How to Find the Comedy in A Messed-Up World (with Maeve Higgins) (Transcript)
How to Be a Better Human
How to Find the Comedy in A Messed-Up World (with Maeve Higgins) (Transcript)
July 4, 2022
[00:00:00] Chris Duffy:
You’re listening to How to Be a Better Human. I’m your host Chris Duffy and today on the show we’re talking about comedy and immigration. Now, those are two topics that you probably don't think go together. But our guest today, Maeve Higgins, is a comedian and an author who moved from Ireland to the U.S., and she's made a career out of using humor to get people to see borders and migration differently.
In general, one of the things that I love most about comedy is how a good joke can take something out in the world that you’ve noticed but maybe never fully articulated to yourself, and then a comedian comes along and their punchline makes you laugh, but it also crystalizes the way that you see that thing, and you can never see it the same way again afterwards.
In Maeve’s comedy, she tells her own experience of leaving home, and she uses jokes to complicate the narratives we sometimes hear about immigration, particularly the idea that there are some immigrants who are quote-unquote “good” and others who are quote-unquote "bad". Now, I'm really kind of analyzing Maeve's joke a lot here, and as E.B. White once said: "Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog... You understand it better, but the frog dies in the process."
And so, in the interest of not killing anymore frogs, I’m gonna stop talking now and just let you hear from Maeve herself. Here’s a clip from her talk at TEDWomen:
[00:01:18] Maeve Higgins (TED TALK):
I won the Alexander Hamilton Immigrant Achievement Award for contributions to Manhattan and New York State. [cheers] Thank you. So, Alexander Hamilton himself was an immigrant and all he had to do was set up a banking system, help to win the war of independence, and generally found the United States to be considered a good and welcome immigrant. That’s a lot to live up to, you know. I can’t even remember my online banking password. [laughs] Actually, I just remembered. I think it's actually "Hamilton"?
[00:01:57] Chris Duffy: I love that joke. I really admire Maeve’s work. And I always love getting to spend time with her as a person.
On today’s show, we’re going to get more into Maeve’s comedy, we're gonna talk about her writing, and why she decided, right as her movie acting career was taking off, to get a master’s degree in migration studies. Not the typical path for a movie star. But first we're gonna take a quick break and we'll be right back after this.
[00:02:27] Chris Duffy:
And we are back! We’re talking comedy and migration with Maeve Higgins.
[00:02:31] Maeve Higgins:
Hi, I am Maeve Higgins. I'm a writer, and I'm a comedian. I live in Brooklyn and I'm from Ireland.
[00:02:40] Chris Duffy:
So Maeve, you are a comedian, but you often talk and you've written a lot about immigration. That's obviously not the... that's not the thing that you see at every open mic around the city. So how did you start thinking that you wanted to take such a serious issue and find comedy in it?
[00:03:24] Maeve Higgins:
I suppose that came from my real life like, you know, how us comedians do that, we just experience something and then it kind of just transmutes itself into our comedy. But I think obviously, I became an immigrant myself around 10 years ago, and I grew up in Cove, Chris, which I think, you know, which is now, you know, it's like a small island on the south of Ireland, but it's where a lot of emigrants left from - in like the worst years of Irish history, I mean, 200 years ago, like well before I was born. And, and so I grew up knowing a lot about people who left and I didn't really think about, I suppose, like about where they went or what it was like on the other side until I had, you know, a very different experience of migration myself.
[00:03:49] Chris Duffy:
So you came to the U.S. on a special visa, which I know because we were friends and you were in the process of applying for it, and you had to kind of prove that you were special and unique as an artist. That's literally the name of the visa.
[00:04:02] Maeve Higgins:
“An alien of extraordinary ability.” Yeah, it's the O1 Visa. And it's for people who do things that are, you know, extraordinary, supposedly. So that's artists and sportspeople, professors - like if you win a Nobel Prize or something. [laughs]
[00:04:21] Chris Duffy:
But an interesting thing to me is, you know, I know you've made a lot of jokes about the fact that you have a legal document that says you are extraordinary and have extraordinary abilities. But you've also questioned the idea of like, "Should we be ranking immigrants in that way?"
[00:04:36] Maeve Higgins:
Yeah, certainly. And you know, that kind of came to me as a sort of: “Hmm, OK. I can see how lucky I am,” because I know myself, what I contribute. [laughs] I wouldn't say it's the most valuable, and I'm not being, like, self-deprecating for the sake of it. I genuinely think, "Oh, you know, an astrophysicist like sitting in a refugee camp who could potentially be really doing some great work. Meanwhile, I'm kind of, like, working on my five minute bit about like a date that went badly or something."
[00:05:10] Chris Duffy:
Yeah. Well, here's a real thing that happened to me recently. I went to the TED conference, and I talked to someone, and this person runs an international nonprofit that stops child trafficking. And then he heard what I do, and he said, "Oh wow, comedy is so important". And I started laughing because I thought, "That's obviously a joke". And then he was like, "Why are you laughing?" And I was like, "Oh, it's absolutely not important at all. What you do is important. I'm a clown". But, um...
[00:05:37] Maeve Higgins:
But I suppose even that kind of that gets us a bit sidetracked because I think the ultimate thing that I realized is that, you know, if you start dividing like humans up into like, who deserves to be where, and like who's allowed to move across borders, then it gets really ugly.
[00:05:56] Chris Duffy:
I know that there have been times where you have maybe questioned whether you even are a comedian. And obviously not that you couldn't be a comedian, but you've thought, like, is that how I want to define myself anymore?
[00:06:05] Maeve Higgins:
Well, I do a lot of different things, you know, like yeah, I study and I write and I do comedy. I've kind of come to terms with, like, I just do a ton of things, and sometimes I act as well. And so, but yeah, I like comedy to me means somebody who's like going on the road and like, I don't know. I'm not sure. I just suppose I didn't really feel like, especially when I was coming up in comedy in my 20s, it was, you know, very male, very and not just male, but very macho and kind of chauvinistic. And, um, I just didn't want to be part of it. But I also did want to, like, make jokes and be funny and like travel around.
So, I have a hard time identifying with comedy. But these days, I'm older and I live in New York and I do this show every week, and there's like so many interesting, fun people from all different perspectives. You know, just like, I don't know, queer people, you know, people who've been like, historically excluded from comedy stages and disabled people, just like every type of person. And that's what I'm interested in now. And that's I feel like a bit better now by being like, "Yeah, I'm a comedian. I'm not, like, ashamed of it." [laughs]
[00:07:18] Chris Duffy:
So, you know, I know you were talking about how you have some skepticism around comedy's role to to change culture and society and especially political realities. If comedy doesn't really move the needle in the way that you originally thought that it might, what does it do? What does comedy do, or what can it do?
[00:07:41] Maeve Higgins:
I think, potentially, comedy can be, um, like in the way all, I suppose, art can be. Or creativity can be as a form of self-expression, right? Where I'm saying to you, "This is how it is for me, like this is how I see this thing," and I somehow transmit that to you and then you can see how I see it. And then that might resonate with you. Or you might be blown away by how different it is than how you see it. But it's a form of self-expression, which I think is very valuable because I think, you know, if we're denied that, we're denied a part of our humanity to make it very serious.
And so I think a form of self-expression, it's wonderful for that. I think, too, it's a really good release, you know, like when you have a good laugh with your friends and like, it's... I think it's like very well documented that children laugh a lot more than adults and it just relaxes you. It's very, it's a real relief. And also, I think comedy, um, gives you a feeling of community because when you're laughing all together and this can be good or bad, you know, like you can all be laughing at one person and that joins you up against that one person. And that's not a great feeling for that one person, like comedy can certainly be weaponized, but it's definitely a form of community where you kind of say, "OK, we all feel safe enough in each other's company to laugh at this one thing."
[00:09:09] Chris Duffy:
Um, you've done a lot of thinking about borders and migration and the way that people move. You've thought about it in ways of how to make it into a punchline. You've thought about it in ways of making it into an essay, and you've researched it in terms of actual policies.
I think it's interesting to me that you have this Irish experience because in the U.S., many Irish politicians or I should say, Irish-American politicians kind of valorize their ancestors as like those were the “good immigrants”. But then, now the people who are immigrating today, those are not the same as your great-great-great-grandfather who came home from Ireland. And I wonder how that plays out in your experience as someone who looking at immigration, but is also from the place that critics of immigration kind of are proud to be from.
[00:09:54] Maeve Higgins:
It's so discombobulating. I remember Mike Pence is kind of the clearest example. There are plenty, and they're on the Democrat side, and they're on the Republican side. But certainly Mike Pence, who tried to ban Syrian refugees from, I think he was the governor of Indiana at the time, and then of course, went on to, you know, help the Trump administration enforce all of these horribly xenophobic immigration policies. But yeah, Mike Pence loves to talk about his Irish grandfather, who like, moved over from Ireland from a place called Mayo back in the day. And he also was fleeing a civil war, and he also was literally just trying to, like, get a better life for himself and his family, you know, so you could say he was a refugee. You could say he was an economic migrant. Again, those categories can be pretty dangerous because people slip in between them all the time.
[00:10:50] Chris Duffy:
What can a person do if they are living in a country that is a place that people are trying to migrate to? How can they actually think about borders and migration differently or maybe even take action?
[00:11:03] Maeve Higgins:
So I would encourage people, um, to remember to use your imagination and to understand that you already are using it. So it's easy to look at a border and think, like, "Wait, no, like who said, it's there?" And, you know, in so many cases, it's because of violence, it's because of war. It's because of white supremacy that borders even exist in the first place. And certainly, you know, you go to Texas and you see that there has been a hate crimes against like, um, you know, Latino immigrants. And it's like this used to be Mexico, not that long ago. [laughs] You know, say, "Oh, the there's a lot going on in the Middle East." Well like, just look back, not just about 100 years ago, when it was like European men with like a ruler and a few pens decided where everybody belongs.
[00:12:00] Chris Duffy:
Well, it's interesting, I mean, correct me if I'm putting words in your mouth, but it seems like one of the things that you're saying is that a big piece of thinking about immigration and thinking about borders is the the creativity to imagine them differently. And that actually makes me think that the role of people who are not just policy makers, not just nonprofit leaders, but also people like you who are creative, who are funny, who are writers...You don't often think about those people as being able to, or at least I don't think about those people as being able to, effect big changes. But if I'm hearing you correct one of the big things that we can do is also to just not accept that this situation is unchangeable. We can imagine a better situation.
[00:12:37] Maeve Higgins:
Yeah, absolutely. We can imagine it and then, and then take steps to enact that.
[00:12:44] Chris Duffy:
Yeah, so talk to me about the steps, right? So one piece is imagining it. What are some of the concrete steps that you think a regular person can do?
[00:12:50] Maeve Higgins:
So I think to educate yourself about is really important and to see, oh, at the moment, right now in the UK, they've started to outsource their refugee processing facilities to Rwanda. So you arrive, you try to get to the UK, you get sent on an airplane to Rwanda, and that's just copying the Australian model, which you know, didn't let people touch Australian soil. They put all the refugees for processing on islands belonging to Papua New Guinea. And so I think taking an active role in fighting against that and you know, those are the usual steps. I think it's showing solidarity with the people who are working against this.
If I'm thinking, "Oh, wait, like there's all these like single mothers living in this immigrant neighborhood near me, so happens to be Sunset Park in Brooklyn. I wonder how they're doing in the pandemic?" I can literally Google that and see that there's an organization working there helping single parents in Sunset Park, you know? So don't think that you have to go out of your way to do a huge start, something. You will probably find people who are already helping and then you can support them in whatever way you want. That could be. I mean, I'm like a comedian, so I could do a show for them. I could donate money. I could raise awareness. That tricky word.
[00:14:13] Chris Duffy:
And also just to jump in there is, I think that a key part of finding organizations that are already doing the work around this, is it can also help you to avoid being, you know, the savior who parachutes in". And I put that with the big quotes around savior right of like, "I can do it and I'm going to help these people who are helpless and they can't help themselves." Instead, there's probably an organization that's doing really good work, and you can lend your support to them rather than thinking like you have to reinvent the wheel for people who may not even want the wheel reinvented.
[00:14:38] Maeve Higgins:
Yeah, exactly. And like different, especially if you say if you're in the U.S. or if you're in the UK and you're, you know, thinking, I want to help arriving immigrants, I want to help arriving asylum seekers. We've had lots of Afghan refugees moving to the U.S. recently. They're going to have completely different needs than, you know, family arriving from Ukraine, who maybe have cousins here. And so you need to check in like you need to check, what do you need? How can I help you? It's not a kind of a, as you say, like as a savior thing.
[00:15:13] Chris Duffy:
Okay, we're gonna take a quick break and then we’ll be back with more from Maeve Higgins right after this.
[00:15:23] Chris Duffy:
And we are back. We have been talking about the impact of comedy on the way we think about immigration with comedian Maeve Higgins. And here is another clip from her TED talk:
[00:15:34] Maeve Higgins (TED TALK):
Immigrants are actually less likely to commit crime than people that are born here in the U.S. which is why I have my purse just tucked behind that. [laughs] I don’t trust you. [laughs] No, I do. But, you know, we’re more likely to start a business. And we contribute to the economy, and we really enrich the community in lots of other ways too. But truly I believe that any measure of an immigrant’s worth is dangerous territory. I honestly, I think it’s so stupid, because dividing people up by what you think they’re worth is not just unethical, it’s also unscientific. Because I got into America. I’m safe here. But honestly the most I contribute is like too much money spent on cold brew. [laughs] It’s so expensive. But I buy it every day, and I buy another one. 7 dollars, no problem, here you go. My heart doesn’t quite feel like it’s exploded yet. So I’m going to need another cold brew.
Annie Moore never made a fortune. She never wrote a book or invented a computer. And really, why should she? Why should immigrants have to prove themselves extraordinary to deserve a place at the table? To deserve a fighting chance?
[00:16:44] Chris Duffy:
So your latest book is called Tell Everyone on this Train I Love Them. And I truly am not just saying this: I love the book. I thought it was so funny and moving, and it threads the needle between comedy and serious analysis of immigration policy in a way that I just don't think anyone else has really done. So how did you come up with the idea for the book and and how what was the process of writing it like?
[00:17:08] Maeve Higgins:
Yeah, well I, first of all, I would say like immigration stories are - This is from like a kind of a, you know, very like "I write for a living". It's a very writer point of view - They're so interesting to me because immigration stories, by their nature, they have a beginning and a middle. They have a journey. They have, like, somebody changing worlds. And like when you speak to immigrants or the children of immigrants, they often have this, like, really fascinating glimpse into two different realities. You know?
[00:17:40] Chris Duffy:
Well, here's one thing that I remember that is a personal story that I've always laughed about is one time you and I, I mean, we met in the... in Boston and in New York, in big northeast cities. But one time we were doing a show in a kind of semi-rural area in the Midwest, and our hotel was next to a big box store. I think it was a Walmart. And I remember that I asked you what you were doing. I was like, "Oh, hey, what are you? What are you doing? You want to hang out?" and you're like, "I'm just walking through the parking lot. It's so enormous. I've never seen a parking lot this size. I have to take photos to send to my family", which I get it. That's so funny. But to me, it was like, "Yeah, of course, it's just an enormous parking lot." But you were like, "This is the most American thing I've ever seen."
I do think that your work is evidence that comedy can bring attention to things that are not paid attention to as much as they should be. Or it can shine a focus in places that people would maybe prefer not to look. And when you get them to laugh, all of a sudden they see it in a way that they would have glossed over it otherwise.
[00:18:45] Maeve Higgins:
Yeah, that's interesting. I mean, that would, that's, you know, that would be wonderful. But yeah, I suppose one example that I did write about in my book was when I went to visit the Border Security Expo. And you know, that isn't something that most Americans or really anybody would go and visit. It's something that immigrant rights' activists can. They tend to protest, but they're outside. But you know, I had a press pass and I went in, and I just watched and I took notes and I talked to people, and I suppose I had my own take on what I saw there.
And it's this big annual event where it's kind of like the government and the industry around border enforcement and around immigration policy. They meet every year. And it was just fascinating to be there and to have this kind of outsider's perspective. I went there and they raffle off homemade rifles. And of course, I was so fascinated by this. And then I guess some of it was pretty comical. And then other parts of it were like, so kind of frightening and serious. But that's what like, Chris - that's what I think telling a full story is, too.
[00:19:58] Maeve Higgins:
Because often I think immigrants are kind of either sold as, you know, criminals and a danger and a threat. And oh, "what's going to happen with the climate? They're all going to arrive". Or they're sold to us as victims, you know, like, "Oh, this poor family, these poor babies." You know, this kind of strange infantilizing, you know, these immigrants are helpless. We need to help them. Or the third category is like "Immigrants are goods". Look at all the work they do like. Look at them picking all of our fruits. And I would say none of those categories are, you know, there could be some truth in all of them, but none of them are the full truth.
So I think a good way is to remind yourself like, wait like, look at all the parts of me, you know, look at what I do, what I think, what I feel, who I am. Immigrants are exactly the same. There's like huge complexity in each person. So I think resisting very simple stories about immigrants is one thing that we can all do without that much effort really. it's just kind of resisting what we're fed.
[00:21:02] Chris Duffy:
One thing that I know about you from knowing you as a person and also is so crystal clear in your writing is that you take such joy from meeting people from different places and different backgrounds. So I wonder, what are some of the the favorite moments or the favorite people that you've gotten to talk to in the course of writing your books?
[00:21:21] Maeve Higgins:
Oh, so many people. This one little girl, she was 10, and I met her. I was interviewing her down in Richmond, in Virginia, because I was talking about, like for one story in my book about what we do with statues and islands of former colonizers: the English. And Irish people have had a really crazy time with statues and monuments at home, mainly just like blowing them up. But like as a party? Like everybody gets together on the street and the army's like, "Stand back, they are going to blow this up", and it's like very kind of fun.
[00:21:55] Chris Duffy:
It's officially blown up. It's not like an unofficial blowing up.
[00:21:59] Maeve Higgins:
And so I was kind of, you know, writing about the history that we have with monuments. And then, you know, the very current, you know, extremely urgent, kind of, questions that Americans are diving into what's causing all this kind of anguish and also hope. It's funny. I was chatting with this, this little 10 year old down in Richmond, and she was just wonderful, Chris. She was just like: “Yeah, my dad brought me to Monument Row that they have down there". They've since been removed. But of course, there was the big Robert E Lee statue that when the Black Lives Matter movement came up, they took it over and they projected on it and people could scribble on it and do graffiti on it.
And she was just like such a cool child, and she was like, "I went there. It was really nice, like they were giving out food and water and like, I got to spray with my spray can on the foot of the statue". And to her this was like a very, I think, going to be a very solid memory, you know, of when she was allowed to own the place she lived, where she was allowed to kind of claim the space around her. Whereas before it was all cordoned off, and it was this big, insanely big statue overseeing the city of somebody who thought that people like her - she was a Black girl - should have been kept in slavery.
[00:23:13] Maeve Higgins:
So but she wasn't -- this didn't feel heavy or sad. It was just like an experience in her day, you know, just before she went to play computer games and have a barbecue with your family. Like it was, it was just another moment in her life. And I think that's really important to capture when you're talking about big and sad and historic things. Or like larger ways that society operates is to like, go small.
And I remember too, talking to - for my podcast - I interviewed an Iraqi asylum seeker. He actually came over here on a special immigrant visa, which is for people who assisted the U.S. Army when they were, you know, in their various jaunts all over the world and doing their various illegal wars. And so he was here and he was really, you know, heartbroken because he could not go back. And so he was away from his family, and he was away from everything he grew up with. He was making a new life in Seattle.
He was also a queer man. And again, that would make him very unwelcome at the time, ISIS were in control of large parts of Iraq when I met him. And, you know, I got to his apartment and he was in the middle of making a mermaid costume. He was like: "Okay, I'll just be two secs. I'll be right there. There is some sequins missing from the tail.” And it was like these moments of joy and connection that are in everybody's life, I think are really important to include in stories of, you know, and pain and stories of borders and the way things cross us when we're just trying to live our life.
[00:24:54] Maeve Higgins:
It's so, uh, it's so lucky that I get to see it from both sides, you know, and it's so wonderful that I get to kind of piece these little bits of history together. The first, the first girl, the first immigrant through the gates of Ellis Island. You know, I wrote about her. Annie Moore, her name is. And she left from my hometown. And now there's a statue of her in Cove, my hometown, with her two little brothers. And then there's a corresponding statue of her on Ellis Island because she was the first one there.
And when you think of her, she was an unaccompanied minor, basically. She was undocumented. She was traveling, hoping to be reunited with her parents, who had moved here to the states. You know, a couple of years before that, she was looking after her two little brothers. Amazing, you know, and she was walked in. She was given a gold coin. She was celebrated. You know, that was in 1892, very different than, you know, those teenage girls right now at the southern border who are absolutely entitled to apply for asylum who are being kept out.
[00:26:02] Chris Duffy:
What are three things that people listening can do to think about immigration and borders differently or to make positive change around immigration and borders?
[00:26:17] Maeve Higgins:
Definitely inform yourself is one thing. I know myself, if you have a passport and you have citizenship, you're not going to need to think about migration, but it's really worth it. Like, figure out, okay, why are your borders there? Who's making the rules around them and why is that? And why historically and why right now?
So I think inform yourself about America's past and present with immigration laws, and then look at like who they impact day to day. And I think reaching out to immigrants and asylum seekers can seem a little bit daunting or you might think, well, like I'm not from that community, they don't need me around. But actually, it's really been proven that something like community sponsorship, which the U.S. is just now starting to do again. They can sponsor immigrants as a community, not just families bringing each other over. And that's a very successful way of integrating new immigrants into society. The more contact and the more connections that a new migrant has with people who are already there, then the more successful their life is going to be here.
[00:27:37] Maeve Higgins:
So reaching out in whatever way you can. That could be like through your kid's school. That could be through, you know, local immigration organization or through church or through your synagogue. Again, you'll definitely find people who are already working on this.
I think the third thing to do is when you're hearing about or reading about migration, you'll notice it comes in all these different forms. So you might be reading about climate change and then they'll say. "There's going to be, like you know, four million climate migrants coming from, you know, the Global South to here."
I think, question that. And do your own homework on that. And then as well, if you're reading something or you're watching a movie and you and it's just relentlessly bleak and it's about, you know, uh, migrants. This could be during World War Two. This could be right up to today. It could be a news story or a fictional story, and it's just bleak. And it's just sad. Just understand that they're leaving something out of that, too. If they're leaving out any bit of humanity or any bit of joy and a bit of levity, then that's not the full story. So I think look a bit harder at the immigrant stories that you're presented with, and if they're all pain or they're all joy, then they're probably not accurate.
[00:29:01] Chris Duffy:
How are you personally trying to be a better human right now?
[00:29:04] Maeve Higgins:
I'm trying to take it easy a bit more. My niece said one day: “What are you going to do today? I'm going have a relax.” I've been trying to deliberately not feel like I have to produce something every day in order to like be a worthy person. And so, it's tricky because my worth is kind of tied to like my output. So I'm trying to take it easy, and by take it easy I mean: cook, have my friends come for dinner, go for a walk, have coffee in the park instead of sitting in front of my laptop. Very small things.
[00:29:49] Chris Duffy:
OK, and then last question: what is something that has made you a better human? It can be a book, a movie, a piece of music. It could be anything.
[00:29:59] Maeve Higgins:
Oh, I know a quote that I heard the other day from this professor called Bruja Benjamin. And I did like a talk with her about borders, and she was amazing. But before that, I looked on her website just to be like, "Oh, I wonder who I'm going to be like on a panel with?" And she has this quote on her website that blew my mind, and I'm trying to hold onto that says this: "Remember to imagine and craft the world you cannot live without, just as you dismantle the ones you cannot live within".
Isn't that beautiful? Because it's like it's so easy to say, like "what's wrong with everything?" But, and it is important to like rip down things that are like horrific and oppressive. But it's also really even more important to build up things that you believe in so that like there will be a better place to go when we do finally get rid of this one.
[00:30:56] Chris Duffy:
I feel like that perfectly sums up everything that we've been talking about. And the goal for what I take away from your work around migration is to build that new world and to tear down the bad one.
Well, Maeve. Thank you so much for being on the show, Maeve Higgins, author of Tell Everyone on this Train I Love Them.
[00:31:14] Maeve Higgins:
[00:31:18] Chris Duffy:
That is it for today’s episode. I am your host Chris Duffy and this has been How To Be A Better Human. Thank you so much to our guest Maeve Higgins. Her latest book is called Tell Everyone On This Train I Love Them. I can't recommend it enough. Buy a copy!
On the TED side, this show is brought to you by international dream team Sammy Case, Anna Phelan, and Abhimanyu Das.
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We’ll be back next week! Thanks for listening.