The City in History (Modern Library Nonfiction #76)

(This is the twenty-fourth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Battle Cry of Freedom.)

I’ve been a city man all my life. Certainly all of my adult life. At the age of twenty, I escaped from the dour doldrums of suburban Sacramento — the kind of hideous Flintstones-style recurring backdrop that seems to encourage broken dreams, angry tears, and rampant abuse behind model home replica doors — for the bright foggy beauty and the joyful pastels of San Francisco.

That gorgeous place from the not so distant past — with the co-op movie theatres playing weirdass indie flicks you couldn’t find on video or teevee, the cafes pattering with political idealism and the streets rattling with the chatty pugnacious jingle of strange conceptual punks, the crumbling encyclopedic bookstores and the boldly strange dive bars of the Tenderloin, and the wonderful mariachi players serenading Valencia Street taquerias for a quick buck, a Mexicoke, and a smile — was exactly the urban realm I needed at the time. Only real souls committed to an increasingly rarefied inclusiveness like Michelle Tea and William T. Vollmann knew how to capture these meat-and-potatoes freak-friendly details in their novels. What I didn’t know, as San Francisco became an unaffordable playground invaded by elitist and not especially perspicacious techbro affluents, was that this coastal metropolis was no longer a place for weirdos like me. I was outpriced and outmatched, like so many who bolted to Oakland, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. It was an all-too-common tale of gentrification and migration, of a city permanently regurgitating its most promising inhabitants and falling victim to an influx of wealth that forever altered its essence. Like any foolish romantic, I fell in love with someone who was absolutely wrong for me and became seduced by the Brooklyn brownstones, the skyscrapers spiring along the rivers, and the giddy pace of a megacity demanding all of its inhabitants to make something of themselves. I’ve been in New York City now for fourteen years — most of my thirties and all of my forties. I hope to continue to live here. But like anything in life, it’s largely the luck of the draw, hoping that the law of averages will work out in your favor. Especially in this age of mass unemployment and pandemic uncertainties and anybody who doesn’t make more than $200,000 a year left in the cold and declared the enemy.

I mention these bona-fides in advance of my thoughts on the great Lewis Mumford to give you a sense of why his amazing book, The City in History, took me much longer to read than I anticipated. The problem with an encyclopedic smartypants like Mumford is that he’ll drop a casual reference that is supremely interesting if you are even remotely curious. One paragraph will send you down an Internet rabbit hole. The next thing you know, you’ve just spent hours of your life trying to find any information on the ancient Greek artisans who hustled their goods in the agora and why slavery was simply accepted as a part of city life for centuries. An email correspondent, learning that I was taking a deep dive into Mumford, urged me to plunge into the four volumes kick-started by Technics and Civilization. And I have to say, given the many months I spent not so much reading The City in History but taking in the many references orbiting its scholarship, I will probably have to wait until perhaps my seventies — should I live that long — for such an enormous undertaking. I could easily see myself as an old bachelor on a beach — filling in crossword puzzles, tendering stories about my misspent youth to any sympathetic ear, respectfully flirting with any lingering divorcé with the decency to not see me as invisible, and carrying along the four Mumford volumes with me (along with whatever will then pass for a tablet to look up all the references) in a satchel.

This is my roundabout way of saying that Lewis Mumford’s The City in History is a wonderfully robust and often grumbly tome from a dude who spent most of his years considering how cities thrive through technological and architectural development. One of the book’s charms is seeing Mumford gradually becoming more pissed off as he gets closer to the modern age. It’s almost as if he resents what the city transformed into in the twentieth century. For example, in a weird aside, Mumford complains about the increased number of windows in residential buildings after the seventeenth century, bemoaning the lack of privacy with a touch of principle rarely remembered by people who grew up with nothing but the Internet’s exhibitionistic cadences. He also has a healthy aversion to the “often disruptive and self-defeating” nature of constant growth. It is, after all, possible for a city or a small town to develop too much. Once cities ditched their walls, there were no longer any physical boundaries to how far any teeming area could spread while arguably become lesser the further it rolled along. (See, for example, the anarchic sprawl of Texas today. Everyone from the likes of the Manhattan Institute’s Michael Hendrix to James Howard Kuntsler has spoken, in varying degrees of horror, about this endless expansion.) On this point, Mumford pushes back against the myth of the medieval town as a place of static boredom. He points to religious edifices somehow transforming these clusters where, for the first time in history, “the majority of the inhabitants of a city were free men.” Even when mercantile centers dried up as trade died, Mumfurod points to the limitless evolution of the countryside. Feudalism subsided for a stabler and more available food supply and new forms of home-spun industry that made many of these smaller villages special. Textile industries flourished in northern Italy and not only resulted in innovations such as the spinning wheel, but some healthy revolutionary pushback against tyrants — such as the weavers rebelling against the ruling elite in 1370-1371. In short, Mumford argues that a reasonably confined city was capable of nearly anything.

But what of the modern metropolis? The cities that called to people like me as a young man? Mumford’s view was that the enormity of a place like Paris or Rome or London or New York City wasn’t merely the result of technological progress. As he argues:

…the metropolitan phase became universal only when the technical means of congestion had become adequate — and their use profitable to those who manufactured or employed them. The modern metropolis is, rather, an outstanding example of a peculiar cultural lag within the realm of technics itself: namely, the continuation by highly advanced technical means of the obsolete forms and ends of a socially retarded civilization.

Well, that doesn’t sound too nice. So the punks who I jammed with in Mission District warrens and the scrappy filmmakers piecing together stories and the bizarre theatre we were putting on while eating ramen and Red Vines were cultural atavists? Gee, thanks, Lewis! Would Mumford apply this same disparaging tone to the CBGB punk crowd and artists who flourished in the East Village and arguably altered the trajectory of popular music? Or, for that matter, the 1990s hip-hop artists who flourished in Bed-Stuy and Compton? This is where Mumford and I part ways. Who are any of us to dictate what constitutes cultural lag? In my experience, obsolete forms tend to square dance with current mediums and that’s usually how the beat rolls on. Small wonder that Jane Jacobs and Mumford would get involved in a philosophical brawl that lasted a good four decades.

It’s frustrating that, for all the right criticism Mumford offers, he can be a bit of a dowdy square. He’s so good at showing us how the office building, as we still know it today, initiated in Florence thanks to Giorgio Vasari. It turns out that this amazing Italian Renaissance man wasn’t just committed to corridors. He designed an interior with an open-floor loggia — those reception areas that can now be found in every damned bureaucratic entity. We now have someone to blame for them! Mumford offers us little details — such as the tendency of early cities to repave streets over the layers of trash that had been thrown over the past twenty years. This resulted in developments such as doorways increasingly becoming lower — often submerged beneath the grade entirely — as history carried on. There are very useful asides in Mumford’s book on the history of multistory buildings. We learn how Roman baths and gymnasiums did make efforts to accommodate the rabble, despite the rampant exploitation of humans. Calvino was only scratching the surface. As long as cities have been around, humans have created new structures and new innovations. For all we know, the Coronavirus pandemic could very well lead to some urban advancement that humankind had hitherto never considered.

Because of all this, I can’t square Mumford’s elitism with the beautiful idealism that he lays down here:

The final mission of the city is to further man’s cautious participation in the cosmic and the historic process. Through its own complex and enduring structure, the city vastly augments man’s ability to interpret these processes and take an active, formative part in them, so that every phase of the drama it stages shall have, to the highest degree possible, the illumination of consciousness, the stamp of purpose, the color of love. That magnification of all the dimensions of life, through emotional communion, rational communication, technological mastery, and, above, all, dramatic representation, has been the supreme office of the city in history. And it remains the chief reason for the city’s continued existence.

Who determines the active and formative development of the city? Do we leave it to anarchy? Do we acknowledge the numerous forces duking it out over who determines the topography? I can certainly get behind Mumford railing against mercantilism. But who establishes the ideal? One of the most underrated volumes contending with such a struggle between social community and the kind of “high-minded” conservative finger-wagging that Mumford too often espouses is Samuel R. Delany’s excellent book, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, a brilliant portrait of the undeniable “color of love” practiced in the Times Square adult movie theatres through the mid-1990s — until Mayor Giuliani declared war on what he deemed unseemly. In a sidebar, Delany, buttressing Jane Jacobs, observes that the problem here is that this sort of idealism assumes two conditions: (1) that cities are fundamentally repugnant places and that we must therefore hide the poor and the underprivileged and (2) the city is defined by the big and the monumental.

The sheer amount of suffering undergone by the impoverished is something that Mumford, to his credit, does broach — particularly the unsanitary conditions that those in London and New York lived in as these cities expanded. (For more on the working stiffs and those who struggled, especially in New York, I highly recommend Luc Sante’s excellent book Low Life.) But while Mumford is willing to go all in on the question of bigness, he’s a little too detached and diffident on the issue of how the have nots contribute to urban growth, although he does note how “the proletariat had their unpremeditated revenge” on the haves as New York increasingly crammed people like sardines into airless cloisters. And, as such, I found myself pulling out my Jane Jacobs books, rereading passages, and saying, with my best Mortal Kombat announcer voice, “Finish him!”

But maybe I’m being a little too hard on Mumford. The guy wasn’t a fan of architect Leon Battista Alberti’s great rush for suburban development, with this funny aside: “one must ask how much he left for the early twentieth-century architect to invent.” Mumford had it in for Le Corbusier and his tower-centric approach to urban planning (which is perhaps best observed in Chandigarh, India — a place where Le Corbusier was given free reign), but he was also a huge fan of Ebeneezer Howard and his “Garden City” movement, whereby Howard suggested that some combination of city and country represented the best living conditions. Even if you side with Jane Jacobs, as I do, on the whole Garden City question, believing that there can be some real beauty in staggering and urban density, you can’t help but smile at his prickliness:

For the successor of the paleotechnic town has created instruments and conditions potentially far more lethal than those which wiped out so many lives in the town of Donora, Pennsylvania, through a concentration of toxic gases, or that which in December 1952 killed in one week an estimated five thousand extra of London’s inhabitants.

Oh, Mumford! With endearingly bleak observations like this, why couldn’t you be more on the side of the people?

Next Up: Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory!

Nikil Saval (The Bat Segundo Show #544)

Nikil Saval is the author of Cubed and an editor at n+1.

Author: Nikil Saval

Subjects Discussed: Karen Nussbaum and the Nine to Five movement, 9 to 5 as the template for the office comedy, whether the office workplace is permanently stacked against the worker (and attempts to find hope), the beginnings of human resources, the Hawthorne effect, efforts to control workers through close supervision, attention to light and the beginnings of office architecture, the National Labor Relations Act, attempts to organize office workers in the 1930s, anti-immigrant sentiments and racism among white collar workers, unions and white collar workers, why workers feel empowered when they have nothing, the rise of freelancing culture, Richard Greenwald, how office work creates the illusion of giving the worker mastery over his fate, the Bürolandschaft ideal, Robert Propst, Action Office, the historical beginnings of the cubicle, attempts to track down the guy who first closed partitions into the cubicle, Norbert Wiener and cybernetics, King Vidor’s The Crowd, Jacques Tati’s Play Time, futile attempts to photograph “action” in offices, sitting up and standing down, healthy activities in the workplace, Propst’s failed three wall ideal, Herman Miller propaganda and Action Office possibilities, when George Nelson was jilted from the office furniture plans, how changes in the broader culture influenced changes in office culture, managers pulled from offices and deposited in cubes, Barry Lyndon, the impact of mass layoffs, the recession of the 1980s and its impact on white collar culture, when the cubicle became associated with transience, the lack of privacy in the workplace, why European countries revolted against office layout while Americans stayed silent, Frederick Taylor and Taylorism, Taylorism’s rise and fall and second rise, Louis Brandeis’s popularization of Taylorism through “scientific management” (used in his argument of the Eastern Rate Case of 1910), Taylorized families, Harry Braverman, the beginnings of human resources, Taylorism vs. eugenics, Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, Douglas McGregor’s The Human Side of Enterprise as an anti-Taylorist tract, Andy Grove’s Only the Paranoid Survive as a return to Taylorism, Robert Waterman’s In Search of Excellence, perpetuating familial attitudes in the workplace, advertising and irony (and parallels to Taylorism), Taylorism vs. Taylor in Planet of the Apes, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building, natural light and the early forms of air conditioning, surveillance by overseers that is perpetuated in workplace architecture, zombie-like accountants, the ethical question of happy workers, the beginnings of glass buildings, Le Corbusier and urban planning, the Lever House, when glass curtains won over Lewis Mumford, Vico cycles, how offices may be returning to their original counting house forms, the Sony Tower’s transformation from work units to residential units in the next few years, the question of workplace architecture becoming an ineluctable and oppressive threat on the way we live, mistaken impressions of Marxism spouted by philosophers, companies spending less on office space, developments in living space and workspace, laptops in cafes, freelancers and co-working facilities, the upward presumptions of clerks, and how once stable labor conditions have become a fantasy.


Correspondent: We are, in fact, talking in an office. So I’m not sure what that does to this conversation. But we’ll, I suppose, make amends.

Saval: I know. Well, at least it’s a private office and not a cubicle. Because that could be a…

Correspondent: Or an open office for that matter.

Saval: Or an open office. God.

Correspondent: Well, let’s get right into it. Back in the late 1970s, Jane Fonda met Karen Nussbaum, a remarkable figure who organized women clerical workers in this Nine to Five movement. And Fonda and a screenwriter spent an entire evening talking with 40 office workers. This became the basis for the wildly popular movie 9 to 5, which arguably set the template, comic wise, for Office Space, The Office, and, of course, most recently Silicon Valley. As you point out in the book, some of the proposed remedies at the end of that film — plants, rearranged desks, flextime, day care at work — they actually reflect what’s know as the Bürolandschaft ideal. And we’ll get to that in a bit. But, you know, this has me wondering if there is something permanently broken about the office. Is it possible that any attempt to remedy it or improve it is almost this kind of neoliberal trap? What hopes do we have for the worker? Or is the deck permanently stacked against her?

Saval: (laughs)

Correspondent: Just to start off here.

Saval: So softball.

Correspondent: It was such a wonderfully bleak book that I had to have a vivaciously bleak opener.

Saval: Gosh. I wish I could just say, “No no no. The story’s happy. It has a happy ending.” You know, I don’t really mean to say that the workplace is permanently broken. I guess I do want to say that the kind of repeated — as you pointed out, there’s a repeated attempt to make work better, usually through design but also through other kind of arrangements in the workplace. Architecturally and what have you. And a lot of these go wrong. And some of them go spectacularly wrong; the most famous being the office cubicle. And I think the point there is not just that the office seems to be broken, but that there is some sense of an idea of how work might be better and there is an idea of somehow you might be able to organize it better, somehow work might be more free, workers might have more control over their work. Things like that. And usually these are sort of fatally disabled by — I mean, it’s not always the case, but usually, roughly, it’s a presumption that these designers or planners know what’s best for an office worker. And there’s usually something imposed on an office worker. Or there’s a plan that starts out really well and then when it’s replicated ad nauseam, it goes wrong or it doesn’t even strike at the heart of what’s wrong at work and they try to design a way things are more fundamental to the issue of the workplace.

Correspondent: But as you also point out in the book, there is this brief moment for the worker — and perhaps it’s an illusional one or a delusional one — where you have a situation when suddenly there is care about what the worker thinks and how the worker can behave, as opposed to how the worker should behave. And I’ll get into Mr. [Frederick] Taylor in a bit. But what accounted for that particular moment, which was roughly around 1929 and up through about the 1950s, before yet another ideologue came in and had ideas about what to do for the worker and for the workplace?

Saval: Well, yeah, that’s, I guess you could call it, the human relations movement. That was the idea that…

Correspondent: That’s the 1960s of the office. (laughs)

Saval: Exactly.

Correspondent: That’s the hippie idealism, I suppose. That period.

Saval: Yeah. And it comes out of a lot of different sources. And one was just the office, but it was also the workplace. It took hold on factory floors as well. And the idea was just that workers needed to be in corporations that somehow ostensibly cared for them. It came out of what was known as the Hawthorne experiments, which are a famous social science experiment where they tried in the Hawthorne Works to experiment with different lighting levels and to see how this affected the way people worked. And what they realized was that actually there wasn’t a direct connection. It wasn’t that the light got better and workers worked better or got worse and workers worked better. It was just that when workers thought they were being watched — at least this was the conclusion — they felt like the company cared about them. And therefore they worked better. And so, especially at a time — this was not so true in the ’20s, but certainly in the ’30s this was true — when there were union movements, when there were the high points of the American labor movement, corporations and companies just felt that things were not going their way and they did not want unions in their workplaces. And so they thought, “Well, we just need to become more familial. We need to care more. We need to manage more lightly. We need to think of our workers’ psychology, not just their efficiency and their productivity.” And I think this results in all kinds of changes in the workplace. I sort of argue that even the architecture of the workplace somehow reflects this desire to make work better, to make workers feel more at home. Maybe with the mid-century corporation, I think I suggest that with things like the Lever House, the Seagram Building, the attention to light and to design and the explosion of design at that time in the workplace — even the idea that a workplace interior should be thoroughly planned and designed — I think reflects this attempt to make workers happy.

Correspondent: Do you think that many of the behavioral psychologists and these people who were looking into lighting were thinking very much about unions? I mean, we often forget from our — well, to get into the decline of labor in the 21st century is another can of worms, but we often forget from our vantage point now how much pull labor had in the early 20th century. And I’m wondering, in the attempt to determine how workers were feeling, how much was that a presence? How much was that a motivation? Or was it simply just innate curiosity? Or the kind of touchy-feely vibe we were implying earlier?

Saval: You know, certainly with industrial workplaces, it was definitely, absolutely a fear. Partly because union organizing, it just spiked, especially after the passage of the Wagner Act, the National Labor Relations Act. With the office, I don’t think there was a huge worry about it. I did some, to me, very fascinating but probably to other people very tedious archival work where I looked into the proceedings of the International Association of Office Managers, or rather I think it’s the National Association, and there’s a point in the ’30s when they really express worries about this and they think, “Well, it’s really taken a hold on factories and even some offices are starting to unionize.” And there actually is, more than there used to be, in certain publishing houses. The New Republic organizes at the time, with something affiliated with the Communist Party. And so you have people talking about how the last redoubt of capitalism, the place where individualism thrives. The office. Even this is under threat. And so we really need it. I mean, once this goes, I think there’s a little bit of a sense that — and again it was not so widespread, but they were definitely afraid, I think.

Correspondent: Well, you do in fact quote the possibly apocryphal Samuel Gompers line, “Show me two white collar workers on a picket line and I’ll organize the entire working class.” Why didn’t office workers latch onto labor? You suggest that there is this assumption that their talents and their skills could in fact give them an independent shot. And I suppose, I guess we see the natural offshoots of this kind of libertarian impulse with some of the tech entrepreneurs that came later. But I’m wondering. Why couldn’t there be some sort of confluence here? Because it seems to me that everybody here had the same interests in mind.

Saval: Yeah. This is sort of the central contradiction of the white collar workplace. I mean, it’s just that there is, on the one hand, you have this ideal of this perfect meritocracy, that certainly the managers talk about this in their association, that you can rise — and this was true in the early antebellum offices especially. And it made more sense then. If you were a clerk, you would become the partner of that firm. And that lasted even past the point that that was true. When some offices became much larger, business became bigger and there were only so many places at the top and many more places at the bottom. So it was just less and less likely.

Correspondent: Toil long enough at the firm and you will ascend to heaven when you’re dead.

Saval: (laughs) Right.

Correspondent: It’s a very familiar promise.

Saval: Right. Exactly. So the way that persists is partly that there’s just a lot of — that it makes sense. It was true for some people. And that had some effect. It made people think that it was true in the office. There’s something about the prestige and status of white collar work that has made it different from blue collar work, especially in the U.S. politically. It just seems like it’s cleaner. The work often required a high command of English. So when there were a lot of high waves of immigration into the United States, there weren’t a lot of immigrants working in white collar workplaces. So there was a kind of homogeneity. And then, of course, also it was very male up to a point. And then when women entered the office, they often entered into the steno pool, a typing pool, to jobs that didn’t have high levels of prestige so that men could feel themselves above in a way, could still feel like they were middle class even when they maybe weren’t. And the other thing — and I talk about this a little bit in a chapter about the skyscrapers — was that there were not a lot of appeals on the part of unions or political parties in the U.S. to white collar workers. It was not clear how to organize them.

Correspondent: It was not clear how to get through to them.

Saval: Yeah. Exactly. The whole model was predicated on industrial organizing. And this doesn’t mean that it didn’t work in a number of cases, a can of worms which I don’t deal with which is the public sector. Because I think it’s a different animal. Can of worms. Animal. Anyway.

Correspondent: Let’s mix as many metaphors as you like. (laughs) But this leads me to wonder. Why couldn’t these very dedicated labor unions get through to the white collar worker? I mean, they had — and again I cannot understate this — they had incredible power at the time.

Saval: Right.

Correspondent: How could they not actually have the communication skills or the fortitude or even the ability to massage their message? Why couldn’t they get through? I mean, they did try. There’s an AFL magazine article you quote, addressed to the white collar workers, where essentially the author says, “Hey. Look after yourselves. You want to think about the future.” But it seems to me that they needed to go further. I mean, what was the disconnect here?

Saval: You know, it just seems like a number of things. One was just the persistence of the idea that upward mobility was a given. And in periods where there are high levels, it’s mainly growth. I think of times like the 1920s, even when inequality widens, union influence starts to dip after a kind of high point in the late 1910s. And then in the ’30s, the union influence in the office increases. Because white collar unemployment becomes a real thing. But then it dips again in the ’50s and then it starts to spike up in the ’70s. And then actually in the ’80s, when things really actually go wrong for a little bit.

Correspondent: With Reagan and the air traffic controllers.

Saval: Yeah. And then it hasn’t really — I mean, you would think that and you would think now in the last four years that it would increase. I feel like I’ve read of isolated cases. But it’s not a trend. There’s a union organizer who I quote, writing in Harper’s in the ’50s — he’s an anonymous organizer — about why white collar workers can’t be organized. And he seems to think that there’s a way in which white collar workers see themselves, even though they are exploited. He says they are the most exploited workers in a certain way. But they see themselves as possessing certain skills, whereas an assembly line worker will talk about the industry that he works in. “I work in the auto industry.” Whereas a white collar worker will refer to his or her profession. “I’m a stenographer” or “I’m a typist.” “I’m a bookkeeper.” And that way of talking indicates that you’re able to move. That you have a skill that other people prize. And I don’t know if that’s a sufficient reason for people not to organize. But it sort of means that you need to talk about different things. And it’s not always the case. People do organize. It has happened. But this was his reason anyway.

Correspondent: In other words, with this particular notion, the suggestion is that one had a kind of linguistic independent identity. One had a label to hold as his own, whereas the organized worker would relate to an industry. This leads me to wonder why that notion of independence was, number one, so appealing to the worker and, number two, why they didn’t see, especially after toiling for many decades and not getting anywhere, that it was all a sham.

Saval: Yeah. It remains a sort of intractable question. But the notion of independence is powerful. And you even see that now in the rise of freelancing or contract work, which I do not want to attribute that too much to people choosing to do that all the time. I mean, there is a lot of it.

Correspondent: The sexiness of having to go ahead and pay for your own health care. Having to look for pennies under the couch. It’s just such a remarkably romantic ideal, isn’t it?

Saval: It’s so freeing. It’s liberating. But on the other hand, there are people who choose to do it. And what they’re seeking is a certain kind of freedom and autonomy over their work.

(Loops for this program provided by Martin Minor, MaxJC, danke, ozzi, 40a, ebaby8119, and Dokfraktal. )

The Bat Segundo Show #544: Nikil Saval (Download MP3)

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The Ryugyong Hotel

The Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea has been dubbed the worst building in the history of mankind by Esquire. But I must confess that there’s a warped part of me that appreciates the audacity of an architect designing an enormous building whose outside resembles a deranged roller coaster that nobody wants to ride. North Korea isn’t exactly known for its tourism industry. Presumably, the “luxury hotel” is intended for other purposes. But nobody wants to talk about it. The hotel, in fact, was built in response to a South Korean construction company working on the Westin Stamford Hotel in Singapore. North Korea began constructing this monstrosity in 1987. Construction stopped in 1992. But in April of this year, construction began anew. Kim Il-sung sees this hotel as a dream. But then Michael Cimino once had a dream too.