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SUMMARY: What if you were homosexual but refused to admit it to anyone, especially yourself? The year is 1971 and fourteen year old Jimmy Barnes has discovered growing up in a small town can be boring in a way not even the solitary masturbation sessions he enjoys so much can relieve. When his best friend takes a job at the local newspaper, Jimmy finds himself on his own for the summer. What follows is a decade long saga with numerous twists and turns, a tale that’ll reveal the best and the worst of the nineteen-seventies and beyond.
WARNING: This story is a work of adult fiction and intended for mature audiences only. Unless otherwise noted, all of the characters in the story are fictional; any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. While some of the places described or mentioned in the story are fictional as well, others may be real. However, some liberties may have been taken with the truth to enhance the story. Please note that the story may describe, depict or otherwise include graphic portrayals of relationships between men and/or adolescent boys that are homosexual in nature. If you do not like For approve of such discussions or it is illegal for you to read such material, consider yourself warned. If you continue to read this story, you are asserting you are fully capable of understanding and legally consenting to reading a work of adult fiction.
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NOTES: Please check these notes every week. If there’s something I want to alert you to as I post each chapter, this is where I will I do so.
It was September now and the Labor Day weekend beckoned. I suggested another trip to the beach, but Jimmy preferred more solitude so we ended up spending that final weekend of summer at Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Even though he didn’t go hiking with Leo, Mark and myself, Jimmy seemed to have a good time. He would sit on the cabin porch for hours and stare into the distance. Often I joined him and the two of us would hold hands while Mark and Leo went off exploring by themselves.
But soon enough the weekend was over and we headed back to Washington. I spent the first day back on the job trying to catch up with a pile of work that seemed to be growing larger with each passing week. Exhausted by my effort to do so, I was getting ready to leave when my private extension rang.
“This is Jeff,” I said, picking it up.
“Jeff Landry?” the voice on the other end of the receiver asked.
“Yes,” I responded, trying to place the voice but unable to do so.
“When are you and the rest of those clowns on the Hill going to wise up? You’ve been trying all summer to get the Administration to commit to new funding for AIDS, but they never will. They know you guys will be hitting the campaign trail at the end of the month so they’re just stringing things out until that happens.”
What I was hearing didn’t come as a surprise. The voice on the other end of the line was vocalizing something that had been bothering me for months.
From the beginning I had deferred to Tim and Susan. Their expertise was invaluable. Both were familiar with the latest medical thinking. Both had an understanding of the Federal health agencies with a stake in the matter as well as the outside organizations that needed to be taken into account.
And yet for all their expertise, it seemed to me they were too deep into the weeds to understand what needed to be done.
“Who is this?” I asked.
“That doesn’t matter,” the voice responded. “I just came from a meeting where they were laughing about how naive you people are. They’re going to tell you they’ve sent an options paper to the White House so it’ll be a while before they can get back to you. But that options paper doesn’t include any recommendation for new funding. You need to wake up and smell the coffee. You’re being played for fools.”
And then, as quickly as our conversation had begun, it was over. Whoever had called hung up abruptly.
Looking around the empty office, I remember sighing.
I was tired.
In addition to putting in eight hours a day on my regular duties, I was spending a couple more dealing with AIDS. As the key staffer on the AIDS Task Force, there were meetings to organize, statements to write, information to distribute, and a million other things that needed to get done.
But it wasn’t just the work that was tiring. I had helped organize a group that was trying to get the word out to the gay community in Washington about the disease. That was time consuming and frustrating as well, as were my efforts to help Jimmy complete the many tasks of daily living he increasingly struggled with.
And then there was time spent helping Leo and Mark.
I felt overwhelmed.
As busy as I was, the one thing I wasn’t doing was the thing I was best suited for; helping to secure funding for the research needed to find a cure for AIDS.
I had been after Tim and Susan for months to get their bosses to introduce a bill authorizing funding for the disease, but they still hadn’t done so. Without such a bill, trying to persuade other members of the Appropriations Committee there was a need for such funding was hard. My boss and I were making progress, but only slowly.
More than tired, I was depressed. In spite of my efforts, I seemed to be spinning my wheels. It wasn’t just the money. By now it was apparent to me the insider strategy Tim and Susan were focused on was never going to work.
Because they dealt with professionals within the Federal health agencies whom they respected, Susan and Tim were convinced it was largely a question of getting those professionals on board behind an agreed upon strategy to deal with AIDS. The money would follow once a strategy was agreed on they argued.
That’s what they had been focused on for months, but to me it was obvious an insider strategy like that would never work.
The problem wasn’t persuading Federal health professionals there was a problem or even what needed to be done about it. They already knew, but they were getting their marching orders from the political appointees Reagan had staffed the Federal health agencies with and those appointees had another agenda entirely.
They had come to Washington to dismantle government, not grow it. They wanted to cut Federal funding for health. That had been obvious even before AIDS burst on the scene. Even after it did, it was apparent nothing would change their minds. Many were delighted to see God punishing the sinners.
But getting Tim and Susan to focus on a new strategy, one that involved confronting the Administration rather than cooperating with it, was a hard sell. In the end, in spite of all the hours I was putting in, all I could see for my efforts was Jimmy deteriorating slowly with each passing week.
With nothing better to do, I packed my briefcase and walked home.
“Hi,” I said, entering the house. “How was your day, Jimmy?”
“It was okay,” he replied. “I didn’t do much. Father Damien came by this morning and we chatted; and then Leo spent some time with me in the afternoon. It seems like all I do is sit on the couch and vegetate all day. I’ve just been feeling so tired and listless lately.”
“Resting is good when you’re tired,” I said, trying to reassure him. “But you need to keep up your strength. Did you eat the lunch I left for you?”
“No,” he replied, sheepishly. “I wasn’t that hungry; and, uh, I’ve been getting diarrhea a lot lately whenever I eat anything.”
“You’re getting too thin, Jimmy,” I said, chiding him. “You need to maintain your weight. A big part of that is eating whether you’re hungry or not. What can I get for dinner?”
“Oh, jeez, you’ve been working all day, Jeff,” he responded. “Why don’t you sit down and rest. You must be tired.”
“I don’t mind making something, Jimmy,” I replied.
So that’s what I did. I made a warm meal for Jimmy and he ate as much as he could, not because he wanted to but because I had cooked it for him. But then he ended up running back and forth to the bathroom much of the night and that reminded me good intentions weren’t enough.
Time is running out, Jeff. You need to get off your ass and do something different.
What you’ve done up until now isn’t working. Something has to change.
Following our AIDS Task Force meeting on Wednesday, I pulled Tim and Susan aside.
“Look, guys, I’ve been trying to get you to focus on the funding issue all summer and here it is September and we’re still at square one,” I said. “Congressman Bresnahan and I can’t just walk into the Appropriations Committee, wave a magic wand, and expect to get funds set aside for AIDS. There’s a lot that needs to be done before we can even approach the Chairman.”
“Like what?” Tim asked.
“I’ve told you a million times it would be helpful if you guys introduced some kind of authorization bill to draw attention to the problem. If people on the authorizing committees don’t see the funding issue as important, there’s no way we’ll be able to convince our colleagues on Appropriations it is.”
“I understand,” Tim replied, “but we’re having a hard time getting the people we trust within the health agencies to give us a specific dollar amount they think makes sense. Without that, we’d just be plucking a number out of thin air.”
“Sometimes you have to do that, Tim,” I said. “You’re never going to get anyone in the Executive branch to give you that number you’re looking for. They’d be risking their jobs if they did since the Administration claims they can get whatever money they need by diverting it from other health programs. We need to come up with a number ourselves.”
“Okay, then, since we’re plucking numbers out of thin air, what would you suggest?” he asked. “Susan and I were thinking maybe $1 million split between research and surveillance. What do you think?”
“Multiply that by ten and then by ten again and you’ll be in the ballpark,” I responded, suppressing the urge to roll my eyes at Tim’s cluelessness.
“A hundred million dollars; is that what you’re suggesting, Jeff?” he asked, stunned. “Are you crazy? There’s no way in hell we could get a hundred million dollars for AIDS.”
“You’re missing the point, Tim,” I responded. “The only purpose of the bill you introduce is to call attention to the problem. In the end, it’s our committee that’ll decide how much to appropriate. Ask for a million and you won’t get a dime because no one will think the problem is serious. Ask for a hundred million and people will begin wondering just how serious the problem is.”
“The point is, the more you ask for, the better chance we’ll have of getting something meaningful enacted,” I continued. “And having a bill also provides constituents with something to rally around. Right now they don’t have anything they can urge their Congressmen to support. Nothing will ever get done until they do.”
“The HHS people are saying they’ve sent an options paper to the White House,” Susan interjected. “Maybe we should wait until we hear what’s decided?”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that,” I responded. “I’ve also heard there’s no option for new funding in that paper.”
“Who did you hear that from?” Tim asked.
“That isn’t important,” I said. “Ask your sources directly whether the paper includes an option for new funding. I bet they won’t tell you; and if they won’t, the answer should be obvious.”
“Okay, I will,” Tim responded. “And if that’s the answer we get, I’ll talk to Henry and see if we can get something together to introduce within the next month.”
“Thanks,” I replied, “but could you make it within the next week? If you wait a month, it’ll be too late. I’m not kidding, Tim. It needs to be in the hopper by next week at the latest.”
Indeed, even as I was telling him that, I wondered whether it might already be too late to get anything done. The appropriations process is a long one, but was already far advanced for the year.
“Is there anything else you want to get off your chest, Jeff?” Susan asked, smiling at me.
“As a matter of fact there is,” I responded. “What the hell is our media outreach subcommittee doing to get the word out about this disease? As far as I can tell, it hasn’t done anything.”
“Uh, well, that’s been a problem, Jeff,” Susan responded. “Jerry resigned as the chairman because he doesn’t have the time and no one else has stepped forward to take on the job. We know you’re already busy, but Tim and I were thinking of asking you to take on that task as well.”
“I’m not the right person,” I said. “I don’t know anything about media outreach. But, yeah, if no one else is willing to step up, I’ll do it. But you’re going to have to let me do things my way.”
“What do you mean?” Susan asked.
“Look, I know you and Tim are doing your best,” I said, “but your insider strategy isn’t working. Personally I don’t think it ever will because people in the health agencies are being told to keep their mouths shut. We need to put more pressure on the Administration from the outside.”
“And how do you propose to do that, Jeff?” Tim asked. “Are you planning some kind of protest; some big rally attended by homosexuals and drugs users? Even if you could get those people to show up, do you really think the American people would care?”
“I’m actually a big fan of public protest,” I replied, “but it’s too soon for that. Not enough people have been infected by AIDS to make protests effective at this point. Maybe later on.”
“For now I think we need to focus on changing the way the media deals with AIDS in their reporting, ” I continued. “They’re barely covering the issue right now because they’re not interested in the pitch the two of you are making.”
“What does that mean?” Tim asked, annoyed.
“The two of you keep focusing on the disease itself,” I replied. ”What the symptoms are, how it’s transmitted, stuff like that. I understand it’s important to educate reporters, but their editors consider the topic icky. They know their readers don’t want to hear about what gay men do in bed. They don’t want to hear about gay men at all to be honest; or drug users either for that matter.”
“On top of that, whenever you tell them how little the Administration is doing, the reporters rush to their sources within the Administration and hear another story entirely.”
“You tell them the Administration isn’t spending enough. The Administration claims AIDS is a priority and it’s spending as much as it productively can; that the reason it doesn’t need any new money is because it’s shifting funds from other, less important, programs to address the problem.”
“The reporters listen to all of this and throw up their hands. They see it as just another Washington dispute between liberals and conservatives. They don’t know who’s right. The upshot is that we’re losing the most important battle of all, the battle for public opinion.”
“So what do you suggest, Jeff?” Susan inquired.
“Instead of spending time trying to convince reporters we’re right and Reagan is wrong, we need to focus more on the human dimensions of the crisis. If we could get the media to profile some of the victims of this disease and what it does to them, people might be more sympathetic to funding the research needed to find a cure.”
“Look at the Jimmy Fund in Boston or, better still, Lou Gehrig. No one in this country had ever heard of ALS – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – before he came down with the disease. But they were shocked when he did. That put a public face on ALS and made a huge difference.”
“If we could do something similar for AIDS we’d have a much better chance of putting pressure on the Administration to do more.”
“Good luck with that, Jeff,” Tim interjected. “You may have a point, but finding a poster boy for AIDS the public can identify with? I just don’t see it. Americans have no sympathy for homosexuals or drug abusers. Haitians are black and foreigners to boot so they’re no help.”
“Where are we going to find someone like Lou Gehrig, Jeff? I mean, I’d be all for it if you could find someone like that, but I’ll be surprised if you can.”
“I never said it’d be easy,” I replied. “But you have to be pretty hard-hearted not to be sympathetic when you see what AIDS actually does to people. Let me think about it some more and talk to some of my friends. But I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere until people understand just how cruel a disease this is.”
On Friday our small group of gay staffers got together for our weekly meeting. By now Mark was accompanying me to these sessions. Even though he only worked in the mail room of a congressman and was low on the totem pole, he was interested in learning more about how the House worked and I was happy to encourage his interest.
Lately more and more of our time at these sessions has been focused on AIDS. After a couple of other items were discussed, I was asked to fill in the group on the latest developments. I shared my conversation with Tim and Susan. Everyone agreed I had been right about the money, but there was more doubt about the media strategy I had suggested.
“I hate to say it, Jeff, but they’re right,” Richard volunteered. “Most people hate homosexuals and would be only too happy to see us die. Even if we could find someone like Lou Gehrig I seriously doubt he’d want to call attention to himself by coming out of the closet. Who wants to be ridiculed?”
“I agree with Richard,” Peter added. “Let’s face it. We’re not going to find some saint who contracted AIDS innocently. Americans already consider us perverts. AIDS only confirms the point for them.”
Looking around the room, I could see quite a few others nodding their heads in agreement.
“Maybe you’re right, Peter,” James said, “but we’re all sinners after all and it might depend on how the story is told.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I’m not an expert, but our press secretary is always telling me he can write the same story different ways,” James replied. “That he can make someone look like a hero or villain using the same basic facts. Maybe it would help if you talked to a reporter, Jeff. None of us knows very much about the media. We’re conditioned to avoid it both by who we work for and what we are.”
“That makes sense, James,” I responded, “but does anyone here know someone in the media I could talk to?”
That question was greeted by silence. Although everyone knew the names of various reporters, no one had a personal relationship with any. In the end, our meeting broke up without reaching a conclusion.
Walking back toward the Capitol, Mark broached still another idea with me.
“What about Jimmy?” he asked.
“What about him?”
“I think Jimmy would be perfect for the kind of story you’re talking about,” Mark said. “I mean, he’s a really nice person and he’s given both Leo and me a lot of good advice. I don’t see how anyone wouldn’t want to help if they knew the kind of suffering he goes through.”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I’m not sure whether people would sympathize with Jimmy. I mean, we love him, Mark, but that’s because we know him so well. I’d have to think about that. For now I should probably try to find a reporter I can talk to about this; someone who knows the media a lot better than me.”
Later, after my next meeting with Tim and Susan the following week, I asked them whether they knew anyone in the media who might be sympathetic to our cause.
“Most of the reporters I deal with are the biggest cynics in the world,” Susan responded. “Even when they do write a story about AIDS, they write the easy story; the one about political jockeying between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans.”
“I know someone you might want to talk to,” Tim interjected. “It’s hard to say for sure whether he’d be any help, but about two weeks ago I met with this new reporter for the Washington Post. They just brought him in from the boondocks somewhere and they’ve assigned him to the Style desk; you know, the people who write those human interest stories for the Post.”
“The guy hates it,” Tim continued. “He wants to be doing more substantive stories. In any event, he stopped by to see me because he was looking to do some kind of story relating to AIDS. He asked whether I could help him find some human interest angle to do that. I didn’t make any promises, but told him I’d let him know if a story came along that fit the bill.”
“What’s his name?” Susan asked.
“Williams,” Tim replied; “Bob Williams, I think; or maybe it was Tom. I forget. To be honest, he was fairly young and definitely green behind the ears so I didn’t take him that seriously at the time.”
The moment Tim mentioned the name my ears perked up.
“Uh, well, do you know anything about the guy?” I asked. “When I was younger, I knew a kid named Tommy Williams who was interested in becoming a reporter. I wonder if we could be talking about the same guy.”
“I don’t know,” Tim said. “All I got was his name and the fact that he’s new and been assigned to the Style desk. I don’t know about you guys, but I hardly ever read the Style section of the Post. I’m not sure that would be a good fit for a story about AIDS.”
“That’s because you’re a policy wonk, Tim,” Susan interjected. “But I actually think the Style section would be perfect. It takes it out of politics as usual and focuses on the human dimension.”
Suddenly it dawned on me that perhaps Susan was right.
“He was so new to the Post he didn’t even have a card yet,” Tim continued, “but I wrote down his telephone number. If you want to stop by my office, I can give it to you, Jeff. If nothing else, you’ll find out whether his first name is Bob or Tom.”
So that’s what we did. We went back to Tim’s office and once there my heart quickened a beat when it turned out the reporter’s first name was Tom. It seemed like a long shot, but by now I was desperate and willing to give anything a try.
Returning to my office, I grabbed the Post and looked through the Style section. There was nothing in it by anyone named Tom Williams. I was able to find the previous day’s edition, but still no luck. Finally, I stopped by Richard’s office and asked him to go for a walk with me.
“To what do I owe this honor, Jeff?” he asked, mocking me as we walked the Rayburn corridors.
“I need to tap into your expertise about all things related to fashion and style,” I replied. “You read the Washington Post’s Style section, don’t you?”
“Of course,” he replied. “Who doesn’t?”
“There are tons of people in Washington who don’t, including me,” I said.
“I know,” Richard replied. “Boring people only interested in the same depressing old news. It’s a shame you hang around with those people, Jeff. You’d be a much more interesting and well-rounded person if you took a few moments to find out what’s really important in life.”
“Like what?” I asked, curious.
“Like what’s in and out,” he replied. “For example, those boring clothes you wear, sweetie. They’re definitely out, at least according to Style.”
“I like these things,” I protested, looking at what I was wearing. “They’re classic.”
“Yes, I know,” he responded. “Kind of like you, Jeff. You’re classic as well, but I’ll try not to tell anyone.”
“Okay, well, I realize I’m never going to dress as fashionably as you, Richard,” I said, shaking my head, “but what I wanted to ask is whether you’ve ever read an article in the Style section by a reporter named Tom Williams or Thomas Williams?”
“Williams?” Richard replied, trying to place the name. “No, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by someone named Williams; although I know someone who went to Williams College whose first name was William.”
Would you please be serious for once in your life, Richard, I pleaded silently.
“The guy I’m talking about is new to the Post,” I said. “Are you sure you haven’t read anything by him? It would have been in the last couple of weeks if you had.”
“Williams,” Richard muttered. “Oh, yes, now that you mention it, I think I did read something by him last week. It was an article about some homeless woman who was trying to keep her family together; two sons and a young daughter as I recall. The oldest boy was a real cutie, but definitely jail bait. He’s the only reason I read the story; him being so cute and all.”
“I don’t usually read stories like that,” he continued, “but the piece was very well written. More serious than the usual fluff the Post features in Style, but also kind of depressing. It actually made me wonder whether there was something I could do to help the family, especially that cute fifteen year old boy. But I didn’t think he would enjoy coming to live with Ronald and me; too sweet and definitely too straight.”
“Why are you interested?” Richard asked. “Do you know this Williams fellow?”
“I may,” I responded. “If I’m right, Jimmy and he were best friends. I never got to know Tommy very well because he was working at the local paper all day. He wanted to be a journalist like his father when he grew up.”
“Was he as cute as Jimmy?” Richard asked.
Although it shouldn’t have surprised me coming from Richard, the question made me stop and think.
“He was cute in an awkward kind of way,” I responded. “He was more serious than Jimmy and didn’t smile as much. Jimmy was always laughing about something back then and had that killer smile, of course. But, yeah, Tommy was cute.”
“Not gay, however,” I added. “He was a pretty straight arrow back then; focused, directed, that sort of thing. It’s funny. Jimmy told me one time Tommy warned him to stay away from me; that I might be a homo. From what I gather, the warning actually backfired and made Jimmy more curious about me.”
“So why the sudden interest?” Richard asked.
“Tim Ward mentioned he had come by to see him a couple of weeks ago,” I replied. “Apparently he was looking to do some kind of story on AIDS and was wondering whether Tim could suggest an angle that would fit with Style.”
“Awesome,” Richard said. “Maybe he could do a piece on his old friend Jimmy and Jimmy’s cute boyfriend; that mean, nasty, homo who corrupted Jimmy and led him down the sinful path that leads to Hell and damnation.”
That was the final straw as far as I was concerned.
“Damn it, Richard,” I replied, suddenly angry. “Why are you always reminding me I’m responsible for what happened to Jimmy? You don’t think I feel guilty enough already? That I don’t regret ever having sex with him in the first place?”
“Don’t be so touchy, Jeff,” he responded, huffily. “Both of us know you aren’t responsible for what happened to Jimmy, as does Jimmy himself. You shouldn’t be so touchy.”
He was right. Jimmy didn’t blame me for contracting AIDS. He had taken responsibility for his actions long ago; and it wasn’t like I wasn’t trying to help. I was.
And yet, in spite of everything, I still felt guilty.
If I had never applied for that playground supervisor job long ago I would have never met Jimmy and he would have never had that first sexual experience with me. Jimmy would have never come to Washington and met Bobbie and Charles. His life would have been completely different. He wouldn’t be dying and I wouldn’t be feeling so guilty.
“Sorry,” I said, trying to calm down. “But you should know by now how guilty I feel.”
“I do,” Richard replied, trying to reassure me. “I was just being my usual bitchy self; trying to find everyone’s weak point and then rub salt into the wound. I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay,” I replied. “You’ve actually been a help. I don’t suppose you have that story about the homeless woman and her children?”
“I do,” Richard replied. “For some reason I found it touching; and, of course, that oldest boy was damn cute in the picture they ran so I cut it out and did save the story. I could bring it in tomorrow if you want.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’d like to look at it.”
Making my way home, I found Mark, Leo and Jimmy watching a movie together. I was continually impressed with how close the three of them had become and what a positive influence they were on each other.
Now there’s a story that ought to be told, I said to myself. Not that anyone would be interested, but I find it inspiring.
Later, after the movie was over and we had gone to bed, I raised what I had learned with Jimmy.
“I know it was a long time ago, but I was wondering whether you’ve ever had any contact with Tommy Williams since leaving North Adams?”
“Tommy?” Jimmy replied. “It’s funny you mention him. Don’t ask me why, but I’ve been dreaming about Tommy for some reason lately. It’s mostly just snippets of things that happened when we were young; lots of good memories. But to answer your question, no; I haven’t seen or heard from Tommy in years. Why do you ask?”
“No reason,” I said. “Uh, well, that’s not true. I mean, I heard from someone today he may be working for the Washington Post; at least someone named Tom Williams is working for the Post. Whether it’s the same person I can’t say. But I’m going to check around and see what I can find out.”
“You should,” Jimmy responded. “If Tommy is working for the Post, I’d love to see him before I die.”
“You’re not going to die, Jimmy,” I said, even though I knew I was lying by now. “But are you sure you’d want to see him? I mean, he never knew you were, uh, you know, gay; or that we were living together after you left town. Or that you have AIDS for that matter.”
“If it is him, we could lie about it,” I added; “not tell him any of that or even that you and I are living together. Or you could see him alone.”
“No; I wouldn’t want to do that,” Jimmy replied. “I never lied to Tommy growing up and don’t want to start now.”
“And you wouldn’t be embarrassed?” I asked. “Him knowing you have AIDS?”
“Two years ago I would have been embarrassed,” Jimmy said; “a year ago the same thing. But, no, I wouldn’t be embarrassed for him to know. In fact, I’d want him to know before we met. He might not want to see me if he knew. But I don’t think so. Knowing Tommy, I’m pretty certain he’d still want to see me. We were best friends after all.”
“Okay, let me check it out,” I said. “It may not be the same person you and I knew. Both Tom and Williams are common names. But if it is him and he wants to see you, I can make arrangements for that.”
Soon enough Jimmy was asleep. As with most evenings, I had more trouble falling asleep. As much as I wanted to help, I wondered whether any of this would pan out or whether I was simply opening a can of worms.