Book Review: Nico’s Warriors by Mitchell Nevin

It’s a funny thing. I’m a fan of various televised crime-related shows like “Criminal Minds” and the various Law and Order series, but I’ve never been one to read a lot of crime-related books. But when local author Mitchell Nevin reached out to me to review his book Nico’s Warriors: A Veteran’s Revenge I just knew I had to read it considering it takes place pretty much in my backyard—the city of Milwaukee and its surrounding suburbs.

Nico’s Warriors is about Zak Klatter, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan now back home Wisconsin. Driving home one night after a night of revelry at a local tavern, Zak picks up a duffel bag thrown from a speeding car being chased by the cops. Inside the bag Zak finds something quite interesting and decides the contents might help him in various ways.

But Zak knows he can’t do this alone so he gathers up a rag tag bunch to help him accomplish his mission, many of them his fellow veterans. They decide to rob and fight Milwaukee’s most venomous and deadly drug gangs to some incredibly results that prove to be lethal and ambiguous.

Among Zak’s comrades include Ethan who provides the brain power, Raul, who lost his beloved niece to drug addiction and Xavier, who provides the much-needed tactical expertise. Along for the ride is the idiosyncratic Dwyer.

In the meantime, Zak opens up a tavern (with plenty of help from his father), which he calls The Fallen. The Fallen is dedicated to honoring veterans, firefighters and police officers who have died in the line of duty. Not only does it provide plenty of alcoholic beverages (this is Wisconsin after all) for its patrons, it also offers basic pub food. The Fallen also acts as a quasi-meeting place for Zak and his gang to right the wrongs brought on by Milwaukee’s most nefarious and notorious drug kingpins and drug gangs.

Among Zak’s cunning crew also includes his family, his somewhat girlfriend Mandy and other assorted friends and acquaintances.

Then there are the other characters—fellow veterans and members of the Milwaukee-area law enforcement and other assorted individuals that make up both Zak and the Milwaukee community. Needless to say, Nico’s Warriors also looks into the inner workings of the city’s drug dealing culture, one that is quite chilling but quite fascinating indeed. What I found quite enlightening is how both cultures are not conveyed fully in black and white—both are painted in shadowy shades of gray—showing the good, the bad and the downright ugly in both cultures.

Nico’s Warriors is a fun read that kept me guessing, trying to put together a puzzle of people, places and things. Just when you think things will zig, they zag. Nevin clearly knows the world of crime and law and order, which is conveyed in both the actions and the dialogue of the characters.

Needless to say, I also loved how Nico’s Warriors takes place in Milwaukee and its surrounding suburbs. It names lots of familiar Milwaukee neighborhoods and its city streets, including my very own Farwell Avenue on Milwaukee’s lower east side. I had a bit of a giggle over the name of a radio host Jack Plankinton and his show “Walking the Plank” for Plankinton is an actual street in downtown Milwaukee (it crosses Wisconsin Avenue if you need to know).

Nico’s Warriors ends on a very mysterious note. Zak and his gang don’t quite finish their mission. But don’t fret my readers for a sequel is coming out shortly and this book is part of a trilogy.

Nico’s Warriors does have a few faults. I noticed several spelling and grammatical errors, but nothing that can’t be fixed with the help of more proofreading and of an experienced copy editor.

For the most part Nico’s Warriors: A Veteran’s Revenge is a pretty solid effort for a first time author, and if you’re a fan of the crime genre, you’ll probably enjoy reading this book.

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Book Review: Summoning Grace by Samsara Saj

Late last year, thanks to my presence on the website BookBloggerList, several authors have reached out to me to read and review their books. Many of these authors are fledgling writers and these books (some of them self-published) are their “babies” and as with any baby, I want to handle them with thoughtfulness and care. So I have to keep this in mind in my review of Samasara Saj’s novel Summoning Grace.

The back jacket of Summoning Grace is as follows:

“Bridget McKenna, a lawyer practicing for more than twenty-five years, has disturbing recollections from her childhood after a family birthday party. As she tries to handle the impact of these revelations, she turns to Jack Cassidy, the only man she ever loved, with whom she has not been in touch for three years. Being with Jack helps her connect the dots regarding the work she does as an attorney, where the corruption of politics and the ugliness of domestic violence reveal to Bridget the sexual shoals a woman must navigate. By contacting Jack, she starts the process of reaching into her soul for the reckoning that awaits her.

Once she reconciles herself to the darkness of her painful past, through the grace of God, she finds the strength to summon all the faith, courage, and grace that she can, to deal with professional obstacles, family loss, and her greatest challenge, rescuing her only brother, Joe.

Told in eighteen chapters, Summoning Grace explores the deepest self-examination a woman can undertake, providing her the wisdom and understanding to help those she loves with kindness and dignity.”

This summary is a bit of a bait and switch. Little of this book focuses on Cassidy and domestic violence. Nor does Summoning Grace focus on Bridget’s past. Also the book jacket classifies this novel as a romance, but it is more of a family story. Therefore the second and third paragraphs are a better description of this novel over-all.

Bridget’s family, the McKennas, are a loving and close-knit family who join forces when only son Joe gets seriously ill. The McKennas decide to work together to help Joe and his family in a very trying time. I liked the idea of a family being functional and totally messed up. It comforted me like a bowl of chicken soup.

However, when dealing with Joe’s illness Bridget is convinced she is the only one who can handle his care, even more so than the hospital staff. Not only did I find this to be a slap in the face to the people who work in the medical field, I also thought it gave short shrift to Joe’s wife, children and the other McKenna siblings.

Bridget is also a rather off-putting in her law career. Only she can handle the profession and everyone from her colleagues to her clients are incompetent losers.

To add to Bridget’s “Mary Sue” perfection, she is a diva in the kitchen, a true Julia Child reincarnated. And when it comes to family get togethers and holidays, she always brings masterful dishes. Considering she’s busy with Joe and her career, I found this element a bit implausible.

Ultimately by making Bridget an ideal person—loving sister, top notch attorney and fabulous chef—Saj has given us a character who is really insufferable and without complex layers. I like characters who have their share of flaws and who are multi-dimensional. These characters are more relatable and interesting to read.

Still I must commend Saj for at least writing a book. She’s technically proficient and I respect her deep faith. I believe she has the ability to write a better book and I believe she wants to express herself with love and hope in her heart. These are noble ideas and much needed in our challenging world.

So though I can’t recommend Summoning Grace, I can encourage Samsara Saj to keep on writing. Don’t let my review deter you.

Revenants-The Odyssey Home by Scott Kauffman

Meet Betsy, the teenage protagonist of Scott Kauffman’s novel Revenants: The Odyssey Home. In the era of the Vietnam War and the turmoil that went along with those days, Betsy is deeply grieving the death of her older brother, Nate, who has lost his life while serving in Vietnam. Betsy goes into a tailspin of depression, acting in ways she knows Nate would never approve of.

Hoping to shake her grief, stay out of trouble, and get some meaning to her life, Betsy volunteers at the local VA hospital. Everyday she is dealing with patients who have witnessed atrocities she can only imagine and dares not think what her brother may have witnessed.

One of these patients is an elderly man, near death, who served in World War I, “The Great War,” as if war can be considered “great.” This gentleman has one wish, to go home to be with his family before he dies.

Betsy decides it is to be her mission to get this man back to his family before he dies even though she knows so little about him. He is a true mystery. However, Betsy isn’t the only one who is interested in this man. So is a crooked politician, Congressman Hanna, who has a great deal of control of this hospital and the small-town in which it is located. Congressman Hanna knows this dying patient’s name and if this man’s name is revealed, Hanna can pretty much say good-bye to his political career and his long marriage.

Betsy is not alone on this odyssey. One person who supports Betsy is her younger brother Bartholomew who shares her grief over the loss of Nate and offers her encouragement. And then there is aspiring newspaper reporter, Matt, who knows getting this scoop on this elderly veteran and how he is connected to Congressman Hanna would be a definite career change. However, he is there to help Betsy not use her.

Throughout the novel there are twists and turns as Betsy, along with Matt, learns more and more about what about this old man and how it infuriates Congressman Hanna. And there are times when Betsy feels the wrath of Hanna and wonders how it will affect her in the long run. Betsy and Matt’s relationship grows from one that at first strictly professional but soon grows to be a friendship (which a times hints at the romantic).

Interspersed throughout the novel are scenes of Betsy working with other veterans at the hospital and chapters devoted to the elderly veteran what he went through during World War I that were quite chilling indeed. These chapters really got into the crux of what war can do to one singular human being. And Nate’s letters home to Betsy are also a welcome addition. Sure, he’s a teasing older brother but he is also loving and kind towards his little sister.

At the end Revenants, things don’t go exactly as planned and things don’t get wrapped up in a pretty bow. But Betsy does learn one great lesson. She has more power than she originally thinks and if she realizes it she can use these powers to help others as well as herself. She does a lot of growing up during this journey.

For the most part I liked Revenants. Betsy is a heroine who is realistic, at turns a rebellious teen and at others an incredibly brave young woman. Matt is a wonderful support system and I admire his tenacity in getting this important news story together using good old-fashioned gumshoe journalistic tactics (especially in our age of clickbait and “fake news”). As for Congressman Hanna? Well, he is no mustache twirling villain, just sleazy and corrupt. I must admit I rather liked how Hanna was so threatened by a teenage girl and a cub reporter.

I do have a few issues. At times I forgot about Bartholomew and it was odd how Nate’s letters to Betsy there was nary a mention of Bartholomew.

But these issues are minor. For the most part I found The Revenants to be a very relevant novel, and even timeless in the year 2018 when it comes to war, politics, journalism, the plight of our veterans and people’s desire to make a difference.

Book Review: I Liked My Life by Abby Fabiaschi

Maddy is a ghost, stuck in limbo. Dead from an apparent suicide, Maddy leaves behind her husband Brady and a teenage daughter named Eve. It is a wonder why Maddy would kill herself for it seems she had an ideal life. She was so kind, smart and generous to her family and friends. Brady was a devoted husband to Maddy and is a loving father. And though Eve is currently struggling with the difficulties adolescence, she’s basically a good kid.

Maddy may be physically gone, but in the spiritual world, she roams, watching over Brady and Eve both overcome and confused by her suicide. Her death leaves a huge gap in their lives and scars that may never heal. Brady and Eve try desperately to understand why Maddy would leave them in such a heartbreaking, tormenting manner. Was it something they did…or didn’t do? Were there any signs? And if there were signs, why were they so blind to them?

Maddy believes one way she can help Brady and Eve is to help them find a wife/mother replacement. Soon she sets her sights on Rory, a teacher whose fun and happy personality can only enhance the lives of Brady and Eve and lead them on a path to happiness and healing.

Through divine intervention Rory begins to work as a tutor for Eve. But she ends up being so much more than that; through her compassion she helps Eve come to grips with her mother’s death, her overwhelming grief, and her difficulties with her father. Rory does this utilizing both her warmth and charm (and sometimes sassy good humor). But what about Brady? Yes, he is drawn to Rory and appreciates the positive impact she has on Eve. But is Rory a suitable replacement for Brady? Hmm…

And during this process Maddy is a constant spiritual guide. She tries desperately to manipulate Brady from becoming a rage-filled man who strikes out at his surviving daughter. She also reminds him that being a good man doesn’t necessarily mean being a workaholic at the detriment to his family. At this pivotal time it is of utmost importance Brady be devoted to Eve and help her come to grips with Maddy’s death as well as the usual trial and tribulations of being a teen girl.

As for Eve, she misses her mother terribly, and lashes out at her father while at the same time understands that he is her father and loves her desperately. Eve also grows quite fond of Rory and is grateful, not only for her tutoring but for her love and empathy at a time she needs both.

But not everything works out so smoothly. Brady and Even often question Maddy’s suicide, wondering if they were at fault. At turns, Brady and Eve are bitter at each other and at other times, content and loving. As for Maddy? Well, her suicide isn’t as clear cut as it seems and as I Liked My Life reaches its compelling end, we begin the understand the complexity of Maddy, Brady and Eve’s lives and how they intertwined. We also are treated to a rather fun, yet unexpected plot twist when it comes to Rory and her life.

I Liked My life is a haunting tale, one written with grace, dignity, warmth and insight. The characters are both complex and simple. They are people we know and maybe they are us. Fabiachi is a gifted writer and I Liked My Life is a striking debut from a true talent. I look forward to more work from her.

Book Review: Love is a Mix Tape-Life and Loss, One Song at a Time

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Just what is love? Philosophers, poets and song writers have been asking that question since the beginning of time. To music journalist Rob Sheffield, love is a mix tape. The author has chronicled the cross section of music and love in debut book called Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time.

Long before people downloaded music into their smart phones or other hand-held listening devices with their favorite music, they made mix tapes. Mix tapes were very personal. Not only did they reveal some of our favorite songs, they also revealed our hopes, desires and thoughts. Mix tapes were therapy on a magnetic strip.

Rob Sheffield is no different from every music obsessed Generation X-er. A total music geek, he found solace and a reason for being through his love of music. Starting as a young child, he DJ-ed at school dances, collected albums and tapes like baseball cards and debated the merits of different bands with his friends.

In the late 1980s, Sheffield met Renee. Renee couldn’t have been more different from Rob. He was tall; she was short. He was a shy geek from Boston. Renee was an extroverted Southerner. The only thing these two seemed to have in common was an intense love of music, and it seemed music was all they needed. The two soon fell in love and were married until Renee’s untimely death from a pulmonary embolism at the age of 31.

Sheffield deftly writes about his all too brief marriage to Renee and he does this with a catalog of different mix tapes he made. Each chapter starts with a different mix tape, complete with the names of songs and artists. Some tapes are for making out, some for dancing and some for falling asleep. Sheffield proves to be no music snob, mixing top-40 guilty pleasure pop with the alternative music of the 1980s and 1990s. Each lovingly crafted mix tape conveys an intricate detail of the sometimes loving, sometimes rocky, and all-too-human relationship between two very interesting and complex souls.

Love is a Mix Tape had me riveted. Sheffield is an amazing writer, handling his love of music and his love of Renee with tender loving care. He gives an intimate glimpse into his marriage without revealing too many intimate details. The marriage of Rob and Renee is never conveyed in a way that is too saccharine or maudlin. These are two very real people who seemed to leap off the page. Often when men write about the women in their lives they do it more as a reflection of their own egos rather than writing about these women as three-dimensional human beings. Sheffield does not fall into this trap. I really felt I knew Renee. In fact, I wish I knew Renee. She was an Appalachian Auntie Mame who told her husband to “Live, live, live!” and tells the reader to do the same.

And even though I began reading Love is a Mix Tape knowing of Renee’s death, I was still very shocked when it happened. How could this ebullient soul not be cavorting somewhere on the planet? And Sheffield’s grief was so palpable I felt a dull ache in my heart as he described existing as a young widower.

I highly recommend Love is Mix Tape to anyone who considers music as vital as breathing and knows only too well the ecstasy and heartbreak true love can bring. Rob Sheffield has written an amazing book. I hope he has more books in him.

To learn more about Rob’s affiliation to write about love and music please check out my review of his book Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke.

Book Review: You Gotta Be Dirty-The Outlaws Motorcycle Club In & Around Wisconsin by Michael Grogan

31827805As someone who is more “born to be mild” than “born to be wild,” and who is more likely to watch a rerun of My Three Sons on a retro TV channel than an episode of Sons of Anarchy, I have to admit the biker culture is one I am not at all familiar with even though I live in Milwaukee, the home of the iconic Harley-Davidson. The motorcycling enthusiast I’m most likely to come across is probably a well-heeled baby boomer whose biggest act of rebellion is not having granite kitchen counter tops.

So needless to say reading You Gotta Be Dirty: The Outlaws Motorcycle Club In & Around Wisconsin by Michael Grogan was a total culture shock. For the longest time, I thought “outlaw” biker culture consisted of some rebellious rabble rousers who drank, smoked weed, did a line of coke every now and then, got involved in bar brawls and petty crimes, and had a thing for strippers and hookers. But reading Grogan’s well-researched book was a complete eye-opener.

You Gotta Be Dirty focuses mostly on the Outlaws Motorcycle Club (OMC) from its inception to the modern day. The Outlaws Motorcycle Club was based mostly in Wisconsin with some activity in bordering Midwestern states, mostly Illinois.

In the first couple of chapters, Grogan tells us the formation of the OMC and biker culture in general. It’s very extensive. Grogan clearly did his research, and I was happy to get some of the nuts and bolts of this unfamiliar lifestyle before I proceeded with my reading.

Formed sometime in the mid-1960s, the OMC initially just seemed like a rag tag bunch of somewhat disheveled rebellious young men (and their “old ladies”) who had a mad fetish for motorcycles and motorcycle culture. But by the 1970s, the OMC was feared and notorious for their extreme violence and acts of terror, especially towards people of color and women, even their old ladies. To say, members of the OMC were both racist and sexist is putting it mildly. But among the OMC’s victims included people who were at the wrong place at the wrong time. Men, women and children often met tragic ends due to OMC’s actions.

Among these actions including shootings, stabbings, rape, assault, torture and bombings, which educated me while also upsetting me greatly.

Several of these actions continue to haunt my thoughts; one story was about the brutal torture of one young woman whose palms were impaled with nails and later she was nailed to a tree. Then there is the horrifying death of a teenage paperboy named Larry Anstett, who while delivering the Milwaukee Sentinel, died when he picked a package left on a customer’s car. The package contained an explosive device. It went off and Anstett died from his injuries, just at the wrong place at the wrong time.

And in 1994, the Chicago chapter of the Outlaws detonated a car bomb. This bomb was the third largest of its kind, just after the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and later, the 1995 of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168, including 19 children; and over 800 other people were injured.

The Outlaws didn’t become famous; they became notorious and feared. Their violence went far beyond Wisconsin, causing fear among their enemies, innocent civilians, the media and law enforcement at local, state and national levels. Even their own members weren’t safe, and several of them met atrocious fates at the hands of their “brothers.”

While reading You Gotta Be Dirty I had to put it down a few times because I was so overwhelmed by the senseless violence and hateful activities of the OMC. And I must admit, I sometimes thought of keeping an Excel spreadsheet of various people involved with the OMC, some innocent, some guilty, because it was so overwhelming, yet informative. I am truly in awe of Grogan’s research ability and fortitude and at the end of each chapter, he properly provides his resources. His willingness to get the “story behind the story” is a true testament to solid journalistic standards and reporting fortitude.

You Gotta Be Dirty is a very interesting book for anyone who is interested in fugitive biker culture as whole, a total history buff or anyone interested in a world beyond their wildest nightmares. I know I certainly got an education.

Reading to Reels: Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

838488For Gene Wilder (RIP). Thank you so much Mr. Wilder for being a wonderful memory and an icon of my pop culture loving childhood. You will be missed.

Can you believe the much beloved movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is now over 40 years old? It seems just yesterday my sister and I were sitting in front of the television, transported to a world of candy, Oompa Loompas, bratty kids who get their just desserts and of course, the mysterious Willy Wonka. My sister and I loved this movie and we watched every broadcast.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is based on the classic Roald Dahl book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Played by Gene Wilder in the film, Willy Wonka is the reclusive proprietor of a world-famous chocolate factory. In the beginning, Willy Wonka makes a huge announcement. He is granting five lucky people a chance to tour his factory, learn some of his tricks of the candy trade and win a lifetime of free chocolate. The catch? You must first purchase a chocolate Wonka bar, and if one of those bars has a golden ticket, you are a winner. The world loses its collective shit and the media goes wild for the story (and this is the pre-Internet days). Who will win the golden ticket?

One person who would love to win a golden ticket is Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum). Charlie is good hearted but his family is broke. Even buying a simple candy bar could put a dent in the Bucket family budget. But somehow Charlie gets the money, and he purchases a Wonka bar. Charlie rips open the chocolate bar with anticipation, and low and behold, there lies a shining golden ticket!

However, before Charlie arrives at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, he is offered a proposal by the devious Arthur Slugworth, the owner of a rival chocolate factory. Slugworth wants Charlie to steal Wonka’s secret recipes, most ideally, Wonka’s recipe for his latest creation the everlasting gobstopper. Will Charlie succumb to Slugworth’s shady plea, or will he stand by his convictions and not steal the recipe?

Being a minor, Charlie has to bring along a chaperone to tour Wonka’s chocolate factory. Charlie brings along his beloved Grandpa Joe played by the irascible Jack Albertson (yep, the “man” from Chico and the Man). Along for the tour are four other rather vile children, and their equally vile parents. First there is the gluttonous Augustus Gloop who doesn’t say much but sure loves to stuff his face. Violet Beauregard talks a mile a minute and is always chomping on a piece of gum. Mike TeeVee is obsessed with television and pop culture (wait, this is a bad thing?). But most odious of all is Veruca Salt, a spoiled, entitled brat. Hmm, if Veruca existed today she’d probably have her own reality show on Bravo.

Willy Wonka meets the winners and their adult chaperones at his factory’s elaborate gates. After freaking everyone out by pretending to be feeble, falling, and then finishing his “fall” with the perfect somersault, Wonka invites Charlie and the gang into the factory. Before anyone can go further they must read and sign a very elaborate contract, which pretty much looks like the contract you had to sign when you got your credit card. Now it’s on to the tour of the magical Wonka factory.

The first room the winners visit is a totally edible garden with flowers, mushrooms and a chocolate river. The winners also meet the Oompa Loompas, Wonka’s vertically-challenged, green-haired, orange-skinned helpers. Veruca Salt tells her daddy, “I want an Oompa Loompa right now” because she’s a snotty bitch, and you pretty much realize she is going to work your last nerve. However, it is Augustus Gloop who is the first to be eliminated from the tour when he falls into the chocolate river and gets sucked up in a large tube.

Still, the tour goes on. The winners and their chaperones visit magical room after magical room. They even go on a crazy boat road right out of a bad acid trip (it was the 1970s). Throughout the tour, the kids misbehave and are punished. Even Charlie gets up to some mischief. He and Grandpa Joe sneak into a room to try some Fizzy Lifting drinks, and start floating up towards a menacing whirling fan on the ceiling. Will they be beheaded? Fortunately, Charlie and Grandpa Joe find out belching will help them get their feet back on the ground, and they join the others on the tour.

At the end of the tour, only Charlie is left. However, Wonka finds out about the Fizzy Lifting drink fiasco, and he is pissed! He denies Charlie the ultimate prize because he defied the contract’s rules. Charlie turns to leave dejected, but not before he hands Wonka the Ultimate Gopstopper he swiped to give to Slugworth.

But all is not lost! Wonka turns to Charlie and tells him, “You won!” It turns out Slugworth is not rival and a spy; he’s actually one of Wonka’s employees and his name is Wilkinson. The Everlasting Gobstopper predicament was actually a test, and Charlie passed!

As the movie ends, Wonka leads Charlie and Grandpa Joe to the “Wonka-vator.” The Wonka-vator is an elevator that goes up, down and in all other directions. The Wonka-vator blasts through the factory’s ceiling and flies over the city below. It is at this time Wonka tells Charlie that the factory is his once Wonka retires.

I loved Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as a kid, but I saw it again as an adult and I loved it even more. There is something so subversive about it, but at the end the good kid wins out. Sure, Charlie isn’t perfect but his heart is in the right place. And the bad kids are punished which totally fills me with schadenfreude. Jeff Gordinier even covers this in his book X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep from Everything Sucking.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was later remade in 2005 and starred Johnny Depp; but to me, Gene Wilder owns the role of Willy Wonka.

And while doing research for this piece I found out some interesting trivia. Julie Dawn Cole (Veruca Salt) and Denise Nickerson (Violet Beauregard) totally crushed on Peter Ostrum. I can’t say I blame them. He was adorable. And speaking of Peter Ostrum, Charlie Bucket was his first and last film role. He’s now a veterinarian.

What else? The flower-shaped cup Willy Wonka drinks from in an early scene was made from wax (ew). However, many of the props found on the set like the giant mushrooms were edible. Jean Stapleton was slated to play Mike TeeVee’s mom but had to back out due to another acting role. You probably know her best as Edith Bunker from the 1970s classic TV show All in the Family. And Julie Dawn Cole admits to hating chocolate!

I don’t have kids, but I do have a niece and nephew. And I’d love to share Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with them. And I bet there are a lot of Gen X parents and aunties and uncles who have done just that.