First Man(liness)

I’m a little tired of manly manliness in cinema. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll always have a soft spot Predator, Die Hard, or a good Spaghetti Westerns. But it’s 2018 and I’m kinda tired of that being the MO for male characters, especially manliness for the sake of manliness, like that 50s stoic, silent masculinity. In short, I’m really tired of ‘traditional’ masculinity, especially when it’s idolized and unquestioned.

Which leads me to First Man, the new movie by Damien Chazelle, director of Whiplash (excellent!) and La La Land (ehhhhh). First Man centers on one of my favorite topics: space exploration, particularly the effort to put a person on the moon, hence, y’know, the title. I like space. I think the Apollo Missions were terribly exciting, always have — I was one of those kids who absolutely consumed space stuff. That love of space was enough to beat out my trepidation about watching another Chazelle movie after La La Land.

Now, First Man is a very well made movie. It makes space travel terrifying in the best way possible, it’s claustrophobic and there is so little under your control. The movie really makes you feel that terror, and oh, it’s such a thrill. It’s such a shame, then, that square in the middle of that is Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong.

I don’t know much about Armstrong as a person; I haven’t read biographies and I only know him for his role in space exploration. I don’t purport to really know what he’s like as a person. I do know, however, that I found Gosling’s portrayal to be very frustrating. See, in First Man Armstrong is a very stoic character. We see him crack once or twice — in the aftermath of his daughter’s death, for example — but beyond that he’s borderline emotionless. Maybe there’s a world of emotion going on behind his face, but we’re never afforded a glance inside.

Throughout the film, Armstrong’s stoicism is portrayed to the point of blandness, he doesn’t really seem to feel much (which again, could be argued away as being due to his daughter’s death, but we’re never really allowed to know) and instead his main quality is that he is a driven, quiet man. While other astronauts are bantering about space he is silently committed to getting to the moon. He’ll take part in some family stuff, but at the end of the day, he is Quiet and Manly, focused on going to space. Other astronauts dying just makes him more committed, in addition to having Manly Fear so we know he’s scared (but not too scared). Gosling’s Armstrong is the epitome of that silent, stoic, 50s masculinity, and, as far as the movie is concerned, all the better for it.

First Man doesn’t say much of anything about Gosling’s version of masculinity, aside from extolling it (the other astronauts don’t have the right attitude, his wife [like all of Chazelle’s female characters] just doesn’t understand). Because, as the movie implicitly argues, Armstrong did such great things, and because he embodied this brand of masculinity, clearly it’s great. Underlying the movie is an adoration of his stoicism and drive.

And I am so damn sick of that brand of masculinity. I’d be fine with Armstrong in First Man being a selfish prick if he got called out on it and it was recognized as being a flaw; but instead the movie loves him for it. I’d be okay if we saw some more self-doubt behind that heroic facade, but he is constantly in the zone, never weak, never emotional, always masculine. There’s no real antagonist for that masculinity to butt heads with; no warring factions for Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name to outdo in A Fistful of Dollars, no equally over-the-top villains for John Matrix to vie against in Commando. Rather the doubts raised by his wife and friends fall like the words of a straw man on Armstrong’s manly, too-determined-to-listen ears. It’s frustrating, especially when recognized as the predecessor to the modern toxic masculinity that’s so problematic today.

And it’s 2018, for crying out loud! Masculinity doesn’t have to be so narrowly defined! Consider Chris Evan’s Captain America/Steve Rogers. There’s no doubt that he’s a Manly Man; dude’s jacked, he fights for AMERICA! and is a superhero. He’s also the nicest, sweetest member of the Avengers, the one who sees the best in everyone and supports those around him. He has his doubts and questions; he’s weak at times, but he presses on. His strength isn’t so much his muscles and physicality, but his gentle heart and belief in others. Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed in Creed is a boxer and the inheritor to both his father and Rocky’s legacies. But for all the machismo you’d expect in a boxing movie, we also see him doubt ridden, trying to make relationships work, and being called out on his masculine bullshit. In my beloved Pacific Rim, is Raleigh, a male main character whose primary role is providing the emotional support so other characters (particularly the Japanese woman Mako) can reach their full potential. None of these characters are any less ‘manly’ for these traits, rather in them we see a more complex, fuller, and more welcoming depiction of masculinity.

In the same way that a feminist approach to storytelling challenges the teller to create narratives where women are given agency and allowed to appear in a variety of roles, so too does it desire an allowance for male characters to take on more interesting dimensions. If Neil Armstrong was the embodiment of that style of stoic, selfish masculinity, couldn’t First Man have explored what was beneath that outer shell? Was he a husk of a man so bound by his need to be in control? Or was there genuine, painful emotion behind it? Could the narrative have questioned whether having all that to get to the Moon was worth it, rather than ending with him and his wife reconnecting? We’ve gotta get over this old-fashioned, idealized sort of manliness. It’s 2018, there’s more than one way to be a man.

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Classically Petty

Don Quixote is a pretty important book, to put it mildly. Often counted one of – if not the – greatest book ever written, it’s definitely something you can categorize under Serious Literature. It’s also home to some outstanding pettiness and a magnificent middle finger to fan-fiction.

The book was hugely popular right from when it was first published. It didn’t take too long for another writer to think there was something to this delusional adventurer and faithful pseudo-squire and write his own sequel under the name Avellaneda. Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote’s author,  clearly didn’t take kindly to his characters being used like this, and took several shots at the unofficial sequel when his Part Two came out a decade later.

Notably, Part Two sees many of the characters Don Quixote and Sancho Panza encounter both aware of and fans of Part One. The book was published in this fictional world too, and when he sallies forth on his new adventure, Don Quixote must reckon with the reputation of his fictionalized self. Not only that, but Don Quixote discovers that there is another book out there (by Avellaneda!) about him and his adventures, and this one is patently false. Quixote is very unhappy with this version of himself as it gets details about him wrong. He’s so mad about it that he ups and cancels his plans to go take part in the jousts in Zaragoza. You have to realize, that at this point in Part Two one of Don Quixote’s big goals has been to go and compete in these jousts (as a noble knight like [he envisions himself] himself would). All that is tossed aside because the fake-fictional version of Don Quixote jousted in Zaragoza and the real-fictional Don Quixote wants absolutely nothing to do with his fake-fictional self. Don Quixote (and by proxy, Cervantes himself) doesn’t want to give any credence to Avellaneda’s sequel and so the book makes it abundantly clear that Don Quixote did no such thing.

That, in and of itself, would be a nice meta attack on Avellaneda’s fan-fiction, but Cervantes goes further. On his way home, Don Quixote meets a Don Alvero Tarfe — a character from Avellaneda’s Part Two. They get talking, and Don Alvero claims to be a good friend of Don Quixote, which Don Quixote says is impossible because he is the real Don Quixote. Over the course of their conversation, Don Alvero — a character originally from Avellaneda’s unofficial sequel, remember — takes back any statement about having met Don Quixote prior to this encounter. And then a notary is summoned and Don Alvero makes a sworn affidavit, because as far as Cervantes is concerned, there’s no such things as overkill when it comes to discrediting Avellaneda.

Seriously, there isn’t. Don Quixote returns home, and vows to become a shepherd. That’s it, Don Quixote’s done, no more adventures with our errant knight-errant. Oh, and then, lest some wannabe-Avellaneda wants him to take up the mantle again, Don Quixote promptly falls sick, recants all his knightly desires, and dies.

Yep, Don Quixote dies at the end. Spoiler. And the narrator firmly states that Don Quixote went on no other adventures than those in Part One and Part Two and any piece of fiction that suggests otherwise is full of crap.

That’s right, Cervantes straight up kills off his famous main character just so no one else can play with him.

Look, I’m sure there’s something to be said here about Cervantes’ overly tight protection of his creation and some valid fuel for an in-depth discussion of Death of The Author as it pertains to fan-fiction and adaptations. Maybe even something about metafiction as it pertains to Don Quixote. But honestly, the whole point of this rant essay was to tell you about what a petty rascal Cervantes was. Would’ve thought Serious Literature could be so catty?

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A Dearth of Asians

I was talking with a friend at work the other day about Silk. The superhero, not the fabric. I’ve mentioned her on the blog before, and I do really like her, and am bummed her book ended. My friend quipped that I should be, she’s, like, the only Asian hero in Marvel. I protested, there was also Shang-Chi, and Amadeus Cho, and, and, well.

That’s about it.

We decided to include Kamala Khan, after all, Pakistan is in Asia and we have a bad tendency to think of ‘Asian’ as meaning only East-Asian. There’s also Jubilee of the X-Men, and that’s about where we ran out of steam, concluding that, dang, there really is a dearth of Asians in Marvel comics.

I did some googling while preparing for this post, and found a couple lists of Asian Marvel characters. There’s a small number of minor characters like Wendy Kawasaki who serve as support for the major heroes. There are definitely a good helping of Asian villains, with The Mandarin, Ezekiel Stane (he’s half-Asian!), and Silver Samurai being the most obvious. Then one list I found cited Mantis as an example which is weird because, well, she’s green and has antennas. But apparently she’s half-Vietnamese (and played by a half-Korean actress), so, I guess she kinda counts?

But the point stands; it’s really, really disappointing when you can count the major Asian heroes in Marvel Comics on your fingers. It’s not like I don’t have a horse in this race, what, my whole being half-Asian and all; but c’mon, it’s 2018. Surely there should’ve been an Asian Iron Fist by now or some such. In all of Marvel’s alternate realities, why don’t we get an Asian Tony Stark (you would literally have to change nothing about his story), why not have Shang-Chi a founding member of the Avenger on another Earth?

There’s pushback on these so-called ‘legacy’ characters: “Why make Iron Man or Jessica Drew Asian when you could just create A Whole New Character?” The problem with making A Whole New Character is that it takes a lot of work for them to become as wedged into the public consciousness as, say, Spider-Man. Sometimes, it works — take Kamala Khan who took up the Ms. Marvel mantle but has very little in common with the original Ms. Marvel — but then Silk remains woefully under-appreciated and even Amadeus Cho flew under the radar until he became a Hulk. Giving new characters — particularly minorities — the keys to a flagship means they get a huge PR boost: Look at Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel! I say this a lot, but oftentimes representation means giving up your seat at the table. It means in this universe Tony Stark is Chinese and ‘Stark’ is a lousy transliteration of a Chinese name. Or maybe when someone gives up the mantle they give it up for good (I’m looking at you, Thor).

I’d be remised if I neglected to account for the improvements that have been made. Kamala Khan and Silk are both relatively recent additions, and the former is wildly popular. Shang-Chi and Amadeus used to be, well, less than ideal. Shang-Chi’s power was Being Really Good At Kung-Fu and Amadeus’ was Being Really Smart, two abilities which, well, for a Chinese and Korean-American character, are really kinda stereotypical. But! Recently that’s changed! Shang-Chi is still Really Good At Kung Fu, but Jonathan Hickman saw him join the Avengers and shine as a badass. More recently, Gail Simone has had Domino training with him who in turn sees him as a) aspirational, and 2) really hot. Meanwhile, Amadeus became the Hulk and has joined the Champions and goes on adventures where he’s not just known for his smarts. We may still have precious few Asian superheroes, but, hey, the ones that we have are getting better.

Folks, I talk a lot about diversity and representation on this blog — to the point where I’m probably starting to sound like a broken record. And while I do celebrate Marvel and all the forward motion they’ve made, I do still want, well, more. Silk will always have a special place in my heart, not only because she gets to do the Spider-Man thing, but because her comic had a distinctly Asian-American bent to it. Big Hero Six is a movie that makes me smile when I think of it, not just because of how heartwarming it is, but because Hiro is someone like me. Stories are personal, and I want to get to be a superhero.

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Spidey’s New York

Narratives are a two way street. What you bring to them is what you get out of them.

So let’s talk Spider-Man, the video game (again).

Spider-Man, of course, takes place in New York. Because, well, duh. Now, I happen to live in New York and have lived here for most of the past six years. I went to college at NYU Gallatin down in the Village and lived in a semi-crappy apartment (okay, pretty crappy, it was a six floor walkup and there was no sink in the bathroom, but, hey, roof access!) on 14th for a couple years and have called Astoria, Queens home for over a year now (this apartment has a sink in the bathroom, but no roof access — the tradeoffs you make). Needless to say, I have a bit of a soft spot for New York.

That Spider-Man offers up an open world with a terrific approximation of Manhattan is an absolute delight. It mayn’t be a 1:1 recreation, but it captures the idea of the island well enough that that I instinctively know my way around and get momentarily lost when things aren’t quite where they should be (the distance in between Union Square and Stuy Town is a touch too long). As such, right off the bat, I feel a personal connection with the virtual city, thereby creating a bit of an emotional narrative to my swinging around the city.

When I go through Washington Square Park I’m also going through a park where I’ve worked on homework and had snowball fights. I instinctively recoil when I realize I’m going through Times Square; Lincoln Center is where I graduated from college. In many ways, this open world is loaded, I’m not just exploring and beating up bad guys in 80s Afghanistan or a post-apocalyptic Colorado, I’m in the place I’ve lived and worked. Alongside that, I’m in a place that Peter Parker himself loves.

Though I will wax poetic about how wonderful Spider-Man’s open world is, it’s no real slouch in the narrative department either. Throughout the game it’s reinforced how much Pete loves the city; yes, he bears a burden to protect it — a burden that often interferes with his personal life — but it’s also a city he protects out of love. This can be small things like the quips he makes when taking photos of certain landmarks (Empire State University — the game’s ersatz NYU — is home to some of the best years of his life… and loans), or his dialogue while crimefighting. As players, we come to love the city because Pete loves it. There’s also the experiential nature of video games. Because you spend so much of the game swinging through Manhattan, you come to get to know the city and take a modicum of ownership over it (you chased out the Kingpin’s goons!). So when villains start trouble, they’re threatening your city. You get invested in the place, simply by being there.

That said, this is a place I know, and because I bring my own New York-related baggage to the game, it all takes on another level of import to me. Characters walking along the Highline isn’t just window dressing, it’s something I’ve done and so has personal meaning. Consider a tv show like Stranger Things; though it’s science fiction and something of a period piece, someone who’s lived in small town America will relate to a bunch of kids navigating the world; anyone who’s spent too-many-hours on an RPG campaign will immediately latch onto the kids with their all-day D&D campaigns. These little bits of projection/empathy aren’t necessary to enjoy the story, but they add another layer of depth to the story that, often times, makes it a little more personal.

I adore Spider-Man’s open world in a way I don’t usually. Part of that is probably due to how well crafted it is; but most of it is definitely because, hey, I’m exploring my city. I’ve talked with some friends who also have the game, and we’ve spent as much time nerding out about getting to explore the city we know as we have the more game-y side of it. My often lament about open world games is how they don’t really end, how there’s always something more to do and completion is less narrative closure and more 100% and a Platinum Trophy; but as I watch my completion percentage in Spider-Man steadily rise (I just passed 90%) I’m starting to dread the game ending. I want to spend more time in this virtual New York.

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Captain Marvel Trailer

It’s happening.

It’s finally freaking happening.

On Tuesday we finally got a trailer for Captain Marvel, a movie I’ve been looking forwards to quite incessantly since it was announced way back in 2014. And now, at long last, we’re getting a glimpse of the movie itself and what all it’s gonna be.

Needless to say, I’m somehow even more excited.

Trailers are tricky beasts. Sometimes they give away the entire darn plot. Sometimes they misdirect you all over the place. Sometimes they’re better than the actual movie (hello, Man of Steel). A lot of the time, though, they give you an idea of the theme of the movie. You’re not gonna be given a plot breakdown, but rather the Central Question of the movie gets raised — or at least hinted at — within the trailer. Trailers for the original Avengers asked if they would be able to work together as a team, the trailer for Sorry To Bother You immediately brought to the forefront questions of race and class that the movie went on to tackle.

The trailer for Captain Marvel hints at what the movie’s gonna be about: identity. It’s heavily implied in the trailer that Carol’s an amnesiac, who doesn’t remember growing up on Earth before becoming a part of Starforce. She crash lands (in a Blockbuster of all places) and, presumably, plot happens. Given the flashbacks in the trailer, it stands to reason that a major part of the movie is Carol rediscovering her roots and coming to terms with the earthling side of her.

In the movie — and this is all speculation — we might end up seeing Carol, a renegade soldier as Nick Fury calls her, creating an identity for herself outside of the one she’s had in Starforce. Take the whole space ranger thing away from her; what’s left? Who is Carol Danvers? If Captain Marvel is gonna be an origins story (and it might have to be), a far more refreshing narrative is how Carol became Captain Marvel, rather than how she got her powers. As the trailer asks “what makes a(her)o.”

A Carol who doesn’t remember her past is an interesting starting point. In the comics, Carol sacrificed much of her memory to defeat Yon-Rogg as part of “The Enemy Within.” She pushes herself further than she’s ever gone before in an effort to sever the psychic connection between them and, in doing so, defeat the villain. Much of Captain Marvel’s adventures after that involves a lot of her trying to figure out who she is, some of it through friends helping her rediscover her identity, some of it through her friends, some of it through her own self-determination.

I realize so much of this blog post is pure conjecture. All we’ve gotten has been this two minute trailer that’s been precious light on our details. Sure, there’s been vague hints about the movie’s story in the press and all, but there’s some room for guesses about the theming for narrative. And if it’s a story about identity, which it sure seems like, they made a really good choice. Because at the end of the day, Carol is the sort of person who keeps picking herself up again and again. Can’t wait to watch her discover she is and has always been that person.

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I’m Swinging Here

It wasn’t long after I first moved to New York that I found myself really wanting to be Spider-Man.  Not for having spider-like strength or the responsibility entailed; nah, what I really wanted were those web-shooters. Confronted by the architectural chasms that make up the city’s downtown, I figured that being able to swing from building to building would really help me get to class quicker. I’m sure there’s something to be said there for how ingrained the mythos of Spider-Man has become in my consciousness that that was my first response to figuring out a quicker commute (and not, I dunno, a bike), but this isn’t what this rant essay is about.

This one’s about New York.

I played The Division because it was set in Manhattan and I wanted to explore a virtual recreation of it. Much of my disappointment of the game is due to its failure to really capture the essence of New York. Granted, The Division is set in an apocalyptic envisioning of the city, where society has very much gone to the dogs, but there’s still something missing. A lot of this has to do with the visuals; the draw distance of the game is frustratingly short, with anything more than a few blocks away obscured by the fog. This means you can’t look up and see the Empire State Building poking up above the buildings over the horizon, and a lot of the sense of place that New York can afford is hampered due to the sameishness of buildings and neighborhoods with drab colors (again, fitting for the genre, but disappointing that it’s a staple). New York didn’t feel like New York. It felt like it could be any old city, albeit one with certain landmarks. I know the city, and I didn’t really recognize it.

 

Enter Spider-Man, a new game by Insomniac that just came out. It’s, obviously, set in New York because, well, Spider-Man. To my immense joy, the New York of Spider-Man feels like New York. The big question though, is why.

 

Part of it’s the vibe. When you’re on the ground there are people everywhere, yelling at you or ignoring you (as New Yorkers are wont to do with any oddity). You’ll find people doing yoga in the park, hanging out on rooftops, and stuck in traffic. Food carts are all over the place; there’s that verisimilitude that makes the city feel real.

But let’s strip the city of its people; as Spider-Man you’re swinging through the city and seldom walking the sidewalks. What is it about the virtual city that makes it feel like the real one? Why does it feel right?

The New York of Spider-Man is far from a 1:1 recreation. Washington Square Park is way too close to Houston Street and Union Square is tiny, with the blocks between it and the church south of it excised entirely. It’s totally fine, though, because Spider-Man knows it can’t possibly recreate New York exactly and instead aims to capture the feeling of the feeling of the city. There’s just enough of it there and in the right place to evoke New York; a vision of the city authentic enough to please, well, me.

As Spider-Man, I’ve swung myself up to a rooftop and used the relative location of the Empire State Building or the game’s ersatz One World Trade Center to quickly orientate myself. While exploring downtown I tried to get my bearing and noticed a building I’ve walked past countless times in real life and instantly knew I was on Houston and Lafayette.

The game keeps you moving, the swinging mechanic is so much fun that exploring is a delight in and of itself; Propel yourself up in the air and you’ll see buildings all the way to the rivers and tall landmarks (including fictional ones like Avengers Tower!) tower over their surroundings. As Manhattan whizzes by, though, you see the neighborhoods change. FiDi looms over downtown, Chinatown’s signage is appropriately in Chinese, the High Line is there running near the Hudson. Because traversal in the game is so much fun — and fast — you will see so much of Manhattan and, much like in the real city, you’ll stop paying too much attention and suddenly find yourself in a new neighborhood with a new vibe.

I actually haven’t played too much of Spider-Man’s story. Every time I start up the game I get captivated by the city and swinging it around. Part of it is because, like I said before, the mechanic of swinging is so much fun. But a lot of it has to do with that wish fulfillment of the game; finally I’m able to swing from building to building and maybe get where I’m going on time. It’s in a game, yes, but it’s in a game that captures the New York I know and love.

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On Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians is an odd beast for me. It’s a movie based on a book I didn’t really like, but oddly it’s one where I do like the movie over the book. More than that, though, it’s a book set in Singapore, a country I’m not used to seeing on screen. Also where, of all the places I’ve lived, I’ve racked up the most years of residence. And now I’m seeing streets I’ve driven on and places I’ve eaten on a movie screen in New York City.

It’s surreal, because a lotta folks don’t really know much about Singapore. When I moved to the States (South Carolina) at fourteen I got asked where in China it was. To this day folks tell me my English is really good for someone from Singapore, never mind that said language is the main language spoken there. The island I sorta come from is an unknown, save for a depiction in the third Pirates of The Caribbean movie so fantastical it makes the New York of How I Met Your Mother look like a documentary.

Now the place it seemed that no one this side of the Pacific had heard about is featured in what’s been the top movie in the US for three weeks in a row. Singapore has summarily gone from “where?” to that place in Crazy Rich Asians. That island is Known.

Herein lies the conflict at the root of the surreality. It’s absolutely thrilling to see Singapore in a movie — and a good movie at that. If this cultural osmosis takes hold, maybe the response to hearing I’m half-Singaporean won’t be thinking I hail from a backwards, destitute island. Maybe it’ll be the metropolis of Crazy Rich Asians. At last there’s an image in the cultural consciousness. And it’s that.

Most of the people I know here in the US will never go to Singapore. For many, this is the first — and maybe only — impression of Singapore they’ll have. As good as the movie is, I guess I wish it was more comprehensive; it held within it a fuller take on Singapore. I wish it showed more of the Singapore I know.

By virtue of its story, Crazy Rich Asians focuses on a very specific Singaporean experience: that of the ultra wealthy, the crazy rich, if you will. The cast, though entirely comprised of Asian actors, are primarily from the West, and so absent from the film is the Singaporean accent and its idiosyncratic turns of phrase — something the novel captured so well. It’s awesome to see Awkwafina and Gemma Chan have hefty roles in a major film, but there’s a part of me that wishes that accent was there — especially because your style of speaking in Singapore very much denotes which social class you’re part of. It feels like a missed opportunity.

Characters/actors’ accents are something so tiny for me to take issue with, but they’re indicative of more. Singapore is a complex place for me; it’s a place that’s taken me away from whatever I’ve had going on in the US a number of times. It’s got the best food on the planet. It’s a place I’ve hated and loved. I want the people in my life to see that country, the one with a pros and cons list each a kilometer long. I want people to see more of this place and get where I’m coming from.

I want to be understood.

Crazy Rich Asians — the film — deserves every accolade its gotten. I hope there are many, many more movies with all-Asian casts. It means so much to me, this mixed race guy who passed as Chinese in the US, to see Singapore and people who look like me in the spotlight. The movie isn’t gonna be the solution to my myriad questions of identity; I shouldn’t expect a delightful romcom to provide a sociological survey. It’s still a closer depiction of a part of my life than I’ve seen elsewhere. I’ve gotta take the advice I hold for so many stories: to let it tell the story it wants and to judge it based on that and not what I might want.

Anyway. Crazy Rich Asians is great. Go watch it. Michelle Yeoh needs to be in everything.

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