J-Street Should Have Known When to Say When

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Do you remember those beer advertisements telling viewers to “know when to say when”? If not, the basic message was, know when you have had enough and stop drinking before you are inebriated. There was a related message of telling your friends to stop drinking before they get too drunk. This campaign entered my mind around the recent kafuffle regarding J-Street’s rejection of membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. Stick with me and I will try to explain why.

From its genesis, J-Street presented itself as the sober alternative to the supposedly belligerent AIPAC. Continuing with the drinking metaphor, J-Street aimed to straddle the fence between abstinence (anti-Zionism) and drunkenness. In other words, J-Street sought to fill the vacuum of an absence of a pro-Israel voice on the left.

I do not think the left is intrinsically anti-Israel or anti-Jewish. David Hirsh and the good people at Engage do a fine job in this regard. J-Street does not. Instead, they have taken it upon themselves to demand a larger role for American Jews in the diaspora to guide Israeli policy in a direction more to their liking. While AIPAC is regularly criticized by its opponents for doing the same thing, AIPAC was not established to influence Israeli policy it was created by Americans to lobby American politicians. Agree or disagree with AIPAC’s support for Israel—whether headed by liberal or conservative government—but we cannot disagree who AIPAC seeks to influence, it is American politicians not the government of Israel. This is a fundamental difference between the two organizations. Mainstream Jewish organizations as represented by the Presidents Council have placed themselves in an analogous role. Namely, their purpose is not to influence Israel but to have an impact on the US.

J-Street met great acclaim in the mainstream liberal press. However, they were not as welcomed by the organized Jewish community. And as Jews became more critical, the leadership of J-Street became nastier in their condemnations of the mainstream. J-Street should have known that their increasingly bellicose statements were going to marginalize them in the community. For example these comments by J-Street founder and president, Jeremy Ben-Ami at the New America Foundation:

I think we’re taking on much more than AIPAC. I think that it is the Conference of Presidents. It’s the American Jewish Committee. It’s the lobbying structures of the Federations. It’s the network of JCRCs, the Jewish Community Relations Councils…

It’s a really multi-layered, multi-headed hydra. This monopoly, this many-headed monopoly, has been trying to squash us.

That is not the sort of language one uses among friends even when you disagree politically. J-Street and their supporters should have known when to say when.

hydra

[If you refer to mainstream Jewish organizations as a multi-headed hydra, you are not a friend of mainstream Jewry.]

WBAI Continues to Implode

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[Let it die.]

I take good news where I can find it. In this instance, the implosion of Pacifica radio station WBAI:

On Monday, WBAI-FM interim program director Bob Hennelly met two twenty-somethings who wanted to intern at his community radio station. It was the same day he expected to be fired…

It’s no secret that WBAI — the wholly listener-supported, left-leaning station at 99.5 FM — and its owner, the nonprofit Pacifica Foundation, have long been strapped for cash. As WBAI’s debt spiraled up, its membership dwindled down. Last August, WBAI laid off 19 of its 29 employees just to cover basic operating costs like the rent for its transmitter, The New York Times reported

Upon learning that the station had fallen far behind in delivering premiums from October’s drive because it couldn’t afford to pay for them, Hennelly pulled Null’s controversial show from the air to prevent the Federal Communications Commission from charging WBAI with fraud.”

Excellent. Gary Null is a fraud and should be charged accordingly.

However, this is disturbing:

Hennelly has also appealed to labor unions for donations. (In a characteristically democratic move, he consulted listeners to his show before doing so.) He has pleaded the station’s case in labor halls and emails, winning sums like $1000 from the Uniformed Fire Officers Association to put toward WBAI’s $2.5 million annual operating budge.

“Typically, we are stingy fucks,” UFOA president Al Hagan said, but “we think [WBAI] is a great venue to hear non-corporate thoughts and who really knows what the truth is? But if you’re only getting one side, you’re certainly not getting the truth.”

Any union that supports WBAI or Pacifica should be flooded with emails, correspondence and phone calls imploring them to not support the voice of left-wing totalitarianism in the United States. The Uniformed Fire Officers Association should know better. The programmers and activists at WBAI/Pacifica support the continued legal harassment of the NYFD by federal judges. If you personally know any firefighters, please ask them to contact their union and express their concern about affiliation with this anti-American organization.

More on the collapse of WBAI here.

Update: Interim program director Bob Hennelly was fired.

Christian Anti-Zionism, Christian Zionism and “the Jews”

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[“Christ in the Night” Marc Chagall]

Martin in the Margins has a two-post series on Christian anti-Zionism that is well-worth reading (and an update, too). I have four comments that I originally intended on posting at Martin’s blog but the comments grew so long I decided to turn them into a post. First, a preliminary statement: the histories of Jews and gentiles, going back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, are interwoven. However Jewish–Israelite–identity was predicated on a difference from Greeks and Romans starting with the mark of the covenant and extending to bans on graven images, dietary restrictions and so forth. This notion of intentional, “chosen”, difference between Jews and gentiles predates Christianity.

(1) Rather than ending the piece by mentioning antisemitism, I think we should begin with what “the Jew” represents in the Western mind, the Western heart. Because before you have “the Christ”, you have “the Jew”. It all starts there. Not necessarily Jew hatred, I do not think all Christians are at their core antisemitic. But I am saying that the relationship between the Jewish people and institutional Christian churches, whether Protestant or Catholic, has generally been negative. Thank goodness this has changed. I recognize the strides made in relations between the two faiths. So much that we can speak of a shared “Judeo-Christian” heritage. This was unthinkable not so long ago.

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[Medieval German image of Jews in Hell]

(2) There is great diversity of thought and opinion among evangelicals and across denominations. A very small minority are what are called premillennial dispensationalists.  They believe Jesus will personally return to establish an earthly kingdom, an “end times” and all the other things enlightened secularists snicker at over tea and biscuits. For a good overview of evangelical thought and the divisions among evangelicals–including those who are critics of Israel–take a look at this piece by Robert Nicholson in Mosaic. Quoting at length:

There is no denying an eschatological element in the approach of many evangelicals to Israel—and a minority, emphasizing apocalyptic themes, does try to calculate the exact date and time of the second coming of Jesus. But the reality bears no resemblance to the portrait of cardboard-cutout Jesus freaks itching for the annihilation of the Jews and using them as pawns in their apocalyptic game…

What of the much-hyped mass conversion of the Jews? Many evangelicals do believe that, just prior to the second coming, thousands of Jews will accept Jesus as the messiah they have been waiting for. But these Jews will be making a voluntary choice—they will not be “converted” by anyone, let alone against their will—and will not be “converting” at all in the classic sense. That is, they will not become Christians; they will be Jews who believe in Jesus as their messiah. At this point in history, the old forms of organized religion—churches, baptisms, Sunday schools, even synagogues—will, along with pretty much everything else, be completely transformed, as befits the commencement of a supernatural kingdom on earth.

(3) Writing as a largely secular and increasingly conservative father, I pay more attention to values and actions than theology. I do not know what happens to our spirit after we pass away. Or if we even have a soul. But I do know what we think and what we believe impacts how we behave. I think Jews would benefit by adopting this perspective towards our evangelical brethren instead of constantly worrying about their supposed ulterior motives. Lastly, the majority of Jewish critics of evangelicals are secular leftists who do not believe in God, so it is strange they constantly bring up this theological element.

(4) I realize there is something problematic for religious Jews about the idea of a Jewish Jesus. There are various so-called “messianic” sects that target wayward Jews and, again, history rears its ugly head when the subject of conversion if discussed. However, I think Karen Sue Smith’s interesting review of the Marc Chagal exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York  City (America: The National Catholic Review) provides one of the ways some Jews reconcile Jesus’ Jewish identity and place in our past:

Always Chagall assumes the Jewishness of Jesus, unlike many Christians who have to consciously remind themselves that Jesus was a Jew. Chagall identifies with Jesus’ upbringing, his ritual and biblical tradition and his life under foreign occupiers hostile to Jews…For him Jesus represented all the innocent Jews ever slaughtered. And there were millions…

Chagall’s genius was to use Jesus’ crucifixion to address Christians, to alert them via their own symbol system to the systematic cruelty taking place in the Holocaust. Whenever Christians overemphasize the uniqueness of Jesus’ suffering and death at Calvary, a past event, we risk losing sight of all the crucifixions still being perpetrated. In our day, wanton violence, maiming, torture and other cruelty take place, not only against Jews, which is what concerned Chagall, of course. The value of Chagall’s crucifixions is that each holds up a mirror that says to Christians, Here is your Lord. What will you do to stop this crucifixion?

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[© AP/Kevin Frayer, 2006.]

Cassadega, Florida: George P. Colby’s Nineteenth Century Spiritualist Community

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Welcome to Florida

I spent a few days in northern and central Florida for a conference and had an excellent time. My progressive friends thought I might be risking my life due to the state’s liberal gun laws. Instead I found friendly people, delicious food and breathtaking landscapes. It helped that I had a local and longtime friend as a guide who took me on the back roads including a short trip to the Cassadega Spiritualist Camp, known as the “psychic capital of the world”. We were not there to communicate with spirits, buy crystals, or have a tarot card reading. More a place to stretch our legs and walk around. The small trail surrounding the town provides nice views of local flora and fauna. Unfortunately the “Spirit Lake” was extremely low on water and the “Spirit Pond” was completely dry. A reflection of this season’s drought.

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I have a peripheral interest in the spiritualists because there was some overlap between them and other radicals and eccentrics—Fourierists, anarchists, free thinkers, and back to nature/health nut types—who established utopian communities across the United States during the nineteenth century. Cassadega was founded in 1875 by renowned spiritualist George P. Colby. He attributed his psychic abilities to his baptism in a frozen lake, which left him nearly dead. In this state, Colby claimed his dead uncle spoke to him and let him know he would become a medium. Spiritualism gained popularity in 1848, the year of Colby’s birth and by the 1860s and 1870s it was quite common for mediums to travel from town to town, in some cases making quite a bit of money. Colby’s séances were so popular that he had to turn people away for lack of room.

One of Colby’s most conjured spirit guides was a Native American named Seneca who ultimately guided him south to Florida. By 1875 Colby was suffering from tuberculosis and damaged vocal chords. Seneca told Colby to inhale pine smoke and drink water from the springs he would find in order to cure himself. Heeding Seneca’s advice, Colby traveled by train to Jacksonville and made his way through the forests of Volusia County, ultimately arriving in the location of Cassadega.

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Colby filed a homestead claim in 1880 which was approved in 1884. By 1881 he was cured of his maladies and took his spiritualist tour across seventeen states. It was at one of these meetings that he met the mayor of Willoughby, Ohio and fellow spiritualist E.W. Bond who suggested Colby visit the Lily Dale Assembly near the village of Cassadega, New York. Colby appropriated the name for his new community, which would be known as Southern Cassadega Spiritualist Camp. Colby and the Lily Dale Spiritualists viewed the Florida location as an ideal place to escape the frigid northern winters.

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Things worked out well until the early twentieth century. In 1911 his house burned down, followed by other fires during the 1910s and 1920s (see picture above). Colby died in 1933, nearly destitute, supported by a small group of followers. Much more on Colby here.

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Looks like some local kids were doing doughnuts in the “Spirit Pond”.

666th Post

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This is my 666th post on this blog. I do not believe in the Devil, angels or demons. God gave man free will. Evil in the world is due to man, not supernatural forces. All that said, the concept (or fear?) of the Devil has a decades-long association with the music of my tween and early teen years, heavy metal:

This seemed like a good place to start:

Judas Priest: “Sad Wings of Destiny” (1976) was not my fave back when I was in junior high, that would be “British Steel”, but this is probably their best from those old years. What’s up with “Island of Domination”? Is that an s/m anthem?:
Cirith Ungol: “Frost and Fire” (1981). I like their second album, King of the Dead,  more but I have posted it so many times I wanted to let you peep something else:
I was never a huge fan of Dio, but so many of my friends were this stuff it is hard to forget. This is from 1983:
A Black Sabbath 2fer (1970 and 71):
Tank’s “Filth Hounds of Hades” (1982) is probably my favorite metal album ever, simply due to the memories of youth that it evokes:
Slayer’s “Chemical Warfare” (1984) is an early track and still one of my faves. Reminds me of my brother. He had this on wax and used to get so pissed off when I played it without his permission, as little bro’s do…RIP…

A bonus:

Speculative Utopias, Or, Utopian Dreams and Capitalist Schemes

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Le Phalanstère rêvé

[Le Phalanstère rêvé, Vue du phalanstère. Aquarelle. Au verso, quelques noms d’insectes et autres animaux… La mention “Laurent Pelletier, 1868″ ne permet pas de lui attribuer cette aquarelle]

History does not repeat itself but there are cyclical aspects to life from the changing of seasons over the course of a year to the  booms and busts associated with modern capitalism. Early to mid-nineteenth century French utopian socialism, Saint-Simonianism and later Fourierism, emerged as a reaction against the disruption and chaos associated with early industrialization and the transition from artisanal craft production to factories and mass-production. Today we are witnessing a somewhat similar reaction to the dislocations of the Great Recession under the rubric of the Makers movement.

The Fourierists are often relegated to footnote status, if they are addressed at all, but Fourier and his followers were a prominent and visible element of the early American socialist movement. Fourier envisioned a radical reorganization of society but decided to start his grand plans on a small level, through the development of what were known as phalanstères. The phalanstères were intended both as workshops and as nuclei of the future society. The capital to buy these properties was procured through a combination of wealthy supporters and the occasional speculator who viewed them as a get-rich-quick scheme.

While the history of Fourierism is fascinating, the main reason for introducing this case is its relation to the rise of what is known as the Maker Movement and the fall of 3rd Ward, a sort of modern day phalanstère. The Maker Movement bears some similarity to Fourierism, the emphasis on craft and artisan production, the idea that production–making–has counter-cultural implications, and a shared collective ethos.

The roots of the Maker Movement can be found in a variety of places–everything from the early counter-cultural days of Burning-Man to the more staid Maker Faire–and perhaps most essentially in the American propensity to “do it yourself” (DIY), often in the face of economic hardship.

I became acquainted with the term through the sort of tech-boosterism that I am generally leery of. One prime example is Chris Anderson’s, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. In his profile of Anderson, Time’s Sam Gustin explains the thesis of the text: “In a nutshell, the term ‘Maker’ refers to a new category of builders who are using open-source methods and the latest technology to bring manufacturing out of its traditional factory context, and into the realm of the personal desktop computer…According to Anderson, who consciously invokes Karl Marx in his book, new technology has ‘democratized the means of production,’ making it possible for anyone to be a builder or ‘maker.’” Ponoko  is one example.

The rhetoric of the Maker Movement extends far beyond the IT world, everywhere from urban farms to websites like Etsy. A recent piece on NPR’s Morning Edition described the possibility of using open-source computing to allow buyers to customize their automobiles from a list of basic component parts, sort of like Lego blocks. One small-business owner writing in the Huffington Post notes, “In a world of mass-produced products, modern technology has made it easier than ever for a single individual to create and distribute items that are customizable and unique without having middlemen like manufacturers.” It is a bit strange figuring manufacturers as “middle-men” when the term has historically been associated with managers rather than producers.

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Enter 3rd Ward

3rd Ward was the brainchild of Jason Goodman and Jeremy Lovitt who raised the initial capital for the project by throwing underground parties with the assistance of promoter William Etundi. In a short period Goodman and Lovitt became poster-children for the Maker Movement in hipster Williamsburg. Mostafa Heddaya writes: “The haphazard process by which two men, Jason Goodman and Jeremy Lovitt, used illegal parties and cheap Brooklyn leases to cobble together a creative empire is a queasy Horatio Alger tale — a parable, if not of ambitious savoir-faire, then of the hubris of frontier gentrifiers.” Another key player, Matthew Blesso, bought a fifty-percent stake in the company in 2010, ultimately selling his share at a significant margin before the whole thing went bust.

In addition to granting access and equipment to artists, 3rd Ward also moved into the field of education. There evidently was a lot of interest in Williamsburg for the sorts of crafts and skills these artists possessed. Makers could also be teachers. Utopian socialists like Fourier and some of the early anarchists had a similar vision.

Heddaya’s article details some of the unsavory business practices that made the early development and growth of 3rd Ward possible. In particular, he highlights the disquieting notion that rather than early boosters for the arts, these men—Etundi in particular—were actually perpetrating various scams that targeted artists. Setting aside the sordid details, the broader story is financial speculation played a role in undermining the institution as in the phalanstères. But a more basic question lay at the heart of both endeavors, the question of ownership.

When artists and others were asked to “invest” money for “lifetime” access to workshops and equipment, the first question they should have asked themselves is: “what happens to my money if this place goes under?” Related questions include, “who owns this building and this equipment”? And then, “who are the people who make the ultimate decisions?”

The situation in the phalanstères and 3rd Ward point towards the tension between financial speculation and ownership. Or, ownership by outside investors versus ownership by the producers themselves. Workers self-management in whatever form–whether something fairly mainstream like an Employee Stock Ownership Plan or a cooperative or collective form of organization–was never an issue for the phalanstères or 3rd Ward and it should have been the first thing on the table from the beginning.

Self-management is not a panacea. But it does take control away from a managerial class—whether managers of capital or those of the state—and places it in the hands of producers. Power and control implies responsibility and risk, and as the recent bankruptcy of the Mondragón cooperative Fagor makes clear, these ventures can fail. Nonetheless, I suspect the taste in the mouth would be far less bitter for the artists involved if 3rd Ward had failed due to the decisions and actions of the owner-makers themselves.

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[3rd Ward bought the farm]

2013: A Year of Personal Loss

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Let me start with a few of the good things about 2013: family is doing well, children continue to amaze and confound me, no problems on the job. Had a chance to get around: Santa Barbara and New Orleans to hang with old school friends, off to London to chill with Bob from Brockley, Kellie (Air Force Amazons), and other UK bloggers from our little trans-Atlantic alliance. Bob even made it out here to NYC for a few days, which was a lot of fun. I was able to show him around: Prospect Park and Brooklyn Heights, dim sum in Flushing, 5Pointz before it was buffed. Roland (But, I am a Liberal!) Dodds) was here for his honeymoon and I had the pleasure of hanging out with him and his lovely wife for an afternoon of tapas, sangria, history, and more drinks.

As all regular readers of this blog know, Norman Geras passed away in October. We never met in person—our correspondence was limited to a few emails and I occasionally commented on his Facebook posts—but he was undoubtedly a major influence on the Decent Left as well as those associated with the Euston Manifesto. His lucidity, friendliness, and insights on a variety of topics from philosophy to human behavior will be missed by many, including myself. RIP, Norm.

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On a more personal level, two very close friends of mine,  SYRA-1 and HTD died this year. I am avoiding using their names and apologize in advance if anyone objects to the use of these images.

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The name SYRA ONE–FSC, KTD, RF, GM5–will run forever on the great freight train in the sky, the Wall of Fame of true graff KINGS. His style will be emulated by those who aim for mastery of the art of writing. This is a miniscule selection of his pieces.

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SYRA was the first good friend I made when I moved to Oakland in 1992. Little did I know back then that he would become like a family member. We lived in the same neighborhood on the border of Oakland, Emeryville and Berkeley.  He was bombing hard, still seriously into skating and spending a lot of time building his DJing skills. He had a legendary record collection. In the days before Ebay and the Internet, collectors used to travel from as far away as Japan to buy old Jazz, funk and hip-hop records from him. He turned me on to a lot of great hip-hop–especially NYC crews like DITC: Lord Finesse, Show Biz & AG, Diamon D–back when I was mostly listening to West Coast artists.

There used to be crazy skate sessions at his pad, this place called “The Dome”, a huge warehouse with ramps, rails, and other obstacles. The kids that skated there would go on to pro status for Chocolate, Menace, World Industries, and a variety of other companies that have long since disappeared. One example was Fun Skateboards. SYRA did the logo artwork on the deck on the left:

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Towards the end of the 90s we were hanging out almost every evening after work. We had a small crew of people that would meet at my place, our SYRA’s or our other homeboy TH. We would make dinner, and listen to music, drink, smoke, hang out, talk about the day. When you hang with people so much, they are sharing practically every other meal with you sometimes, they become like family. And in some ways better than family because they are the family you choose, or you are lucky enough that they choose you. SYRA was one of those people for me. When I would fly back to Oakland he was first person I would call when my plane landed. He was usually picking me up. That is the sort of friend he was. If you have a SYRA in your life, count your blessings because you never know when they may be gone.

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Most of my memories of SYRA are in the bay area–a lot of concerts from jazz to hip-hop, too many to remember–but he made it out here twice.  Once when we were living in Queens and another time when we were in Brooklyn. We had a lot of fun carousing and managed to fit in a couple of shows: Lou Donaldson at the Village Vanguard and Crooklyn Dodgers reunion at Prospect Park. Here is a pic of a piece he painted on the roofs off of the 7Train near 5Pointz:

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SYRA was my only close friend who made it India for my wedding, which was a real blessing. It turns out he was in a lot of peeps weddings. We also met up in Barcelona after I finished my research in Mondragon. Of course he came equipped with a cache of fat markers and got up all over the city. I wasted the ink on writing corny political slogans. I was taking way too long and we ended up getting chased by the police in the Den Hague train station. Good times.

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But the memory that says the most, I think, is when I was spending the Thanksgiving Holiday away from family for the first time and SYRA invited me over to eat the meal with his family. They were all so welcoming that I did not miss being away in a new place where I barely knew anyone.

Rest in Paradise KING SYRA-ONE!

HTD was an iconoclastic intellectual, psychedelic artist-entertainer and a lawyer. At his memorial service everyone who knew him, almost everyone, used the word “brilliant” to describe him. And he was. He remains one of the smartest people I have met.

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I met H when I first moved to Marin County for university from Santa Barbara. We were both studying the political economy of what used to be called Third World development. His focus was Latin America, especially Mexico. We had a shared taste in music and beer, among other things. Turned out he grew up in Los Feliz which was right next to where I grew up, Silver Lake. We moved to San Francisco with our girlfriends, he to the Mission, me to the Lower Haight and continued our mischief throughout the Bay. We went to a lot of shows–Boogie Down Productions (twice), Public Enemy, Fishbone, George Clinton/P-Funk, among others. He ultimately grew up before me, finishing a law degree and having a child while I was still playing around at making the revolution. He moved back to L.A. and we sort of lost contact with each other, especially after I moved to NYC but I was glad to reconnect with him if only electronically in the last two years of his life.

HTD was larger than life. He really filled a room or a conversation in a good way and I will miss him immensely. He also had a way of telling people he loved them without any of the sappy hippy bullshit that was so common in the Bay. I love you too, brother.