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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Gotham: A Review of a Fantastic Idea

Gotham, Warner Bros, FOX Television

Gotham, a new crime drama on Fox, has a real chance to do something different.  And there were glimpses of it in the premiere.  This is an origins story that takes a really big step back into the future of Batman.  In fact, Bruce Wayne is just a child here, and his parents have only just been murdered.  but the show is not about Bruce Wayne.  It is about a rookie detective, Jim Gordon (Benjamin McKenzie).  The real promise of the show is not the origin of Batman.  Nor is it the evolution of Jim Gordon as he makes his perilous way up the ladder to Police Commissioner.  The real origin stories here that could captivate us are those of the Batman villains: Penguin, the Joker, Poison Ivy, the Riddler, and Cat Woman.  This is the what will make or break the show.

First impressions:

Jim Gordon is a solid base for the show.  A sort of LA Confidential Russell Crowe type who makes up for his lack of charm with his zeal for justice.  But he'll need to add something soon before he becomes a boor.  I'm confident he will.  I have a feeling they've made him a bit blunt at the beginning in order to allow him to evolve into a seasoned, street-wise white knight.

Oswald Cobblepotts: Our first look
at Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor)

Penguin is the first diamond in the rough here.  I really like Penguin--both the character and the actor. The character's name is Oswald Cobblepot, played exquisitely by Robin Lord Taylor.  There is so much promise here I'm both excited and ready to be disappointed.  If the writers screw this up I'm gonna be angry.  Penguin is immediately vicious and sympathetic.  That's not easy to do.  I've always enjoyed Penguin as a villain over the more over-the-top Joker, and Hollywood did not get it right back when Danny DeVito portrayed him in 1992's Batman Returns.  In fact, they ruined the character so thoroughly that we haven't really seen him until this new version of him, twenty-two years later.

Sean Pertwee caught my attention as Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred Pennyworth.  Here is an Alfred I don't think we've seen yet.  Not the old grandfather stand-in as he was played by Michael Gough, nor the wise counselor as played by Michael Caine.  And certainly not the bumbling old-timer as played by Alan Napier in the 1960's television show.  This new Alfred is going to be a bulldog.  Sure, he's still the proper Brit, but he's got some real grit, some real fight in him, and he's going to be the man to shape Bruce Wayne as he grows from a child into a super-man.  Pertwee's Alfred already seems cynical, wary, and capable of making sure the heir to the Wayne fortune does not grow up to be a fool.

The real concern I have is the low budget effects.  This looks like something done on straight-to-video movies from fifteen years ago.  I don't mind them, but they could turn off potential viewers.  And if Fox doesn't see enough viewers they'll never increase the budget, which means it might never be more than one season.  And that's too bad, because this could really evolve into a masterful story.  But they've chosen to start at such a young age for Bruce Wayne that this will take years to gain ground, and years to reach a fever-pitch level to the emergence of Batman.  And that's what should happen.  This story should take a long time to germinate properly.  But I have serious doubts that our want-it-now society could wait that long.  I have little faith that FOX would give the producers of Gotham the time needed to do this right.

Only time will tell.  In the meantime, I'll enjoy as much of it as I can and hope for the rest.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Oak Alley Plantation: An Iconic View (Part Two)

Oak Alley Plantation, Vacherie, Louisiana.

For our second look at Oak Alley we will take a walk down the back alley.  That's right.  There are, in fact, two magnificent approaches to the house.  The trees are younger here, some of them having been planted over a hundred years later than the oaks in the front of the house by the Roman family, the rest of them added by the Stewarts another hundred years later in the 1930's.  This approach is the path visitors first use to reach the main house.

The centerpiece at the end of the lane is an iron sugar kettle, once used to refine the sugar that was the main product of this plantation.  Four kettles, the largest seven and a half feet in diameter, the smallest four feet in diameter, comprised what is known as a Jamaica Train, where cane juice was processed into crystallized sugar.  Molasses, a by-product of the process, was also produced.

Walking past the sugar kettle, and out to the end of the back alley, visitors will find the Oak Alley Restaurant, housed in a turn of the (20th) century quarter house.  It was here that tenanted farmers and their families lived, each square building consisting of four rooms centered on a single fireplace.

Breakfast is served here from 8:30 to 10:30.  Beignets and coffee are a popular choice here, as well as their Pan Perdue, a French toast covered in confectionery sugar and cane syrup.  Since it opens earlier than the house tours this is a great chance to relax and fuel up before walking the grounds.

Lunch is served from 11:00 to 3:00 p.m. with an emphasis on Cajun and Creole cuisine.  You'll have your choice of red beans and rice, fried alligator nuggets, crawfish etouffée, gumbo and a daily special from chef Antonio Reymundo.  (And don't forget to grab some bread pudding with whiskey sauce, unless you'd rather have some pecan pie.)

There is also a café open from 9 to 5 p.m. where you'll be able to grab a quick refreshment if you weren't planning on a full meal.  It is located in the gift shop, which is connected to the restaurant.

Across from the restaurant and gift shop is Oak Alley Spirits.  It was a little too early in the day for us to sample the Apple Pie Moonshine, though it did sound intriguing.

Between the restaurant and the main house is a reconstruction of the plantation's slave quarters.  The Slavery at Oak Alley exhibit, which was added in July of 2013, is an educational memorial to the slaves that built and worked this plantation.  Though slavery is forever tied to its history here, keep in mind it was only in use at Oak Alley for thirty years.

The exhibit does not shy away from the ugliness of slavery.  On display are shackles as well as implements used for punishment, including neck shackles with bells, used as a way to make it harder for an escaped slave to hide.  The children's transport shackles in the center of the picture are especially sobering.

I really liked this simple yet moving memorial inside one of the cabins.  Alongside the wall of names is a plaque that reads:

Between 1836 and the Civil War, 198 men,
women and children were enslaved at Oak Alley.
Dehumanized and quantified like any other
commodity, they appear in sales and records and
inventories, yet as people they have been all but
forgotten by history.

This is a respectful recognition of the people on whose
backs this plantation was built.  For most of them, a
name is all that remains of their story.

There is also an interactive Civil War Encampment on the grounds as well as an 1890's blacksmith shop.  If you have the time you might also enjoy the antique car garage, featuring cars from the 1920's representing the Stewart era.

In part three of our tour we will step inside the main house and look at what life was like for the Romans and Stewarts.

If you missed part one of the tour, you can follow this link to it: Oak Alley (Part One)
For more information on Oak Alley see their website here.

Friday, September 19, 2014

French Quarter Stroll

Royal Street

French Quarter, New Orleans, Louisiana

A perfect day in the French Quarter is easy to experience.  Even in the heat of a late summer day it is relaxing to stroll along these small and colorful streets.  Summer can be a slow time for the tourist business here and some shops were just reopening after a few renovations in preparation for the coming Halloween season.  Fresh paint covered many of the historic facades, in some places, the painters were still brushing on colors as approved by the Vieux Carré Commission, the city planning board dedicated to preserving the historic appearance of this village within a city.  Crisp, new flags seemed to hang from every other balcony.  Expectancy charged the air.  I had the feeling that tourist buses were already loaded and crossing the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, their arrival mere minutes away.

I always love to see all of this activity in the Quarter.  Mornings are especially fun.  Delivery vans fill the streets, shops are opening up, streets are washed down, there is a brisk, sometimes hectic combination of tradesmen getting to work on whichever project is on the day's schedule.  This is the face of the French Quarter that most tourists miss as they sleep in from a late night of partying.  But it is the time I enjoy the most in this little corner of the world.

Don't get me wrong.  The streets weren't empty.  And a few street artists were out to entertain those of us enjoying the afternoon.  As you can see, construction is always underway here, even when there isn't a wall to support a ladder.  This hard worker is determined to get that first two by four nailed in place.  I've always thought he should start at the bottom.  But He seems to know what he is doing.  And in case you weren't familiar with this demonstration, be assured that ladder is not bolted down to the stone.  

Be sure to carry a pocketful of one dollar bills for the street artists.  Jackson Square wouldn't be Jackson Square without the playful tunes of a dixieland band.  And these entertainers aren't paid by the city.  They will do their utmost to entertain, they won't be shy about asking for donations and if they see you dropping a little something in the bucket they are quick to voice their appreciation.  

It was here on Jackson Square that I helped out an older couple from Manchester, England.  You can always find a pair like this, taking that single shot with a camera when what they really want is a photograph with both of them in it.  After helping them get a few photos in front of the Cathedral I talked with them a little while.  It was their third trip to New Orleans.  It was just a few days before Scotland voted on the question of independence from Great Britain.  They were hoping the Scots would stay in the Union.  They could see no advantage to either Scotland or England if Scotland went their own way.  I'm sure they were happy to read the news from across the pond today when it was announced that Scotland had chosen to keep Britain unified.

If you head over to Canal Street (which is technically outside of the French Quarter) glance up at the lamp posts that flank the street cars.  There is some nice detail work between the lamps.  But what you'll also see are plenty of beads hanging around from Mardi Gras.  Some of them will be covered in beads, and some will have only a few.  This one I captured has just the one strand, seemingly laid carefully to match the design.

At St. Charles and Canal Streets, if you're patient, you'll see one of the historic St. Charles street cars pass its modern cousin, the Canal street car.  That's the one you'll want to catch if you want a ride over to the Garden District.  (Even better than the Garden District is Lafayette Cemetery Number Two.  The St. Charles street car  will take you to both places.)

Not every house in the French Quarter has been freshly painted.  And I'm glad.  It adds to the charm of this place.  It helps us to remember that we aren't walking down a street in Disney World, where everything has been engineered for our entertainment.  It helps us remember that this village will be three hundred years old in just four years from now.  It has stood up to the winds and rains of uncounted hurricanes, the changing politics of the Spanish, the French, and the Americans, and it will be here long after the tourists pack up and leave at the end of this coming season.  It is, after all, a living neighborhood where its residents work and play and go about their everyday lives.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Oak Alley Plantation: An Iconic View (Part One)

Oak Alley Plantation, Vacherie, Louisiana

To walk the grounds of Oak Alley Plantation is to walk the history of Louisiana.  This grand antebellum Lady of the Deep South provides one of the most iconic views of a Creole sugar plantation.  One hundred and Seventy-Five years ago, in 1839, Jacques Télesphore Roman built a home on the banks of the Mississippi as a gift for his wife Celina.  Although it would eventually become known as Oak Alley, its signature rows of Virginia Live Oaks were not planted by the Romans.  The man responsible for the 28 oaks, planted in two rows spaced 80 feet apart, is unknown.  It is believed that they were planted about one hundred years before the Romans built the main house.  Today, a short trip south from Baton Rouge or a short trip north from New Orleans will bring you to this amazingly restored plantation.

The largest oak on the grounds has a girth of 30 feet with a 127-foot spread of limbs.  The oaks in the alley were inducted into the Live Oak Society in the mid-nineties, each oak being registered with a name.  Since live oak trees can live as long as 600 years, these 300 year old oaks are now in the prime of their life.  Having lived this long, one can only imagine how many hurricanes they have endured.

The house is surrounded by 28 columns, representing the 28 oaks.  The walls of the home are sixteen inches thick, constructed of bricks that were made with mud from the Mississippi river, and covered in stucco.  A porch runs around the entire home with a portico that does the same on the second floor.  Our visit was on a hot day in late summer, yet the air was pleasant with a slight breeze and we sat in the shade quite comfortably.  Sipping on a Mint Julep made the experience even more pleasant.

 The plantation is open every day of the year except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day, and Mardi Gras.  From March through October the hours are 9 am to 5 pm.  From November through February it closes a little earlier at 4:30 pm on weekdays.  Tickets to enter the grounds are $20 for adults and $7.50 for young adults (13-18).  Tickets for children ages 6 to 12 are only $4.50.  The restaurant opens earlier, at 8:30 am.

The southern porch looks out over a second alley of oaks that were planted by the Romans in the 1830s.  (The Stewarts, who owned the property from 1925 to 1972, added a few more oaks to the back alley in the 1930s.)  It is here on the back porch where you'll get a chance to order a few drinks to quench your thirst.  Tea and lemonade are available for the kids (including a virgin Mint Julep) and of course genuine Mint Juleps for the adults.  

We'll revisit Oak Alley for a look at the back alley and the slave quarter memorial, as well as the restaurant in our next post.  We'll save the tour of the house for our third installment, which will include the tragic story of the Romans.

And let's finish with one last look at the front of the house, as seen from the oaks.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Cars of Life--April 29, 1963

Life Magazine, April 29, 1963

Last week I highlighted the television war that raged in the pages of a 1957 edition of Life.  You can always be sure to find vibrant, full-page ads in that journal.  You can also get an idea of what the general public was buying at that time.  The more cynical observers out there might suggest that you can see what Madison Avenue wanted the public to buy.  In either case, flipping through an April '63 issue I could not help but notice its emphasis on cars.

In 1961, Ford and Chevrolet were neck in neck in the car production race.  Both of them produced 1.3 million vehicles, with Ford edging out its main rival by only a little more than 20,000 cars and trucks.  But in 1962 Chevrolet seemed ready to lap its rival Ford with a massive jump in sales.  That year saw Chevy streak ahead to 2 million vehicles produced, while Ford only reached 1.47 million.  The last time that had happened, in 1955 (Chevy increased from 1.1 to 1.7 and Ford from 1.1 to 1.4) production numbers fell off the next year.  This cycle is fairly steady in the history of car production.  However, in 1963, after the jump in production, the numbers increased yet again.

I suspect this is largely due to the fact that this was exactly 18 years after the end of World War II.  Baby Boomers were just turning eighteen, getting out of school, or at least getting jobs and beginning to buy cars.  The race had jumped into a different gear.  The car companies knew that even though it wasn't time yet to display next year's models, it was still worth it to push their present cars to the buying public.  And so the top car producers ordered up these full-page ads in the same issue of Life.

Oddly enough, the most luxurious car to enter the race in this issue was the only monochromatic car ad: Imperial's Lebaron four-door.  Since 1955 Chrysler had given its Imperial marque its own line, devoid of the Chrysler name.  And while designer Virgil Exner had made a name for himself with his "forward look", 1963 would be the last year he helmed Imperial's design.  It was the only year that the sloped trim actually wrapped all the way around the back of the body.  And although Imperial was known for its gunsight taillights you can see that the Lebaron did not use them.  It does, however, have the distinctive "Flitesweep Deck Lid", a fake tire bulge (imitating a Continental look) which had been an option from 1957 to 1961, and was brought back for 1963 by popular demand.

But the body styling was not the emphasis in this ad.  The ad-men, instead, pushed the comfort angle along with the "unaccustomed luxuries as standard equipment".  More legroom (due in part to the squared-off steering wheel), inside remote control of the side mirror, front door hidden storage compartments, automatic parking brake release, and a host of other power controls.  This one isn't being marketed for the young kids.  And Imperial only produced a little more than 14,000 cars that year.  This number would peak the very next year at 23,295.  Eventually, in 1976, Imperial was folded back into Chrysler.  Wunderkind Lee Iacocca revived the Imperial name for a short run in the 1980s, but it was never to have its own identity again.

Mercury was launched in 1938 by none other than Edsel Ford.  It was to be an entry-level line of luxury cars, a bridge between Ford and Lincoln.  But Mercury was in danger of being streamlined off the road in the 1960's due to the failure of--yeah, you might have guessed it--the Edsel.  Ford was in a little trouble, and Mercury faced some changes because of it.  Then billed as "Mercury, the man's car", the S-55 Monterey emphasized power.  This two-door sports a Marauder 390 V-8.  I'm not sure kids of today would see this car as a possible vehicle for mountaineering, but the boys at Ford declared that awesome "4-on-the-floor" stick-shift brought "oneness between you and your car...Effortless cornering, passing, and mountaineering."

Mercury was only rolling about 300,000 cars off the production line at this time.  It would peak in 1978 and 1979 above 600,000.  This is significant only to me, since my first car was a 1978 Mercury Monarch, a car I bought in 1988 for $1300.  I don't recall doing any mountaineering in it, but it was powerful and fun to drive.  Mercury's sales fizzled out after the new millennium and it finally died in 2011.

(Disclaimer: I drive a Pontiac, and my anger at GM for shuttering this brand is still at a high-level.)

In 1962, Pontiac overtook its rivals, Plymouth and Rambler, for the number three spot in the race.  It held this spot, just behind the big boys, for the rest of the decade, finally losing out to Plymouth, where Pontiac settled into fourth place for the entirety of the 1970s.  But in 1963 it was feeling pretty good.  Not only were they approaching their fortieth anniversary (in 1966) but they had recently seen the entire line of Pontiac models named as Car of the Year by Motor Trend magazine (1959).  Despite this success, however, and the spectacularly ornate designs which included such dazzling features as the twin v-shaped tailfins of the late fifties models, the early sixties models lost some of that glamour.  With more squared roofing and body designs, Pontiac, nevertheless, moved firmly into third place.

This ad, proudly displaying the front-end of a 1963 Catalina "Wide-Track" Station Wagon gives us a view of the split grille, which was first introduced in 1959.  It was dropped for 1960, only to be brought right back the next year.  A variation of this has been on the majority of models for Pontiac, up to and including my own 2005 Grand Am.  It was also in 1959 that the arrowhead emblem with the star in its center became what was ultimately Pontiac's final symbol.  This station wagon is lauded for "all those people-coddling things that wagons should have as standard equipment but often don't."  Pure poetry.

By the 1980s, the Pontiac line was in decline, dropping to fifth and sixth place early in that decade.  However, in 1987 it surged back to third place and held that spot for more than ten years.  In what can only be described as yet another dirty, back-stabbing attack on the Indians, Pontiac's life was snuffed out by GM in an attempt to save their own hide due to terrible management of the entire GM family of cars at the start of the new millennium, finally ending production of this noble fleet of cars in 2009.

I find it interesting that Ford, fighting to get back to number one, ran a truck ad in Life instead of its Galaxie, the high-volume rival to Chevy's Impala and Pontiac's Catalina.  I would expect this truck ad to be in Progressive Farmer or maybe The Saturday Evening Post.  But here we see an F-100, one of Ford's models in their fourth generation of trucks.  This design, restyled in 1961 to be lower and longer than previous generations, only lasted for five years.  The emphasis here is on its durability, despite its smart looks and smooth ride.  Ford copy-writers did want readers to notice that this truck had a "Comfort-Conditioned Custom Cab" with a full five inches of cushion under the driver and 23 pounds of insulation around him.  That's right, I said him.  Don't try to tell me that there were many women driving pickups in 1963.  Maybe Ellie May Clampett did now and then, if Jethro didn't throw a fit.  But not many more than that.

I don't think Ford's decision to push the pickup truck in Life was the right way to chase down Chevy.  They wouldn't overtake Chevy for the lead in the race until 1966, and that was only because they produced a mere 5,776 more vehicles that year.  They wouldn't hold the top spot for two years in a row until 1970-71.

 In 1960, Chevy took a beating from Ford in the small car category.  Chevy was depending on its rear engine Chevrolet Corvair to wow young families, but it was the Ford Falcon that stole the show.  In an unprecedented hurry, Chevy designed and produced the Chevy II in eighteen months.  According to Chevy, it combined "maximum functionalism with thrift."  Sounds to me like wearing socks with sandals.  Maximum ventilation with warmth.  But in this ad, Chevy wants us to ponder another combination: thrift with sport.  Here they are taking this basic, stripped down compact and trying to get the attention of all those young baby-boomers just getting out of school, I suppose.  Let's give their copy-writers a chance to win us young (at-heart) people over to the Chevy II:

"Under the hood you've got a peppery 6-cylinder engine.  Smooth, dependable, eager to do about everything but run through a gallon of gas.  (From the way it nurses the stuff, in fact, you're likely to suspect that it goes around making its own.)...The package comes on either convertible or hardtop.  Either way gives you plenty of ginger--without a lot of needless gingerbread."

Wow.  This car nearly makes its own gasoline.  I'll fall for that.  And then there's all that ginger.  I haven't a clue what ginger is on a car, but I can see this one's got ginger in spades.  Fan-tastic!

The Chevy II, a Nova that eventually dropped the "Chevy II" in its name in 1969, came with a 4-cylinder engine, which could be upgraded to that peppery straight-6.  A third option made this a popular choice for drag-racers: a dealer-installed V-8.  It wasn't until the next year, 1964, in trying to fend off stiff competition from the brand-new Chevelle, that a factory V-8 became available.  That Super Sport option offered in the ad cost $161.40.  But don't forget all that ginger your $161.40 bought.  I don't know what that works out to per pound of ginger, but it can't be too bad.

Nova lived on until 1979 when it was replaced by the underwhelming Chevy Citation.  It could not sustain a short revival in the late eighties, and is now just a memory.

So these were your choices as you read your Life magazine in April of '63.  Which car would you have chosen as a winner?

And since every car needs oil, I'm tossing in the below oil advertisement that was also in this issue.  I'll let the ad speak for itself.

US Automobile Production Figures can be found here.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Ice Cream of Yesteryear: or, Life Scream for Ice Cream

The Ice Cream of Life Magazine

Summer is mostly over.  Hot days still linger in parts of the country but they won't for long.  And what better way to enjoy the last of these warm days than to dip into a tub of ice cream?  Of course, the trouble with eating ice cream is choosing one from all of the great flavors out there.  I used to believe that all these flavor choices were new, and that in the old days people just had vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream.  Didn't you?

But as I look through old magazines I find that is not the case.  Below is a small selection of ads I found in Life magazine, ranging from 1953 to 1963.

Life, January 19, 1953 advertisement

As you can see, this first vintage ad gives a somewhat common flavor a fancy name: Lorraine Cherry.  Only Lady Borden Ice Cream had this elegant cherry.  Full of big, juicy black cherries, this sweet treat was one of the many products offered by Borden.  Begun in 1957, Borden primarily produced condensed milk, including a contract to supply canned milk to Union armies during the American Civil War.  By the 1950s, Bordon's food division had gobbled up a great many smaller food lines, including Cracker Jack, Wyler's, ReaLemon, Wise (potato chips) and Bama jams.  Despite their smorgasbord offerings to the public, and their boast in fine print at the bottom of this ad that "Borden foods must be good--folks buy more food packages carrying the Borden brand name than any other in the world..." Borden could not maintain their place in modern markets.  This 19th century company closed its food division in 2001.

Life, September 5, 1955 advertisement

Here's a great look at a favorite brand of mine.  My grandmother never seemed to buy any ice cream other than Meadow Gold.  But she always stuck with vanilla.  Here you can see that Butter Brickle was available in 1955.  According to the fine print, you'll taste a wonderful candy surprise when this ice cream melts in your mouth.  It seems that at this time, butter brickle was one of America's popular candy bars.  In addition, there is a recipe supplied here to make the mocha topping.  Even better!  You can buy a life-sized doll for nearly 25% of its value, all with the Meadow Gold shield from your ice cream.  I wonder if anyone out there still has one of these dolls?

Meadow Gold began producing dairy products in 1901 in Topeka, Kansas.  Originally named the Continental Creamery Company of Topeka, the new name was selected by company employees to describe the golden quality of their fresh creamery butter.  There is some confusion as to the origin of this company.  Dean Foods, who now owns the brand, supplied the information on the Topeka Kansas origin.  However, they provide a link to Meadow Gold of Hawaii as the brand's website, which says that it began in Hawaii in 1897.  If anyone knows the real story I'd love to hear it.

Life, September 30, 1957 adversitement

Rolling down the river of time, we come upon this fun little vintage ad from 1957 for Sealtest ice cream.  And what other flavor would we see down south on the Mississippi than South'n Pecan Crunch?  Oh yes, this scrumptious southern delight has just arrived!  It is, in fact, "a packet of pure eatin' pleasure--full of chewy, crunchy goodness."  Wonder if you could send off for the toy boat?

The Sealtest brand was originally a franchise name sold to local milk bottlers throughout the Midwest and as far east as Philadelphia and  New York City.  The Sealtest Dairy Company was founded by Vernon F. Hovey.  Eventually the brand was acquired by Kraft in 1993.

Life, Apil 29, 1963 advertisement

Moving on a few years we see that Sealtest is still pushing pecans to the readers of Life magazine.  At some point in those five years their ice cream became Prestige French.  And the Pecan Crunch became Butter Pecan, a flavor that is quite common today.  It appears that the change has made this ice cream "so tantalizing, so distinctively different!"  This stuff is so good it incorporates "all of the skill of the ice cream maker's art".  That's hard to top.  Note the clear bucket, which is heralded as "ice cream that shows its good taste--and yours."

This is the kind of luxury I can understand.