Thursday, March 21, 2013

Why I Read 50 Shades of Gray

62 followers! Raise the roof! Do people still do that? Probably not. Well, I'm bringing back the roof raising to salute my new followers. Maybe one day I'll have a blog as popular as my mother's, but probably not anytime soon.

But that is not why you are reading this blog, really. If I haven't peer-pressured you into reading it myself, you're probably reading this because the title references 50 Shades of Gray, the S&M erotic romp currently sweeping the world by storm. I should really put 50 Shades in all my blog titles, it would probably get me a lot more traffic. From now on all my blogs will be called 50 Shades of __- it's the only way to beat my mother's follower count. (That is a joke, by the way. I'm not doing that.)

However I'm not here to discuses why these books are so popular and think up all the 50 Shades blog titles that would bring me internet stardom and soullessness (50 Shades of Twilight, 50 Shades of Kardashians (are they even still popular? I honestly don't even know), 50 Shades of Apps, 50 Shades of peanut butter, 50 Shades of biochemistry, an App for all your 50 Shades...ok I'm done). I'm here to talk about why I read the book, even when half of the world, including friends and acquaintances who's opinions I trust, told me it was rubbish. I will also talk about why, even once I started it and, about a paragraph in, I realized that half the world was 100% right, I still proceeded to finish the book, and why I'm glad I did.

This all came about because of a particular friend who genuinely does not understand why I would read a book I knew was bad, and then why I would finish a book I saw for myself was bad. Fair question: this is not something that a lot of people do. We've had the debate for a while now, and he is so articulate and intelligent that I usually just find myself flustered for some reason, and I just end up shouting I WAS JUST CURIOUS OK at him, in which case he usually calmly reminds me that he's not attacking me, and then I just feel like a child and declare the topic dropped. For the record, he is one of my best friends in the world and these conversations are always good-natured. He forces me to think about the way I feel and why I feel that way more than anyone else I know, which at the time is always frustrating, but is always a good thing in the long run (I only get frustrated when I don't know the answer, which is usually). So this is mainly for him, just to fully explain myself since I never seem to be able to in person. I'm much better in words, in general.

And if you still don't get it after this, then FINE, we'll just have to agree to disagree, just like our opinions on expectations and excitement levels at the movies, and whether or not Shepard Book is cool (he's not).

Why I read 50 Shades of Gray:

#1- I was curious. Usually this is the only reason I have to give people, my friend in question the obvious exception. When something is as popular as 50 Shades of Gray, and women world wide are gushing about how amazing it is, that makes me very, very curious. I believe a healthy reading habit is to read a wide range of different genres from different time periods, in different styles. I'm not saying this is always what I do, just saying it's what I think I should be doing. I usually get on either a YA kick or a realism kick or SF kick or something like that, and it's all I'll read for months, but something always breaks it and I head to something else. however, I do think I read a healthy amount of different things. However S&M was never one of them, not that I ever wanted it to be or even thought about it, but the shear number of people talking about a type of book that people are usually too self conscious to admit they're reading, intrigued me.  If I'm going to read a book about S&M to see what the fuss is about, I might as well read one that's a world wide phenomenon. So, for the same reason I read The Di Vinci Code, Twilight and Enders Game (which was absolutely fantastic and everyone should read- but I do admit I just read it because everyone else was), I read 50 Shades of Gray.

#2- Reading popular books is interesting. I think it's interesting to read supremely popular things at the time they are popular. It says a lot about the state of the world we're living in today to read what everyone else is reading. Good and bad, they give us a full picture of the types of things people seem to crave, or think they lack in the world and what they are doing to fulfill those needs. And yes, sometimes this picture is sad: in the case of 50 Shades we see a world full of women who enjoy being beaten and called baby and controlled in every way, but I am comforted in the knowledge that this does not speak for everyone. And really, if that is someone that you like, that's fine- everyone is different. But even if this is not how everyone feels, it's still a large enough proportion to make me deeply curious as to the reasons why. E.L. James admitted that when she wrote 50 Shades of Gray, she was just writing Twilight fan fiction injected with her own S&M fantasies. Which is fine, that's allowed. But who knew so many other women had S&M fantasies as well? What exactly is it about that form of fantasy that seemed to entrance the world? Beats me, personally, because I just thought it was scary and unnecessary. But I find it all very interesting nonetheless. Like, culturally, socially, not like...you know what I mean. How can I keep my blog PG when I'm writing about erotica?

#3- I'm a very fast reader. One common reason to not read a book you're not 100% enjoying is because life is too short to read crap. I understand this completely- I have a huge stack of books next to my bed in my To Read pile, all of which are a million times better and more well written than 50 Shades. So do most of us. I'm very aware that I'm going to die one day without having read all the books in the world that I want to read- it's as inevitable as death itself. However I think I'd revise the above statement to say this: Life is too short to read something you're not getting anything out of. I do put books down sometimes, not often, but it does happen if I feel like I'm not getting anything out of it in any way, shape or form. But, for all the other reasons in this blog, I did feel like reading 50 Shades was giving me a new incite into different topics I'd never given much thought before, or not in the same way. Sure, every time Anna talked about her inner goddess I kind of wanted to strangle said goddess, and every time Christian said he was going to **** her, hard, I laughed out loud, but I still felt like I was getting something out of it, so I kept reading. And, in the end of the day, I'm a fast reader. It did not take up that much of my life to read this book, only a few days. A few days out of my life gave me the perspective and right to debate about one of the most talked about books in the world at the moment and to justify my opinions on feminism and literature today, and you know how I love to justify things.  I feel that my English Major reading speed countered the short-life inevitability of my death. That makes it sound like I'm invincible, which is not what I meant, but we can go with that anyway.

#4- It's all everyone was talking about at work this summer- I was feeling left out. I don't like feeling left out. I worked with a lot of different people this summer, and these books were very often the topic of conversations on days where conversation was all you had to pass the time. Someone lent me a copy, and then a friend lent me one as well, so I figured with two copies lying around, I might as well read it.

#5- I love complaining, and I can't complain about something I haven't read. Ok, ok, so I don't love complaining, I just like picking things apart and putting them back together, analyzing books and stories and situations and talking about why books are good or bad and why I feel the way I feel about them. So essentially, I love talking about books, but I only feel I am able to talk about books I've read. I had read parts of 50 Shades before, enough to know how poorly written it was, but not enough to really feel like I had the right to say it was a bad book overall. I HATE IT when moms at home complain about how awful Harry Potter was and how it was rotting their children's minds and making them worship the devil when they themselves had not even opened the front cover. You just can't do that- you can't judge something or someone or somewhere when you haven't experienced it or met them or been there yourself. It's just not right, and it leads to ignorance and falsehoods overwriting the truth, or at least uneducated opinions. So alright, in this case, all the things I'd gathered form those short passages from the book turned out to be accurate, but still, how would I have known that for sure if I hadn't read it? I don't mind if someone says they don't want to read something because it's not their kind of thing, no problem, but alternatively you can't go around saying it's bad either. I'll give everyone a pass on 50 Shades- it is as bad as everyone says, but, really, that's just my opinion. You might love it. You never know till you try- don't just take someone's word for it. Try things for yourself, form your own opinions. (This is a general You, not aimed at anyone specifically)

#6- It was free. I'm poor. I'd never pay money for something I've heard was terrible, even if I was curious to read it. That's what libraries are for, or in my case two people who wanted to get it out of their house. 

#7- It made me laugh. Honestly, the writing is laughably bad, and some of the situations are just so ridiculously that I could not help but laugh. In that way, I can kind of say I enjoyed it. It did get old, it was very repetitive, but some lines through the whole book made me giggle. We all do this, we all read and watch things that we know are going to be bad for the enjoyment of ripping it apart. I have seen each of the Twilight movies one time only, and each of those times they were watched with my friend Nicole at home. I will only watch Twilight with Nicole, it's like our thing (HERE you can watch us watch Twilight, but you probably shouldn't, because I'm pretty sure we're the only ones who think it's funny) We sit on the couch and gorge on cookie dough and drink super sweet drinks and laugh just about non stop for the length of the movie. Sometimes things are so bad they become good, I mean not like really good, but enjoyable. I'm confident you all know what I'm talking about. We have another supposedly erotic book (when I say 'we' I mean my friends and myself here, because although it was given to me, I don't want to accept total ownership of this book) called Fantasy Lover which is absolutely hilarious, and we keep talking about getting together and reading it out loud in different accents. Again, that would be another evening well spent, reading something poorly written.

Also, for the record, despite the fact that I laughed at the Twilight movie, I don't find the Twilight books funny, mainly because of who they are aimed at. Bad examples for teenagers in books is not a funny thing, but because 50 Shades is for adults, then whatever, man. I'm sure some kids have gotten their hands on it, but it's not targeted toward them, so it can be as smutty as anyone wants it to be as far as I'm concerned.

#8- 50 Shades of Gray has been said to be a feminist book: whatttttt? We'll see about that.  Now, I don't pretend to know that much about feminism, I think that the simple fact that I'm a women and would like all the same opportunities as a man in life makes me a feminist, however I don't know all the different variations on the theme, or anything else about it on any deeper levels. I generally define myself more as a peopleist than a feminist, because a lot of feminists take it too far in my opinion and say that women are superior to men, which I don't think is right at all. I just believe that people should be treated equally no matter who or what they are, and that our differences should be celebrated.

But anyway, I've heard lots of women saying that 50 Shades showed a new trend in feminism, and that Anna is a good feminist example because she is in control of her situation. She does not do anything that she does not want to be doing, and she is fully warned (in long, boring sections where we get to read their actual, word for word contract) of what she is getting herself into. She wants to be dominated, and is, and it's entirely her choice. So anyway, I read about all this, and wanted to read it myself and see what I thought of it all. So I did. And to be perfectly fair, although I don't think that it's a good book, I do think that Anna is a much stronger character than Bella Swan, who she was based on.

Anna is still a moron, but at the end- SPOILER ALERT- she does leave him because she can't handle the situation and does not like being beaten. Bella would have NEVER left Edward for being too domineering, or for any other reason. Even when he leaves her, Bella just tosses herself off a cliff to see him again rather than just moving on with her life. But back to 50 Shades- I do know that obviously Anna gets back with Christian since there are like a million more books, but from what I've read, which is, like I said, all I am allowed to comment on, she does score higher in the back-bone category than Bella. So I'm glad I read it, because I just assumed she was going to be the same. I stand corrected. And now I can join the feminist debate about what feminism means to me, and when someone cites a 50 Shades example, I'll be ready.

#9- I needed something else to talk about other than Twilight. This not a serious reason, I just want to get to 10. But my Twilight rant is getting pretty old by now, and it's nice having some new material, so I guess it's still a legitimate reason.

#10- It made me think. What all of this boils down to is basically that reading 50 Shades of Gray, with all it's flaws, repetition and inconsistencies, did made me think. Even mindless dribble makes your brain work sometimes, even if it's just sifting through the sentences that just didn't even make sense, or the skim reading skills (that I finely crafted in my college years) I had to use to get through certain sections. It made me think enough to defend my reasons for reading it in this blog, and in conversations when I now talk about why I didn't like it, even if I can't properly articulate my reasons. It was a good study in how not to write, that's for sure, if nothing else. I found myself re-writing sentences from it in my head, my inner editor kicking in unexpectedly, which is one of my favorite things to do. And I'm not the only one who found themselves intellectually stimulated (in a roundabout way) by a poorly written book- I just discovered this book called 50 Shades of Feminism, which is exactly that. There are 50 sections, each written by different women around the world from varied social and economic backgrounds- "Daughters and Dames, poets and politicians, composer and psychoanalyst, academics and activists, broadcasters and barristers, mothers and sisters, novelists and impresarios, journalists and comedians, doctor and playwright, cultural commentators and artists, wives and writers."  -ALL talking about what feminism means to them. I haven't read it yet, but I think it sounds AWESOME. Like I was saying before, there are so many different forms of feminism out there, everyone has their own idea of what it is and how to be a feminist and what still needs doing. I think this sort of book is the only way of getting a whole picture of a very complex concept.

In my last blog I talked about Nerdfighters and their mission to decrease world suck. More worthy a cause has never been embarked upon, nor more daunting. There is a lot of suck out there, but the only way to decrease world suck is first to see it. As a book, 50 Shades of Gray truly sucks, but I still feel my time reading it was not for nothing. And in an effort to decrease it's suck in the world, I chose to view it from many angles, analyze the hell out of it, and try and use it's suckage to have intelligent conversations in the future, turning it's suck into awesome.

So, friend, if this has not made you understand why I read the book, then I probably never will. Which is ok, I just wanted to give it a try before accepting defeat, which is something, as you know, that I don't really like doing.

Onward and upward to  better books,

~Maria 


PS- I hope no one reads this as a book recommendation at all- let it be known that I would never recommend this book to anyone. I'm just saying that if you are interested in any of the reasons I have listed, than go for it, but don't come back to me and say 'Maria, you said I'd be intellectually stimulated and have an epiphany about sex and life and all I got was a headache!' Because that is a) not at all what I said and b) probably what is going to happen if you read it (the headache, that is). So I hope this is clear- this is not a book recommendation, this is just why I read it.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Justification Station

Awkward Model
Me again.

I think I have justification Tourette's or something; I just can't help justifying things that I like. I went to a dinner with a friend at her college the other night, a super fancy, black-tie dinner at a real Oxford College (kinda a big deal; there were three different knives and wine glasses), and everyone wanted to know who the hell I was. Mariah, the friend I was with, introduced me as her friend the writer (she kept specifically saying that I work in Children's Theater: more on that later), making me cringe every time. Why would I be so uncomfortable being introduced as a writer? It's what I want to do after all, it's what I am doing all the fudging time, so what gives? I think it's because I don't have any major publications to my name, so to me, saying I'm a writer makes me feel like a poser. But anyway, this is not the current point I'm trying to make.

So, when you meet a writer, what's the first thing you ask? Duh- 'what do you write?' And for the record, I don't like to say I write any one thing in particular, because I'm still trying to figure out what I like and what I'm good at and what works for me, and I'm interested in just about all types of writing at the moment, but let's face it, I mostly write Young Adult. And for sake of simplicity, that's what I told people. Which is where the Tourette's kicked in.

I should not have to justify why I write YA, or justify it as a genre or art form. I know that I don't have to, but I do anyway, every single time. Over the course of the night, I never once just said I wrote YA without going into my whole rant about how important it is to the development of kid's brains to read good things in their formative years, blah blah blah, (more on good YA later, aka John Green)- you've all heard my rant before. But the rant is not the point, it's the reason for it that interests me. Why justify something you know in your soul does not need it? Why am I so insecure about something I claim to love? I think it's because of just that: I love it.

Cake Cake
I was having this conversation with my housemate the other night, comparing this YA justification problem to the same sort of thing you get when talking about Fantasy and Science Fiction (I never know if you should capitalize YA, SF or Fantasy. I'm pretty sure I look it up every time I write an essay and learn that you don't have to, but I still feel like they should be, so I'll just do it anyway. My blog, my rules). My housemate writes SF, so he knows exactly what I'm talking about. I went into another rant about how SF is such an intelligent way of showing the world today by what it could be in the future and how lots of scientists have found inspiration from inventions in SF novels and then making them a reality and thus advancing technology through literature (HOW COOL IS THAT?) and how Fantasy, as I well know, is HARD to write, much less write well, and then...and then I realized I was doing it again. And what made that conversation with my housemate even more ridiculous is that I was in fact justifying a genre to someone who WRITES SF, and is therefore the last person in the world who would ever judge it as an art form. Yet that fear was still there, that ever-present fear that someone will think less of something I love, that they won't see it for what it truly is and all that it could be based on cultural biases and all the times it has actually been done very, very poorly (coughTWILIGHTcoughcough). I know all of this, and yet I defend these things anyway, even when unnecessary.

Because really, if you think about it, about 98% of people I associate with are not judging me anyway. At the college dinner, I was surrounded by very intellectual people from a wide variety of different disciplines, many of which were writers themselves, all of which were very nice, interesting people. The worst that probably happened in their heads when I told them I wrote YA was a mild disinterest, but not judgement. I love not having to talk sometimes, so why would I use more words than necessary to say something that does not need to be said in the first place? I met a guy that night who was getting a degree in Water Management (also does not need to be capitalized, I know) and he didn't feel the need to justify it to me, and there is not much in this world or the next that I care less about than Water Management. But I didn't judge him for doing a boring degree, I salute him for being passionate about Water Management so I don't have to be. He is doing the world a huge service, and for no praise at all. Because is he does his job well, which this Oxford University student will undoubtedly do, none of us will even notice.

Dude knows what he's doing.
See what I did there? I justified the Water Management guy's degree. I don't know if this is a problem I have or if it's just annoying (probably both), but I guess it's just how my brain works. I've spent my entire life doing the least popular/known activities one could possibly do (Odyssey of the Mind, Color Guard, Sigma Tau Delta), and thus spent a lot of time explaining what they were and why I did them and why they mattered. Then I got an English Degree which was essentially reading books and then writing about the things in them, explaining what happened, why it was so important and why it mattered. So maybe this is not so much a curse or problem as a talent. Yeah, that sounds far more positive. I seem to have a talent for finding a reason that anything is worth doing/important. I should really be a school counselor or suicide prevention receptionists, shouldn't I?

So- the two other things I said ''more on that later" about- Kid's Theater and John Green.

Thing one- the play I wrote will be performed by the North Oxford Youth Theatre on May 6th in Henley-on-Thames for a festival, competition thing if anyone wants to come. Pretty awesome, I know.

Left: Hank, Right: John.
Thing two- speaking of awesome- John Green.

The last few months I've discovered the author John Green, introduced to me by my amazing friend Alex. The first book of his she lent me, The Fault in Our Stars, I started reading one night in December and ended up finishing at around 4am the next morning. I have since read two of his other books, Will Grayson, Will Grayson (which is also by David Levithan, who is also awesome) and An Abundance of Katherines, The Fault in Our Stars again, and seen him talk in London with his equally talented and hilarious brother, Hank Green, and I'm sort of, kind of in love. His books are hilarious, realistic to the core, breathtakingly sad sometimes and so so so intelligent. I feel like for every book John Green puts into the world it cancels out like six Twilight books (although there are only 4- he cancels out the future sequels that might exist one day too). I wish he were more well known than he is, however TFIOS topped the New York Times best seller list last year, so I hope he soon will be.

John and Hank Green do many creative projects together, one of which is called Nerdfighting, which is not in fact fighting nerds, but nerds fighting to increase awesome and decrease suck in the world.  Sounds almost too beautifully simple to be true, I know. I'll let John Green's explanation from their website give you a fuller idea of what they are about:

“Hank... I need to make one thing clear: Nerdfighters are not about you and me. Nerdfighters are about a made of awesome book, made by a woman in Australia, going to a made of awesome baby in the united states. Nerdfighters are about raising money and awareness for important causes. Nerdfighters are about building a supportive community of friends... in my pants. Nerdfighters are about stupid beautiful projects and making each other laugh and think with t-shirts and pocket protectors and rants about the situation in Pakistan which sucks right now. In the contemporary world where things fall apart and the center can not hold you have to imagine a community where there is no center... A lot of life is about doing things that don’t suck with people who don’t suck.”

And that, world, is John Green. I kind of want to marry him, if he were not already happily married and all familyed as well. 

Alright, that's enough long-winded dribble for one night. I'm going to bed.


~Maria xoxo

Sunday, March 17, 2013

My dearest love, I never loved you!

I saw Cyrano de Bergerac for the fist time on stage the other day. I feel like I should have something to say about this, seeing as it's my favorite story of all time and all that jazz. And since working at The Story Museum I've come to love stories even more than before (if that is possible) and see their connection and importance to the lives we live every day. But anyway- Cyrano has been my favorite story ever since senior year of high school,  when I first read it in a world lit class that should have been good but wasn't. (I'm extremely sure I've blogged about all of this before, however if this is the case it was probably years ago, seeing as I blog so seldomly these days, so whatever) We read it and then watched the Gerard Depardieu film version, but I am like 99.9% sure I loved it before we watched the film. No, I'm 100% sure, because I remember being really worried about the actor playing Cyrano, since I was in love with him. Since then I've been smitten- I love Cyrano more than any fictional character ever. More than Atticus and Peter Pan and Ron Weasley. There, I said it. I guess this is because he has the lowest self esteem, and has the least reasons to feel so inclined. I guess I feel like he needs my love the most, and yes, I realize he's fictional (we've been over this a million times, Maria, your imaginary friends are IMAGINARY), but I don't care. What's more real, what we do in our every day lives (brush teeth, post mail, go to the dentist for not brushing well enough), or how certain intangible things make us feel? I have a friend who claims I don't exist because I'm not in his life, aka, live in his country/state and interact with him on a regular basis. I see his point (and realize it's a joke, fyi), but I still reject this out of hand. Some of my most meaningful correspondences (aka family and friends at home) are mostly in my head (aka, reading e-mails) and they mean as much to me as anything else that might happen to me in 'real' life. That was a really long winded way of saying that my love for Cyrano floweth over and is a real, noteworthy thing which I guess I could have just said, but I have this strange desire to always justify everything I saw, which I'll get to later. But now, Cyrano.

I was told by a friend that seeing an amateur version of a play you love might ruin it for you. I'm not saying this version was bad, not at all, I'm just saying that this was my level of expectation when I went into it; expecting anything, but nonetheless excited. And I was pleasantly surprised. Some of the smaller characters were questionably acted; I could have done with a funnier Ragueneau (the pastry chef who loves poetry and is cuckolded by a Musketeer) but that was made up for with an adorable little nun in the last scene. However in my eyes all of this is superfluous next to the actor playing Cyrano- because, to me, if you have a good Cyrano, you have a good play. And he was VERY good. 

He was played by Rupert Winter of the Oxford Theatre Guild (when referring to an English organization, I feel compelled to spell Theater with the re) and he was beautiful. They were using Anthony Burgess' translation (That's right, who also did A Clockwork Orange. Weird, I know), which is actually one I haven't read before, and it was fantastic. Winter really nailed it, adding additional emotion to scenes that I didn't think could hold any more, and some to places I've never seen before. One scene in particular, which is always my favorite in any version, was particularly good, and just because of one tiny detail. Again, I've most likely talked about this before, but anyway- the balcony scene. 

In this scene, Roxanne, Cyrano's love, is up on her balcony at night, while Cyrano and Christian, the boy Cyrano has been helping to woo Roxanne (you know, 'my brains and your good looks doth an Adonis make' sort of thing. Did I mention (for all those who don't know the story) that Cyrano has a gigantic nose and thinks he's hideous?), are down below, in the shadows. At first, Cyrano tries to feed Christian lines from under the balcony, as Pretty Boy Christian stands out in clear sight, however he's not the sharpest tool in the shed and it's soon clear this is just not going to work. Cyrano pulls Christian back as Roxanne stands baffled and unsatisfied above ('you give me military statistics when I crave poetry!' or something like that. I should really translate it myself, that would be hilarious. (and by that I mean bad.)). To keep Roxanne from running off in a prissy huff (I'm not her biggest fan), Cyrano continues talking to her in Christian's place, and at the same time taking Christian's hat and cape and putting them on himself before emerging from the shadows. Still hidden by the wide brim of the Cavalier hat and plume, he proceeds to tell Roxanne exactly how he feels about her, pouring out his soul to her with the freedom to do so that he's never before experienced due to his crippling insecurities about his appearance. It's a beautiful scene, made all the more heartbreaking by the added detail in the performance by Winter (or Burgess)- at the end, Cyrano, overcome with emotion, reaches up to the balcony behind him just as Roxanne reaches down and grabs his hand. That's it, just that one tiny detail made all the difference. To me anyway. 

So I was happy with my first on-stage performance experience. The friend I went with was not as pleased- but she is not into all that romance. It is over-dramatic, and at times you just want to smack Cyrano on the face and say 'SHE LOVES YOU ALREADY JUST GO AND TELL HER FOR THE LOVE OF FENCING,' but to me, the tragedy of the character is what makes it good. He clearly has an intense social phobia when it comes to women, a strong fear of rejection and insecurities out the wazoo about his appearance. You could see it as a cautionary tale to anyone with similar difficulties, a glimpse of what life could be like if you don't try your hardest to overcome your fears. Because really, as brave as Cyrano is on the battle field (he bested 100 men at the Porte de Nesl!), when it comes to the one thing, or person rather, that sets his soul on fire, he cannot simply speak his mind. I've been there (not in a romantic sense); I've been crippled by shyness and let me tell you, it's the pits. But I hated it, so I worked really hard to get over it, going to such extremes as moving to another country where I only knew one person and living in a house full of strangers (some of which are now some of my best friends in the world). I'm still shy, but not nearly as bad as I used to be, and I think I'm leading a happier life for it. 

Alright, this love letter has come to it's close. 

Now, two pictures that sum up English weather very nicely. 

~Maria 


This was taken yesterday.

  
This was taken this morning.