Finding a butterfly

by Conrad on January 18, 2016

Finding a butterflyA fan from overseas reads a passage from “Adios, Nirvana.”


Finding a butterfly

by Conrad on October 14, 2014

Finding a butterfly: Hannah from Germany reads a passage from ADIOS, NIRVANA.



DIRT BIKES, DRONES, AND OTHER WAYS TO FLY has just landed on Air & Space/Smithsonian’s  2014 list of Best Aviation and Space-Themed Books for Young Readers. The list is an annual roundup of children’s and YA titles that focus on flying. It will be published in December.

Flying is exactly what DIRT BIKES, DRONES, AND OTHER WAYS TO FLY is all about. It’s  the story of Arlo Santiago, a seventeen-year-old adrenaline junkie who catches the eye of the U.S. military with his top ranking on a drone warfare video game.

Arlo, who lives in a dusty corner of New Mexico, joins the military’s drone program but grows increasingly troubled by the blurred line between simulation and reality. Meanwhile, he’s got a father who drinks, a dangerously ill younger sister, and a girlfriend who won’t let him run from his past. He’s still healing, emotionally, from a violent death in his family.

Several months ago, I was asked by the West Seattle Herald to describe how Arlo and Jonathan, the narrator in my previous YA novel (ADIOS, NIRVANA), differ. I like how the reporter summed it up:

“Betraying his love for the Beatles, Wesselhoeft explains that Jonathan is a poet-philosopher like John Lennon—loud, caustic, and vulnerable. Arlo is more like George Harrison—quiet, spiritual, and escapist. Both are young men at a developmental stage of their life, haunted by grief, and confronted with a crossroad.” (Here’s a link to the article.)

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Q&A with Florida Literature Class

by Conrad on March 18, 2013

Conrad on Mt. Si Conrad summits Little Mt. Si with son Kit and expert guide Django (the “D” is silent).


Dear Readers,

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a Q&A. This one comes from students at Tampa Preparatory School in Florida. The students—juniors in Stephanie Cardillo’s American Literature Honors class—recently read and discussed Adios, Nirvana. Stephanie forwarded me a batch of their questions. With her permission, I’m sharing them here, along with my answers.

Q: How did you come up with a character like Jonathan?

A: Jonathan started as a dim shadow–or distant voice–in my mind and grew fuller and clearer as I rewrote. The best writing happens when you rewrite (and rewrite).

Q: How much money did David leave Jonathan in his will?

A: I’ve never put a financial figure to it, but let’s say he left Jonathan at least $10,000–and possibly much more.

Q: Are you a musician? Are you passionate about music?

A: Yes, I’m very passionate about music. I’ve always messed around on guitar, but I don’t read music. (Jonathan was a much better guitar player than I am.) I’ve just returned from Hawai’i, where I tried my hand at the ukulele–a joyous instrument. Playing music makes me a better writer, and writing makes me a better musician. Each graciously opens the door for the other.

Q: How did you learn about Rick and Larrivee guitars?

A: The Rickenbacker was a favorite of guitarists like George Harrison, Brian Jones (The Rolling Stones), Pete Townshend (The Who), Jeff Buckley–on and on. They chose the Rick for its clear, ringing sound. I thought Jonathan would embrace that sound—and that it would work well in the context of communicating with his dead brother. As for Larrivee guitars, I’ve known several musicians who swear by them, and I’ve always liked their sweet tone. Larrivee is a Canadian company, and Jonathan liked to refer to his guitar, Ruby, as being from “up-country Saskatchewan.” In fact, Larrivees are made in Vancouver, BC. Jonathan would have known this, but he enjoyed taking poetic liberties. Just fyi, NASA purchased a Larrivee guitar for use by astronauts aboard the Space Station. That guitar has already made more than 50,000 orbits around Earth. (Jonathan’s playlist can be found here:

Q: What exactly does Agnes mean by “free the swimmers in the dark”?

A: Agnes suffered from dementia; however, she was somehow able to connect with David Cosgrove and his experience of being trapped under water after his ship sank. (Literally, David was a swimmer in the dark–and so were his fellow sailors, though most did not try to swim to freedom.) I wanted to make the point that we are all, in a figurative sense, struggling to free ourselves from the dark. I believe that each of us possesses, deep within, the courage and power to triumph over whatever threatens to engulf us. As Jonathan wrote in a final poem, ” . . . So I open the cage/unlocked all this time/and push off . . ..” The key phrase is “unlocked all this time.”

Q: Is Mr. Tillmann (the jazz band leader in the story) an actual person who played with the famous musicians mentioned in the book?

A: No, he’s not an actual person. However, his character was inspired by Quincy Jones, who in the late 1940s attended Garfield High School in Seattle—the same school my kids recently graduated from. I heard Quincy Jones speak at Garfield about the time I was finishing the novel. As I recall, I went home after that talk and added a few brushstrokes to the character of Mr. Tillmann.

Q: Did you have a group of friends similar to Jonathan’s “Thicks”?

A: I had friends who helped me over hurdles when I was a teenager but never a group like “The Thicks”–no one quite that intense, crazy, or supportive.

Q: How did you manage to write from a depressed teenager’s point of view so realistically?

A: Hmm, a tough one. I didn’t think of Jonathan as being depressed so much as struck down with grief. However, depression and grief may be cut from the same bolt of cloth; they may be universals within us–if not directly, then indirectly. So, yes, Jonathan was depressed–but also disoriented, angry, manic, despairing–lots of emotions. At various times in my life, I’ve felt all of these, so I was able to identify with him. However, more than depression the themes that truly drew me were hope and healing. Life can be hard and seem hopeless, so as a writer I try send out a ripple of hope on the chance that it may be heard or felt, and so make a difference.

Q: What inspired you to write this book? (Longer answer, maybe, than listening to your son and his friends in your kitchen.)

A: Okay, here’s the longer answer. First, I stumbled upon a quote in a newspaper that really hooked me. This is the quote: “In darkness, it slowly came to me that what happens to a man isn’t nearly as important as how he meets it.” The author of the quote was Victor Riesel, a labor journalist who was blinded when a mobster flung sulphuric acid in his face. I jotted his words in my journal, then added, spur of the moment: “(Consider writing a) story about a young man who writes the biography of a blind man, and in so doing (frees) his own demons.” About this time, my son began to bring home a pack of friends after school who would eat everything in the fridge and then rush into the living room and jam on guitars and piano. It didn’t matter that they were out of tune. What mattered was the energy. Just being around their combined humor, appetite, and music was an important part of the creative process for me. Also at this time, my father was hospitalized in the final months of his life. He’d spent a long time coping with multiple illnesses, but nonetheless was funny and wise. He became the inspiration for David, and his experiences as a Navy lieutenant during World War II became the template for David’s war experiences. To make things even more interesting, a friend’s mother was slipping into Alzheimer’s. We’d greet her with “Hello,” and she’d respond in the most bizarre way, but just close enough to some mark to make you wonder, “Hey, does she know something I don’t?” So my friend’s mother became the inspiration for Agnes, the Oracle at the Delphi. Eventually, all of these ideas and characters began to criss-cross and merge. That’s the long answer.

Q: Do Jonathan and Katie get together in the end?

A: I was deliberately vague about this, because I wanted the reader to decide. If you think so, then the answer is yes.

Q: Are we supposed to think that Katie’s disease is terminal? Because I don’t want to.

A: Again, I was deliberately vague. But since you asked, here’s what I really think–that Katie is a survivor and that she and Jonathan are still hanging out, in all the best ways. I like to think that if I were to stroll down to Alki Beach in West Seattle on a sunny afternoon, I’d see them sitting there–guitar and/or lute close at hand–and that I might catch a fragment of Walt Whitman as I passed by.


The Writer’s Journey:
The path to creating dynamic fiction

by Eric Shalit, Blog Developer on November 8, 2012

Conrad Wesselhoeft talks about his source of inspiration for writing fiction — and offers a challenge to student writers. (Produced by Bronwyn Edwards)

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Conrad with his kids Jen and Kit.

Lois T. Stover is the chair of the educational studies department at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Her upcoming book Portrait of the Artist as a Young Adult: Who is the Real Me? (with co-author Connie S. Zitlow) examines the healing value of the arts in young-adult literature. Conrad was among the authors she interviewed for the project. Here’s an excerpt of their discussion.

Q: Are you writing for a teenage self who was involved in the arts?

A: Probably at some level, yes. (When you write, you’re all ages of yourself.) As for my own teenage involvement in the arts, it was limited. I did a bit of messing around and jamming on guitar but rarely performed on stage. However, excelling and performing are not the point. Just doing it, that’s the point. If you keep at it you get better. A little of this leads to more of that. Music begets joy, joy begets healing, and healing begets understanding. On and on.

Q: So you were more an observer and appreciator?

A: I was soaking it in, so to speak. I read a lot–slowly–because I was dyslexic. I went to a lot of movies. My high school emphasized great literature–Dickens, Shakespeare, Hemingway, Steinbeck. On the side, I was gorging on TV–“The Fugitive,” “Rawhide,” “Marcus Welby, MD.” Over the years, your subconscious starts to build templates from all this exposure to stories–both the language and plot. That doesn’t necessarily make you a writer. But it gives you a place to start.

Q: Have you had any response to Adios, Nirvana from young adults who say they feel validated by the portrait you paint of musicians and poets?

A: Less from young adults than from adults. One adult reviewer noted that here was a teenage male protagonist who was not a quarterback or basketball star but a poet. The reaction from young adults has been more to the portrait of grief. They empathize with Jonathan, who has lost his twin brother and best friend. They recognize that music and poetry are outlets for his pain, and inlets for his healing. Several readers have commented on Ruby, Jonathan’s damaged yet sainted acoustic guitar. One said that her favorite character was “not human but made up of wood and wire.” I liked that.

Q: As I was reading Adios, Nirvana I kept stopping to mark points about your language – both in your narration as well as in Jonathan’s poetry. What can you share with us about your own love of language and how that got sparked? You mention a number of quite different writers of various genres, from Hemingway to Kerouac to Bukowski and a number of young adult writers, who are important to you. Can you articulate anything specific about how soaking up their styles has influenced your writing?

A: The feedback I’ve received on the language runs the gamut from “poetic” to “peculiar,” from “raw” to “dangerous.” Possibly everybody is right. I write what feels and sounds true. After years of doing this, you become surer of what you want to say and what you want to leave out. Still, I find writing hard work. I rewrite obsessively—in part, because I don’t have perfect pitch—and in part because I know that young-adult readers hold writers to a high standard. They can spot a fake a mile away. I like Hemingway because he opened the door for awkward voices, Kerouac because he said “Hurry up!” and Charles Bukowski because he said “Warts and all, warts and all!”

Q: We’ve heard that you’re part of a writing group, “Stages on Pages,” that consciously writes about young adults who create their sense of self through their immersion in their art. How did this group form?

A: “Stages on Pages” was started by YA novelist Stasia Kehoe (Audition, Spotlight) as a way of promoting YA fiction with strong artistic themes. Stasia is a fantastic writer. I was honored that she asked me to join. Other talented “Stages on Pages” colleagues include Louise Spiegler, Tara Kelly, Jessica Martinez, and Roseanne Parry.

Q: What’s the value of being part of this group for you?

A: First, not all publishers have the budget to promote every book as widely as they’d like, so “Stages on Pages” is our way of promoting our own work–of getting out to bookstores, schools, and book fairs to meet readers, booksellers, and librarians. Second, writing is lonely–or at least solitary. “Stages on Pages” lets us meet other writers with similar interests.

Q: You’re also a member of a critique group. What’s the value of this group for you?

A: I’ve been part of a critique group for many years. Critiquing offers constructive review of work in progress, shared secrets of the craft, invaluable networking, emotional support, and friendship. My group has played a crucial role at every stage of my writing journey. Through it, I met my agent (and through my agent, my editor). A wise editor once said that writing success was built upon the Three Ps—Patience, Practice and Perseverance. I agree but would add a B and C: B for Believe in yourself, because many others won’t, especially at first; and C for Critique Group.

Q: Does being in a critique group have any downsides?

A: Potentially, yes. Probably the most egregious is over-dependence on the group, resulting in disorientation of personal vision. Never lean so heavily on your group that you lose your way. A critique group should be the crew of your writing ship, not the captain.

Q: It was interesting to read about your encounter with Scott O’Dell and how that one day changed your life. How did you choose Odell to interview – rather than someone who writes for adults?

A: I’d read Island of the Blue Dolphins when I was about twelve or thirteen. I still remember getting goose bumps when I read the last page. At that age, I had no knowledge of literary craft, just an appreciation for the storyteller’s magic. Twenty years later, as a journalist working at the New York Times, I read that O’Dell lived just north of the city. I got permission from the Times to write a feature profile on him. O’Dell met me at the local train station. He was eighty-five years old and very craggily handsome and fit. We climbed into his big car, and he peeled for his home on Long Pond. He drove fast. The interview was supposed to last a couple of hours, but it lasted about six.

Q: Did O’Dell give you any tips or insights about writing?

A: Plenty. He was very generous that way. Here’s a link to a piece I wrote about that day. “Becoming a Writer: How Scott O’Dell Changed My Life”

Q: Did you stay in touch with O’Dell?

A: Yes, we corresponded for a few years, and he critiqued my early efforts at YA fiction. Years later, I read that he had been working on a book in his hospital bed, just days before his death at age 91. In my opinion, that’s the way to go.

Q: You say that he critiqued an early effort on your part to write for young adults – what kinds of comments did he offer, and how has his influence extended into Adios, Nirvana?

A: Scott urged me to start writing a novel immediately, not to concoct excuses or bog down in planning. Two days after meeting him, I began work on my first young-adult novel. I sent him the opening chapters several weeks later, and he responded with an encouraging critique.

Q: Did you ever finish that YA novel?

A: Yes, and it remains unpublished. Writing that book was like going to Marine Corps boot camp for writing YA fiction–with all of the false starts, struggles, and revelations. Just thinking about it saddens me, because I feel like I left my characters wandering along a riverbank at midnight. Someday, I hope to get back to that book.

Q: Any other memories or impressions of your meeting with O’Dell?

A: Just that that day is hands-down one of the most important of my life. It set me on the path of writing young adult fiction. I’ve read Island of the Blue Dolphins more than any other novel, YA or adult, including aloud to my children, as well as listening to it in audio format. For me, the story works in every way: the spare, cadent prose; the remote island setting; the themes of the individual against nature; and respect for all life. All of these elements crystallize into the most powerful and wonderful story. That book is the gold standard for me. Scott inspired me to push through my self-imposed limits, including self-doubt, and get to a better place.

Q: It’s interesting that you portray parents who just really do not understand their children in some ways. Were you consciously trying to provide such a view of parents in the face of so many other novels in which parents are either totally absent or not supportive?

A: Parents and grandparents play a huge role in a young adult’s life, even when they’re absent or neglectful. I’m far more interested in stories with multiple generations of characters because so many more levels of feeling and knowledge are involved. The generations need each other, lean on each other, and teach each other. To leave parents, grandparents, and teachers out of the mix would be a loss for everybody. Plus, I have a huge amount of fun creating middle age and older characters with all of their wonderful idiosyncrasies.

Q: Did you have teachers who made a positive difference in your own life, perhaps teachers who introduced you to any of the authors and books you describe as having influenced your writing?

A: The one who stands out is Robert H. Spock, my English teacher in 7th and 9th grades at Lakeside School in Seattle. (He was the younger brother of the famous baby doctor and best-selling author Dr. Benjamin Spock.) Mr. Spock had an incredible feel for language and literature. He would read aloud passages of Shane, Julius Caesar, John Brown’s Body, and many more, getting us to hear the music of the English language. He also made us memorize long passages, which I resented at the time but am grateful for now. When we got something wrong, he would quote from Marc Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar: “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things. O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome.” He said this with a twinkle in his eye.

Q: We also loved the fact that you’ve got a number of adults who serves as mentors to Jonathan. As a parent watching your son and daughters develop into young adults, how important is it to you that they have such mentors outside the family? Did you have friends as a teenager who were mentors in the way Nick and Kyle and the others are for Jonathan?

A: I had plenty of good friends across the generations who helped me over hurdles, even though I wasn’t always aware of the hurdle or the help at the time. One of my dad’s ski buddies, an avid guitar player, talked my dad into buying me a guitar when I was about sixteen. He’d noticed my interest–and that nudge made a big difference. My wife passed away several years ago, and I have welcomed mentors in my children’s lives. For example, my son is very athletic and drawn to like-minded adults. One standout is his long-time soccer coach — a model of leadership, hard work, and fair play. My daughters, too, have found mentors outside the family. My younger daughter is close to her piano teacher. These mentors fill a role that I can’t. It seems to happen instinctively and intuitively. For all this help, I’m infinitely and forever grateful beyond words. I’m sure some of this respect for strong mentors crept into Adios, Nirvana. I hope so, anyway.

Q: What advice would you give teachers and other adults who can play significant roles in the development of young adults about how to interact with and support those young people who need to create a character on stage or play an instrument or paint – or even just listen to music the way all of us need to breathe?

A: Not all kids need to have their talents trotted out before an audience. Sometimes the only audience they need is themselves. We pursue art to feed our souls. To force an unwilling kid on stage can distance that kid from the pleasure of his or her gift. So teachers and adults need to be respectful of a child’s artistic needs. If a child wants to perform–great. Encourage that. If not, that, too, is okay. Time may change their minds, but don’t shove performance at them. Let them move toward it at their own pace. To quote a prodigiously artistic friend: “It’s not about perfection; it’s about joy.”

Q: Adios, Nirvana is a novel that clearly provides hope for the future; Jonathan is going to be O.K., and he’s learned a lot about the importance of being open to what many different individuals, in many stages of life, have to teach him. How important do you think it is to have that note of hope in a novel for young adults?

A: Hope is extremely important. I choose themes that are important to me. Foremost among these are hope, healing, family, and friendship. These are themes I’d like my own children to embrace. Life can be hard and seem hopeless, so as a writer I choose to send out that “ripple of hope” on the chance it may be heard or felt, and so make a difference.

Q: What advice would you give to teens struggling to break away from parentally or peer group-imposed identities and create a sense of self?

A: All of us are great people in the making. One doesn’t have to be rich, famous, brilliant, beautiful, or an outward success to be great. One of my favorite examples from fiction is the fisherman Santiago in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Santiago starts out poor and ends up poorer. However, in the course of the story, he tests himself to the limit. We see his strength, courage, humility, nobility, and hopeful spirit. Each time we take a step closer to who we really are we get stronger. So my thought would be, if you can’t take big steps toward your goal now, take small ones. As with all goals (including writing YA fiction), time is your friend. So to teens who are struggling, I say be patient, practice, persevere, believe in yourself. Never give up.


Cover of US paperback edition. Art by Istvan Banyai.


In a few days, “Adios, Nirvana” will debut in paperback. The official date is January 10. However, unofficially it may land in bookstores in a week or two, or so the publisher tells me.

The cover artist is Istvan Banyai, whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, and Playboy. He’s also done many New Yorker magazine covers. His cover for the paperback edition captures an under-the-bridge, noir-ish view of West Seattle–very appropriate given all the bridges mentioned in the book. Istvan’s also caught that lanky, restless, every-kid look. I love this cover!

German-language edition on Feb. 10.

“Adios, Nirvana” comes out in a German-language edition on Feb. 10. The translation was done by Karsten Singelmann, who has translated books by John LeCarre, John Grisham, Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, and many others. My knowledge of German is limited to two phrases — “Jugendherberge” (youth hostel) and “Verdammen sie rechts!” (Damn right!). Fortunately, Karsten is brilliantly bilingual. I had a good time trading e-mails with him. He had lots of subtle questions. For example:

“Page 30: ‘Flat Ass rises like a biscuit and floats away.’ We can’t quite picture that. How does a biscuit rise?”

“Page 40: About Mimi’s face — not beautiful, ‘but a face you see from a great distance, very focused.’ I translated that without actually understanding it. Can you explain — why from a great distance?”

Hmmm. Not easy to answer — because I wasn’t always sure of the meaning myself. Karsten’s questions reinforced a basic rule of writing — keep it clear, don’t muddy the water.

It pleases me to think that the youths of Munich, Stuttgart, Dusseldorf, etc. will get to meet the “Thicks,” that shaggy gang that struts across West Seattle jamming on guitars and eating vodka-injected grapes.

The German cover has a grungy, Kurt Cobain-ish look. I like this one, too, but the band Nirvana was not my main motive for the title — kind of a secondary one, though.

Earlier this year, YALSA (the Young Adult Library Services Association) placed “Adios, Nirvana” on its list of 2011 Best fiction for Young Adults. I was greatly honored. The book has been nominated for a couple of other honors as well. It’s nice to receive good feedback, but what’s important is that we write the books we need to write. When you dig deep and answer your own needs, you’re more likely to say something meaningful to others.

Marcel Proust said it much better: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

Happy holidays to all!

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Thank you, Eddie Vedder!

by Conrad on July 23, 2011

Funny the doors that stories can open. Those of you who have read ADIOS, NIRVANA may recall that Eddie Vedder (of Pearl Jam fame) is a character in the book. He mentors the twin brothers, Jonathan and Telly, who call on him to advise them in choosing a guitar.

I’ve never met Eddie Vedder. However, last fall, I dropped off a copy of the book at the school his daughter attends. It’s the same school my kids attended, and I know many on the staff. I asked the Director of Admissions, “Hey, can you pass this along, if he ever shows up?” I inscribed it: “To Ed Vedder, who inspired the brothers in this book–and the author.” Or something like that.

Last Thursday, I received this e-mail:

Hi Conrad,

My name is Noelle Broom. I am Eddie Vedder’s assistant. He has asked me to get in touch with you, regarding his concert at Benaroya Hall Friday and Saturday night. I apologize for the last minute inquiry, but Ed was wondering if you would like to attend the concert either tomorrow or Saturday night. If this is something you’d be interested in, please let me know. I can be reached via email, or on my cell phone.

I hope this finds you well. I look forward to talking with you soon.

Thanks so much,

Noelle Broom

A friend and I attended the Friday concert. It was brilliant! One of the best ever. I didn’t meet him backstage or anything, but I didn’t care.

Eddie covered Pearl Jam, the “Into the Wild” songs, and many ukulele tunes. He must’ve played a dozen different guitars, plus uke, banjo, mandolin, and harmonica. My favorite was an a capella hum-chant he did toward the end of the evening. His voice rose and looped back on itself, track upon track, until he was five voices, like five hawks spiraling. When he slipped off stage, the voices kept going up and up.

An unforgettable night.

Thank you, Eddie Vedder!


Outside the Granada with fellow authors.

Here are a few photos from a recent “Book Lovers Fest” at Klindt’s Bookstore in The Dalles, Oregon. Klindt’s, the Pacific Northwest’s oldest continuously operating bookstore, has been in business since 1870. The event gathered 12 authors under one roof — I was fortunate to be one of them.

Klindt's is located in one of the most scenic and storied cities on the Columbia.

"You're pretty young for this book, Jasper. I have two words for you: Buyer Beware!" Jasper bought a copy anyway. Then he regaled me with stories of his adventures in Kenya, from which he and his family had recently returned.

With two of the Pacific Northwest's greatest champions of literacy, Kristin Klindt and Angela Dietz-Johnson.

Meeting friendly readers at the "Book Lovers" extravaganza at Klindt's — the legendary bookstore — in The Dalles, Oregon.

Inside Klindt's. They don't make 'em like this anymore.


German edition of ‘Adios, Nirvana’ coming this fall.

by Eric Shalit, Blog Developer on May 21, 2011

Here’s the cover of the German edition of “Adios, Nirvana” — slated to be released this fall. We’re very excited. Here’s what the publisher, Carlsen has to say about it on their website:

Der 16-jährige Jonathan weiß mit einer Gitarre und mit Worten umzugehen, doch den Tod seines Zwillingsbruders Telly hat er auch nach Monaten noch nicht überwunden. Und wenn er in der Schule nicht schnellstens die Kurve kriegt, müssen seine besten Freunde ihren Abschluss wohl ohne ihn machen. Erst als Jonathan sich mit einem blinden Kriegsveteranen anfreundet, ein geheimnisvolles Mädchen kennenlernt und mit King Kong auf der Bühne steht, ist die Zeit endlich reif für ein Comeback ins Leben!