enters "new" waters, it is required to pick up a new pilot who is familiar with the area. The transfer of these pilots is even more fascinating, and many of us passengers gathered on deck to watch it. As I said, the ship idles, and soon, we saw a small boat coming steadily towards us.
As it pulled alongside, a rope ladder emerged from a metal door on the side of our ship. The pilot stepped from the pilot boat and climbed up the rope ladder and disappeared into the ship. The rope ladder was pulled in, the door shut, and soon we were on our way! It was stunning even on the calm sea; all of us chattered about how impressive and dangerous it would be on a choppier, angrier one.
Not too long after that, we were able to see Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, on the horizon. The weather was much warmer and getting a bit more humid. There was no doubt that we had left Alaska. So many passengers were on the dock, enjoying the sun and warmer weather. Before we knew it, we were able to see the dock. Suddenly, we all realized that the ship was doing something strange. Soon, a voice on the loudspeakers confirmed it. The captain was turning us completely around--we were going to back the ship in! The reaction from the passengers was one of incredulity. Look at our berth!
Slowly, slowly, we backed into the berth. A welcoming party was waiting on the dock for us in this "veddy veddy Brritish town."
Eventually, we stepped off, cleared border security, such as it was, and walked off into Victoria. I was greeted by and had my photo taken with a "bobby". We were practically smothered by the 80+ degree heat. We found a shuttle to downtown Victoria to see some sights.
The driver was quite the Canadian booster. "Canada has no slums or ghettoes," he informed us. "Everyplace in Canada is beautiful." I nudged Rick, "Apparently he's never walked off the tourist tracks at Niagara Falls," I said under my breath. "I could show him plenty of slums and ugliness there." But I behaved myself and smiled and thanked him as I got off the bus at the Empress Hotel, one of Victoria's landmark buildings.
It's a shame they don't allow anyone to go inside any of it; the interior is incredibly impressive from what I've heard. There is afternoon tea, but we didn't arrive in time for that. It is, as you can see, enormous. It was first built in 1908, faced demolition at least once, but was saved and then subsequently refurbished and even added onto. It faces the Inner Harbour, as you can tell from the photo.
Another of Victoria's gorgeous landmark buildings is their Parliament. Built in about 1897, it houses their legislative bodies. It has copper accents on its domes and pediments that has developed that gorgeous green patina which make it look even more stately and beautiful.
We wandered around the streets of Victoria enjoying the atmosphere and marveling at the crowds. Suddenly we heard our names! It was our friends from Virginia who had decided to wander around a while before their horse and carriage tour. We quickly made plans to meet up for dinner at a steakhouse we'd all seen on a nearby corner. It would be a change from shipboard dinners, and it would give us a chance to just wear our knockabout clothes.
We had a little time to kill, so we looked for Chinatown. We found it, such as it was, on Fan Tan Alley. It looked very impressive and very exotic, what with the entrance and all.
But let me tell you, all Chinatown consisted of was a half-block of two Asian grocery stores, a couple produce stands, a few restaurants, a cheap import souvenir-type shop or two, and at the dead end, something our shuttle driver would be aghast at: all along the sidewalk at the end of Chinatown were homeless people, lying, sitting, leaning against the building. Some wore, literally, rags, while others held cups or cardboard takeout containers for change or bills. One was complaining loudly in a slurring voice while another nodded sympathetically. As we crossed the street, a man with a pushcart loaded down with plastic bags full of cans and belongings walked past us. I turned to Rick. "Toto? I guess we're not in Canada anymore!" We left Chinatown and started toward the main street to meet our friends for dinner. On the way, we were amused to see a teenage boy wearing a LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers jersey. We waited outside the steakhouse for a few minutes and saw our friends running to meet us. Their tour had been "another history lesson", much to the Mr.'s laughing dismay, but we knew that some food and drink would put everything right in no time.
After steaks, wine, local beer, genial conversation, and some really hearty laughter, we left the restaurant and made an emergency trip to the chocolatier across the street. The clerk was a bit snarky since it was only 5 minutes until she could close the store, but we cheerfully ignored her and made our selections carefully and unhurriedly. Some things, as you know, simply cannot--and should not--be rushed. We strolled along the street and took some lovely pictures of Victoria at night. They illuminate their landmark buildings, and the scene looked like a child's Lite-Brite toy scene.
Back at the ship, we sat said some final goodbyes to our new friends, exchanged emails and hugs, and went to our staterooms. Rick and I closed our door and looked one last time at the chocolates on our plumped-up-by-Artemio pillows on our turned-down beds. We sighed. When we cast lines at 11:30 tonight, we were headed for Seattle. Our cruise was all but over tonight.
Monday, August 07, 2006
It was a full day at sea. We awoke to the knock of a room service steward cheerfully--and quietly--bearing a tray holding my light continental breakfast of coffee, juice, and muesli. Rick and I both had a cup of coffee in bed while looking at the daily newsletter to see what events interested us. Tonight was formal night, too, and we had a mission: we had to find Rick a tie. Long story, but we had sailed sans tie, and needed one for dinner this evening.
There was a culinary demonstration at 10. If I hurried, we could make it. I did, and we did. After the cooking demo by the cruise ship's executive chef and maitre, there was a tour of our dining room's galley. We watched as the kitchen staff prepared for tonight's special dinner.
We also were intrigued by the many centerpieces, all carved out of food. Here's a cute one made primarily from fresh pineapples.
As we left the galley, we saw merchandise being piled up on the dining room tables and banquettes. We asked one of the staffers what it was all about; she told us it was the Pre-Inventory Sale advertised on the back of the daily newsletter, and that it would be open to passengers in about an hour. I nudged Rick and pointed to where I saw a steward dumping a box of TIES onto a table. We knew where we'd be in an hour.
We decided to go back to the room and download some pictures from the camera onto the laptop and tidy things up a bit for Artemio, as well as to see if our dinner clothing needed any attention. Shortly after that, we wandered into the big sale.
It was huge. Everything from coffee mugs to women's dresses was on tables, racks, and stands. There were beaded evening purses, teeshirts, watches, shawls, perfumes, cosmetics, sweatsuits, jackets, you name it. And the prices were cheap. We browsed for a while and met up with one of our Virginia friends. She was pressed into service to help select a tie for Rick, and we found out she was killing time before the art auction, where she hoped to offer the winning bid on a picture for her daughter. She invited us to join her and meet her husband there.
*Just the day before, being an appreciator of art, and, let's face it, a champagne whore, I had gone to the art auction preview for free champagne and cheeses. I saw a gorgeous art deco picture and inquired about it from the dealer. He said, "You have a good eye. This, of course, is an Erte, and it is a coloring of a set piece saved from his studio that caught fire. It is appraised at $45,000, but I'm pleased to be able to tell you that we are starting the bidding at only $29,000. All you need to do is grab one of those green placards over there and put it on the piece, and I'll be sure to bring it up for you tomorrow." I totally maintained my cool, and amazingly, so did Rick, but inside I was screaming my bloody head right off.*
We thoroughly enjoyed the art auction and were impressed by the quality of the offerings. In addition to the two or three original Ertes, there were etchings of Chagall, and several paintings by the young woman who is being hailed as the new Picasso (sorry, but for the life of me now I cannot recall her name!!). It was a relaxing way to learn about some new artists and see some beautiful pictures. And no, no one had requested the Ertes!
We spent a great deal of time on deck enjoying the warming weather. As we got closer to Canada, the weather turned much warmer. We were told to expect temperatures in the 80s in Victoria, and although I had appreciated the dry air and coolness of Alaska, I was a bit tired of having to bundle up on deck so much.
When it neared dinnertime, we returned to our stateroom to dress. We were looking forward to this evening's offering: lobster. I hadn't had really good lobster in ages. Rick knotted his new $10 silk tie and off we went to the Marquis. We ordered a bottle of champagne and scanned the menu. I had caviar for my appetizer and don't remember anything else but the lobster. It was tremendous. The headwaiter Marcel served it, and the Junior Waiter James bent low and said, "May I assist you, Madame?" He then proceeded to cut away the meat from the shell and take the shells away on a separate plate. I took one bite and wept. I mean it. I looked at my husband. He was someplace else, expression rapturous and floaty.
Me: Rick. I'm starting to wonder if we're dead.
Me: I think we could very well be dead.
Him: Why's that?
Me: Because of this. Champagne, caviar, lobster. It's heaven. We must be dead.
Him: Then what a way to go.
We finished our lobster and sat back, eyes misty and faces orgasmic. Marcel came by. "How was the lobster?" he said, bowing deeply. Somehow we managed to come out of our afterglow.
"It was exquisite," I said reverently. "Well, then I shall bring you more," he murmured. Rick and I locked eyes. Our wish had been granted. This was never going to end. Marcel and James repeated their Lobster Dance. Rick and I dared to eat more. We toasted our incredible lives. We toasted Marcel. We toasted James. We toasted the four lobsters that had given their lives to make this evening possible. Eventually, though, it did end, but with a lovely dessert, lovingly and professionally served by Marcel, our new best friend in the whole entire world. It had been a dinner--no, wait-- A Dinner To Remember.
Later that evening was the main event (well, in the eyes of the cruise director, anyway...!), a champagne waterfall followed by free champagne and the passengers dancing the night away in the Atrium Lounge. Yep, you guessed it! I would be there! It was quite the big to-do. The waterfall construction engineer was none other than the maitre Luigi, and we took our spot to watch it happen.
After piling up the glasses, he filled the top ones and also sprayed them all with champagne to make them pretty and sparkly. Assistants also put little champagne grapes in each of the outside glasses to make them attractive.
Once it was all done, the countdown was executed, and...
Then that free bubbly was up for grabs. You better believe I guzzled plenty. Then, music filled the air and suddenly, a space opened in the crowd. The wait staff of the Marquis dining room filed in! My Marcel! My James! They came out and cut the rug to "The Electric Slide" and "Night Fever" and "The Macarena" like you wouldn't believe. It was a blast.
I got pulled into the dancing by the cruise director (you won't believe this, old "Love Boat" show fans), Julie, and we were all dancing the night away, refreshed periodically by glasses of champagne. "This is the life I was meant to have lived," I informed Rick in between steps and gulps of air and Korbel.
"You were the one who didn't ever want to go on a cruise," he said mean-spiritedly. "International waters are the Wild West of the Twenty-first century, you always said. I could be the victim of a terrible crime and no one would do anything about it, you always said. How many horrible things have we seen on Dateline, 48 Hours, and 20/20, you always said. Now all of a sudden, the cruise life is the life for you. Have another glass of champagne."
Sunday, August 06, 2006
As a little paradox, you can take a vacation from my vacation posts (!?) and head over to Leesepea's site where the 16th Carnival of the Mundane is being held. We're all students in her summer school session, and I'm hanging out in the back row doodling in my spiral notebook, drawing hearts around the words "Nance LS Johnny Depp". Stop in there for an eclectic mix of bloggers from around the web, all spilling their mundane little guts for your reading pleasure. Then, stop back here tomorrow for my day
at sea on the way to Victoria, B.C.
Friday, August 04, 2006
We sailed all night, and at about 6:00 AM arrived in the tiny town of Skagway. Skagway, Alaska, was the gateway to the Yukon gold rush of 1896, affording fortune-hunters the shortest route to the Klondike, though certainly not the easiest. The Chilkoot Trail, the genesis of which was in Skagway, was treacherous and steep by foot, and the White Pass route, though not as steep through the Coast Mts., was not much better. Add to this prospect the Canadian authorities' requirement that all gold-seekers were not allowed to cross the border without a year's worth of provisions, and things really got complicated. The year's provisions weighed approximately 2000 lbs. A man would have to carry it up in bundles of 100-200 lbs. each, deposit it with a "watcher", then go back down the trail and up again until all his gear was assembled at the AlCan border. No wonder that by the time most of the prospectors reached the gold claims offices 1n 1897-1898, no claims were left. For most of these adventurers, the Gold Rush was a Gold Bust.
Shortly after we awakened in Skagway and started on our room service breakfast--what luxury!, Rick heard splashing outside our balcony. Camera in hand, he hurried out. Here's what he found:
A harbor seal had swum up to the side of our ship, found a salmon, and was shaking it back and forth to snap its back. He then proceeded to eat his breakfast along with us.
Once we disembarked and ventured into Skagway, it began to drizzle a light, steady shower. We were told it was typical Alaska weather. What we had been having, sunny and bright, was very unusual.
"There's no bad weather in Alaska," one Alaskan told us, "only inappropriate clothing." We had come prepared with rainproof coats with hoods, and lucky for us, we had booked a tour in an old-fashioned trolley to take us all around Skagway. We'd have a roof over our heads the entire time except when we wanted to get out and take photos, like the one at the top of this post.
Our tour guide lives in Skagway, although she is not a native. And, because of the severity of the winters, she does not live in Skagway year round. Whereas it is normal for Alaskans to have only a few hours of sunlight/daylight each winter day, because of the way Skagway is situated, they get, on average, about twenty minutes. Additionally, Skagway's supplies are floated in on boat and barge about once a month, year round. The nearest town, CarCross (Caribou Crossing) is about 120 miles away, a pretty far drive if you are out of milk or bread. She said produce is sky-high, and it's not a pretty sight to see people playing tug-o-war over the last browning head of lettuce or greening piece of meat at the end of the month. There are about 800 residents in Skagway, but that number decreases radically in the winter, as you can imagine.
Skagway's claims to fame are many: besides being the gateway to the gold rush, it was the first Alaskan city to be visited by a U.S. president (Harding), one of its businessmen had a brief dalliance with Mae West, and it has the only surviving chapter of the Arctic Brotherhood (of which Rick and I are now members!). Oh, and I bought Jared and Sam some salmon jerky there.
One of Skagway's favorite stories is about its conman/outlaw, Soapy Smith, who was finally exposed and gunned down by a man named Frank Reid, who Soapy shot in the...er..."manhood." Soapy died in the gunfight and Reid died of his wounds about 2 weeks later. They are both buried in the same cemetery, but Ol' Soapy isn't allowed to be buried within the legal confines of hallowed ground.
The White Pass Railroad in Skagway, which is through the Coast Mts. is an engineering marvel. We decided not to ride it as a tour, but learned about it. And we saw this from it prominently displayed in town. Can you guess what it is?
It's a huge snow auger, or snowplow to clear the tracks up in the mountains. Neat, huh?
Finally, we were Skagwayed out. We bought the boys the obligatory souvenirs here, our last stop in Alaska. We trudged through the rain back to our ship. We got out of our damp clothes and laid out our dinner dress. And, very wistfully, watched them cast lines as we pulled away from the dock. This was it; we were officially headed away from Alaska. One day at sea, one day in British Columbia, Canada, and then our cruise was over. We stood at our balcony rail for a few last pictures of Alaskan scenery.
*you are still clicking on the pictures you really like to enlarge them , aren't you? Good!
You may notice the two different colors of the water in this photo. It is caused by the melting freshwater of the glaciers meeting the salty water of the ocean. Very cool. Just another of the fascinating aspects of this interesting and captivating land.
If we had to leave Alaska, I was glad that I had a day at sea tomorrow to reflect on all that I had seen and learned and enjoyed. It was almost overwhelming. Everything about Alaska had taken not only my breath away, but almost my vocabulary to process it.
Wednesday, August 02, 2006
Hard to believe, but that's Alaska's capital city--all of it--Juneau. Some 30,000 people live in Juneau. Actually, the whole of Juneau encompasses 3,248 square miles, but so much of that is the lovely glaciers, mountains, and unspoiled scenery that Alaska is famous for.
We disembarked late and wandered about town for a couple of hours before our whale-watching tour. As usual, Juneau had the obligatory jewelry shops and Alaska T-Shirt Company, native carvers, etc. I stopped and got some fudge to sustain me, and we left the tourist track and tried to find something worthy, but to tell you the truth, it was just a town. Besides, it was time to board the shuttle for our whale-watching tour.
Our driver was not a native-born Alaskan, but had come to Juneau in the seventies. He told us that Alaskans were tough people. He said they had a saying: "Alaska, where the men are men and the women are too."
We got off the shuttle and stood in line for the whale-watching boat. Ahead of us were two other couples who we struck up a conversation with. They were from our cruise ship. The women were both teachers like me, one of them even taught English. Our chatting continued onto the tour boat where we all sat together, excited at the prospect of seeing whales. We had already been trained in whale spotting the day before by our cruise naturalist, so we knew what to look for. The boat cast its lines, and we were off.
One of the first things we saw was a brightly colored buoy in the distance. The boat's spotter told us we'd be pulling alongside it to see a few stellar seals resting.
Then we cruised out for a while, but believe me, even though there were no whales yet, there was plenty to look at.
Isn't that gorgeous? Makes Rick seem like a professional photographer, not like a guy with a new digital camera standing on the top deck of a tour boat, huh? Not hard with a subject like Alaska.
Suddenly, the cry went up--"Whales! Whales!" Sure enough, I could see two plumes in the distance. Can you see them?
We followed these whales, and their 4-5 buddies for quite a while, watching them surface, roll, arch, and feed. At one point, these whales were only 30 feet off the side of our tour boat. I was absolutely thrilled, along with everyone on the boat. Whenever the whales would dive and expose their flukes (tails) in the classic whale poster pose, the boat would yell, "Nice tail" like we were redneck boozers at a stripper bar. Rick took loads of pictures, but not all of them will look like much to you. But this one will:
And then, before we had to leave the area (there are federal restrictions on whale-watching of 30 minutes within a 150-foot area, then the boat has to move), three of the humpbacks came alongside and gave us this great photo:
On our way back to the dock, we were also privileged to see something called "bubble net feeding" by a group of 5 humpback whales. We got a picture, but it's not easy to make out. It's a fascinating process whereby one whale is underwater, blowing a stream of bubbles to herd a group of fish into a manageable clump. The rest of the whales then form a circle around the grouping with their enormous mouths wide open and circle and scoop the fish in. It's almost like a ballet. We also saw two bald eagles standing side by side on a long, narrow spit of land in the middle of the water. They were only a few inches apart, just standing there, looking out to the horizon. It was almost poetic. I knew I'd never forget this experience for as long as I lived. I was falling in love with Alaska.