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HOW WE LIVE 

“The more we share, the more we have.” 
—Leonard Nimoy 

 

Early autumn, 1972. Rural Alabama. Late afternoon. 

Daddy Bill and I are winding our way home in our muddy station wagon. We’re in high spirits, both of us having just spent several gratifying hours, each in our respective happy place.
 


Since dawn Dad has been wading through the saltwater marshes of Eufaula Wildlife Refuge, beating back cattails, stepping over gators, peering through his binoculars at shorebirds and raptors. Meanwhile I’ve been hunkering down in the backseat, oblivious to flora and fauna, blissfully engrossed in a new fistful of Green Lanterns, fresh off the spinner. 
 

 

I know, I know. Daddy Bill isn’t likely to be voted Parent of the Year anytime soon. He thinks it’s a good idea to leave his seven-year-old kid alone for hours, in a parked car, in the middle of nowhere. But what can I say? This is how we live.

We relish our solitary pursuits then share our stories over catfish and okra at Bram's Diner. Dad holds forth on kingfishers, kestrels, sandpipers and snipes. I recount the latest exploits of hard traveling heroes Ollie and Hal. And so it goes. 

After supper I’m riding shotgun and fiddling with the radio dial as Daddy Bill pilots our wagon homeward. Just before the Georgia line, as Paul Harvey is about to tell us “the rest of the story” -- BAM!  A sudden jolt. A flash of white. The sound of crunching metal. Dad slams on the brakes as we skid along the red clay shoulder of the road. We lurch forward then slam backward again as a waterfall of broken glass cascades around us.
 


As soon as we tumble out of the car, we see him. There in the road, illuminated by our headlights, is the broken body of a very beautiful, very dead, white-tailed deer. The poor creature must have leapt right into us. 

“You okay?” Daddy Bill asks. 

“I think so.” I reply. “You?” 

“Welp, I guess we’re both better off than he,” Dad says, nodding to the unfortunate young buck. 

“Give me hand, will you?” 

Pulling a tarp from the back of the wagon, we hoist the heavy carcass onto the roof and secure it with rope. Daddy Bill then turns on the emergency flashers and drives -- even more slowly than usual -- to the Columbus home of Coach Rutland. “Jim’s a hunter,” Dad explains. “He’ll know what to do.” 

A few days later at Brookstone School, Mrs. Simmons calls to me in her sweet southern drawl. 

“Deh-MAY-tray! What are you chewin’ back there?” 

“Venison jerky, ma’am,” I confess. 
 

 

“Bless your heart,” she smiles, “but it’s not polite to eat venison jerky in class unless you’ve brought enough to share with everybody.” 

Fortunately I have plenty! More than enough to feed the multitude. 

Roadkill. Sharing is caring.
 

MEETING LELA | PART 4 — AMERICA McGEE 

“Myths are lies and therefore worthless,” CS Lewis told 
JRR Tolkien, “even though breathed through silver.” 
“No,” Tolkien replied, “they are not lies.
 
—Joseph Pearce 

 

“Dmitri, I can’t believe it! How on earth did you find me!!?” 

How indeed! I cannot account for the bizarre sequence of events that led me to Mr. Bill’s Adventureland, nor can I rationally explain how I knew that Mr. Bill’s Lela and mine were one and the same. But somehow, whether by fate, synchronicity or merely coincidence, at the age of 43 I became penpals with my long lost mother. 

We didn’t converse so much as trade soliloquies. She ignored my questions, so I volunteered details from my own life hoping she might respond in kind. I told her about my successful music career and failed marriage. I shared all my hopes, dreams and fears. 

Lela answered these confessional data dumps with imaginative tall tales in which distant relations appeared as folk heroes. Often embedded within these homespun legends were non sequiturs of a more personal nature (e.g. “the scent of oranges always reminds me of Christmas”). I jumped at these crumbs like a starving orphan.

One day an envelope arrived with no letter at all. Inside were a one page single-spaced typewritten genealogy labeled “The Brown Family” and two photos. In one of the images a group of adults stands in a distant row facing the camera. On the back, in crayon block letters, they are identified as “(L-R) Mama Zulah, Brownie, Jo, Allene, Sissy, Evelyn, Frances, Sara, Jim, Willard.” The reverse of the other photo, a mother with two children, is annotated in Lela's handwriting, “I was about 8 and my little brother was 6 when this was taken, so it was about 1950.”


(


A close study of The Brown Family genealogy reveals “Mama Zulah” to be Lela's maternal grandmother. Following is the final paragraph, together with Lela's pencil notations in bold italics: “James Andrew Jackson Brown (1877-1961) PAPA son of William J. and Sarah Catherine, married Cornie Perdue around 1900. They had 2 children, V. R. (Brownie) 1904- and Vera Estelle (Sissy) 1906-. After the death of Cornie, James Andrew married Zulah Estes Cummings (1888-1963) MAMA in 1908. She was the daughter of Nancy Docia Brown who was the 13th child of Jeremiah Brown and Nancy Hodges Brown. Jeremiah Brown was the great grandfather of James Andrew and the grandfather of Zulah. James Andrew and Zulah had 7 children, Evelyn 1909-, Allene 1912-1972 MY MOM, 5 FEET TALL, BIG BOOBS, TINY WAIST, Josephine 1913-, Frances 1920, Sara 1923, James Andrew Jr. 1927- MY UNCLE WWII PURPLE HEART and Willard 1929-1977.”

This convoluted “kissing cousins” report represents the sum total of what I know about Lela's roots. More often than not her letters would only recount the superhuman exploits of America McGee, the larger-than-life (and likely imaginary) Native American ancestor who, according to family lore, worked miracles, healed the sick, communed with animals and angels, predicted future events, and inspired everyone in the community with her wise counsel.

I doubted the very existence of this messianic figure, but eventually came to appreciate her significance as a mythic hero. Fictional or not, America McGee was my mother’s personal avatar, the embodiment of her highest aspirations. Perhaps McGee was, to Lela, what the Green Lantern is to me. 

I’ve never had much use for religion but I must admit to enjoying these quasi-biblical stories a bit more after having experienced McGee’s magic for myself. After all, a Google search on her name was the deus ex machina that brought Lela and me together again. Even if I never find confirmation of America McGee as an actual historical figure, I will always be grateful to her mythos for moving our plot along. #AmericaMacGuffin 

Every once and awhile my mother would let her guard down and reveal something personal. I briefly regarded each of these revelations as precious nuggets of truth until they, too, were inevitably contradicted by Lela herself.

For example, in one of her letters, Lela cast herself as a child prodigy and honor student who “tested at the genius level” and graduated from a prestigious university while still a teenager. In another she appears as a college dropout who never took school seriously and scandalized everyone by “running off with a professor” during her freshman year. In yet a third version of events Lela skips college entirely, having been recruited right out of high school to join a prestigious national advertising firm as a professional commercial artist. 

Lela mentioned my father exactly twice. “Bill Matheny was a hopeless romantic,” she complained, “and I was his child bride. He smothered me with too much affection.” In a subsequent email she wrote “The man never said I love you, and I was the kind of girl who needed to hear that from time to time.” 

Bill Matheny: Hopeless Romantic? 
 

The two of us corresponded regularly for the next four years.

When you consider the sheer volume of words we exchanged, it’s really quite remarkable how little I learned about my mother’s actual thoughts, feelings or life experiences. Her fraught relationship with the truth was frustrating, but after so many years of silence, I was grateful for any contact at all. 

Then, in October 2012, Lela called with big news: 

“I bought an airline ticket today,” she said. “I’m coming to your next show.” 

MEETING LELA
Part 1 — The Frosty Frog
Part 2 — Chattanooga
Part 3 — Adventureland
Part 4 — America McGee
Part 5 — Under The Stars
Part 6 — Gifts
Part 7 — Biscuits & Gravy

REFLECTIONS ON 9/11 

“War, what is it good for? 
Absolutely nothing.” 

—Barrett Strong
 


On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was at home in Berkeley, drinking my first cup of coffee and viewing the Today show when the news broke. I watched in horror and disbelief as the second plane hit the World Trade Center, in real time, on national television. 

It took awhile to get over the initial shock and accept the reality of what was happening, but the awful footage continued to be broadcast on every channel throughout the afternoon and evening. This was not fake. It was no movie. No superhero was coming to save the day. The tragedy of 9/11 and its painful consequences were very real indeed. 

 


One by one we heard from New York friends who survived the senseless attacks. None were injured, thank goodness, but all were traumatized. As we learned the names of those who died, however, our shock and sadness turned to anger.

I’m no conspiracy nut, but I must confess to harboring some rational skepticism about what really happened that day. The official 9/11 Commission report was neither comprehensive nor persuasive. Too many questions remain. 

Why was Al-Qaeda able to outwit the worldwide intelligence community? Doesn’t the USA have the most expensive and sophisticated military in the world? Is it really so easy for a plane to fly into the Pentagon, without alerting the Pentagon? And what about the laws of physics? Is the impact from two civilian airplanes truly all it takes to cause the total collapse of three New York City skyscrapers, directly into their own footprint, as if by controlled demolition? And if these atrocities were not perpetrated by a foreign government, but by an unsanctioned group of religious zealots from Saudi, UAE, Lebanon and Egypt, how exactly did these crimes justify prolonged American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? 

I raise these questions not to suggest the possibility of a false flag operation, but to highlight the cognitive dissonance of the day’s events. We may never know whether our government was complicit, or merely asleep at the wheel, but neither is excusable. When something so unthinkable occurs, and none of the official explanations make sense, you begin to doubt everything. 

Like many Americans, I experienced lingering feelings of vulnerability and disillusionment after 9/11. It was no longer possible to believe the fairytale that “it can’t happen here.” Even on the west coast, the attacks felt personal, regardless of whether you knew any of the victims personally. 

I remember sitting in my driveway the following spring, still mourning, listening to Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me, and wondering if our collective national sadness might be partly responsible for her album’s runaway success. We were wounded, and Norah’s soulful, melancholy music was just the medicine we needed. Grief brought us together. 

 


Unlike many, however, I did not feel patriotic after 9/11. Jingoism struck me as an entirely inappropriate reaction to such a catastrophic national blunder. I felt let down by our leaders, outraged that they had let this happen, and troubled by their simplistic, sloganistic responses. Instead of providing the answers and accountability we deserved, they gave us only facile exhortations to “go shopping” and “support the troops.” They curtailed our civil liberties and declared war on terror, an objective that is absurd on its face, not to mention unwinnable. 

I was also deeply disappointed by friends and neighbors. I’ve never heard so much anti-foreigner and anti-immigrant hate speech. It was heartbreaking. The concurrent sudden appearance of our flag everywhere, on front porches, car antennas and lapel pins, only underscored my sense of disconnection.
 


Can a liberal pacifist xenophile be a proud American? It's complicated. As an avowed Citizen of the World, I respect our institutions, but patriotism doesn’t come naturally. Like religious piety, bigotry, and football mania, patriotic pride is something that I’ve never really understood even though it has surrounded me all my life. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m aware of my good fortune at having been born white, male and North American in the 20th century, and am grateful for the rights and privileges that I enjoy in this country. I love that I can own property and speak my mind. But I’m also cognizant of the fact that I didn’t earn these blessings. They were stolen by my ancestors and built on the backs of subjugated people. And I know that even today, not all Americans are able to enjoy the same rights and privileges equally. 

I would have to say that I like the idea of America more than the reality. I’ve never bought into the myth of American Exceptionalism. I’ve done enough traveling to learn that the USA is not “the envy of the world,” as I was taught to believe in school, but is actually inferior to many other industrialized nations in education, infrastructure, health care and support for the arts. 

I also emphatically reject the notion that our democratic freedom is predicated on maintaining American hegemony and global military dominance. Freedom may not be free, but most wars are unnecessary. Sorry, Colonel Jessup, but we can handle the truth. We don’t all want you on that wall. Some of us don’t want walls at all.

20 years after the events of 9/11, the United States Armed Forces are finally withdrawing from Afghanistan. This has been the longest military action in our nation's history. 978 billion dollars were spent. Over 241,000 people were killed, including 71,000 civilians. 

Was it worth it?

SNAPSHOTS | PART 4 — CHUBASCO 

“Your vibe attracts your tribe.” 
—Anthony Bourdain 

“We go back like car seats.” 
—Harry Bosch
 

It can’t be an easy thing to raise a son. 

It’s a balancing act. To help him find his way in life while also allowing him the freedom to fail. To provide advantages and opportunities without coddling or spoiling him. To encourage excellence without setting unrealistic standards. To teach him both self-confidence and humility. To know when to protect him, when to counsel him, and when to let him face adversity alone. To balance his needs with your own. 

My father did his best. In 1978 when he decided to relocate us to Arizona, he had his reasons. He was heartbroken, depressed, and needed a change. The move proved troublesome for me, but I don’t begrudge Dad needing to prioritize his own mental and emotional health. It was never his intention to sabotage my education or put me in harm’s way. Kids are resilient. He knew I would adapt. 

It didn’t take Daddy Bill long, however, to realize that Marana was no place for either of us. He loved to teach but was spending most of his time enforcing classroom rules and trying to maintain order. I loved to learn but none of my classes were interesting, and I was always on guard, looking over my shoulder for the next attack.

Dad resolved to seek employment elsewhere as soon as his contract was up, and promised he would find a better school for me in Tucson the following year. In the meantime it was my job to survive seventh grade at Marana Junior High. 

Fortunately, life got easier for me at Marana. There was still plenty of student-on-student violence but somehow I was no longer a target. Is it because I carried myself differently after I’d learned a few moves? Possibly, but the more likely explanation is that I was spared because I finally made the right friends. 

I met Jack in Reading class (no joke, the class was called “reading”), and we hit it off immediately. Jack was different from the other kids. Like me, he was a displaced southerner (his family came from Virginia) with an artistic bent and diverse interests. He was smart, articulate, creative, and funny as hell. He was also an excellent writer. In fact, the only time I ever got in trouble at Marana, it wasn’t for fighting, but for laughing at one of Jack’s hilarious short stories. 

 

Jack was smart, articulate, creative, and funny as hell.

 

“Settle down, Dmitri,” said Mrs. Woods. 

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied. 

“Don’t back-talk me! You go to the principal’s office right now!” she demanded. 

I told Principal Dewey that Mrs. Woods had misinterpreted my sincere polite response as sarcasm. “It’s how I was raised,” I explained. “At my old school in Georgia, you’d get in trouble if you didn’t say yes ma’am.” 

“Well, you’re here now. Lose that habit,” he said. “And I still have to give you detention for disrupting class.” 

“Yes, sir,” I replied, true to my roots. 

A few days later my new friend Jack introduced me to his pal Bennie, a charismatic football player with a winning smile and a terrific sense of humor. Bennie had cracked the code on how to flirt, too, and all the girls giggled whenever he was around. Ben’s upbeat attitude was infectious. I liked him right away and the three of us soon became fast friends. It didn’t surprise me at all when I later found out my new companions also happened to be Dad’s favorite English Lit students. 

 

Bennie’s upbeat attitude was infectious.

 

No fights found me after I started hanging out with Bennie and Jack. In a school where sports participation is one of the only real forms of social currency, the two of them were well-liked student athletes. They seemed to get along with everybody, even the so-called bad kids. I must have benefitted by association. Plus, Jack was taller than almost everyone else in our class. Nobody messed with him. 

We were the original three amigos. We hung out everyday at school and sometimes on the weekends. I liked to draw comic books for fun back then and remember creating Jack Fox and Blazin’ Ben as their superhero alter egos. 

For all its faults, Marana did one thing 100% right: almuerzo, or as we called it, lonche. Twenty-five cents would get you a man-sized portion of delicious Sonoran food, served up fresh daily in the school cafeteria. The ladies in the kitchen took great pride in their work and prepared a different main course for us each day: carnitas, tamales, machaca, fajitas, chile rellenos, enchiladas verdes, and more, always with a generous helping of frijoles refritos con arroz. Damn, I loved those Marana lunches. 

 

Damn, I loved those Marana lunches.

 

The other thing that made lunchtime so great was the game we always played. Bennie, Jack and I, and occasionally our friend Kevin, would take turns trying to make each other laugh with ridiculous jokes, silly voices and wordplay. Sometimes we would mimic absurd Steve Martin comedy routines or reenact entire skits by the Not Ready For Prime Time Players. Invariably we’d all end up doubled over in fits of laughter. The game never ended until the bell rang or Bennie spit milk out of his nose. Big fun. 

I loved those guys then and I love them still. 

I had no way of knowing, at the time, that Bennie would grow up to become one of the west coast's most popular radio personalities, or that he and his wife would generously let me stay with them while I found my first apartment in San Francisco. I couldn’t have known that Ben would one day introduce me to the O’Jays (with whom I would have the honor of working some years later), or how supportive he would be over the course of my future music career. I didn’t know that Ben and I would remain friends for life. 

And I certainly had no way of knowing, at the time, that Jack and I were destined to attend the same high school in Tucson, become college roommates in Boston, and remain close as adults as we both pursued careers in the performing arts. I couldn’t have known how much time we would spend playing in bands with each other, or discovering music together over many late nights at the turntable, poring over liner notes as we listened to his excellent collection of classic jazz on vinyl. I didn’t know we would one day stand up as “best man” at each other’s weddings, or that we would continue to confide in one another, sharing our troubles and triumphs well into late middle age. I didn’t know that Jack would be my best friend forever. 

All I knew was that I had finally found my tribe. I'm not sure whether I ever told them how our alliance had saved me. Jack and Ben made an otherwise miserable year not only bearable, but memorable in the best possible way. 

On December 25, my father and I celebrated the holiday on our balcony, grilling steaks and listening to our favorite seasonal album, Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas. After dinner we watched as heavy, dark clouds rolled over the valley, showering the desert with a wondrous cleansing rain. 

 

We watched as heavy, dark clouds rolled over the valley,
showering the desert with a wondrous cleansing rain. 

 

The winter cloudburst felt auspicious, like a baptism or benediction. 

“Merry Christmas, Daddy Bill,” I said. 

“Happy Birthday, Bub,” he said. “You’re a teenager now.” 

“Yes, sir,” I replied, true to my roots. 

Next: 
SNAPSHOTS | PART 5 — CHEVY MAN

UP IN THE AIR | PART 1 — JOURNEY PROUD 


“There’s no sensation to compare with this 
suspended animation, a state of bliss. 
Can
t keep my mind from the circling sky. 
Tongue tied and twisted, just

an earthbound misfit, I.”
—Pink Floyd

 

I’m not sure when or why I first became fascinated with flying, but I suspect it has something to do with my father. 

Daddy Bill was always looking skyward, peering jealously through his binoculars at the raptors kettling overhead. Like me, he could fly in his dreams, and as a boy he imagined doing it for real. Young Billy wanted so badly to be a bird. According to family legend, he even broke his leg in an attempt to launch himself into the clouds, after the ghost of my great grandmother appeared to him in a dream and encouraged him to leap off the roof of the barn. 

I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, nor the boy from the barn. Unlike my Dad, I never watched birds, joined the air force, or injured myself trying to defeat the laws of physics, but I definitely inherited his vivid imagination and impulse to fly. 

Nearly all my childhood heroes were flyboys of one sort or another. There was Shin Hayata of Science Patrol, who transformed into the giant alien Ultraman (cue theme: “here he comes from the sky!”), and of course the space cop Green Lantern, whose alter ego Hal Jordan was a fearless test pilot. Luke had an X-wing and Kirk had a starship. James Bond had his jet pack and James Brown had his private jet. Neil Armstrong’s moon-landing poster adorned my bedroom wall, and Ol’ Blue Eyes filled our home with songs extolling the romance of air travel. 

 

Nearly all my childhood heroes were flyboys of one sort or another.

 

Such notions were not uncommon for children of the 1960s and 70s. We were raised by television to defy gravity. 

Just as the previous generation had grown up playing Cops & Robbers or Cowboys & Indians, my friends and I played Star Trek and SuperFriends. It never would have occurred to me to pretend I was the Lone Ranger. I was more likely to choose Billy Batson (a boy who, by saying a magic word, can transform into a flying strongman), Steve Austin (a NASA astronaut/USAF pilot who survives a crash to become a powerful cyborg that can leap 30 feet into the air in slow motion), or Evel Knievel (a real life daredevil who dressed like a superhero and refused to remain earthbound). 

Could Evel Knievel fly? He sure as hell tried. My friends and I never missed Knievel’s televised stunts, including his disastrous attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon in a rocket-propelled skycycle.

Some of my pals were even more obsessed with flight than I. Lance was a space nerd who knew everything about the Apollo missions and could even recite the names of all the astronauts. Jeffrey could tell you what kind of jet was flying overhead just by looking at its silhouette. And all of us were jealous of Payton, whose uncle was a helicopter pilot. 

Commercial airline flights were still considered a luxury in those days, something that only executives, celebrities and rich people could easily afford. This was the tail end of the Golden Age of Air Travel, when seats reclined all the way back and there was still plenty of legroom for everyone. 

 

The Golden Age of Air Travel

 

Passengers wore their finest clothes, dined on steak and lobster, and drank endless complimentary cocktails. Beautiful air hostesses, glamorous as models, paraded the wide aisles with magazines and trays of hors d'oeuvres, pausing to lean and light the cigarettes of ladies and gentlemen alike. But the real stars of this hedonistic theater-in-the-sky were the dashing and charismatic pilots. Pilots commanded respect.

 

Pilots commanded respect

 

If you’ve ever seen the movie Catch Me If You Can starring Leonardo DiCaprio, you know what I’m talking about. Meeting an airline pilot in uniform was like shaking the hand of a famous military hero or movie star. I only flew a couple of times with my family back then, when I was still too young to appreciate or even fully recall the experience. But I do have one very clear memory: a friendly, square-jawed Delta Airlines pilot winking at me as he leaned over to hand me my very first souvenir kiddie wing pin. 

The first flight I remember well was not on a commercial airline, however, but a tiny Cessna seaplane that Daddy Bill chartered from Key West, Florida to the Dry Tortugas. The year was 1974 and I was nine years old. 

 

a Cessna seaplane in the Florida Keys

 

Our pilot, shouting over the engine’s deafening roar, pointed out sharks, stingrays, and sunken treasure ships in the ocean below. My Dad only half listened, preferring to focus on the sky and his quest of adding some rare pelagic birds to his North American life list. I just giggled the entire time, giddy with delight as we soared through the air. When our pontoons finally touched down upon the surface of the water at Fort Jefferson, I squealed “Again! Let’s go up again!” 

I would happily go up again and again over the next few years. By the early 1980s, commercial air travel had become significantly more affordable. Small budget airlines were just starting up, and the larger companies lowered their prices in order to compete. Like many middle class families, we chose to fly rather than spend most of our vacation driving to and from our destination. 

On the plane, people were still allowed to smoke, but it was becoming less fashionable to do so, and only first class passengers enjoyed the few remaining perks. They had their own dedicated flight attendant serving cocktails and canapés. Meanwhile, back in the cheap seats, where my family and I were squeezed together, “airplane food” meant stale, flavorless cafeteria fare on a plastic tray. 

The Golden Age of Travel was over, but I didn’t care. I loved flying and looked forward to every opportunity.

Some of the grown-ups teased me for being “journey proud,” a southern expression for folks who get so excited that they can't sleep the night before a trip. 

What can I say?

I’m still that way today. 

Next: 
UP IN THE AIR 
PART 2 — SEASONED TRAVELER

2020 BY THE NUMBERS 

Slept over 300 nights in my own bed 

Added 196 new friends and subscribers 

Enjoyed 180 homegrown garden salads 

Gave 122 private lessons online 

Sold 92 books and household items 

Directed 33 distance learning workshops 

Received 27 grants and contributions 

Collected 17 vintage comics by mail 

Staged 13 performances (pre-lockdown)

Wrote 10 new arrangements for jazz sextet 

Played 7 solo live-stream shows 

Created 6 new multimedia presentations 

Played 3 big band concerts (pre-lockdown)

Produced 2 virtual arts education festivals 

Survived 1 surreal, bottle episode of a year!

2019 BY THE NUMBERS 

304,000 
steps walked 
47,500 

miles traveled 

13,000 
friends and
subscribers 
756
comic books
collected 
238
musicians
hired 
173
performances
on tour 
53
workshops and
classroom visits 
41
sideman
appearances 
39
vocalist
collaborations 
30 
sold-out
shows 
27
youth and
family programs 

19
feature articles
and reviews 
12
arts education
residencies 

9
big band
concerts 

7
music
festivals 
6
jazz + film
events 
3
new compositions 
1
epic
year

Thank you for sharing these memorable milestones. 

Here's to more musical adventures ahead. 

Happy New Year! ~Dmitri