I’ve never reblogged a post before, but this one struck me as vitally important to my personal life and the issues that matter to me. Here, my new friend, Susan, discusses her experiences with raising interfaith children, and gives advice for those doing so. Very thought-provoking and insightful.

On Being Both

The concept of raising children as “both” continues to raise eyebrows, hackles, and goosebumps. From where I stand, with my second-generation-interfaith children almost grown, the benefits of raising them with both religions seem clear. But I thought it might be useful to sum up my reasoning and experience:

  1. Children have the right to understand and appreciate both cultures and religions represented in their family tree. Withholding information or explanations about this background can create resentment, or a sense of the suppressed religion as “forbidden fruit.” This was my own experience, growing up in an interfaith family without any education about my Christian side.
  2. Children who are equally rooted and equally comfortable with both sets of extended family may feel they have greater family support from both sides. My children, teens raised with both, are comfortable in church with Grandma, and at the Passover Seder led by Grandpa. All of the…

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2012 in review

I thought WordPress did a great job with this year-end report. It was informative and entertaining. I hope you enjoy it, too.
            —Art

 

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 3,800 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 6 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

The Year of Prayer

I recently took a week-long, mostly silent retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani. A report of this blissful experience is in the works. In the meantime, I have undertaken a new project and I hope that you will join me in the endeavor.

My retreat inspired me to make prayer a larger and more essential element of my spiritual life by designating the year 2013 a year of prayer for me. Some small success in blogging, along with witnessing the amazing rise of social media, encouraged me to share my year of prayer with the world.

Every day of the year 2013, I will compose a prayer and post it to this blog. Far from a mere writing exercise, this work will be part of my daily spiritual practice as, through prayer, I wrestle with the universal issues of life and the dilemmas of our modern age. From the joy of witnessing and contributing to genuine charity to the plea peace between religions; from anxiety over my daughter’s surgery to grief and anger at the latest violence in our cities. These are the realities of our life, for humanity is one and it’s problems exist for us all.

Which is why I need your help.

Through solitary prayer we expand our hearts and come closer to the Absolute Truth and Good. Through collective prayer we realize the inherent Truth and Goodness at the core of each of us. United in praise, petition, celebration and mourning, we are united in thought, deed, heart, and spirit. Praying together as Hindus, Christians, skeptics, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jews and so on, we pray together as sisters and brothers, and we elevate the whole of our world.

You can find the new blog here. Currently there is only a place-holder, though it is admittedly a very good one which I myself did not compose.

Please pray with me through the year. Read the post for the day, reflect upon it, recite it or use your own words. Share it with friends and family. Make your own year of prayer blog and connect to this one. Make this a practice in your family, your place of worship, your sewing circle, your coffeshop group. Extend the energy of prayer in all directions in your life. Together we can transform ourselves and our lives — our life together — and, with great effort and patience, perhaps we can even do a little good in the world.

May your life be blessed.

God Bless Newtown

My deepest sympathies go out to everyone involved in the Newtown murders today. As a parent of young children, I can only begin to imagine the anguish this has caused. My family will pray for these families tonight.

These senselss tragedies must stop. Americans must set aside outdated ideas about the Constitution and put and end to gun ownership. I will be contacting my representative today to make my statement about gun control. I suggest you do the same. Also, contact the National Rifle Association and remind them that, as the biggest lobbying group for gun ownership in America, they are also the biggest supporters of murderers and madmen in America. It is time they develope a conscience. Below is the message I have sent to them. Please consider doing something similar.

Today in a small, New England School, some twenty-six people — twenty of them children, as I understand it, between the ages of five and ten — are dead at the hands of a murderer carring semi-automatic pistols and a .223 caliber hunting rifle. Twenty-six people. Twenty children. Shot to death in an elementary school.

Your organization has, for many years, fought to arm Americans with lethal weapons. You funnel enormous amounts of money into our government and spew your propagananda across the nation in an effort to ensure that Americans can own devices created for no purpose but to kill.

You have been successful.

Thanks to your work, men like the Newtown gunman can walk into a Walmart with a few hundred dollars, and proceed to ensure that a child does not walk out of his school, ever.

Parents are heartbroken. Children are dead. Why? So that you can have the right to kill deer and squirrells? So that you can be a quick-draw competitor on the weekends?

Your organization is at the heart of the anti-gun-control movement. Your organization helps make enormous tragedies possible. Your organization is horrendously irresponsible, unconscionable, and disgraceful.

For the love of God and the parents of murdered children, stop now. Stop now. Please.

May the Holy Mother hold these poor babies in her lap tonight. May they walk with Thakur in paradise, and return to this world with the thought of saving others from such terrible tragedies. May we all hold these families aloft in our prayers, and cry out to the Lord to save us from our own madness, our own violence, our own cowardice. God grant them forgiveness, for only the greatest of saints could forgive such a deed without Your saving Grace.

AUM shanti shanti shanti.

Swami Swahanandaji

My dear Gurudev, Revered Swami Swahanandaji of the Vedanta Society of Southern California, shed his body this afternoon.

As my guru bhai said, he did an enormous amount of Sri Ramakrishna’s work in America. We will forever be indebted to him. I understand that he has left Swami Sarvadevanandaji as head minister. He will, I expect, be an excellent spiritual leader for the many centers under the Southern California Society.

I don’t have a great deal to say about this. It is quite a blow. He brought me out of darkness.

Gurur Brahma Gurur Vishnu Gurur Devo Maheshwara

Gurur-saakshaat Parabrahma Tasmai Sri Gurave Namah

Retreat at the Ramakrishna Vedanta Ashrama, Pittsburgh

They were five blissful days.

I’ve written about the Pittsburgh Ashrama before. I traveled there in May of 2011 to receive initiation from Swami Swahanandaji. I was only there a couple of days, but I was unquestioningly welcomed and treated with love and care by the devotees. This was my first visit to the Ashrama since then, and I was eager to get back to my spiritual home. However, I must admit to some trepidation. I foresaw some difficulties and some uncomfortable times. Minor things mostly. I had almost no experience with Indian food and I’m a deplorably finicky eater. I wasn’t sure about sleeping arrangements; my sleep apnea (read: excessive snoring and constant tiredness) can ruin a trip. And I was worried about how much I would stand out in this crowd. According to the information I gathered, this Ashrama has known only two Western devotees. I am the second.

All of my worries proved to be completely unfounded. Well, except for the food issue. But even that turned out very much for the better by the end of the week.

Because I’ve written about it in the past, we’ll first deal with the issue of race, so that we can get it out of the way.

There is a bit of a language barrier. The Ashrama’s devotees represent a number of Indian languages, including Bangla, Hindi, Telugu, Marathi and Tamil. A number of them are conversant in at least one other language and a number are fluent in Sanskrit. Therefore it was not at all uncommon for me to be the only one at the table who couldn’t understand a word of the conversation. I hardly minded. I tried listening in, getting acquainted with the sounds of the languages. And if someone saw me paying attention, they’d usually either translate for me or switch to English for my benefit.

And that was the whole of the “race issue.” No one made me feel unwelcome. No one slighted me or ignored me. Most people — even some I saw only once and didn’t even get their name — were kind, polite, helpful, and possessed of a desire to be of service to others the heights of which is rarely seen. Considering most of these people have been together for years, and that I’ve spent now a total of only seven days at the Ashrama, I don’t think they could have gone any further to make me feel at home.

There was, however, one person who didn’t think I quite fit in. I believe he was about five years old and he was absolutely adorable. He looked me up and down, stared me right in the eyes and said, “You’re not Bangla. You came to the wrong party.” After that we had a nice conversation about his toy motorcycle and he went on his merry way. I nearly laughed myself off my chair.

So. The overview.

This was my first long trip away from my family. It was a very new experience for me. I drove ten hours each way alone, had little contact with my wife while I was there, and had not a single family member or friend — aside from my brothers and sisters at the Ashrama, of course — with me. Despite all of this unfamiliarity, I was quite comfortable by the second night. The first night, I was simply too tired from the trip and suffering from acid reflux, the product of too many spices too late at night.

The Ashrama is a house in a nice neighborhood in Monroeville, Pennsylvania. They’ve recently purchased the house next door, which will allow them to accommodate more devotees, have more spacious quarters for visiting Swamis, and cook in the comfort of a large kitchen.

During my last stay, I rented a hotel room. That was costly enough for a two night stay; four nights’ rental would have made it prohibitively expensive. Here came the first example of my spiritual family’s eagerness to serve their fellow devotees: they allowed me to pass my nights in the newly acquired house next door. I don’t know if this will be possible in future, but it was a godsend for me.

Susmita, the Ashrama’s Mataji and principle chef, whom the young devotees call “Di” (big sister) and her husband Kunal — “Da;” big brother — handle most of the Ashrama’s day-to-day business. A number of devotees come often and are most eager to cook, clean and see to the many details of running the Ashrama. I was particularly impressed with a small crew of young men who, during my stay, always arrived early, departed late, participated in every nuance of Ashrama work, and always performed their duties with good humor, kindness, and piety. These fellows will hereafter be the yardstick against which my daughters’ prospective husbands will be judged. I’m proud to call them friends and brothers.

On a lighter note, these good young gentlemen also saddled me with a new moniker. This is a tradition they apparently began with the other Western devotee at the Ashrama and I was glad to be part of it. But the name takes some explaining. My name, as you know, is Art. The Sanskrit for “art” is “kala,” but that’s a feminine word. So they struck upon “kalakar,” which means “artist.” Not entirely inappropriate. But it wasn’t good enough. The appellation “ji” is added to names as a sign of respect. Hence Swamiji, Gandhiji, and so on. So my new Ashrama name — or perhaps one would call it a title? — became Kalakarji. The armchair linguist in me was tickled pink.

I was most blessed to be able to make this retreat during a long visit by Swami Bhaskaranandaji, the spiritual head of the Vedanta Society of Western Washington. I cannot begin to express my depth of respect and affection for this saintly man.

Swami Bhaskarananda radiates wisdom and kindness. He told me at least twice that he was happy to have met me. When I suffered from acid reflux, he gave me some medicine — OTC and harmless, of course — that sorted me right out. His lectures were infused with experience, and I often found them responding to questions I had not asked and concerns I had not voiced. At those times, I do not think I was imagining that he was looking me directly in the eye.

The atmosphere at the Ashrama this week was one of devotion and service. So many hands eager to help, so much talk of religion, so much fervor during arati every night. And in the midst of all this, the unwavering calm and good humor of Swami Bhaskarananda. More than once, I’m not at all ashamed to say, I was moved to tears. Thinking back on those days, I am so moved again.

The ashrama normally has arati a couple days a week. We had it every night that I was there. At this center, during a Swami’s visit, it consists of some of the regular devotees offering incense, light, and foods to the Holy Trio, the singing of four bhajans specific to the Ramakrishna tradition, a talk from the Swami, and then any number of people may sing solos, small group performances, or call-and-response songs. There are some very talented people at the ashrama. I heard several performances of professional quality.

After the music comes supper, and an opportunity to get to know the other devotees. On a couple of occasions I enjoyed sitting with Swami Bhaskarananda and hearing many wonderful things about spiritual life, along with a lot of great little jokes. Time with him was never not stimulating.

So that was my retreat. It was far too short, but it’s effects will no doubt linger in my heart for quite some time.

In conclusion, I want to encourage you, if you live in Pittsburgh or within driving distance thereof, and if you’re interested in Vedanta or the Ramakrishna tradition, please visit the Pittsburgh Ashrama. If you’re a Westerner and are afraid of being uncomfortable at a center that is culturally Indian, please do not let that stop you from experiencing satsang with the beautiful people there. They are the epitome of hospitality, eager to serve all of God’s children. They are devout and sincere and true to the core. They are the example by which I can only hope to live.

Cry to God

This is my latest post for the Homophilosophicus blog.

In Sri Ramakrishna, the Great Master, the English translation of Swami Saradananda’s definitive biography of Sri Ramakrishna, the author relates an incident between Narendra — the future Swami Vivekananda — and Sri Ramakrishna during a time of desperation and impoverishment for Narendra and his family. Sri Ramakrishna was a great devotee of the goddess Kali, so Narendra begged his guru to pray to Kali for the relief of his family’s suffering. Sri Ramakrishna refused, telling Narendra to go to the temple and pray to Her himself. Eventually, Narendra heeded the Master’s advice and entered the temple. Immediately he was overwhelmed with ecstatic emotion. His family’s troubles forgotten, he worshipped Mother Kali and returned to the Master.

Three times Narendra returned to the Master, who inquired as to how the boy’s prayers had gone, and three times, the Master sent Narendra back to the temple to pray for his family. Never was Narendra able to maintain his presence of mind, so deep in ecstasy did he fall at the sight of the Goddess’s image. At last, Sri Ramakrishna himself granted Narendra the boon that his family would never go without the basic necessities of life.The whole thing had been a charade and a lesson.

A special aspect of Sri Ramakrishna’s teaching is the idea that the aim of all religion is God realization. One may receive benefits from simple piety, from occasional prayers or erratic spiritual practices, and these may bring some happiness, some relief of suffering, and a more auspicious set of circumstances in one’s future life, but God realization alone will bring a permanent end to suffering and the cycle of rebirth.

For those not familiar with the term, God realization, in brief, is the realization that God alone is real and eternal, all other things, including our perceived identities, will pass away and are, therefore, unreal. This is not an intellectual understanding that we can acquire through study, but a direct knowledge acquired through the renunciation of desires and the elimination of the ego. God realization results in an intimate, direct and permanent experience of the divine in this life. It is the same experience as Self realization, nirvana, entering into the Kingdom of Heaven within, and so on. These are all limited ways of describing the experience of the Limitless.

Sri Ramakrishna pulled no punches. Lust and greed keep us bound up in desire, ignorant of our true, divine nature and our oneness with God. For a sincere aspirant who wants to reach the ultimate goal, anything that does not bring one closer to God realization is a waste of time. Once one attains the goal, life’s problems cease to be problems, experiences are neither good nor bad but simply experienced, and one knows the endless bliss of divine wisdom.

Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings seem to beg the question of what use the simple practice of prayer can be to someone with such a lofty goal. Will I bring myself closer to the Lord by asking for a better job, or healing of my child’s illness, or for the safety of victims of a natural disaster? Sri Ramakrishna once had a conversation about God with some Sikhs who said that God’s great compassion was evident in his giving us all we need for survival. Sri Ramakrishna seemed to think this view arose from missing an essential point. Here is an excerpt of the conversation from The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna

         Master: “God is the Father of us all. Who will look after the child if the father doesn’t? Do you mean to say that the people of the neighbouring village should look after the child?”

         Narendra: “Then shouldn’t we call God kind?”

         Master: “Have I forbidden you to? What I mean is that God is our very own. He is not a stranger to us.”[1]

We may pray to God for the necessities of life. No matter how far along the spiritual journey we have traveled, we will always be in need of certain material things, and it is likely for most of us that they will not always be easily come by. That being said, we must trust that the Lord anticipates our needs and will provide for them. He is not some distant entity. He is our very own. We can put our faith in Him, and, in order to realize Him, we must do so. So long as our prayer supports our faith in God, we can not only ask Him for what we need, we can expect it.

But what place does prayer have in the quest for God realization? Are not strenuous austerities called for? Must we not fast for days, meditate for hours, and count millions of mantras? In fact, such tortuous practices are counter-productive. Sri Ramakrishna often said that, in the Kali Yuga — that is, our current age — truthfulness itself is an austerity. He himself took part in very difficult spiritual practices, but he did not urge his devotees to do the same.

         “I have done sixteen annas[2] of sadhana[3]. It is enough even if you did one anna.”

The principle spiritual practice Sri Ramakrishna called for was devotion to God. This, he said, was the way for the Kali Yuga. He called it the easy path, which leads one directly to God realization. He encouraged his disciples to cultivate love for God, chant God’s name and sing His glories. He also encouraged prayer.

Sri Ramakrishna frequently asked his disciples, “Who cries for God?” People, he would say, cry for family and friends, over loss and misfortune, but how many people shed tears for lack of the vision of God? Who weeps with longing for God realization? Who so intensely feels the need to know God intimately that they bawl at His feet?

         “You must reach God somehow or other. Call on Him in solitude and pray to Him, ‘O Lord! reveal Thyself to me.’ Weep for Him with a longing heart.”

Time and again, the Master encourages his students to “weep for God,” to “be a little mad for God,” to “cry…with a real cry” to God. According to Sri Ramakrishna, prayer can certainly lead to the realization of God, but it must be the most sincere prayer, fueled by a deep yearning for God. He illustrates this yearning through one of his many parables.

A student once said to his guru, “I have been practicing spiritual disciplines for some time. When will I realize God?”

The teacher said, “Come with me,” and led his student to a pond, where the two of them waded in until the water reached their chests. With no warning, the guru grabbed the young man by the hair of his head and dunked him under the water. He held him there for some time until the boy was thrashing about violently. The student rose from the water, spluttering and gasping for breath, and the teacher asked him, “How did you feel while I was holding you under?”

“My chest was burning!” said the student. “I was dying for a breath!”

“When you feel such a desire for God,” said the guru, “then alone will you realize him.”

So this is Sri Ramakrishna’s message about prayer. Not only must it be done with regularity —

         “At dusk put aside all duties and pray to God.”

— but with earnestness and, above all, great longing. This longing we can cultivate, and, in fact, we can pray to God for the devotion we need to accomplish our goal.

         “I prayed to the Divine Mother for pure love.  I said to Her: ‘Here is Thy righteousness, here is Thy unrighteousness.  Take them both and give me pure love for Thee.  Here is Thy purity, here is Thy impurity.  Take them both and give me pure love for Thee.  O Mother, here is Thy virtue, here is Thy vice.  Take them both and give me pure love for Thee.”

          Sri Ramakrishna assures us that God hears our prayers, and will answer them if we but make a little effort.


[1] All quotes from The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna may be found here.

[2] In Sri Ramakrishna’s time, sixteen annas made one rupee in Indian currency.

[3] Spiritual practice.

Video Game Designers Abuse Hinduism

Video game designer Hi-Rez Studios has created a game, called “Smite,” which allows its players to assume the identities of deities from various “mythologies.” Included are the Hindu deities Vamana, Agni, and, decked out like a gothic pornographic actress, Kali.

Rajan Zed has spoken out against the game and asked its creators to remove the Hindu deities. Hi-Rez has rather rudely refused.

“SMITE includes deities inspired from a diverse and ever expanding set of pantheons including Greek, Chinese, Egyptian, and Norse. Hinduism, being one of the world’s oldest, largest and most diverse traditions, also provides inspiration toward deities in our game. In fact, given Hinduism’s concept of a single truth with multiple physical manifestations one could validly interpret ALL the gods within SMITE to be Hindu. And all gods outside of SMITE as well. Ponder that for a minute. Anyway, going forward SMITE will include even more deities, not fewer.”

You can search Google news for more coverage of these events, including statements in support of the Hindu argument by a Rabbi and a Buddhist.

If you have an opinion on this matter, I urge you to contact Hi-Rez Studios and let them know.

Easter at the Vedanta Society of St. Louis

I’ve wanted to write this post for weeks.

I made my first visit to the Vedanta Society of St. Louis this Easter Sunday. This was my first visit to a Ramakrishna Mission center since my initiation almost a year ago. I tried to keep my expectations under control, but I was very excited.

The Vedanta Society of St. Louis was founded in 1938 by Swami Satprakashananda, a man Huston Smith called a genuine saint. I find it impressive that the Society has been in operation for almost seventy-five years. The current minister, Swami Chetanananda, has led the Society since 1979. He is a prolific author and translator.

The Society’s building is a great, old house across from the splendid Forest Park.  My wife and I arrived a few minutes before the service began Sunday morning. The Society seems to have a number of long-term members; one of them found us wandering about and properly oriented us. We took our seats in the darkened chapel — what might have originally been a living room — and shortly the arati began. Before a photo of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Nirakarananda waved a five-wick lamp and rang a bell, as we all chanted very slowly the Ramakrishna Gayatri mantra. This mantra was new to me, and beautiful, and so I record it here.

AUM Ramakrishnaya vidmahe

Gadadharaya dhimahi

Tanno deva prachodayat AUM

I cannot say long this went on, or how many times we recited the mantra. I became lost in it, at home there at the lotus feet of the Master.

The lamp was passed around that we may receive the Master’s blessings. The lights were then raised, and we sang several bhajans, none of which were familiar to me save Khandana Bhava Bandhana, an arati song about Sri Ramakrishna in Bangla. The other songs were in Sanskrit and Hindi, and, as I recall, included something from Ramprasad. Swami Nirakarananda led the singing with his pristine voice, playing the harmonium for accompaniment.

The bhajans over, the lights were again doused and Swami Nishpapananda, the Assistant Minister of the Society, led us in a guided meditation on our identity as the Atman, the deathless, blissful Self. His voice was soothing but held my attention. This was my first guided meditation. I never thought much of the concept, but I can see its merits now. There we were, each of us concentrating on our divine nature, which is the same in each of us. For a moment, I knew we were one.

During the short break before the sermon, we lingered in the front hall, not knowing what to do with ourselves. Swami Nishpapananda recognized our dilemma and greeted us and showed us around the house and told us that Swami Chetanananda would be available for questions and discussion after the sermon. We again took our seats in the chapel, which quickly filled to bursting. Swami Chetanananda’s lectures are extremely popular.

Swami Chetanananda is kind, unassuming, and soft-spoken. He has a wry sense of humor, and has an excellent sense about when to use it to lighten the tone of his sermon. The talk this Easter was about the quest for immortality. This is what religion is about, after all, to one degree or another. Christians want to live forever in heaven, Vedantins want to transcend death here on earth, but it amounts to the same thing: we fear death and we want to conquer it. Swami’s talk expounded upon that point in great detail. But I was most impressed with his opening prayer, a Sanskrit chant for Jesus. It was beautiful and moving and he called Jesus “the adorable one.” To my knowledge and in my limited experience, it is only in the Ramakrishna movement that one may find such sincere catholicity. I was left in awe of the spiritual liberality of Sri Ramakrishna, manifested in the words of Swami Chetanananda.

After the lecture, the revered Swami sat with several of us in the Society’s library, answering questions, making conversation and cracking jokes. This was my first time enjoying holy company — sadhusangha — in almost a year. I was thirsty for it. My time with him was nourishing and energizing. I came to the Society with a number of questions. I wanted to talk about meditation techniques, Advaita theory, spiritual practice. But sitting beside him in the library, my questions left my head entirely, and I found a measure of happiness and peace that I had not known for a long time.

The Swami made to leave the library, and I asked if we might visit the shrine, which I had heard was upstairs. He told one of the members to show it to us. Upon entering the room, I taken aback by the beauty of the altar. I prostrated myself before the Holy Trio and sat for several moments in prayer.

Hanging on a wall beside the shrine is a little leaf in a frame. The plaque below it explains that the leaf was taken from the mango tree Sri Ramakrishna himself planted. Beneath the seat on which sits the photo of Sri Sarada Devi, the Holy Mother, there is a frame containing a piece of cloth with a red footprint. This is the footprint of Holy Mother which Swami Chetanananda brought with him from India.

I came down from the shrine almost dizzy with emotion. This had thus far been much more than I had expected. I went into the Society’s book store and selected a number of books to purchase. Swami Nishpapananda appeared, and said that Swami Chetanananda wold like us to stay for lunch if we could.

Well, of course we could. Fantastic.

I must admit that lunch was difficult for me. I suffer from a deplorably finicky disposition. I had never before eaten Indian food, which is vastly different from my bland day-to-day diet. But I refused to let that stop me. I took very small portions of everything and did my best to put them down. When Swami Nirakarananda offered a bowl of ice cream after the meal, I was thrilled to quench my burning tongue with it. Obviously, if I’m going to be involved with the Ramakrishna movement, this is something I’m going to have to work on.

The meal was fairly quiet, which was fine with me. There were a few other devotees there, along with the three Swamis, and I was more than content to bask in the light of spiritual company. I was overwhelmed with gratitude toward Swami Chetanananda for inviting us to  stay, and everyone worked to make us feel welcome.

I returned home from my visit to the Society with a renewed sense of spiritual purpose. Sri Ramakrishna had never seemed so real and present as he did during my time with his devotees. My spiritual practice has benefited greatly from my time in the company of the Swamis; my resolve is much stronger, and my sense of the presence of divinity in every moment is re-awakened.

It was a good day.