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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Real Tartoussi

Paul Humphreys, the rock synthesizer in OMD-Crush, Stoney Jackson, who played Aaron in “Tales from the Crypt” and Abu Fares, a man of obscure talents were all born on the same day today, many years ago.

It was an eerie night in that abode by the sea. The winds were howling like a pack of famished wolves. A forgotten open shutter was screaming on its hinges somewhere in a nearby house. Heavy waves were pounding the beaches and a blinding rain was drenching the sleepy town. Power and telephone lines were down. The pitch black of night was incessantly pierced by blinding flashes of lightening, when all of a sudden, I decided to come to this world. Luckily for mother, there was a doctor in the house. She woke him up around 4:00AM and broke the news. “It’s time”, she said. Then and there, in that bygone western bedroom with a veranda overlooking the eternal sea, the youngest of four was born at the hands of his father.

Legend has it that I was a difficult child. As soon as I started crawling I wanted to get out of the door. So be it, they thought. They placed a small park (cage) on the stairs landing and put me in. There, the rest of the family could go on with their daily lives without being constantly pestered by my loud crying. The staircase faced west and from ground level up an array of small windows gave me a perfect aquatic view.

My earliest memories involve the sea. I have no idea when I first learned how to swim. I was still at a pre-school age when I was liberated to fritter most of the summer days with the neighborhood boys on a short stretch of beach not very far from home. Someone would fetch me eventually and bring me a Zaatar or a Labne sandwich. To try and get me home before sunset was to no avail.

Although I came from an eminent and mannerly family, I chose to grow up on the streets, on the beach and in the countryside of Tartous. Sending me to boarding school was the least my parents could do to ingrain some civility in me. Even that could not hold me for long though. My siblings stayed true to their proper upbringing and made it all the way to complete their formal education in the Franco-Lebanese system. I was held for only five years, when all involved realized the futility in aspiring for more. I was released unconditionally.

My homecoming to Tartous was my first personal triumph in life. When I left again, it was my second success and it was an exciting journey to America. I returned as simply as I had left, by my own choice, and Tartous would never leave me even when I go away now and again. I am not only a tartoussi, I have accomplished the most challenging feat of all: I am The Real Tartoussi.

There’s a storm brewing out there, it’s 4:00AM and I’ve just turned one year older.

chocolate-icecream cake for Abu Fares

Saturday, February 24, 2007

A Tale of Three Cities

I've been tagged by Arima, a woman I've never met, but whose persona is somehow a melange of surreptitious traits found in the three cities I'm describing in this post.

Which city do I love the most in the world?

To choose one city above the rest and aver that I prefer it over all is most certainly a tenuous avowal. I have had the pleasure of living or passing through many fascinating cities over the years and I have had a transient affair with a few. My feelings are better revealed in French through the words of a forgotten laureate: “J’ai des mémoires de villes comme on a des mémoires d’amour”. I have memories of cities as we have memories of love.
My cities were selected by the passion of a whimsical heart rather than the intellect of a well-traveled man. The universal magic and appeal of the famous metropolises would not gain any added benefit from my humble appraisal. However, I owe it to the three cities of my choice to tell the rest of the world about them. I should also make it clear that I do not mind a casual affair with a large city but I would never fall in serious love with one. I am a small town boy and will remain so till the day I die, or to put it more emphatically I am a crude sailor who had spent a great deal of his life in the arms of fashionable damsels but only had one sweetheart all along.
I would be willing, perhaps, to leave Tartous if I had to, and spend the rest of my life in Tripoli of Lebanon, Larnaca of Cyprus or Alicante of Spain.

Tripoli is the twin sister of Tartous. Every real Tartoussi thinks of her as his second home. A distance of 60 km separates the two cities and going there on the spur of the moment to spend the day and return is a long established tradition for us. There is no other Syrian city to take its place in my mind. I know every single street, every neighborhood. I’m welcomed by its shopkeepers and recognized by its everyday amblers. The Tripolitans speak with my accent and share my inherited values. This is the only place in Lebanon where the line between Syrian and Lebanese is almost nonexistent. It’s a beautiful, well-kept city by the sea with a charming boulevard adorned with tall palm trees and an easy going lifestyle. It is home to most of my lifelong friends, those who are scattered today around the globe waiting for better days to return. Tripoli is so much a part of my life, I could never let go.

I have sailed the 110 nautical miles from Tartous to Larnaca one spring afternoon and made harbor and anchored late at night. I stepped out of the boat in the early morning and was immediately engulfed with an ethereal nostalgic feeling. It’s as if I’ve stepped back in time to the Tartous of my childhood yet remained in the present with a vision of how it should have gone. Larnaca is a precious little town on the Mediterranean, full of heritage, of pride, of the simple pleasures that make up a happy life. The adorable promenade is lined with little pubs and restaurants each with its unique identity and lure. It’s absolutely fabulous to be a stranger in Larnaca and learn to love the beautiful island of Cyprus. I’ve spent 11 high-spirited days of my life on that first visit and it’s easy to understand why I always cherish my return. The city has grown since our first meeting but it has, nevertheless, aged with grace and dignity.

It’s perhaps my destiny to reach beautiful cities in the wee hours of the morning and crash into bed. When I woke up in my hotel room in Alicante and took a panoramic view from my balcony of the harbor, the beach, the esplanade and the mountain, I achingly fell in love forever. This is an intelligent and attractive city in the same way a gorgeous woman is. Years ago, the people of Alicante realized the futility of competing with Barcelona as a commercial port. They’ve collectively decided to turn their harbor into a recreational marina to host cruisers, yachts and sailboats from the seven seas and beyond. Nowhere on earth would you ever get a chance to eat fish like they make it in Alicante. A most scrumptious fish of a few kilos is totally covered with coarse salt and baked inside a very hot oven. When it’s taken out and brought to the table, it looks like a giant salt rock. After expertly breaking this solid layer, a steamy delight made of dreams is unraveled and served with a generous flow of wine. The three hour lunch lazily consumes the rest of the day amid laughter and great company. A tourist attraction that has succeeded in not turning whorish, Alicante is the epitome of the most beautiful city by the sea.

I have tremendously enjoyed this special tag and have therefore decided on spreading the word. I am tagging my friends the Syrian Brit, Dubai Jazz and last but not least my dear Karin.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Khshaf for Six

As I’ve been under the influence of a heavy work load this week and had barely made it all the way to Thursday while keeping my sanity, I am out of any smart thing to write. May be a nightcap can set matters straight for me but meanwhile I need to make yet another small contribution to humanity. A recipe for a light dessert that’s easy to prepare especially for those expatriates who miss their moms cooking. It’s known in Tartous as Khshaf (خشاف). It must go by another dozen names in Syria of which I’m not really aware. However, being on the doorstep of a weekend, you might all want to give Khshaf a try, the preparation of which is very straightforward and relatively clean. Khshaf is the Syrian equivalent of Jell-O although a little more elaborate and certainly tastier.

Khshaf for Six

-5 cups of water
-½ cup of cornstarch
-1 cup of sugar
-100 g (3.5 oz) of raisins
-100 g (3.5 oz) of crushed pistachios, pine nuts, soft almonds (or your choice of unsalted and tender nuts)
-2 tablespoons of coconut (powder)
-2 tablespoons of orange blossom water (Ma Zaher), optional if it’s not available, but highly recommended for this and other Syrian dessert recipes.

-Add the cornstarch and sugar to the water and heat while continuously stirring (stopping might turn the mixture into a useless lump).When the mixture thickens adequately (roughly 12 to 15 minutes under medium-low heat), add the raisins while stirring, then the rest of the nuts and the Ma Zaher.
-Remove from heat and pour into six individual bowls.
-Sprinkle the coconut on top and let cool at room temperature.
-Place into refrigerator and serve cold (an hour or so should do it and it will turn into a Jell-O ish substance).
-If you live alone or can’t find a date, have one every evening after dinner and work a little harder on improving your social life.

For those of you who are wondering, I did the stirring and believe me this is the hardest part in preparing this delicious recipe. Have a nice weekend!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Urban Nightmares

I think of Tartous in the past tense. On the surface, I might sound like a staid man who doesn’t appreciate modernization, or at a more basic level, the change of times.
Frankly, as I mentally cover the decades since I was a blithe boy growing up till the present, I fail to see any tangible upgrading to my hometown. We had electricity, water, telephone and excellent roads back then and I daresay that these utilities were more reliable than they are today. The population of Tartous was 10,000 inhabitants in the late 1960’s, give or take a few hundreds, and has skyrocketed to 100,000 presently, give or take a few thousands, mostly due to internal migration from the province and the rest of Syria rather than natural increase.

The extremely high fertility rate of the Syrian population worries me considerably but I’m distressed for completely different reasons. Syria ranks among the top countries in the world as far as its population growth rate is concerned. This certainly needs to be addressed seriously as the present trend is very taxing on any economy, society and culture. However, the absence of intelligent family planning should not necessarily mean a lack of reasonable city and regional planning. While the number of Syrians is increasing rapidly, the collective brain of decision makers and urban planners is shrinking at an even faster rate. The smartest plan they usually come up with is amazingly the most idiotic.

In addition to the established burden of appointing unqualified people for key positions in local governments, we have gone through a substantial period of time when a vast number of professionals, academicians and, we were even led to believe, intellectuals came from foreign academies and institutions of doubtful merit or from local corrupt universities . Many of our peripatetic scholars managed somehow to graduate with doctoral degrees and took over reason, common sense and the public sector. In medicine they’ve probably done more harm than good. At the academic level, they’ve become professors and incubated similar clones and replicas. In architecture and engineering, they plagued the country with a horrendous collection of horrific monuments and nightmarish monstrosities often to the nodding approval of their superiors. Most Syrian cities fell victim to their pale imagination and grotesque creativity. Nowhere is this more evident than in Tartous. The public structures they’ve designed and erected are probably among the ugliest in the world. The building codes they co-authored are moronic to say the least and they often fail to address any future need or trend. The regulations they drafted were advanced as excuses to cover past mistakes and legalize existing violations. It wouldn’t be fair to place all the blame on them, but along with the unapprised decision makers, they are greatly responsible for at least the urban mishaps that have plagued the Syrian city. It’s beyond belief that the present and the future of these cities is a result of narrow minded, yet misguided, social politics with a total absence of a visionary architectural landscape and an urban master plan.

The sense of helplessness and of a deep loss is most overpowering when I visit other Mediterranean cities. I often get the chance to see some old photos of these places and learn that they have indeed improved and have become more livable in every sense. Anyone with a sane mind knows that it’s almost futile to stop growth but it can be regulated in such a way that it becomes more economically feasible to start with a new urban development than to expand on an existing one. Syria is ideal for this type of urban enlargement. Most of the interior is an empty desert. We have already seen in the Arab Gulf countries that this type of environment doesn’t in any way hinder urbanization. The fragile Syrian coast should have been heavily regulated despite the short term nuisances manifested by the sociopolitical inconveniences. Each falling olive tree is endlessly more vital than a new dwelling. Each bygone orange grove is far more valuable than the concrete apartment towers that have replaced it. Polluting industry was brought to the most diverse and delicate ecosystem in the country in order to create new jobs. These factories would have been more productive and less obtrusive had they been constructed in the vast arid region of the interior, away from all existing urban centers. New industrial cities and regions would have emerged and the unemployed Syrian youth could have had the chance to start their professional careers there instead of leaving to the Gulf. Lattakia, Jableh, Banias and Tartous could have remained charming cities by the sea for all to enjoy. They could have managed and survived as traditional fishing towns and tourist attractions. A large commercial port could have been built outside both of Tartous and Lattakia and would have been adequate enough to handle Syria’s economic and commercial needs. Many past surveys have indicated that the ideal location is between Tartous and Arida on the northern border of Lebanon. Both Lattakia and Tartous should have been spared from these environmental atrocities and designated as attractive centers for recreational marinas, no more, no less.

These photos from the 1960’s were taken or preserved by the late Zanco, an Armenian photographer who lived most of his life in Tartous. They are testimony to the beauty and simplicity of bygone days, when all a Tartoussi had to do to enjoy his afternoon was to step out of his house and walk the few meters to the beach. Despite all, this is the only Tartous I have in my heart, that’s the one I miss and long to return to one day. Can it be done? Only in my dreams perhaps. But then again, who am I but an unrealistic dreamer.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Sayadieh bi Samak

It’s high time I return to the kitchen. All this talk about women made me hungry and in need of some high-octane nutrients: Seafood and a simple way to prepare roasted fish and Sayadieh (Rice).

In Tartous and in all coastal cities around the world no doubt, fish is an important part of our diet. There are so many ways to prepare various types of seafood that nobody can truly claim any one particular recipe. In my opinion, when it comes to cooking fish, the simpler the better. The sea provides us with the most delicious source of animal protein. Little manipulation is needed to enhance or to bring out the taste of the already scrumptious white meat. Besides, the purpose of this post is to get anyone to be able to go out to the local supermarket or better yet a nearby fish market, grab some fish, rice and a few ingredients and get down to eat a most delicious plate in a little over an hour.

We all know that fresh fish is best. If you can get it don’t even think twice. Buy the finest fish you care to pay for. The universal truth about fish is that the higher the price the better the quality. Fish with a relatively full girth roast better than their thinner counterparts, which in turn are more suited to frying. Look for specimen weighing between ½ to 1 kg (1 to 2 lbs).

The following quantities are enough to feed 6 hungry souls.

3 kg of fish (3 to 6 pieces)
3 cups of long grain rice
10 medium-sized dry onions
1 clove of garlic
3 lemons
1 green pepper, 1 red pepper
¾ cup of olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup of vegetable oil
Salt & spices (cinnamon, dry coriander, cumin, cardamom, black pepper, …etc.)
What you see in the photos are 3 Sfirni and 1 Haramyeh (as they are known locally in Tartous). Let’s start with the rice.

Preparing Sayadieh (Rice):

-Peel the onions and slice them thinly.
-Fry them in vegetable oil until they turn dark brown, turning and stirring them with a wooden spatula. (you need some good ventilation in the kitchen)
-Completely drain and throw the oil away.
-Add 4 cups of water to the fried onions and dash them with some salt, cinnamon, dry coriander, cumin and cardamom (spices to your liking if these are unavailable).
-Boil for 30 minutes until the onions are very tender.
-Drain the brown sauce in another pot while squeezing the mushy onions.
-Heat the butter or shortening, add the rice and turn it for a few minutes before adding the onion sauce. Bring to boil, reduce heat and cover until the rice is cooked (don’t tell me you don’t know how to cook rice).

Preparing the Olive Oil Sauce:

-Mix the olive oil with the juice of 2 lemons. Smash ½ garlic clove completely until it turns into a mush (use anything for hammering the garlic after adding a teaspoon of salt). Add the garlic to the olive and lemon sauce and divide it in 2 parts. 1 part is to be added on top of the fish before placing it in the oven while the 2nd part is used as a dip while eating.

Preparing the Fish:

-Preheat the oven to 225˚C = 437˚F.
-Cut the fish on the outside in diagonal parallel lines and insert the remaining garlic (sliced).
-Place some lemon and green and red pepper slices in the belly of the fish, add salt and spice it up using your imagination.
-Pour ½ of the olive oil sauce, lemon juice and smashed garlic over the fish and place inside the oven for 1 hour.

Serve with the Sayadieh and salad.

Very simple, extremely delicious. Bon Appétit.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Charms of the Passing Woman

The charms of the passing woman are generally in direct proportion to the swiftness of her passing. Marcel Proust (1871–1922)

With that in mind it becomes a whole lot easier to understand how a married man can be infatuated with an ephemeral woman. Only the passage of time can teach us such an adept craft. The purpose of a seemingly longing gaze is not necessarily the promise of consummation or hollow flirting. It’s something endlessly beyond. Such a man would not be seeking a clandestine affair, nor driven by foolish vanity or the illusion of resurrecting his slipping youth. The capacity to appreciate beauty in its abstract sense separates a gentleman from a womanizer. It’s basically the difference between an art aficionado and a tourist standing in front of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, each looking at the painting from the exact vantage point for dissimilar reasons with consequences world apart.

What allure does a passing woman have over the mind of a happily married man to make him stop in the middle of his track and silently emits a bewitched gasp. With or without a drop of the jaw, there are certain women out there who have this satiable effect on men. Who is she that can affect me so?

First, I’m not any smarter than Marcel Proust and accordingly she should walk in then out of my life rather swiftly. If she stays any longer than the essential period required to feel her under my skin and I’m still rapt, then I’d better admit that I’m a tourist after all. It could be that we are in for a long evening in a public place. I’d be looking in glances spread over time, barely long enough to rekindle the feeling of wonder and magic.

She must be seductively chaste. After all “there is no aphrodisiac like innocence.”* A woman who realizes that she’s exceptionally attractive but doesn’t work at all toward that end is a femme fatale. Many women are sexy at the nightclub level but a few are endowed with a perceptually sensual aura. Such a woman brings warmth to the heart of men while holding hands with a husband or companion and displaying a clear signal to all that she is already beyond reach. Yet, she emanates the splendor of being feminine beyond words. To be overly conscious and meticulous about her gift is the unfortunate gaffe committed by scores of beautiful women. It’s the difference between a natural jewel of unimaginable perfection shining in the deep of a dark blue ocean and a cut stone on a ring flaunted on an elegantly manicured hand.

A woman with an inexplicably mysterious smile often graces the dream of a man. A poet would dare elaborate on such a smile and I’m afraid that whatever I may say further would only distract from its exquisiteness. A smile which conveys an appreciation for life yet betrays a sense of a dormant sadness that is utterly private. The lips alone cannot convey a smile without a twinkling glow in the eyes. They could be the color of the sky, of virgin forests or akin to the dark of night. They are unimaginably clear, unfathomably deep, holding untold fables from a thousand and one nights.

And finally, I want this woman to acknowledge that I have taken her within my inner sight. I wouldn’t regard it as an invitation if she accepts my enthrallment through a gesture of the hand, a blink of the eye, or a caress on a loose hair strand. She could nonchalantly and without a spoken word say thank you for appreciating me and for being chivalrous enough to keep the flame well within the bounds of good manners yet to make me feel silently and pithily desired.

* "there is no aphrodisiac like innocence" quote by Jean Baudrillard (b. 1929)

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Why I Shouldn’t Watch World News

Very late at night, when my weary eyes are too feeble to plow forward in the pages of a prized book resting on the nightstand and when I run out of football games to watch, out of boredom, out of inner loneliness and the need to be in touch with the hordes of humanity, I regrettably venture and switch the box to World News. The depressing reel overwhelms my decency and fuses with a stagnant but lurking melancholy in taking command of my somnolent mind. I react defensively, projecting an attitude of insouciance. It's as if nothing really matters anymore. I lose sight of my race, but more damaging is the prospect of losing sight of me.

Feeling trapped, the purpose of life, if any, becomes a blurred concept. Looking around reinforces the dismay. People are hungry, poor, miserable, and sick. Fellow human beings are, at this very same moment, in the process of suffering and agonizing.

A sedated voice echoes in the confines of the skull, preaching but betraying a vague sense of a lost conviction. "We were meant to suffer", it whispers. "We need to live the void of darkness to value the light at the end of the tunnel", it pathetically hisses.

I rebel, and silently yell back, "we didn't ask for no god-damn tunnel, no fuckin' void, no shitty light".

Here we are though, whether we like it or not. Minds stuck in the fragile vehicles of our bodies. Letting days go by. Glimpsing fleeting moments of joy. Perpetually entombed in sadness and sorrow. We march ahead, knowing only too well that we've been dying since the day we were born.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Lady or Knight in Shining Armor

In writing this blog, I was at times propitious to get the initiative for my next post while in fact preparing the current one. But every once in a while, I run dry on ideas only to be saved at the last moment by something which may or may not be worth writing about. It’s naturally expected that the value of my posts fluctuates up and down. There are many variables involved, personal and universal, and they influence me as they do each and every one of you. I have repeatedly claimed that I enjoy listening more than I do talking. Of course it’s the same with writing and reading, and here’s my chance to prove it.

I've decided on the following scheme as far as this post is concerned. I want to have the pleasure of reading what regular or chance readers of this blog think regarding one specific topic. If it works out as foreseen in my head, my prelude is only a catalyst for the comment section which should be rich and colorful with your own contributions rather than mine. I kindly ask you to write whatever comes to your mind as an answer, with as few or as many words you may choose. I believe that this approach is a little more subdued than a direct tag. It’s even possible that I might not take part in commenting at all, although I wouldn't promise.

Perhaps the excitement of reading your reponses sweeps me completely and I would then jump right in. There’s of course the distinct possibility that it might turn out to be a total flop, but anticipation is among the purest of pleasures in life.

Would you please tell me about the man or woman of your dreams. What are you looking for in your ideal partner? What’s there inside, and outside, another human being that you truly love and find irresistible? Who is your other half?

If you'd rather answer 0n your own blog please feel free to do so. Just let us know by dropping a line in the comment section of this post so that we can all go and read it. You want to remain anonymous or use a pseudonym... it’s totally in your hands.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Five Random Links in the Chain

Arima, a blogger I truly like, and a tender, intelligent, outspoken, attractive woman (I’d better stop, my wife might read this after all) has tagged me to list five private things the blogosphere doesn’t know about. I drew up a complete blank at first. Later in the evening, while enjoying a hot shower and washing away the quandaries of the day… a myriad of the little facets that make up my life flowed over with the rivulets of water. I picked five of them, not out of distinction, but for being ordinary random links in the chain, and morphed them into words.

1) At the tender age of five, I left home for the first time to attend a boarding school in Lebanon. For the next five years I was mostly alone and this period undoubtedly shaped my blossoming personality. In retrospect, it certainly made me a very independent and disciplined person in a peculiarly twisted way. My discipline involves daily trivial matters and is absurdly ritualistic. The boarding school also turned me into a rebel and placed me in the middle of a confrontational path with established religious and social norms for the rest of my life. You would expect to find bitterness but there is truly none.

2) I have broken my first bones playing football in 9th grade (a multiple displaced fracture in my left arm). I was a very good goalie at the street tournament level by the way. Over the years I have managed to break my other arm in a car accident, my left knee in a motorcycle crash and my right foot yet again as a goal keeper during a beach soccer game. As thus, I might be classified as accident prone and I had since injured my back on 3 separate occasions, had 4 gunshot pellets removed from my chest in a hunting mishap, received 3 stitches in my chin after a bicycle fall, a twisted finger, a torn ligament, one more wound in the head in another car collision…I have survived, unscathed, sky diving and lived to tell about it. Did I forget anything?

3) My father, a surgeon and a gynecologist for over forty years, and in his effort to steer me toward medicine encouraged me to attend more surgeries than most medical students witness during their professional training. For over six years I have attended, almost daily one operation or more. I have seen everything a general surgeon and a gynecologist have seen. At a certain time, I was confident that, in case of emergency, I could perform a number of procedures flawlessly. When the time came, I told my father that I didn’t want to waste the rest of my life studying for a career. Toward the end of my master’s degree in urban planning, I wished that I would remain a student forever. Was it a wrong decision? There’s no way of telling anymore.

4) I collect knives and to a lesser extent Zippo lighters. I am totally fascinated by beautiful handcrafted folding knives. In my travels I always make sure to buy the local version of the typical pocket knife of the particular region I am at. It’s my preferred gift to receive and to give if I knew that the other person is interested. One of the earliest presents I gave to my girlfriend (later fiancée, eventually Om Fares) was a small black feminine Swiss Army knife. I have quite a fine collection. My most treasured is a French Laguiole cheese and wine folding knife of exquisite craftsmanship. Only last week, a ship sailing from Venice brought me a bubble-wrapped manila envelope. Within, I found a beautiful Maniago knife from a very dear Italian friend.

5) I am a self-proclaimed handyman. If left to my own devise, I would spend more on tools than I would on clothing and food. But there’s Om Fares of course. I like to fix things mechanical and electrical. I don’t make it all the time but my success rate is reasonably high. When something breaks in the house, my wife tries to hide it so that she can call a professional to take care of the problem. Not that she doesn’t trust me, but my insistence on bringing forth my toolbox and getting myself in the correct mood and messing up the whole place doesn’t really impress her in the least. I enjoy working on plumbing in particular and on automobiles. Luckily, modern cars don’t need me anymore. Back when I was a student who could only afford used cars, and when I couldn’t find a date, I would spend the weekend under the hood with a nearby cooler filled with ice-cold beer.

So fellow bloggers, I am sorry if I’ve disappointed you, but these were indeed five things you didn’t know about me. Arima didn’t actually specify that they must be five things people care to hear, so I took the liberty.