Breakfast Mutation

Once, I was a big breakfast person.  Mom was a charter member of the “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” cult, and she insisted on our having a “healthy breakfast” before we headed off to school.

In those days, a “health breakfast” meant a big bowl of Frosted Flakes, Captain Crunch, or Quake during the warmer months, and oatmeal, Cream of Wheat, or some other hot cereal — always with brown sugar, of course — and a glass of juice, and a glass of whole milk, and probably some toast with jelly, besides.  Fortified and carboloaded with our “healthy breakfasts” and bundled up against the morning chill, the Webner kids went out to wait for the school bus and take on the world.

But over the years, my tastes and breakfast interests mutated.  Some of it was due to speed; there just doesn’t seem like a lot of time in the morning to make a big breakfast.  Some of it was due to weight; at some point, large mixing bowls of sugary cereal suddenly didn’t seem like such a wise move from a belt size standpoint.  And some of it, frankly, was just a matter of taste.  I got to the point where I didn’t like the feeling of gobbling down a bunch of food first thing in the morning.  Restricting my intake to a cup of coffee and a small glass of orange juice left me feeling a bit lighter and less logy.  And I also figured that if I limited myself to a small breakfast, that would leave plenty of room on the calorie counter for a nice lunch.

Is breakfast “the most important meal of the day,” as Mom’s creed dictated?  Beats me!  Given the ever-changing “science” of human dietary needs and food pyramids, I doubt if anyone really knows.  These days, I pretty much just for go what makes me feel better.  I suppose if I was going out and waiting for the school bus in the chill morning air, then taking a loud, rattling, 45-minute, seat belt-free ride with a bunch of other rambunctious kids headed off to school and charged up by their own intake of sugary cereals I might feel differently.

What Is Missing?

This is an interesting and surprising photograph I took today at Sand Beach Park. It’s surprising because something is clearly missing in this picture of three little kids playing on the rocks at the corner of the beach.

Can you see what is absent?

It’s parents, of course. The parents were about 50 yards away — close enough to keep an eye on the kids and get over there quickly in case of a mishap, but otherwise content to let the kids explore on their own and have some fun. In the current time of helicopter parents, such long-distance, trusting parenting is as rare as a handshake — and as surprising.

Of course, what these parents were doing used to be the norm. My parents let us run free in our neighborhood — and take risks, and skin our knees, and have fun, and hopefully learn something from our experiences in the process. Shockingly, we survived . . . because kids actually are pretty savvy about risks and learn quickly. That’s what childhood used to be about.

Kudos to these parents! I bet these kids thought their trip to Sand Beach Park was great fun. — more fun than if Mom and Dad were holding them tightly by the hand and telling them to stay away from the rocks.

A Class In The Mist

The Class of 2020 hasn’t exactly been the luckiest class in the history of the American high school system. 

Just as they were nearing the end of their senior year, getting ready for prom, and their senior class parties, and their graduation ceremony, the coronavirus pandemic hit, classes in most high schools across the country were abruptly cancelled, social distancing and limitations on congregation were imposed, and everything had to happen remotely — which isn’t exactly the ideal setting for your last hurrah with your high school chums and besties.

In Stonington, as in many U.S. cities and towns, the community has rallied behind the Class of 2020 and tried to give them a memorable graduation notwithstanding all of the limitations.  In the downtown area, small posters of the members of the graduating class have been put up on light posts and telephone poles to recognize their achievement.  Stores are displaying signs to congratulate the seniors, and the town organized a parade in which the seniors rode, individually, in back of open-air cars while they were cheered on along the parade route by members of the community — all of whom maintained appropriate social distancing, of course.

High school wasn’t the favorite time of my life, and I didn’t feel like high school graduation was a particularly big deal.  At the same time, I enjoyed the graduation parties and senior prom and the graduation ceremony itself.  For me, at least, it gave a sense of closure of one chapter in my life and the message that it was time to move on to college, and beyond.  Thinking about it now, with the knowledge of what has happened to the Class of 2020 in mind, I think I probably would have missed the whole process if I hadn’t experienced it.

I’ve written before about doing what we can to help people whose lives have been turned upside-down by COVID-19 to make up for the loss and disruption — by frequenting restaurants, giving very generous tips, and so on.  The same goes for the Class of 2020, and it’s nice to see that communities like Stonington, and other communities across the country, are doing special things to recognize the unique impact the Class of 2020 has sustained.  If you know of a 2020 graduate, give them an especially hearty congratulations, will you?  And when the Class of 2020 gathers for their 10th, or 25th, or 50th reunion, we can hope that they’ll have some positive memories about parades, and signs, and special recognitions to recall. 

Back To The ’60s

2020 has been just about the worst year imaginable so far, but over the last few days it has acquired a definite ’60s vibe, too.  With riots happening in the streets of American cities in reaction to the shocking and outrageous death of George Floyd, it’s like 1966 and 1967 and 1968 all over again.  Even middle-of-the-road Columbus has seen its share of disturbances.

636178516108265271-dfpd24221Civil unrest seemed pretty commonplace when I was a kid.  Whether it was “race riots,” Vietnam War protests that got out of hand, reactions to the assassinations of leading figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, or random civil disobedience, smoke in the air and tear gas canisters on the ground were a familiar sight.  Authorities would warn about what might happen during the “long hot summer,” and rioting and looting seemed to occur as a matter of course.  Footage of people throwing Molotov cocktails, smashing windows, and running with armfuls of loot from burning buildings were staples of the nightly TV news broadcasts and morning news shows.  And authorities learned the hard way that when a population gathers in sufficiently large numbers and decides to go on a building-burning rampage, there’s not much you can do about it — without applying overwhelming force and ramping up the tension even further.

Although rioting seemed like an annual occurrence during the ’60s, eventually the riots stopped.  Unfortunately, they left behind areas of gutted buildings and ruined, derelict neighborhoods that in some cases still haven’t recovered, more than 50 years later.  And the small businesses that are typically the focus of the burning and smashing and looting often don’t come back, either.  Drive around modern Detroit if you don’t believe me.

Disturbances happen when people feel that they are being treated unfairly and that they have nowhere to turn for justice.  They protest because they feel its the only way to make their voices heard.  Mix in some people who are looking to gain some cheap thrills and personal advantage from the unrest, and you’ll have looting and arson, too.

The best way to begin to deal with the issue in this case is to let the system work and do justice in the terrible case of George Floyd.  Giving people the feeling that things are getting back to normal, by lifting some of the coronavirus restrictions, might help, too.

Cooking With “Liquid Gold”

We’ve learned a lesson during this shutdown period:  if you are ordering groceries for delivery in order to comply with a mandatory governmental quarantine, you really need to be specific about what you want.  Otherwise, you run the risk that the person who is doing the shopping for you will make a judgment call that might not be what you intended.

We learned this lesson this week when we placed a delivery order and one of the items was “American cheese.”  We were thinking of the Kraft singles for use in grilling cheeseburgers, but what we got instead was a box of Velveeta “liquid gold” cheese — which definitely stirred some childhood memories.

In the Webner household of the ’60s, a brick of Velveeta was a staple of the family refrigerator.  Who doesn’t remember opening up the foil wrapper and gazing at that soft, golden brick still bearing the traces of the foil wrapper that indicated that the cheese had been injected into the packaging in liquid form.  (Presumably, that’s why the package calls Velveeta “liquid gold.”)  Unlike other cheese, Velveeta could not be cut and eaten by hand, unless you wanted to squish the cheese and end up with a thick cheese residue on your hands.  Instead, Velveeta was specifically designed for melting and cooking purposes — like gooey grilled cheese sandwiches, or even more gooey macaroni and cheese.

We haven’t had a brick of Velveeta in the fridge for years, but it doesn’t look like it has changed one bit in the intervening decades.  The packaging and presentation looks the same, although the box now helpfully notes that Velveeta has 50 percent less fat than cheddar cheese.  Back in the ’60s, the fat content of Velveeta — or for that matter any other kind of food in the family fridge or cupboard — was not something that was disclosed, or even considered. 

We’ll be using every ounce of this unexpected brick for cooking, because in the shutdown period, it’s “waste not, want not.”  Yesterday we made scrambled eggs with the “liquid gold,” and it still melts as well as it ever did.  

In Or Out?

I grew up as one of five kids in a family that lived in a house without air conditioning.  When the summer months came, my siblings and I would race in and out of the house repeatedly, through a battered screen door that would burst open and then close with a loud metallic bang.

After hearing the screen door knocked open and then clatter shut in hinge-rattling fashion for one dozen, two dozen, or one hundred times, my mother — normally the most mild-mannered person you can imagine — would say, with a decided exasperation in her voice:  “Bob!  In or out?”  That meant that you had to either come inside and stay inside, or go outside and stay outside, period.  A line in the sand had been drawn.  You could no longer have a foot in the inside camp and a foot in the outside camp.  A decision had to be made, and you had to stick with it or run the risk of Mom’s wrath — and no one wanted to risk that.

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This year, I’d like to ask spring:  “In or out?”

In 2020, we’ve had the most yo-yo spring I can remember.  We’ve had beautiful days where the temperature has touched the 70s, including one glorious day where I dared to wear shorts and expose my bone-white legs to the appalled world.  But for each really nice day, there have been multiple brutally cold ones.  Like, say, today, where the temperature as I prepare to take my walk this morning is a bracing 27 degrees and I’ll be bundling up like a contestant in the Iditarod.  And yesterday, as the temperature plunged downward again, it actually snowed, which was a decidedly unwelcome sight.  Few things are more dispiriting than an accumulation of snowflakes on brightly colored tulips.

Spring is normally a fickle season, but this spring has been ridiculous.  And the rank indecision has been particularly unfair this year, where countless cooped up people are yearning to get out of their houses and really experience balmy spring weather in their backyards and neighborhood parks as a much-needed break from shelter-in-place restrictions.  But spring, bless its capricious heart, can’t make up its mind on whether to arrive for good.  It comes, and goes, and makes a cameo appearance, and then flees like a prisoner on a jailbreak.  And I’ve had enough, already.

So, spring!  In or out?

John Prine And Roommate Music

I was very sorry to read of the death this week of John Prine, one of the great songwriters of his generation, from complications of the coronavirus.  At the same time, thinking about John Prine, and how I first heard his music, took me back to some happy memories.  I think John Prine probably would have liked that.

John Prine on campus of Georgia State College - November 12, 1975I first heard John Prine’s music in college.  My college roommate was a huge fan of John Prine, and in our apartment John Prine songs were an inevitable part of the playlist.  Sam StoneIllegal Smile, and Please Don’t Bury Me in the Cold, Cold Ground (which is probably not the actual title of the song, but is how I remember it) and a bunch of other great songs with great lyrics were all in the rotation.  John Prine was a good example of how actually going to college (as opposed to attending virtual school, which is what people are now forecasting might be the future) had the effect of broadening the cultural horizons of college students in those days in the long ago ’70s.

My roommate and I each had an extensive record collection, featuring both albums and 45s, and they fit together almost perfectly, with virtually no overlap — well, except for the Beatles, because everyone had the Beatles albums.  He had a lot of John Prine, Creedence, and every Lynyrd Skynyrd album, as well as some great 45s from the ’60s, and I had a lot of Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd, jazz, and classical stuff.  We played it all, and quickly came to enjoy and appreciate each other’s music.  When the college days moved behind us, I still listened to all of it, and even now, 40 years later, still think automatically of John Prine lyrics that suit the situation.

And the real acid test is:  what songs of an artist do you sing in the shower?  For me, that’s John Prine’s Bad Boy:

I been a bad boy
I been long gone
I been out there
I never phone home
I never gave you not one little clue where I’d been
I’ve been a bad boy again

I got a way of
Fallin’ in love
With angels that don’t shove
You into thinkin’ that you are committing a sin
I’ve been a bad boy again

I’ve been a bad boy again
Now I’ve been a bad boy again
And all the trouble that I’m in
Makes me a bad boy again
I’ve been a bad boy again
Now I’ve been a bad boy again
And all the trouble that I’m in
Makes me a bad boy again

I must have walked ’round
In a real fog
I was your best friend
Now I’m a real dog
I never thought that now
Would ever catch up with then
I’ve been a bad boy again

I’ve been a bad boy
I sung a wrong song
I took a left turn
I stayed too long
As you were thinkin’ that I wasn’t
Just like all other men
I’ve been a bad boy again

I’ve been a bad boy again
Now I’ve been a bad boy again
And all the trouble that I’m in
Makes me a bad boy again
I’ve been a bad boy again
Now I’ve been a bad boy again
And all the trouble that I’m in
Makes me a bad boy again

RIP, John Prine — and thanks to my college roommate for allowing me to make your acquaintance and enjoy your music.

Fool-Free

To the extent that the pranksters among us are tempted, I’ve got a very strong suggestion:  please, no April Fools’ Day jokes this year.

fof-the-fool-action-shotI’m not much of a prankster, myself.  As a kid I tried a few of the time-honored classics, like the well-placed Whoopie cushion on Uncle Tony’s chair, or the salt in the sugar bowl gag, but mostly my jests involved convincing a credulous person about some far-fetched story.  At the office, I’ve participated in a few jibes, too — including one incident that involved constructing a wall of boxes to block the door of a fellow attorney while he was in his office with the door closed for a telephone call.  This year, though, I’m not much in the mood for gags of the April Fools’ Day variety, and I don’t think that anyone else is, either.

It’s not that I’m opposed to pranks, in principle.  But there’s a time and place for everything, and pranks just seem kind of pointless and childish given the current circumstances.  Part of the idea of the April Fools’ Day jest is that the target will laugh at it, too — which doesn’t seem likely right now, no matter how well-crafted and humorous the scheme might be in a normal setting.  Plus, who are you going to pull the prank on — that person you’ve been spending 24 hours a day with for the last three weeks?  It doesn’t seem like a wise course when you’re going to be spending every waking hour with that person for the foreseeable future, does it?

So, I’m hoping that all of the pranksters among us hold their fire, and let this April 1 pass in a blessedly fool-free fashion.  Next year, perhaps, we all can let our inner pranksters loose.

Changing Lyrics

As I prepared to take my walk this morning, I had to make my music selection.  I decided to go with my “UAHS Rock” playlist, featuring songs from my high school years.  The songs on it are old, obviously, but they are still great favorites.  Who doesn’t still relish the songs from their youth?

When I walked down the steps to the sidewalk, the first song on the playlist began:  Paul McCartney and Wings’ Band on the Run, which was a huge hit during my high school days.  For those who can’t remember them, the lyrics begin like this:

band-on-the-run-labelStuck inside these four walls,
Sent inside forever,
Never seeing no one
Nice again like you,
Mama you, mama you.
If I ever get out of here,
Thought of giving it all away
To a registered charity.
All I need is a pint a day
If I ever get outta here
If we ever get outta of here.

It’s safe to say that I reacted to  those lyrics in a different way this morning, squinting into the bright sunshine as I carefully maintained my “social distance” from everyone else who was walking and jogging outside,  than I did hanging out in the basement of the family home, with the cheap all-in-one stereo unit down there cranked up to intolerable levels, in 1975.  And a few songs later Stevie Wonder’s Superstition came on, and I had a similarly different reaction to this line:  “Very superstitious; wash your face and hands.”

One of the great things about music is that the listener always brings something to the experience, with songs reminding you of high school prom or hanging with your college chums or making you think about this or that.  I wonder how many other songs are going to be thought of differently, forever, as a result of the Shutdown March of 2020?

The Purse From 1957

In 1957, Patti Rumfola was a student at Hoover High School, in Canton, Ohio.  At some point that year, she lost her clutch purse while attending the new school, which was built just the year before.  You can imagine her wondering what happened to the purse, but when you’re a freshman life moves on pretty quickly, and it probably wasn’t very long before the purse was forgotten.

edaed322-04c9-42ce-b75c-61a6c93c0aab-pattiIt turns out that Patti’s purse somehow fell behind lockers at the school.  Last year, a custodian at the school building — which is still in use, but now serves as the North Canton Middle School — was working on the lockers and found the dust-covered purse, which had been lost for 62 years.  The custodian and some secretaries at the school took a look inside, found a library card, and tried to track down the former owner of the purse.  They learned that Patti graduated from Hoover High in 1960, became a school teacher in Maryland, founded a theater arts guild and young women’s club in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, got married, had five children — but unfortunately died in 2013, at age 71.

The school district located Patti’s kids and delivered the purse to them, and they opened it last fall, to get a peek into the teenage life of their Mom through this inadvertent time capsule from the Eisenhower Administration.  Inside they found old-fashioned black and white photos, including snapshots of family, friends, and a dog, membership cards, a football schedule, some religious medallions, a stick of Beech-Nut peppermint gum, make-up, a comb, a compact, some pencils, a pen, and an eraser, and some Lincoln wheat pennies that Patti’s kids kept as keepsakes of their Mom.  Kudos to the school district for not throwing away the old purse and diligently working to find Patti and her kids.

Imagine finding a long-lost trove of bits of your life during your teenage years, or opening up your old school locker from your freshman year 50 years later, with its contents undisturbed during the intervening decades.  What would you find — and what memories, fun or embarrassing, would the contents suddenly stir?

Gummed Up

Let me begin by saying that I am not a “gum person.” Even as a kid, I didn’t particularly like the gum experience, except for the blowing bubbles part. I would inevitably end up sawing away at an increasingly tasteless wad — and then the unsightly disposal issue would arise, where no underside of a school desk was safe.

However, as someone who knows some members of the Gum Nation, and who walks through convenience stores from time to time, it’s hard for me not to notice the Gum Renaissance that is currently underway. Gone are the days when choices were limited to Wrigley’s, Beeman’s, Dubble Bubble, Chiclets, Bazooka, and those long cellophane wrappers with garishly colored (and horribly artificially flavored) gum balls. Now there are entire aisles and point of purchase displays devoted to all things gum. New brands like Mentos and Icebreakers have entered the market, along with artisanal gums, sugar-free options, and “natural” gums — and I suspect if I looked carefully enough I’d find vegan, lactose-intolerant, and gluten-free offerings. It’s as if the same competitive processes that broke the Budweiser/Pabst/Miller High Life dominance in the beer market have turned their attention to chewing gum. Are there “craft gum” competitions out there?

And gum is so popular that media-savvy companies like Disney are associating with it. One of the gum packages pictured above features a Frozen II character and is for a flavor called “Arctic Grape” — which seems a bit oxymoronic, by the way. And speaking of packaging, we’ve definitely moved away from the slim, white rectangles that slid easily into the pocket of your jeans. Now gum comes in bulky, bright plastic receptacles that clatter and clearly aren’t pocket friendly. Today’s gum demands attention and a special storage spot.

Yes, it’s truly a Gum Nation these days. Those of us who don’t partake just live in it. And school desks probably aren’t happy about it.

On The Rocket Ride

Recently I went into a store that had a roped-off area crammed with a bunch of vintage items from the ’50s and ’60s, like a jukebox, a soda bottle machine and some old toys and games.  Two of the most striking items in this modest museum of memories were the rocket ride and the motorboat ride.

In those days virtually every grocery store and five-and-dime had at least one of these rides outside, right near the front door, ready to entice any youngster who was going shopping with Mom.  It might be a space ship, or a motorboat, or a race car or fire engine out there, colorful and gleaming and impossibly tantalizing to the childhood imagination.  It was savvy marketing, directly aimed at the kid.  You’d see the contraption going in and then spend the entire time in the store pestering and begging your Mom to let you ride, saying “please” and “it’s just one dime” a hundred times and promising to be good if she’d just grant you that one request.  Moms must have groaned every time they saw the rocket ride outside a store.

Most times, your Mom would say no and you’d pile back into the station wagon, but once in while your Mom would break down and fish out a dime.  You’d climb in, pretending to be an astronaut or fireman or one of the Hardy Boys in their boat, and grab the wheel.  When your Mom dropped the coin into the slot, the machine would rumble and shake and tilt and turn, the storefront and the parking lot would drop away somehow, and you’d have your two minutes of living a dream while your Mom checked her watch.

Now the rocket rides and motorboats and the small-scale imagination zones they created are gone, and the sidewalks in front of stores are crammed with Redbox kiosks and potted plants and pallets of windshield fluid.

I’m guessing that Moms everywhere had something to do with that unfortunate development.

Lunchbox Land

Kish and I met Russell for breakfast at Dell’s Fine Food in Fostoria, Ohio today. In addition to winning countless awards for its barbecue and making the best pancakes Kish says she’s ever had — which is the highest praise any pancake could possibly hope for — Dell’s also features an impressive display of old-fashioned lunchboxes, from back in the day when many kids took a lunchbox and matching thermos filled with hot soup to school every day.

I’m sure I had a Mercury astronaut lunch box, a Jetson’s lunchbox, and a Monkees lunchbox, and a few others, too. My thermoses always broke — the glass inside shattered if you dropped it — and I eventually became too self consciously cool for a lunchbox and carried a sack lunch instead, but I still have a soft spot for the lunchbox days of the ’60s.

47 Years Of Working

Earlier this week I got a document called “Your Social Security Statement” from the federal government.  That’s the document that tells you how much you and your employers have paid in Social Security taxes, tells you what your monthly Social Security payment will be at various retirement ages, and also gives some pointers about how, and when, to start getting the benefits.

The statement also tells you, year by year, your taxable earnings for Social Security and Medicare purposes.  As I looked at it, I realized, with a certain chill, that I’ve been working for 47 years now.

ph-430009996The statement notes that my first job was in 1973, during the Nixon Administration, when the 16-year-old me got hired as a “bag boy” at the now-defunct Big Bear Supermarket at the Kingsdale Shopping Center in Upper Arlington.  I had to wear a collared shirt and tie and a long white apron, and I bagged groceries at the checkout lines, helped old ladies put their groceries in their cars, and retrieved shopping carts from the parking lot after the store closed down.

According to the statement, I made slightly more than $500 that year, which sure felt like a lot of money to a kid living at home.  The next year, after I got trained on how to run the cash register myself so I could sub in for the ladies who were the permanent cashiers when they needed a break, I upped my earnings to just over $1,000, and I felt flush with cash.

It’s all there on one page — my earnings from working on the Ohio State Lantern, from my summer intern stint for the Wall Street Journal, from writing obituaries for the Toledo Blade, from serving as a press secretary for a Congressman on Capitol Hill, as a research assistant in law school, as a summer associate at law firms, as a judicial clerk in Washington, D.C., and finally from the law firm where I’ve worked for nearly 34 years.

It’s kind of weird to look at my employment history on that one page, and remember those old jobs that I haven’t thought about in a while.  47 years is a long time, I suppose, but it really doesn’t feel that long, and the memories of those jobs — and the feeling I had when I got that first two-week paycheck that probably netted me about $64 — are still fresh and lurking.  Thanks to the Social Security Administration for the reminder!

War Movies, Old And New

I’m trying to decide whether to go see 1917 this coming weekend.

From the reviews I’ve read, 1917 sounds like a a powerful, well-made movie, with an intriguing dash of extended take technical wizardry thrown in, so it’s not that I’m afraid I’d be shelling out the money to see a clinker.  No, it’s all about the fact that the reviews of the film emphasize that it fully and very effectively exposes the brutal horror of war generally, and World War I specifically.  I’m not sure that I’m ready for that.

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Growing up, “war movies” were a pretty simple genre.  The Americans were the good guys, and the countries we were fighting — especially the Nazis — were the bad guys.  War movies inevitably involved some barracks hijinks and basic training footage showing the tough drill sergeant and the camaraderie of soldiers coming together to fight for a noble cause, and the soldiers who died did so heroically in pursuit of a clear, greater good.  War movies really weren’t really all that bloody, either.  Soldiers who were killed after taking some courageous and selfless action tended to get shot in the gut and die grimacing and clutching their midsections, like Jim Brown’s character in The Dirty Dozen.

Of course, everyone — especially veterans — knew that the movies were a totally sanitized depiction of war, and eventually filmmakers began striving for more realism, first gradually and then more and more extensively.  With Saving Private Ryan and its groundbreaking treatment of storming of the Normandy beaches on D Day — showing men shot through the head, blown apart, searching for lost limbs, dying horrific deaths covered with gore and entrails on a faraway beach — the old war movies were officially gone and a new form of war movie had taken their place.  When I saw Saving Private Ryan, I found it to be a powerful and brilliant movie .  . . but boy, it was tough to watch and hard to take.  1917 sounds like more of the same, and I’m not sure I want to see it.

This sounds like a wussy reaction, and no doubt it is.  And I also think that it’s a positive that the old form of war movie, with its naive treatment of good guys and bad guys and bloodless heroism, isn’t being made to deceive people about what war is really like.  In fact, I feel somewhat guilty about feeling reluctant to go to movies like 1917 for a refresher course on how terrible war actually is.  But is it really how I want to spend a Friday night or a Saturday afternoon?