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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Ella My Love 2

                                                                                             Nov.  2017

I went back in the archives to find this piece about Ella Fitzgerald.  Today I found out that Verve records discovered an Ella tape recorded live 60 years ago.  It was stored and forgotten.  On December 1st it will be released.  This is  surely a buried treasure.  I pre-ordered it from Amazon.  "Ella at Zardi's."  I haven't been this excited about getting a CD in a long while.  Check it out, it's bound to be great.

                                                                                        February, 2010

Dear Family and Friends:

It just occurred to me that I’ve never told you about Ella (well, my family certainly knows about her).  Ella and I have been on a first name basis since I fell in love with her when I was fifteen.  I took my senior prom date to hear her at the Empire Room in the Palmer House Hotel (fancy, schmancy) on Wabash Ave. in Chicago, and I  remained faithful to so many of her recordings over the years.  Oh, I’m sorry, it’s Fitzgerald, Ella Fitzgerald, the First Lady of Song, I’m talking about.  I’ve been a jazz fan all my life; have a favorite player for every instrument, and a few favorite singers.  There’s Mel Torme (nice Jewish boy from Chicago), Sinatra, even Diana Krall and sometimes Jane Monheit on the short list, but no one even comes close to Ella. 

No bio here.  You can find that on your own if you want to read about her incredible sixty year career (buy anything recorded before 1975 for Ella in best voice).  I just wanted to go on record as saying that no one should leave this world without having heard two Ella Fitzgerald albums (CD’s), “Ella Fitzgerald at the Opera House,” and “The Intimate Ella.”  Ella made dozens of great recordings, live and in the studio. But these two should not be missed.

In 1966, while studying at the University of Illinois, I was happy to be invited to spend a Shabbat with Rabbi Larry and Jan Mahrer at their home in Peoria, Illinois.  We had become close friends (sailing and water skiing partners, actually) the summer before at camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.    Jan was a great cook.  Larry and I loved to sip a beer and talk into the wee small hours of the morning (also a great Sinatra album).  And I loved playing with Jeff, Debbie, and Scotty, the Mahrer kids.  So, I was thrilled to be invited.  

One of those weekend nights, after everyone else had gone to bed, when the hours had become pretty wee and small, Larry told me he wanted to play a record for me.  He took out Ella at the Opera House.  The recording was of two almost identical concerts recorded in 1957 at the Opera House in Chicago (hence the name) and in LA.  That’s the night I rekindled my torrid affair with The First lady of Song.  Backed on the ballads by the Oscar Peterson trio and Ella’s drummer, and then by an all-star Jazz at the Philharmonic band on the last two tracks, Ella takes us on a moody and lyrical tour of Jazz standards.  After leading us down the garden path to romance and emotion, she cuts it all loose singing Stompin’ at the Savoy and Lady be Good, with the likes of Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Jo Jones, Roy Eldridge, J.J. Johnson, Sonny Stitt, Lester Young, Illinois Jacquet, Coleman Hawkins, Stan Getz and Flip Phillips in the all-star band.  You won’t believe Stompin’ at the Savoy.  It will bring tears to your eyes and stop your heart.  That’s how intense is Ella’s scatting.   I’ve listened to it 100 times, maybe 200.  I can’t hear it enough.  But here’s a hint; start the CD on track number 10.  The first concert, the one recorded in Chicago, is not as outstanding as the second.  Listen to the LA recording which begins at number 10.  And, it’s not just the Savoy that is mind blowing.  It just hits you in the guts and leaves you breathless.  The nine or so tracks leading up to Savoy are amazing in their sheer beauty.  There is one particular note I listen for in the ballads that pulls at my heart strings each time it floats out of my speakers.  See if you can find it.  What a treasure. 

The second Ella recording that's a "must hear" is called” The Intimate Ella.”  It was recorded in 1960; just Ella singing and Paul Smith at the piano.  Three or so of the songs were included with Ella as a bar singer in the movie, “Let No man Write My Epitaph.”  This is the CD to listen to late at night with most of the lights off, preferably with someone you love. The Intimate Ella is a collection of the most beautiful jazz standard ballads you can imagine.  Ella sings them all with such style and warmth.  Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday each recorded many of these tunes on various records, but (and I love both of them) never with the feeling that Ella gives to each.  Ira Gershwin often said about her interpretations of his songs..."I didn't know our songs were good till Ella sang them!"

Ella Fitzgerald recorded over fifty albums in her near-sixty year career.   At the Opera House and The Intimate Ella, two very different recordings, are two of her best.  No one should be deprived of hearing these two recordings sometime in their life.  You never know, it could be the start of something big; you might just fall in love.


Saturday, October 7, 2017

Just Trying to do a Little Something

                                                                                                      October, 2017

Dear Family and Friends:

If you've been reading these blurbs you might remember that I used to volunteer at our local homeless shelter, the Shalom Center.  It's not a Jewish outfit.  The folks that started the shelter liked the word "Shalom," so they used it.  So for five years, once a week I communed with their old Hobart dishwasher (you GUCIites will relate).  If someone would have taken a snapshot of me at my post it might have been titled, "Two Old Dishwashers."  But as the adult Hebrew program that I started grew to four classes and as additional responsibilities at Hillel arose, I decided to "retire" from the Shalom Center.  That was last June.

At our Rosh HaShanah, Jewish new year service I had the opportunity to speak to about four hundred college students.  It is an awesome responsibility when you come to think of it.  You have ten minutes to say whatever you want to hundreds of young adults. In my opinion it is a one shot deal to try and be meaningful and inspirational and it comes and goes in a blink.  Well this year, among other things I talked about how we might react to the negatives and even horrors occurring in our world.  One reaction could be simply throwing up one's hands and thinking, "what can I do, I'm just one person?" The situations we face are overwhelming. I'm talking hurricanes, flooding, mass shootings, etc. etc.  What can any one person do? 

 I suggested that we could each take a look at our own little corners of the world and devote ourselves to doing something...some small thing to make it better.  Help a friend.  Be a friend to one who doesn't have friends. Become a mentor.  Volunteer a bit of time...Whatever.  Do a little something.  If each of us did so, I'm sure this would Tikkun our Olam; make our world a better place. 

Last week I read in our local paper about an Indiana man who, at eighty years of age, has dedicated himself to building water pumps in his garage.  He packs the pumps into suitcases and flies them down to Guyana in South America and installs them in the shacks of the locals there.  He has installed over 800 pumps.  What a great undertaking.  Most would say that an eighty year old should be sitting on his porch falling asleep while reading old Ed McBain mysteries.  But this old Hoosier isn't buying any of that.  He's building pumps in his garage and bringing drinking water to hundreds of people.  He's doing a whole lot of good.  What an inspiration.

I remarked to my wife, Juca, "Here's a fellow doing so much, and I'm reluctant to give two hours a week to the Shalom Center because I have an extra Hebrew class?"  Doesn't make much sense.  

Today I returned to my post at the Hobart at the Center.  I'll be washing dishes in my little corner of the world... and thinking about water pumps in Guyana.

That's the way I see it.


Thursday, September 21, 2017

Praying for Peace

 Friends.  Here's a post from the past which, I am sorry to say is quite appropriate today.  As we begin 5778 we need all the peace we can get.  Shannah Tovah to one and all.


Dear Friends and Family:

A ways back I participated in a camp-style Shabbat service along with Danny Nichols at Fairmount Temple in Cleveland, Ohio.  It is always uplifting for me to see campers conduct T’fillot in their home synagogues and hear their perceptions of camp.  But in this particular service, because of all of the tumult in our world, one of the prayers that Danny sang jumped out and pulled at my heart.  The Hebrew words, “Shalom Rav Al Yisrael Amcha, Tasim L’olam,” never seemed to have more meaning.  It’s sung in a melody that pleads for God to give God’s people, Israel, a great and everlasting peace.  I really sang it out last Friday, as if saying the words could or would make it happen .  

I don’t know how you feel about prayer, but I’m usually pretty cynical.  Don’t get me wrong, I love going to services, I always find some new idea in the liturgy or come up with some new thought (sometimes not even close, I admit, to what’s happening in the synagogue, but new, nonetheless) that stays with me long after I’ve brushed the crumbs of the Oneg off of my tie.  But, for me, the power of prayer moves in an inward rather than outward direction.  I don’t expect God to grant peace.  I know that we have to make peace if peace is to happen at all.  Yet I say the words and they have power.  How is that?  How can that be?   I’d like not to think of myself as a hypocrite, so how can I reconcile having a feeling of contentment and even joy in prayer, while not expecting prayers to be answered?

The answers to these questions don’t come easily.  I’m sure that the communal environment of a Shabbat worship service is part of it.  Being together with other Jews, saying and singing together, knowing that others around the world are doing the same, all bring me a feeling of comfort and belonging.  And in the case of praying for peace, during these dangerous days here and in Israel, perhaps simply the joining of voices in a group wish is enough to reach in and tug at heartstrings.  I find that sometimes prayer can have a great impact on me.  It often does here at camp where I sit surrounded by children and listen to their prayers.  That definitely gives me strength and hope, and makes me smile.  

But there was something in that Shalom Rav last Shabbat that went beyond the group wish.  There was some distant hope I felt…as if by singing the words with full Kavanah, devotion, just maybe there was an outside chance that it could happen.  Like I said, I don’t expect prayers to be answered.  But maybe, just this once, just this once. SHALOM RAV AL YISRAEL AMCHA TASIM L’OLAM.  

Maybe just this once!  Let it be.


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

From Crying to Crackers; A Drama in four (or five) Loops

Dear Friends and Family:                                                                July, 2017

Most mornings I trek over to the local YMCA to walk circles around its four basketball courts for 45 minutes or so.  This seems to help get the blood going and loosen up seven decade old knees.  But I have to tell you that walking the indoor track is one of the most boring things I do. One could get loopy from making loops around the courts.  You know, round and round you go and after each curve you see the same old stuff; other old guys and gals stretching, walking, and even shooting baskets.  Not today.

For me, the best days on the track are rainy summer mornings.  You see, on rainy mornings the throngs of little kids that attend the Y’s day camp programs take over the four courts for their programs and games.  Wow, there is a lot to see on my loops around on mornings like this.  I guess it is my nature to search out staff when I see such a gathering.  I can’t help but look to see who is watching the kids, how the campers are being led, how attentive the counselors are being.  Hey, I was a camp director.

So my first loops today were filled with those kind of sights, and I have to tell you that all looked good.  But as I rounded a curve and one of the courts came into view this morning, I saw a little girl walk by another camper (a boy, both about five years old) and kick over some kind of plastic structure he was building.  I don’t know if she was being mean or if it was an accident.  In the few moments it took me to pass by I saw the boy’s face crumble into a frown and from there to a full blown cry. That’s all I saw.  I walked on.  But it gets better.

Next loop there’s the boy, still crying but a counselor is sitting with him.  I, of course, couldn’t hear what she was saying to him, but she was on it in just the time it took me to make the loop.  Good sign.  In my day at GUCI we used to call that "Coverage."  A good insurance term (probably got it from my dad).   The counselor was huddled over the boy in what looked to me like a very comforting manner.  By the time I looped again, the cry had somewhat subsided.  On that second or third time around I also noticed that another counselor had joined in and the three of them sat off to the side together.  Good stuff.

Another loop…no more crying.

 Another loop brings me to a scene of the boy, sitting with the counselors, shoveling crackers into his mouth.  So I witnessed some good work on the part of these two counselors.  I imagine they are just high school students.  But the important thing is that they were quickly on it with their camper, showed appropriate compassion, and comforted him as he needed.  Now I’d like to say the drama had a Hollywood ending with our star camper finishing his crackers and smiling as he joined the other kids in activity.  That didn’t happen.  He was happy to hang with the staff and start to rebuild his plastic thing.  Maybe that’s Hollywood enough for five loops around the gym.  I was just happy to see these high school students taking good care of their campers.

Forecast for tomorrow is for sun.  Another boring forty-five minutes of loops.  Oh well..


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Secret Times and the American Pastime

                                                                                                                July, 2017

The coincidence that I would bump into this post on this particular day causes me to run it up the flagpole once again (let's see if anyone salutes).  Tonight the MLB
All-Star game will be played in Miami.  Although my Cubbies were prominent last year in this game...and then went on to win it all, this time around things seem more "normal."  Cubs are struggling to stay at .500, not many if any will be in the game tonight.  Nevertheless, I'll be watching and remembering  those long lost days of yesteryear, when listening to the game huddled on a bottom bunk with ten other twelve-year-olds was so delicious.  

Hope you enjoy it the second time around.


Dear Family and Friends:

A couple of nights ago I watched the Major League baseball All-Star Game.  What’s so interesting about watching a ball game anyway?  Well for 36 summers I worked at Goldman Union Camp Institute and for 10 or so summers before that I worked at Olin- Sang-Ruby Union Institute.  Both are summer camps and when you work in a summer camp, days blend into one another, the time between one Shabbat and the next is just an instant, and who (at camp) even knows when the All-Star game is even happening?
This game brings together the best players in the American and National leagues.  They are the best baseball players in the world, (I dare say) and most American baseball fans are excited about it.  When I was a kid, I was too.  That was before all of those summers at camp with no TV or time to even think about the sport I loved so as a boy.

So, here I am, retired, at home in the summer and able to once again tune into the game.  You know, I really am not very interested in All-Star games.  Nowadays the game is important because the winning league gets home field advantage for the game of games, The World Series.  I’m a National League person.  But I know that even if the NL pulls off a victory, the World Series will not be played in a “Field”  (as in Wrigley) but most likely in a “Stadium” (as in Busch), or a “Park.”  This troubles me.   Nevertheless I watch, and the American League wins anyway.

So I’m up in my lair, watching the game and I flashback to a time long ago when All-Star games were so important to me.  The year is 1958.  Believe it or not, in those days I’m a Chicago White Sox fan (that would last until the mid 60’s…it probably was a rebellion.  My dad was avid Cubs fan).  So, it’s 1958 and some unbelievable players are in the game.  To start with the Sox’s second baseman, Nellie Fox; and shortstop Louis Aparicio (later to become Nellie’s son-in-law, but I digress) one of the greatest double –play combinations in all of baseball history (or at least the history of baseball in my lifetime).  Joining these heroes of mine was another all-time great, Mickey Mantle.  Mantle played center field for the much hated (because they were such a powerful and winning team) New York Yankees.  I hated the Yankees…but I had a picture of Mickey Mantle in my bedroom.  Some of the best ever played for the National League, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Warren Spahn to name a few.

So I’m watching the game here in 2013 flashing back to ’58 but not thinking about these historic names, or even thinking of the game itself at all.  Rather, I’m thinking of the setting in which I heard the game.  That’s right, heard the game on the radio, as did millions in those days.  But when one listened to such games announced by outstanding sports announcers who painted pictures with their words, you really did see the game, in your head, that is.    In 1958 I was twelve years old.  It was my first summer as a camper at Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.  I’d been a camper for four years already at other camps because our Reform Movement camps in those days did not take campers younger than twelve.  Funny, I didn't know that it would be the first of fifty-two summers I would be spending in our Reform Jewish summer camp programs.
I remember the night of that All-Star game.  We must have been listening to a rebroadcast of the game as baseball was pretty much an afternoon sport back then.  I was a camper in one of the small white cabins on the Big House lawn near the lake (we didn't know enough Hebrew then to call it the Bayit, as it is called today).  I can see it in my mind.  It’s late at night, dark in the cabin while ten or twelve of us twelve-year olds huddle around a bottom bunk at the back of the cabin, ears “glued” to a small transistor radio.  We had to listen quietly so we wouldn't attract the attention of the counselors on late night “OD.” I remember nothing of the game.  I remember everything of the excitement of sneaking around, like thieves in the night, outrageously listening to baseball when we were supposed to be fast asleep in our bunks.  How dastardly.  What rebels we were.  How delicious to have such an innocent adventure in the dark with cabin mates.
Such “secret” times still happen in cabins in camps around the world.  Times that kids will think back on when they are retired and something triggers a memory.  In 1958 it was my time, my cabin, my All-Star game.  I loved remembering it the other night.  I watched baseball but thought about kids at camp making memories.  Our granddaughter, Zoe is a camper at this moment.  I know she’s having those secret times.  Good for her.


Thursday, June 22, 2017

FirstTrip to Eastern Europe

Dear Friends and Family:

Two of our best friends are currently leading a NFTY group through Prague and Poland and then on to Israel.  My wife and I did this twice in the past few years.  Here is a recall of my first trip to Eastern Europe.

                                                                                                 November, 2000

Dear Friends and Family:

It's unusual for me to find myself in our Beit T'fillah (outdoor chapel) at 10 p.m. on a Friday night in October, all by my lonesome.  But, as I returned, last month, from a UAHC (now URJ) Camp Directors' trip to the Czech Republic and Poland, I didn't feel I had reached my destination until I arrived at our Beit T'fillah.  

We took off on a grueling, six-day, experience, stepping back into the distant and cerebral past of the middle ages, and to the not so distant, emotional past of our Eastern European Jewish history.  It was quite a personal voyage for me.  You see, three of my grandparents came to America in the early 1900's from Prague, Czechoslovakia.  Czech was spoken at our family get-togethers around tables filled with Bohemian foods.  It just wasn't Thanksgiving if we weren't all at my Aunt Lill's on Chicago's West side, digging into the goose, dumplings, and cabbage along with the newer traditions, turkey, stuffing, and cranberries.  The beer was Pilsner Urquell.  We belonged to B’nai Jehoshua, a synagogue made up of mostly Czech families.  Enough said.  I knew I was a Czech Jew.

At several stops along the way that week, the realities of our Jewish past stepped up to splash their ice water in my face.  The first was in a small synagogue in Prague where the living had honored the names of all Czech Jews deported by the Nazis, by listing them on the synagogue walls and ceilings.  I stood there under the names of my Mother's family, the Steiners, who I would never meet or know.  These were the relatives after which my Aunts and even my Grandfather were named.  Until that moment I had never felt so related to our enemy's victims.  I felt a deep connection to that family I would never know, but eternally miss.  The names on that ceiling drew me right into the horrors of that time.      

We left the Technicolor Prague for a black and white Warsaw and Krakow.  Warsaw is a gray, cement block city where most of our Jewish presence has been erased.  But, I did stand on Mila Street to honor the well-known Mordachai Anielewicz, leader of the ghetto revolt against the Nazi monsters.  Standing on that street also gave me the opportunity to honor the not-so-well-known Moshe Pashtan, z"l, who, born on that street, escaped the ghetto as a child to Germany (of all places) and then to Israel, only to wind up sharing a tent with me for a summer as my Assistant Tzofim Unit Head at Olin-Sang-Ruby in 1969.  Moshe and I took a bus to New York after camp that summer.  I was leaving for a year (due mostly to Moshe's summer-long prodding) on my first pilgrimage to Israel.  For me, Mila was Pashtan's street.  It was one of the many spots I stopped to whisper the Kaddish.

I prayed again at the Jewish cemetery of Warsaw.  It's overwhelming to stand amid the 250,000 Jewish graves, to read the Hebrew on the tombstones, to understand the poetry of their old words.  It's another strong connection.  This is where the enormity of our loss starts to become real.  Kaddish seemed inadequate to me.  But it was all I knew to say, a way to thank God for giving me life, to remember and to continue.  In retrospect, Kaddish was the perfect Jewish memorial. 

After a " From Russia With Love" style train ride to Krakow, thirty miles or so from my Father's family's hometown (The Klotz's came from Tarnov), we bused to the emotional apex of our trip, Auschwitz and Birkenau, Nazi work and death camps.  Passing under that wrought iron sign "Arbact Macht Frei" (work will make you free), walking through a gas chamber, seeing the ovens, strips away the distance and protection the filters of film, printed word, even personal testimony of survivors affords.  Being there makes it real. Very real.  The impact is so deep it takes the breath away. 

Finally, it's Birkinau.  This is where the train tracks end; the camp built solely for the purpose of killing Jews.  A million and a half of our grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins stepped out of their cattle cars and departed this world at that wrenched place.  Men to the left, women and children to the right.  Being there brings the inescapable thought that it could have been me.  It could have been you.  Then the reality, it was me and it was you.  To the left and to the right; stripped, gassed, cremated, ashes dumped into two small pools of water.  All that remains are those pools.  We were numb standing by the water.  We neither cried nor screamed.  Just numb.  Rabbi Allan Smith, our guide that day began our ascent from those depths with a worship service in the area adjacent to the water pools filled with ashes.  We shared some of our thoughts along with the prayers.  Then he led us in the opposite direction the 800,000 women and children took as they marched to their deaths down a half-mile brick path.  They are in the pools.  We rise from the place of the ashes to carry on and do our work and live as Jews.  I stopped and dug up a few pieces of brick from that path.  So many children had stepped there.  I needed something in my pocket to hold on to.  When my group talked a bit about the experience I told my colleagues that, after the sadness and the anger, I felt an intense sense of pride and confirmation.  Pride in carrying on our Jewish heritage.  Pride in my ethnicity, my faith, my membership in Am Yisrael.  This was an experience that confirmed all of the above and even more, the work we do, not only here at camp and in NFTY, but in every synagogue, and in every home where our kids learn to sing the Shabbat blessings and light the Chanukiot.  I've always maintained that it is sacred work, teaching kids to love Judaism and strengthening their Jewish identities.  But now, after having been in this place, I felt I was carrying home the blessings of those who walked that brick path.  I'm honored to carry the torch into the future.

So, I returned late on a Friday night, exhausted after over thirty hours of travel.  On the way home from the airport I took a left instead of a right and wound up at camp (just a minute out of the way).  Closed and dark, it's still GUCI.  I took ten minutes to sit in our Beit T'fillah imagining and remembering the voices of our campers and staff, singing our prayers, fanning away the heat with prayer cards.  That's how I completed this extraordinary trip.

And so, I headed home, my pockets lumpy with pieces of brick.



Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Rainy Days and Mondays Never Get Me Down

                                                                                                                        May 2017

Dear Family and Friends:

Sounds crazy but when I was a kid I used to hope for rain on Saturdays.  We lived on the Northside of Chicago, on Greenview Avenue, a couple of blocks from the lake.  There was always plenty to do when the sun shone.  I could ride my bike up to Gale school on Ashland and find a ball game to play, or ride down Sheridan Rd with a few buddies all the way to Northwestern U. or the Bahai Temple.  But rainy Saturdays were special.

My dad, Arnold, loved to play golf.  He played every Saturday morning until the snows came.  I can’t remember waking up on a warm Saturday morning to find my Dad home.  He’d be out on the course.  I think he used to get up around five so he could make his foursome way out south on a course somewhere around 95th and Cicero.  He’d come home around one.  Dad’s usual routine was to eat lunch, put on the Cubs game and fall asleep on the couch.  If I changed the channel he’d bark…”Hey.  I was watching that.”  So of course, I’d go out and play…something.  But when it rained on Saturday afternoons the routine changed.  We’d grab our raincoats and hike down Howard Street to the Howard Theater to see a movie.  In my imperfect memory I remember doing this every time that rain came down.

As I think back, I don’t remember doing many things with my father, just the two of us.  Maybe that’s why those afternoons were so special.  There are two other summer father/son outings I remember.  Once each summer my dad would take me horseback riding and once a summer we’d go to Riverview Park to ride the roller coasters.

 At Riverview we’d ride the Silver Streak and the Blue Flash, and never miss the Shoot the Shoots.  Shoot the Shoots was a boat ride through dark passageways and then on to an elevator and then down a steep incline.  At the bottom it plunged into a small lake, water splashed up everywhere.  Everyone got wet.  We loved it.  On the roller coasters we’d usually sit in the last two seats if we could.  That’s where you get whipped around the most (at least that’s what we thought).  Except when we rode the Bobs.  The Bobs was the fastest coaster at Riverview.  On the Bobs we’d wait in line until we could sit in the first two seats.  With nothing in front of you, that first drop and first turn would scare the you-know-what out of you.   Both my dad and I always laughed from start to finish on the roller coasters.

Riverview trips were great, but I seem to have more of an emotional memory of going to the movies on rainy Saturday afternoons.  So today it’s late in May, university students gone for the summer, Hillel closed, the perfect time to get out on my boat and sail, but for the rain.  I’m sitting here looking out the window at a rainy day and thinking of my dad.  It’s good.  I’d love to sail, but thinking of those days long gone is OK too.

Karen Carpenter sang, “Rainy Days and Mondays Always Get Me Down.”  She didn’t have those rainy Saturday afternoons with my dad, Arnie.  I’m glad I did.