On “Solutions Sunday”: “Step outside of your own comfort zone”: Does that capacity really start with families?

This Sunday morning, CNN referred today as a “Solutions Sunday”, where people were encouraged to have Sunday dinner in a home with people of another race besides your own.  Republican Senator James Lankford on Oklahoma was one of the hosts.  Lankford said “Step outside your comfort zone and invite someone into your circle”.  Maybe your inner sanctum.

Despite living in an “inherited” trust house, I really haven’t been in the “business” of having guests at home, because I’m so busy with personal projects.  Events these days are nearly always in facilities.  So there’s nothing unusual about great diversity in public spaces, but I have to admit that at home it sounds a bit novel.

When I lived in New York City, and sometimes before in New Jersey, I did sometimes have house parties or events, and I have had a few house guests over the years, mostly related in the past to college, chess clubs, or people in the LGBT community (not just “tricks”, although that happened a little in the 1970s).  I’ve stayed with people , but very little since probably the 1970s. The largest event I ever held in my own space was an “Understanding” meeting (I think it was Wednesday, May 19) with about 25 people crowded into my own little studio apartment in the Cast Iron Building on E 11th St.

But it is very hard to help people without openness to letting it be personal if it need be (countering the “mind your own business” society), and for older adults, that’s often frankly easier when “you” have had and raised “your” own kids first.

I get a lot of pressure from others these days to become more open to “gratuitous” socializing and even dating, in my own home court, partly so that I don’t (at 73) remain “an accident waiting to happen” (to quote Jonathan Rauch in his mid 1990s book “Gay Marriage”).  Yes, I prefer to remain individually productive and get recognized for my content (but not just with hyperbolic phrases like “esteemed author”).  But it seems people see a continuum bridging fixing inequality in an economic or politic sense, and the way people actually make social and intimate “choices”.

Maybe nowhere is that idea so stark as in the issue of assisting refugees and asylum seekers, all over the world, but most of all in Europe, and then Canada, with the most comprehensive private sponsorship program in the world.

The New York Times has a booklet-length story today by Jodi Kantor and Katrin Eimhorn, “Canadians Adopted Refugee Families for a Year;  Then Came Month 13”.  Refugee families were supposed to be cut loose from dependence on the private groups (usually of 5 people or 5 families, associated with various faith-based and sometimes secular groups) for rent and many other expenses.  (In the US, where there is no private sponsorship as such, refugee families get some benefits, but generally depend on congregational offerings for some of the rent, almost always in commercially run apartments;  in the US you have about 20 families in a congregation assisting one refugee family instead of just five as in Canada).  What’s interesting about the story is that in Canada, many of the refugees did not speak English and had few job skills, and needed intensive personal attention from sponsors.  In the US, generally, most of the refugees allowed in have male providers with considerable job skills and can speak English.  “Blame Canada”, as in “Southpark“?  The country seems to produce outstanding citizens.  Look how well they do in Hollywood.

The New York Times missive bares some comparison to how the Mariel boatlift was handled in 1980, where churches asked people to put up refugees (often LGBT) in their own homes, very suddenly, mainly in southern cities.  But it turned out that many refugees would need constant attention as many did not speak English and had no skills.  Very few found “sponsors” on the spur of the moment.

Asylum seekers, as I have covered here, face a different situation, as they (usually) have already been in the country legally because of school or job skills.  (That doesn’t include those put in detention and the border, and are generally released only if there are relatives who know them.)  Canada’s reputation of relative generosity (especially relative to Trump) has led to some US asylum seekers crossing into Canada, especially Manitoba.

I’ve covered more details on my own situation on another blog, here.

(Posted: Monday, March 27, 2017 at 12:15 AM EDT)

“Right-sizing”: a necessary and politically dangerous moral precept

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I’ll start this narrative with a humorous ditty from my days at Fort Eustis VA in 1969 during my exposure to the draft (and avoidance of Vietnam).  I stepped outside the eyebrow barracks one morning and a fly somehow entered my mouth and I swallowed it.  I said, “maybe I earned it.”  A buddy said, “put that in “The Proles” (my handwritten novel manuscript about the end of time).

In April 2012, I can remember sitting in a group in the living room of one of the communal homes of “Twin Oaks”, an intentional community near Mineral VA (site of the 2011 earthquake). I had been on their Saturday afternoon tour for about 45 minutes, and had been on the property for about an hour. Yet, I was listening to a ponderous discussion about “work credits” in an income-sharing community that has tried to eliminate money, right out of science fiction.  I felt like I had been living in this community in an alternate reality, for all time.

We often hear that the early Christians lived totally communally, sharing everything.  We also often hear that the early Christians expected a Second Coming and an end of time soon.  I often wonder about the incongruity of right-wing concerns over “demographic winter” (declining birthrates and fertility) and left-wing lectures about sustainability, if we’re all going to be rescued soon by a Savior.

Indeed, there’s an incongruity within evangelical Christianity itself: Jesus is presented often as what would be the perfect young white adult gay male idol in the gay male world – “the greatest of all time” (even greater than Richard Harmon after he won that infamous YouTube sprint race with Timo Descamps (story ), who had played the fake badboy superman “Shane” in “Judas Kiss”).  Yet, we’re supposed to “fall in love” with those who would need us.  We’re supposed to bond to people interpersonally without noticing their falls from perfection.

In a literal sense, inequality among the members of any community is a mathematical inevitability.  Some will be “better” or “produce more” than others simply because they constitute a finite set.  Temporary inequality and self-interest awareness – ego – is necessary for people to have an incentive to innovate and hopefully raise living standards for others as well as themselves.

Yet, it doesn’t make sense to claim public accomplishment unless you actually care about at least some of the people who will consume what you produced – your customers, so to speak.  So, in some sense that needs to get real, “everybody matters” in the group.

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On a number of occasions I have volunteered for a couple hours on some Saturday afternoons in the Community Assistance at a local Methodist church (Mt. Olivet in Arlington VA).  A few of the lay persons have written reflections concerning the communal culture where everything is shared among early Christians, and one such essay brought up the topic of “right-sizing.”  The term might be most closely associated with Matthew 23:11, where Jesus said, :”The greatest of you shall be your servant”.  (OK, maybe your servant could beat you in a YouTube sprint.)

The idea of “right-sizing” sounds like a dangerous one, something that authoritarian politicians (like Vladimir Putin) can manipulate, especially to muzzle critical speech.  There is an underlying idea, something I grew up with, that those of us who are “different” tend to leverage our differences at the expense of others who make unseen sacrifices for us.  I recall when the young Clark Kent in Smallville says “I’m different, but I’m not special”, just before he reveals to his best friend that he is actually extraterrestrial (as if “coming out” as alien compared to “coming out” as gay).  But it is true, that when a lot of wealth is unearned and the better off don’t “give it back”, some people can get the idea that western morality makes no sense and that there is no reason to play by the rules.

Nevertheless, the New Testament seems to hint at the concept of original inequality as a “logical necessity” for any reasonable society to function, in a few places.  The most pertinent seems to be the Parable of the Talents, especially the Matthew version  where the three servants start out with unequal bequests.  Note that liberation theology has a double-edged interpretation of the behavior of the “least gifted” servant: was he a valuable whistleblower, or simply someone who refused team play?  (I remember hearing this discussed back in 1978 on a Sunday morning as I drove a rental car in Nova Scotia in the fall foliage.) I even remember an incident on Donald Trumps’s “Apprentice”, Season 1, where  candidate Troy McClain – who had come from an economically disadvantaged rural background —  is willing to “take one for the team” and allow his legs to be waxed (something Trump mentions in “How to Get Rich” but amazingly hasn’t mentioned yet in his presidential campaign) on camera.  I covered this parable more back in 2007 here.

There is something off-putting about the idea that the “servants” were supposed to use their inherited “talents” to support someone else’s dictated religious goal.  Now, in a world with science, we expect more freedom in choosing our own goals.  Yet, what we actually do needs to work its way back to others.

Another parable that may seem relevant is the parable of the Vineyard workers, where those who had worked only part of the day are paid as much as those who had shown up at dawn.

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The other big parable, or rather encounter, concerns “The Rich Young Ruler” (my own commentary).   Back in 1972, the Reverend Sanks at First Baptist in Washington DC, after leading an encounter group which I had attended, used the narrative to distinguish between a mother’s and a father’s love.  The ruler addresses Jesus as “good”, and Jesus says, why do you call me good, as if to say, “don’t pander me”.  That is to say, Jesus came off to him as a Clark Kent or perhaps (more darkly) Shane Lyons  (“Most people walk in the direction they’re headed” – a great line from “Judas Kiss”). The rich young man had probably not come close to earning all his own wealth (and neither has Donald Trump).  I think that makes a real difference.   So he probably feared that if he took some kind of existential risk to help others, he could really lose everything he had.  He had the “too much to lose” syndrome, and what he had really wasn’t cleanly his.  And sometimes that can be how it is.  Think about how the “Russian roulette” idea plays out (that scene in “The Deer Hunter”) in considering proposals to help international (especially Syrian) refugees and, with even more ambiguous challenges, asylum seekers. This “casino” argument can be used to keep groups preoccupied with   protecting their own.

It’s possible for people who have been relatively sheltered to have everything taken from them, by accident or even by deliberate hostile force from enemy others.  That’s an important idea in Jeffrey Toobin’s book “American Heiress” about Patty Hearst, which I will review soon.   Of course, the idea comes up constantly in history.  If you were a Jew in eastern Europe in the 1930s and early 1940s, you had to live for your family and group, and you didn’t get to choose your own objectives.

You have to have this conversation with yourself, about what your values will be if you do step up, and something happens.  But if can also “happen” if you never step up.  Cowardice tends to be self-limiting.

There’s indeed a paradox about western democratic capitalism.  Young adults who have grown up in western countries with good families do tend to do much better in life and accomplish a lot more according to the values of modern individualism, than those who are reared in authoritarian, especially theocratic or communist, societies.  Yet democratic capitalism seems to be an outgrowth of the personal humility expected by Christianity, most Judaism, and more moderate Islam as it had been practiced a millennium ago, before its fall    That “discipline” sometimes requires reaching out to others in ways that can become shockingly personal and game-changing.

(Posted: Tuesday, November 1, 2016 at 6:45 PM EDT)

Sharing economy jumps in to try to help asylees or refugees; meanwhile Cuban “refugee” controversy returns

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This Monday morning I was merely trying to wade through the thinner Washington Post, picked up off a driveway (that says something) delivery resumed on the first “full day” back from a trip, to get to the Sports section and check up on the Washington Nationals.  They lost, even with home field advantage Sunday. (Major League Baseball really does benefit from immigration, but let me get on to my main points.)  But I never saw so many socially provocative and potentially personally challenging stories on the finger journey through a printed liberal establishment (e.g., supporting Hillary) newspaper.

On the lower left side of the Metro section front page there was a story by Perry Stein, “D.C. man’s quest to offer safe – and free – harbor for refugees and others in crisis, or, online, “This man launched a website so people can invite refugees to stay in their homes”   The man is Egyptian immigrant businessman Amr Arafa, and he offers room in his own studio apartment in Foggy Bottom (near GWU).  It would sound like it’s even a shared (not separate) bedroom for sleeping.  He shelters refugees (who are likely to be asylees in a legal sense) and sometimes victims of domestic violence.  The news story conveys his attempt to use Airbnb at first, before starting his own site, “Emergency BnB’ here.  Note the simplicity of the text in a sharing economy sense “I need a place; I have a place”.  It sounds like Marxism brought local, to the level of the natural family (as authors Carlson and Mero would have said).

In comments to a July 20 posting here on volunteers who want to help refugees can expect, I mentioned Center Global for LGBT asylum seekers, which sounds much more rigorous by comparison to this.  And of course placement of refugees through one of the nine DHS-certified social service agencies and non-profits is a very “safe” thing to volunteer for (and it is very carefully managed).  But sheltering people in a sharing economy technique does sound like going way out of the box.  In Canada, where private placement sponsorship is legal, it sounds much less daring.

The whole panoply of immigration issues, which Donald Trump has exploited, is based on the idea that admitting and helping immigrants from economically or politically unstable (often Muslim) areas will not only take away jobs from Americans, but will require Americans to risk their own security, sometimes in very persona ways.  “It will cost you something.  You may become someone else in the process.”  That goes along with an idea called “radical hospitality”, which a local church (Trinity Presbyterian in Arlington) has talked about sometimes.  (And there’s “scruffy hospitality”, too.)   In fact, the housing issue should resonate particularly with Donald Trump since he is in the real estate business.  But – we know from studies that immigrants add wealth (and help maintain a birth rate) often take menial jobs Americans don’t want, and sometimes bring unusual technological skills (which is why Facebook supports immigration). Cato Institute and Niskanen have held forums and published studies on the economic effects of immigration, and they are usually positive.

What goes around comes around.  Back in 1980, Americans in southern states were begged to take in Cuban refugees in their homes during the Mariel Boat Lift (many were LGBT).

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Recently, Dave Bier, now with Cato, authored a piece in the Miami Herald, “U.S. should continue to accept Cuban refugees”.    Cubans have always been given asylum automatically (making them asylees, legally, rather than refugees) because they came from a communist (“non free”) country in the Western hemisphere.  I think there is some similar provision for Haiti, and one can wonder about countries like Venezuela.  But the bigger issue seems to be whether, given that the US now recognizes Cuba (and also because Cuban “refugees” can now return to Cuba), whether Cuban asylees should continue to get welfare benefits.  As another story indicates, Senator Marco Rubio (“Little Rubio”)  says no.  One idea is to offer benefits only in narrow situations comparable to non-automatic political asylum (as is the case with LGBT people from some countries).

Generally, when an undocumented person (or someone with an expired visa) applies for political asylum, he or she can remain in the United States legally during the process, but they don’t get government benefits.  These measures require care and caution (and maybe professional legal consultation) from anyone wanting to host them.  When an asylum application is approved, the immigrant may become eligible for many benefits and may be much better able to live on his or her own (with or without a family), as in a regular apartment building.  Here’s one of the better links I could find.

I’ll return for a moment to the “out of the box” and “radical hospitality” expectations.  I lived in NYC in the 1970s, and it was common (sometimes almost expected, especially in the East Village) in the male gay community to let others crash in their apartments.  It wasn’t viewed as a big deal, and that’s how a lot of people got by in an expensive housing market.  By comparison, offering housing to international refugees or asylum seekers sounds personally risky, maybe unwise if morally right (to use a metaphor from Anthony Bourdain).  But one could extend the idea too other domestic homeless (as with domestic violence), or people needing to resettle temporarily or even permanently after major natural disasters, which will probably become only more common.

(Published: Monday, Aug. 29, 2016 at 11:15 AM EDT)

(Post pub note: “political asylum for LGBTQ” is a tag, intended as a WP cat.).

“Scruffy hospitality”: especially for having friends over to watch baseball

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On a humid Wednesday morning, July 29, 1959, about a month before I was to start my junior year in Washington-Lee High School in Arlington VA (with that American history class from the world’s greatest social studies teacher of all time, Simon Korczowski ) and compose my big D Minor piano sonata (on snow days 6 months later), I rode over with my father to the barber shop (still there) in Westover in Arlington VA.  This was the first morning back after we had ridden home from Kipton, Ohio on the Pennsylvania Turnpike (four tunnels then) and the Washington Post newspaper delivery hadn’t been restarted yet.  Right outside the barber shop, I saw a news stand with the morning Post, and a sports banner on top, “A’s Hop on Pascual, too, 6-1” (game )

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The Washington Senators, who had started out the baseball season decently, had just lost their tenth game in a row.  The Kansas City Athletics had won their ninth.  This had been a “late” game in the Midwest (and at the time, KCMO didn’t have DST), but somehow the Post edition at the barber shop was late enough to have all the scores.  Less than ten years later I would complete graduate school in that area.  Camilo Pascual had been the Nats one ace (comparable to Stephen Strasburg or Max Scherzer this year). The Senators would lose every game on a western trip (in those days, the West comprised Kansas City, Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland), for the first time ever.  The streak would end at 18 at home a week later with a second game twi-night 9-0 shutout over the Cleveland Indians, tossed by Tex Clevenger.

How well I remember baseball then – us kids even had, at one time, run a “league” in our own backyards (previous post).  OK, the point of this sermon – I could “feel” I was part of something “bigger than myself.”  From my earliest beginnings of hating sports, I rooted for the doomed Senators, in a representing a Nation’s capital city polarized by racial divisions that nobody would talk about, a city seriously compromised by the lack of democracy (call it “home rule”.  From a self-interest viewpoint, rooting for losers like the Senators made no sense. (The Redskins didn’t do well then, either.)  The Senators would do much better in the 1960 season, then suddenly move to Minnesota (where I would live 1997-2003 – funny how what goes around returns).

I recall that I didn’t even understand how baseball worked until third grade – that balls are batted and caught or fielded.  The physics (watching batted balls ricochet off the Green Monster in Fenway Park in Boston) was tantalizing. My third grade teacher and reported about my demanding too much attention and not having any feeling of affinity for my team or “group”.  How often today in MLB do we hear about “team” wins when a key star player had been injured?

Let me jump to another scenario, a sermon a few weeks ago at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA, by Judith Fulp-Eickstaedt, where she spoke of “scruffy hospitality”.  She’s referring just being prepared to welcome guests in your home at any time without the necessity for ritual cleaning to perfection for company. That follows on a sermon from Oct. 27, 2012 when she talked about “radical hospitality”  one day before Hurricane Sandy was due.  (We had been through the power outages from the June 29 derecho).  As it would happen, there was little damage or inconvenience from Sandy here – the brief period of sudden low barometric pressure (and brief high winds) actually cleared up some hip arthritis I was having – nature’s cure.   I’ve heard the hospitality thing before – once being asked if I would consider using my home for a partisan fundraiser – oh, where was this coming from?   Of course, the hospitality thing comes up with so many real disasters – wildfires in the west, floods in West Virginia and recently Ellicott City, MD, but we’ll come back to that.

As for incidental hospitality, most of the social gatherings I attend are in public venues, often bars and restaurants (or, depending on the group, church gyms ready for “Godly play”, or even major league sports stadiums).  Not many are in private homes any more.  They were a lot more common when I was growing up (and, yes, my mother cleaned for them – I remember those shrimp creole dinner parties on winter Saturday nights.)

But “scruffy hospitality” goes along with another idea, something like “Lotsa Helping Hands”.  Churches (synagogues, and mosques) typically set this community up among their own fellowships.  Here’s were “socialization” comes down.  “You” are a member of a group before you express yourself as an individual.  Your content has no meaning until others benefit from it.  Others need to matter to you in a way that’s up close and personal.

The “helping hands” mentality is at odds with an individualistic “mind your own business” culture, to be sure.  When someone like me “returns” to a mainstream church – no matter how liberally politically (and today more and more mainstream churches support ideas like marriage equality, whatever the fringes are trying to do with “religious freedom” and the “bathroom bills”).  It is very difficult for me to step into a world like this and feel very welcome, because, for one thing, I never had my own kids.  I would be difficult for me to accept the idea of a “free ride” at work for a “new mom” (paid maternity leave) without wondering if I were being compelled to “sacrifice” for someone else’s benefit that I would never use.

So here we get to the heart of socialization – you have to start by belonging somewhere.  That was the point of Martin Fowler’s book on the subject.  If you “belong” you will feel natural empathy and willingness to chip in, even (to quote Judith) “when it costs you something”.  There’s been a lot written about this the past few days – in reaction to the aggressive hyper individualism of Donald Trump.

For example, David Brooks invokes Sebastian Junger’s new booklet “Tribe” in his piece “The Great Affluence Fallacy”; and then there’s a dual between Robert Putnam and libertarian Charles Murray over communitarianism, as implied in this book review invoking “I v. We” on Vox of Putman’s “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis”.   Then an effective LTE (“Loners can’t be fixers” ) slams Kathleen Parker’s libertarian interpretation of conservatism  in the Washington Post , Parker curiously had invoked Russell Kirk’s “10 Conservative Principles”, rather moralistic and proto-communitarian, where Kirk writes (in point 9) that power is, in political terms, “the ability to do as one likes, regardless of the wills of one’s fellows”.

The place where most people develop socialization is supposed to be the “natural family”, to borrow a term from a 2009 “manifesto” by Carlson and Mero.  (Sounds like saying “Most people walk in the direction they’re heading” – Shane’s famous admonition to Danny in “Judas Kiss”.)   Particularly, older kids are likely to learn to take care of younger siblings.  (I remember a mother’s saying that to me when I was working a Census survey in 2011 – like this was an off-the-wall moral imperative.)  That means that older kids in a family may have more opportunity to learn the personal value of “family” in relation to personalized achievement goals.  That may be one reason why younger kids may be less conventional or more “liberal” or rebellious, and insistent on their own paths.  Younger sons may be more likely to be gay for biological reasons having to do with epigenetics, but they also may have less opportunity to learn the “value” of becoming a future father and provider.   This all gets blown out – in reviewing a silly mainstream Hollywood comedy film on July 28 I noted David Skinner’s old-fashioned take on a supposed duty of men to become providers and protectors. And without the “reward” of having a family of one’s own (which in my generation required procreative sexual intercourse in most cases) it’s hard to fit in to a community centered around caring for other generations.  Family is the first place you learn to “love” people in a closed space unconditionally, regardless of “ability” (to borrow from Marx); it’s the first community where you learn to have each other’s backs.  In practice, that’s a big reason to need “relationships”. If you really want to learn more about “family values”, study the “distributed consciousness” of the (non-human person) orca (story). Cetaceans know no geography (or “Global Pursuit”).

Of course, that’s changing – with acceptance of gay marriage and of same-sex couples as parents.  That doesn’t “help” me “fit in” all that much.  I have to run on the record I have, and on what was possible earlier in my life in setting myself up.

So, then, what about all the other “communities” I “joined” during my adult life.  The most important may have been the Ninth Street Center  in New York in the 1970s.  Various others included the Oak Lawn Counseling Center in Dallas and then Whitman Walker in Washington, to volunteer for PWA’s, and social groups like Chrysalis and Adventuring, and there are others.  And of course there are political groups.  But in a couple of cases there have been incidents where I believe I did an “OK thing” and someone else thought something I did was wrong because I somehow didn’t “belong” enough to the group to know what was really going on behind the lines.

That leads to another place – whether knowledge should really be acquired in the “It’s Free” mode – the debate about open access, and even kicked off by Reid Ewing’s little short film about a public library.  A lot of people think that knowledge should come down through a family or social structure.  The Rosicrucian Order teaches that mystical knowledge is acquired as one moves through various levels of initiation (but then, so does Scientology).  Then, there is the “no spectators” mentality so well acted in the recent sci-fi film “Rebirth” (indeed, no “alien anthropologists” like me or Mark Zuckerberg).

There is a practical reality that today many people may not have total freedom to join other communities (for “socialization”) beyond their original family.  Of course, that’s the case in authoritarian societies, but even in democratic cultures, aging populations tend to keep people tethered.  The hard reality is that people need to take care of others outside of their own scope of choice sometimes, and find meaning in doing so.  We find this a hard thing to say.

Families do indeed have a problem letting go.  “Family” is supposed to be the place people learn to belong to a community, but some families never allow their members to move on beyond “taking care of their own”.  (See the David Brooks piece, July 15;  Murray had explained this in terms of social capital types, like “bridge capital” which grows out of “bonding capital”, but not always reliably.)

Many churches actually do reach out abroad, sending youth or college-age groups overseas, to Central America or sometimes even Africa, for missions or service — setting up a process where young adults learn to bond with others from cultures very different (and much less individualistic) than theirs.  The church mentioned above has a summer mission trip to Belize, and has even made a short film showing the bonding,  worthy of festival submission (like DC Shorts), in my view, at least.

As for me, I find it hard to stomach the idea of wearing somebody else’s uniform in public, or someone else’s protest flag.  Yes, earlier in my life, some of “identity politics” made sense (I marched in my first “Christopher Street Liberation Say” in New York City in 1973).  Individualism, and the narrow idea of personal responsibility (focused most of visible consequences for deliberate personal choices) has actually served me well in most of my adult life (for example, avoiding HIV). I’ve gotten away with viewing most people through the lens of “upward affiliation”, not from the meaning that would come from actually being needed in more down-to-earth ways by them.  But I’ve been lucky.  Yet, I do hold to the belief that no matter what happens to someone or what someone is born into, some of the responsibility for that person’s karma stays with that person, isn’t the automatic obligation of social policy.

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As for baseball:  Yes, Richard Harmon wants to pitch one game for his favorite San Francisco Giants, and thanks to Max Scherzer’s wife for helping set up Pride Night at Nationals Park.  One day, MLB will have a transgender pitcher; it’s sure to happen.

(Posted: Wednesday, August 10, 2016 at 2 PM EDT)