Solving the World’s Problems before 7 A.M.

My father would often say that he solved the world’s problems before 7 a.m. each weekday.  However, he didn’t do it alone.  An early riser, he would get up at 5 a.m., go exercise, and then afterward, meet a group of local men for breakfast at Brown’s Snappy Service in my hometown.  It was there that he solved the world’s problems.  They probably solved all the local problems as well.










Soon after moving to Massachusetts I found the equivalent to Brown’s Snappy Service in my neighborhood.  It is the Depot Diner.  If you want to see the world’s problems being solved, just show up any weekday morning.  On Thursdays my neighbor is there with retired teacher-friends working through the issues.  On Wednesdays a group of faculty men from my college are mediating the world’s conflicts (and probably institutional ones as well).  I now have a regularly scheduled session every other Friday.

Depot Diner







When I lived in Grand Rapids, my young daughters kept me from solving the world’s problems before 7 a.m.  I did get in the pattern of doing it after church with my mother, my younger daughter, and older members of my congregation at the equivalent location–New Beginnings.  As was typical of Dutch Calvinists, many theological problems and doctrines were solved at the same time.  A friend told me that this is the place that she practiced spelling with her daughter every week–I would guess it was Friday, very early, because Friday seems to be the day for spelling tests across the world.

New Beginnings






My daughter and I were trying to think about whether there was a cafe in Pella, Iowa where we lived.  We struggled to think of one.  She cynically said that no one went out because it was so family oriented that everyone had breakfast at home together.  After much thought I recalled that there was the Central Park Cafe.  I can’t remember going there.

Central Park CafeThe world is better off for having this on-going problem-solving process.  Solving the world’s problems is like the movie Ground Hog Day. It has to be done over and over again, in the many small cafe’s around the world.  However, I do believe that the world would be better off if we did not have spelling tests each Friday morning.

Forgotten Addresses and Phone Numbers

I am bothered by the fact that I cannot remember all my addresses and phone numbers.  Is this a case of losing my memory, of being too mobile, or of simply living too long?

I once lived with some friends in an apartment for a year.  While we lived there, we would get phone calls for “Fred Johnson” who we did not know–this became something of a joke amongst us, especially because we would get repeat and insistent callers.  We had to explain that in fact this was Fred’s published phone number but he was not there.  (We had looked in the printed phone book and saw that our number was under his name.)  At the end of the year, I left for Louisiana, only to return after 15 months.  By the time I returned, these friends had moved into a house in another part of St. Paul where I joined them.  The first phone call I got at that house was for “Fred Johnson.”  I was totally confused.  Where was I?  How had “Fred Johnson’s” number now become our new number at a new location, after my being gone for 15 months?  I was in time warp.

Once in awhile I try to recall all the places I have lived in order.  I don’t remember phone numbers or exact addresses at all.  But just being able to visualize and list the places in order makes me feel more secure.  I think it has to do with the fear that I might return from a trip abroad and the immigration officer at the airport may ask me for this list, and I won’t be able to recite it. So here it is:

#1 Iowa parsonage; a second Iowa parsonage; a North Carolina apartment ; house in MN; house in town in llinois; another house in another town in Illinois; college dormitory in Missouri (2 different dorms); manor house in England; dormitory in MN; house in MN;  apartment in MN; apartment in LA; house in MN; apartment in MN;  another apartment in MN;  apartment on Seminary campus; house in IA–what street?; duplex in same town in IA near West Market Park; house in IA; house in MI (with 3 times abroad); apartment in MA; house in MA.

I have not had callers looking for “Fred Johnson” since moving out of that house in St. Paul.  And I am forever thankful that you can keep your cell phone numbers forever.

My Daughter is a Child of the Forest

Mt. Bruce-7My daughter is a child of the forest.  She told me this over the weekend as we hiked through the woods in Northern Maine.  She stopped and photographed fungi along the way, and collected leaves for identification.  At one point she exclaimed:  “Look!  It is a nursery tree!”  (A nursery tree is a dead log.)  She made comparisons to the Michigan forest where she had lived and studied last summer.


I did feel a little bit like Hansel and Gretel as she lagged behind, exploring the forest floor while I had a goal of reaching the top of the mountain.  Her  red hair and decision to go barefoot along the path might have contributed to the feeling of living a fairytale, most of which take place in forests.  But I did manage to slow down and engage in a discussion about types of trees we saw and asked how much she recalled about the New Zealand forests that we had visited when she was 10 years old.

I knew this might happen some day when I moved from Iowa to Michigan at the time she was four years old.  But now the reality has sunk in.  About that time I visited Chinese friends who had immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong.  They talked about how their sons would not be Hong Kong Chinese.  They would lose a part of their identity.  At the time I thought about this in reference to my daughters who would inevitably not identify with the same place and culture that I had, and wondered about how I felt about this.  It was unsettling.

My daughter is a child of the forest.  It has happened.  She has declared it to be so.  I remain a child of the prairie.

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I Live on Ledge


I don’t live and work on a ledge, but on ledge.  In an early conversation when I first moved to Cape Ann someone said:  “We ran into ledge.”

I had to scramble to use the context of the conversation to interpret what they were referring to–a granite batholith that forms the bedrock of Cape Ann.  The formerly molten material cooled deep under the earth and is now exposed due to erosion by glaciers, wind, and water.  It is part of a terrane–a piece of the earth that is a fragment that originated elsewhere–but became attached (or accreted) through tectonic forces.  John McPhee, one of the best nonfiction writers of our time, has a book titled “Suspect Terrains” where he talks about the accretion of terranes that led to the geologic mixture of the American west.  In my mind, terranes are clearly more suspect than terrains.  The suspect terrane, composed of the granite ledge on which I live, broke off from Africa and attached itself to North America when the two continents collided, prior to the formation of the North Atlantic Ocean.

The granite ledge around me creates both challenges and opportunities. Building can be a challenge when you are at a place where the ledge is right at the surface.  I hear stories of pieces of ledge in basements–where it was easier to build around it.  From my observation, it appears that towns that originated as fishing villages are build right on the ledge–Manchester, Gloucester, and Rockport.  Towns like Ipswich and Newburyport  are located in areas where rivers empty into the ocean, leading to deposition and better soil.

DSCN0826This past Saturday my daughter and I went to Halibut Point State Park, one of the best places to get a good view of the geology of the area.  At Halibut Point you can also see the opportunity that came from ledge–the quarrying of the granite, most of which ended by the 1930s.  One of the characteristics of granite is that as it is exposed, and the pressure of the weight of material that was on top is reduced, it breaks off in layers, much like an onion.  This process is called exfoliation, and it makes is easier to quarry.

I live on ledge, which is part of a suspect terrane that originated in Africa.  I have always wanted to visit or live in Africa.  Does this count?

DSCN0830DSCN0828  DSCN0827




Who Am I? Reflections on Religious Pluralism

The Gordon College community, where I work, has been traumatized in the last few weeks.  My personal silence has come from the need to reflect in order to speak from my heart in a way that builds understanding rather than fuels more misunderstanding, anger, and mistrust.  I’ve been struck by the rhetoric that fails to engage the real issue facing our country, which is the issue of religious pluralism and how we are going to develop the skills of listening, of understanding, and of working together toward the common good.

Religious pluralism is a reality in the United States.  We have communities of faith that are Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, and even New Age.  Native Americans are increasingly drawing on their spiritual roots.  Out of that plurality of religious traditions, my faith tradition, inherited from generations before me, is evangelical pietism.  My religious tradition goes back centuries, has its roots in Northern Europe, and found a strong home in the Midwestern U.S.  But increasing number of immigrants from Latin America, Asia and Africa come from the Evangelical Pietist tradition as well.  Congregations are springing up across New England and urban America that reflect the Evangelical Pietist tradition among these new immigrants.  Are we going to figure out how to engage with them?

One of my daughters was newly arrived in New England on July 1.  She came from a month of doing educational programming in a rural community in Appalachia (with a Catholic organization).  She has followed my family’s faith tradition.  And she says her world has shifted this month.  She has never seen such a lack of understanding of the plurality of religious faith traditions in our country, nor has she ever seen them so stereotyped as she has since arriving in New England.

In many ways, our Christian tradition is most akin to Catholic monasticism.  The tradition can be characterized by the practice of spiritual disciplines within the support of a faith community in order for us to deepen our relationship with God and conform our lives to the image of Christ.  It has a central element of sacrifice of self and individual desires for the good of others—modeled after Christ.  In my family it looked something like this:  I come from generations of pietists who practiced prayer and the reading of scripture, along with other pietistic practices (choosing not to smoke or drink alcohol for example) with the support of a faith community in order to better listen for what God might be asking of them.  For my grandfather, this meant he visited the local jail every Sunday morning and quietly gave away most of his wealth to those in need.  My grandmother and my parents were always taking in people to live with their family for extended periods of time, and my daughters and I did similarly.  My father, a Baptist minister, initiated the development of the Headstart program and community mental health center in my home town, and reached across the racial divide to the African American Baptist pastor during the civil rights era.  Today, the last congregation he served is led by an African-American pastor, something that he would have celebrated as the result of God’s spirit working in the hearts of that congregation.  In their retirement my parents volunteered for organizations like Habitat for Humanity and Love, Inc.  My family’s religious tradition was the fuel out of which service for the common good arose.  This is the same religious tradition that led the entire French village of Le Chambon to take in their Jewish neighbors during WWII.

Another way to see this tradition is an emphasis on holiness—the choice to subsume your own desires in the context of a faith community, for the good of others.  So for example, the evangelical pietistic Christian tradition has traditionally honored the choice of someone remaining single in order to be free to better serve others.  This is why evangelical pietism has commonalities with the Catholic tradition where monastic practices of chastity, spiritual disciplines, and the choice to live within boundaries develops virtues that enable the greater service to others. My mother would often say that my father could have easily been a Franciscan monk who spent his life in prayer and service.

This comes out of a central tenant of the tradition—that our central identity is our faith identity.  Our community is made up of people of different ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and social classes.  What holds us together is our central faith identity.  Do we struggle to understand how to incorporate the diversity of backgrounds into a central faith identity?  Daily for 125 years.  Gordon, which has its 125th Anniversary this fall, welcomed women, people of all colors, and all social classes into its community from its beginning.  One of our early deans of the faculty was a woman.  What keeps us working at community within this diversity is our faith identity—it provides our center and calls us to keep learning and listening respectfully to each other.  Finally, this tradition sees every human being made in the image of God.  Thus the tradition asks that we develop the self-control, and virtue needed to make every encounter with another person worthy of our faith commitment.  It is a tradition that is focused on transforming ourselves—not imposing on others—our choice to conform ourselves to particular spiritual disciplines and practices is that—our choice for ourselves.  It is not about imposing on others—all are welcome to partner with us in working for the common good, or to come and enjoy programs that any campus provides—whether it is to enjoy the beauty of nature in our natural areas on campus, to challenge yourself through our outdoor recreation programs, to explore the richness of the human experience through the arts, or to come join us for lectures that encourage respectful conversations, a phrase that shapes the culture of our campus.

Coming out of an evangelical, pietistic faith tradition, contrary to popular belief, does not lead to intolerance, but quite the opposite.  Our students are able to engage deeply with other traditions because they understand and appreciate the depth at which beliefs are held.  We take belief seriously.  This has meant that we have always welcomed people of other faiths, or no faith, to dialogue with us at Gordon College.  This has included LGBT community members.  We are a place that desires and wishes for difficult conversations because it requires us to think more deeply about our faith.

Furthermore, our faith asks us to focus on the transformation of ourselves into the image of Christ in order to love and serve all others without prejudice since each person is made in the image of God without exception.  This gives us the ground on which to demand high standards for the Gordon community in its interaction with our geographic neighbors, and other faith communities.  And we know and recognize that we fail daily.  But in spite of our failings, we continue to reflect and offer welcome to any who would engage with our particular faith community in a mutual journey of understanding.

Every religious community has documents and practices that call its members or people back to faithfulness to their tradition.  Each has a rich history and tradition behind it that resonates with those from within the community.  When we in the Gordon community affirm our statement of faith, we are reminded of what is at the center of our identity and our life together as a community—an evangelical faith.  And we read this with a particular history in mind, a context.  The statement itself has a history and context to it—we are coming up on our institution’s 125th Anniversary, meaning that our history and understanding of ourselves precedes the terms Christian fundamentalism (which arose in the 1930s), the religious right and the moral majority (which came about in the 1970s and 80s). When we affirm our life and conduct statement, we are reading the context of our tradition—going back hundreds of years—into the document as well.  It is a document written by us and for us.  It is a document that governs our life together.  It asks us to daily choose to love our neighbor, to seek holiness, to sacrifice our individual needs and desires for the common good, to serve the poor, and reminds us that we fail in all these areas daily, and we need forgiveness to begin anew.  It creates a context in which we have the ability to be consistent across our curriculum and co-curriculum to challenge (not punish) our students to go deeper and to demand higher standards for themselves, in a context of giving each other grace along with mutual accountability.  And they in turn demand much from us.

If we are going to learn to live together—Evangelical Pietists, Catholics, Muslims, Mormons, Buddhists, “nons”, we are going to need to stop throwing words, and begin listening.  We at Gordon are waiting and open.  In the meantime, I have been praying for my Muslim and Mormon neighbors, who each may have different belief systems that mine, that they may feel safe in the midst of this firestorm.

From Wainui to Woonsocket

Capture I love place names that just roll off your tongue like “Woonsocket.”  Every time I drove to Rhode Island I found myself repeating “Woonsocket” over and over again.  Then I moved on to the other “–ets” like Pawtucket, Muskeget, Nantucket, Narragansett…

Wait a minute!  What does this “–et” mean that is spread across the landscape in New England?

Patterns in place names should cause us to stop and ask questions about the indigenous language all around us.  I searched for some meaning to the “–et” and found that it seems to generally mean “place of.”

The indigenous place names of New Zealand don’t roll off your tongue as much as sound like the even beat of a drum:  Whangarai (fang gore I), Whanganui (fang ga new ee), Tauranga (tow rung gah).  Te Puke (Tee Pook Ee).  Whakatane (Fahk A Tahn Ee).  You get the idea.  They sound like a Maori war dance when you read them off.  I have a New Zealand friend who lived in the inner city of a U.S. city and would just start saying New Zealand place names when she felt threatened.  She figured it sounded like she was putting curses on people.  I did find one New Zealand place name that did seem to roll off your tongue and on for a distance:  Wainuiomata (Wah New Ee Oh Maht A)–Wainui for short.


And then there are the place names that are totally indecipherable.  At the top of my list if Natchitoches, Louisiana which is not far from Nagadoches, TX.  Natchitoches (nack a dish) took some time for me to learn to pronounce as well as spell (spelling not being one of my strengths).  Nagodoches (nack a doe chez) makes much more sense to my phonetic approach to spelling.  Both of these are not far from Baton Rouge (Bah’ toh RRRooozh).

Transformative Cross-Cultural Relationships

Every year, as we decorated our Christmas tree, one of my daughters would pull out one particular brightly colored ornament that would prompt me to recall, one more time, the Chinese friend from graduate school who gave it to me.  And every year I wondered:  Where is Ji?  I so hope he is well.

Ji joined my office in graduate school in the early 1980s.  He had come to the U.S. on a one year program from his work unit–it was early in the process of China opening to the world.  We called ourselves the “office of failures” because we had all done something prior to coming to graduate school.  The office included a failed bureaucrat, failed historian, failed book seller, failed missionary, and Ji became our failed communist.  He endeared himself to us by putting up with our humor.  If someone came into the office and needed a chair to sit on, we would point to Ji’s chair and say “sit there–that is the People’s chair.”  He had this wonderful smile in response.

Ji was always asking questions and observing culture and language which also led to much amusement.  A roasted pig was served at the wedding of a graduate student and Ji concluded that Americans roast pigs at weddings receptions.  We corrected his assumption.

Ji was welcomed into my extended family.  He joined us for a ten hour car trip with members of my extended family to visit my parents one Thanksgiving.  I remember listening to him practice American expressions in the back seat such as  “Amazing”  “That is so interesting.”  We kept ourselves amused by speculating on cat-dishes in China:  sweet and sour tabby;  Garfield with beans on the side.  Over that Thanksgiving my father took him all over town to introduce him to small town America–to a farm, probably to a mortuary (my father taught death and dying), to just about everywhere.  Ji put up with us–though might have been confused–when my father’s friend sent a pizza box that was gift wrapped for my father’s birthday.  Inside was a cow pie.

Over the years, about once a year, my aunt asks me–remember that trip?  Where is Ji?  I hope he is well.

Ji also got to know my grandmother.  My grandmother was known for being able to strike up a conversation with anyone she met and find a connection to someone she knew.  When she first met Ji we just held our breath and waited to see if she managed to find someone that he knew in China…

Later in her life, she would say to me–remember that person from China?  That was so interesting.

Ji got an extension to stay a second year and then attempted to get into graduate school in order to apply his classes toward a degree.  He was denied by the university because he had gotten his undergraduate degree during the cultural revolution so it was not considered valid.  He had to return to China and his work unit.  I remember leaving him off at the airport, wondering and worrying about his future and whether I would see him again.

Literally every day I continued to think about Ji.  He was on my mind and in my prayers.  We sent him greetings in recordings from a family gathering.  I thought of him daily, if not multiple times a day.  Eventually he was able to get into another graduate school in the U.S. We helped by putting his name on our bank account–well, it never actually got on there because he didn’t sign the card, but we added the name for awhile. In the midst of all those transitions, one day I realized that I had not thought about Ji for several days.  I found out that I had stopped having him on my mind the day he had left China for the U.S. graduate school.

We met several times in the years after that but then I lost track of him.  I searched occasionally on the web.  My father, as he declined, would occasionally ask me:  Where is Ji?  I wish I knew he was doing well.

When living in Hong Kong, I would occasionally look at the map, seeing Ji’s hometown just north of Vietnam and think about going there.  He had called it the garden city.  I wondered if I could somehow find out what happened to him if I went there.  My mother recently asked me–Where is Ji?

This past month, I managed to work through a friend who knew someone from the graduate school he attended, who then figured out a way to search for him, and directed me to a university in China.  A Chinese colleague of mine read the website to figure out the email address that I could use to reach him.  We have exchanged emails and news about families!  I am so happy that he is doing well, and especially that he has a family.  My aunt and my mother are so pleased.

This Christmas, when I take out the Chinese Christmas ornament for my tree, I am going to think of Ji–and his family.  But I don’t have to wonder about whether he is well.





Nature or Nurture: Are Geographers Made or Born?

new Drive

People who share my discipline often say that geographers are born, not made.  They recall being the children that always spent hours pouring over maps and atlases, and serving as the family navigator on road trips. I certainly experienced a certain “coming into my sweet spot” experience when I discovered the field.  I could study aspects of the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities in order to understand what I saw around me.  I could use abstract concepts to explain concrete patterns on the ground.  I still find it incredibly satisfying, a pleasure that I have to monitor around my daughters

What is it that makes us different, we geographers?   Are we visual learners? Is that the distinction from others?  Or are we “lumpers” rather than “spliters”–people who naturally are trying to understand phenomenon as wholes rather than reducing them into smaller and smaller parts?  Or are there developmental experiences that shape our interests?

I contemplated whether I was born a geographer, or became one this past week when I visited Winston Salem, North Carolina.  I had not been to Winston Salem since I lived there as a five year old.  I spent my first five years on the prairies of Iowa, went to North Carolina for one year, and then returned to the prairies of the Midwest.  I believe that in some way that one year fueled my imagination and my ability to image all possible worlds.  Did it make me a geographer?

As a five year old, I can remember the strangeness of the place–the Appalachian mountains and its coal beds, the hilly terrain, the red soil, the smell of the clay, the Baptist church my father pastored that was filled with tobacco farmers, and civil war bubble gum collecting cards.  I adapted overnight and took on a southern accent, yet maintained a northern identify in my bubble gum card collection.  Did I ask questions about all of this of my parents, or was all this processing going on in my mind?  And is it the multi-sensory nature of how I interacted with this place, almost feeling it in my bones, that characterizes me as a geographer?  I smelled.  I saw.  I heard.  I felt it.

A discussion with my mother and brother on the apartment complex where we lived that year, finally identified its location.  My mother thought is was east of the Baptist hospital where my father was in chaplaincy training, but my brother, who was 7 when we lived there, remembered the street.  I wondered if I would recognize it.  I remembered red brick apartments buildings with a hill behind our particular building (I slid down the hill using a plastic covered winter coat in a rare snowfall) and a parking lot at the bottom of the hill.  I could see myself at the bottom of the hill in the parking lot talking to my friends about the Civil War cards and could also picture a playground nearby.

DSCN0817 DSCN0822When I drove down the street, it wasn’t the detail of the buildings or the inside of the apartment that I remembered, but the context–the hill, the parking lot, and the grassy lot–and it was all there.  I think I know which building I lived in from that larger context–the visualization–whereas my brother remembers exact numbers and streets (he is a medical doctor).

I went by the Presbyterian church where I went to kindergarten.  North Carolina didn’t have public kindergartens at that time–something else that became part of my memory.  I was surprised that it was right across the street from the larger apartment complex.  It had had no relational spatial location in my memory.  It’s location was not part of my mental map.

DSCN0821Did this experience of living in a different world at such a young age make me a geographer, seeking out yet other possible worlds to explore over a lifetime?  Or did I see, smell, hear, and feel this place in the way I did because I was born to do this?





Rules for Living (and traveling)

I have a rule that I try to live by:  Don’t fly into or out of airports in the southeastern United States in the late afternoon or early evening during the months of June, July, and August.

My rule comes out of the knowledge of the climate of that part of the world.  This Humid Subtropical region has very unstable air in the heat of the summer, meaning that the air has a tendency to rise if slightly heated.  The intense rays of the sun during the summer months during the day start this upward motion as as the day progresses–convection.  By late afternoon, the air has risen in the atmosphere to the level where it reaches condensation point, giving off even more heat energy which reinforces the upward movement and builds quite violent afternoon storms.  That is the scientific reason for my rule.

There is also a practical reason for my rule illustrated by the way that my week unfolded.

On Monday I left with a group for North Carlina to spend the week visiting campuses.  We arrived mid afternoon and only had to drive through the late afternoon storm en route to our hotel several hours later.  On Wednesday I had booked a round trip ticket from North Carolina for the day to go to D.C. for a meeting.  As I left the hotel at 5:30 a.m. to drive to the airport, leaving my suitcase and computer and everything behind, I thought briefly about taking my toothbrush and phone charger with me, but quickly pushed the thought out of my mind.  The meeting went well, and ended in plenty of time to get back to the DC airport. The plane loaded on time–5 p.m. and left the gate.  Two hours later we were still sitting on the runway waiting for a route to be established that would take us around the storms that had developed in the southeast.  We finally went back to the gate, were told we had 20 minutes and then would reload, but the flight was soon cancelled.  After standing in line I got booked on a flight that left at 10:40 p.m.  It was eventually cancelled.

After standing in line I was finally informed that I had a flight from North Carolina to Boston on Friday–I already knew that.  Given that reality they were trying to figure out why I was in DC.  After much searching, I was told that the only flight to North Carolina was the next day, Thursday, and it went from DC via Boston, stopping in Philly and reaching North Carolina at 10 p.m..  But, I said–I live in Boston and my luggage is in North Carolina!–circumstances that again, could not be easily explained.

I asked–How about just sending me to Boston this evening or early tomorrow?  No can go–my ticket was for DC to North Carolina so it had to be written to get me from DC to North Carolina no matter where it took me in-between.  All this time I was monitoring the power left on my phone, worried that I would not have enough left to finalize arrangements for a hotel.  I knew I needed to go buy a power cord for my phone if I was staying overnight but as I headed toward the stores, they were shutting down for the night.

Finally around 11:30 p.m.  I had my ticket to North Carolina via Boston and a hotel booked.  I went out to the taxi stand to find 91 people in line (as reported by the teenager in front of me).  I scribbled the name of the hotel down and its address before my phone died.

Arriving at the hotel at midnight, the desk clerk was confused by my lack of luggage-.  It is a long story, I explained, reporting that I was from Boston but my luggage was in a hotel in North Carolina.  He let me plug in my extra battery for my phone into his phone cord for the night while I went to my room to unwind and try to sleep.

The next morning I received an email from an un-named airline, reminding me that I was booked on the 10:40 p.m. flight the night before. Strengthened with a Starbucks cappuccino, I took the subway back to the airport, got on standby for an earlier flight to Boston, arranged for a colleague to get my luggage and empty my hotel room in North Carolina, and arranged for a shuttle to pick me up in Boston.  I purposefully did not make my connection in Boston.

I am glad to be home because my colleagues are returning today from North Carolina on a late afternoon flight…