Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

January 20, 1820: Dream a Little Dream of Me

It’s a red letter day for fair young maidens everywhere, for in addition to being January 20, it is the Eve of St. Agnes, a night in which, if they play their cards right, they’ll gaze upon the countenance of their true love. Naturally there’s a ritual that must be performed to make this happen. First the maiden must go to bed without her supper, having got herself buck naked and placing a sprig of rosemary and one of thyme (no parsley, no sage) each in a shoe at the side of her bed. She then lies with her hands under her pillow and staring upward chants: “St. Agnes, that’s to lovers kind / Come ease the trouble of my mind” whereupon she falls asleep and conjures up the lucky fellow.

St. Agnes was a martyr who was born back in 291, who died a virgin in 304, and is the patron saint of young women hoping to lose theirs.

The Eve of St. Agnes ritual was celebrated in an 1820 poem by John Keats titled, oddly enough, “The Eve of St. Agnes.” For 42 rather lyrical stanzas (read that steamy, no Grecian urns or nightingales here) Keats recounts the St. Agnes Eve adventures of Madeline and her paramour Porphyro. Keat’s publishers were uncomfortable with his lyricism and forced him to bring it down a few notches (to PG-13 lyricism).

Madeline’s family is all liquored up (another custom) so she scurries off to bed to perform the ritual, hoping to see Porphyro in her sleep. Porphyro hopes to see Madeline as well, but not in his sleep. He sneaks into her room and waits in the closet. From there, he watches her as she readies herself for bed and falls asleep, after which the naughty fellow creeps closer to get a better look. She awakes having been dreaming of him and sees him in the flesh. Naturally she assumes this is still as dream, so she welcomes him into her bed. When she is fully awake, she realizes her mistake and is a bit chagrined until he declares his love for her. They dash off together across the moors and we are left to wonder about their fate. (As anyone who’s ever read Hound of the Baskervilles knows, you don’t go out on the moors at night.

To Air Is Human

Here’s an idea for a television game show: Get four contestants – makebikini them celebrities – have them stick their heads through a life-sized illustration of a famous scene or a song lyric and then take turns asking the host yes/no questions and try to figure out what scene they’re a part of.  Just for insurance, get a big star to be the host. Sound like a winner?

The scenario played out for the first time on CBS at 9:30 pm EST on January 20, 1961, the evening of the inauguration on John F. Kennedy. The program was called You’re in the Picture. The guest celebrities were Pat Harrington Jr., Pat Carroll, Jan Sterling, and Arthur Treacher. The host was Jackie Gleason, who’d been around television for a while hosting his own variety shows and a little number called The Honeymooners. That first episode was also the last episode.

Talk about a bomb. “The biggest bomb in history” said Jackie Gleason, adding that it “would make the H-Bomb look like a two-inch salute.” Time later called it proof that the 1960-61 TV season was the worst in the history of U.S. network television.


Born January 20, 1922, Ray Anthony became a successful band leader during the 1950s, despite composing “The Bunny Hop.”


Mama Eu Quero, Part 2: Fantastic News

When Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha was sixteen, she was already an entertainer in her own small part of the world.  She quickly became known in her own country, and in 1939, as Carmen Miranda, she sambaed to the United States for a part in a Broadway musical review.  The tower of fruit above the slight five-foot-one Brazilian Bombshell became an instant trademark, which along with her musical exuberance carried her to super stardom.  She appeared in many films, but Delia’s favorite was an outrageous Busby Berkeley musical in which she sang “The Lady with the Tutti Frutti Hat” while an army of dancers waved giant bananas.  Why would a young teenager idolize Carmen Miranda when the other girls her age wished to be Marilyn Monroe or Rita Hayworth or Grace Kelly?  Perhaps it was because even though Carmen wasn’t so pretty, she was so vital.  And they said she was really very shy.  Just like Delia.

Jorge’s last words to her were:  “We’ll be together soon, I promise.”  His first words had been:  “Another Norteamericano.  Would you like me to lie on the floor so you can walk on me?”   She had cried both times.  His last words echoed for many months even as she realized that although they were probably truthful in intent, they were spoken in summer, in Cuba, and in youth.  Jorge’s first words were quickly forgotten. They burned, made her feel a guilt that should not have been hers.  But even though his words were mean and insensitive, Jorge was not, and as soon as he had uttered them, he felt shame at having hurt a person who had done him no harm, at having acted in the same manner as those he criticized.  Spurred by her tears, his apologies rushed forth.  And within five minutes they were sharing their first Cuban beer, their first conversation and the first day of a summer idyll that would careen through the hot weeks of June and July like a possessed Cuban taxi on an open road.

Many of those conversations would turn to politics, and Delia showed a naiveté about the affairs of the country that stood just 90 miles from her own country’s doorstep.  At the center of such conversations stood Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar, and Jorge would loudly decry his infamy. “Fulgencio cares only for Fulgencio,” he would snort.  When on a soapbox, he always used Batista’s given name.  “He doesn’t give a damn for the people.  They hate him, too.  And he knows it.  But he has the army and the police, so he doesn’t need the people.  Let me tell you how the great Fulgencio cares for his people.  Two years ago, Fidel’s attempt at revolution was put down almost as quickly as it started.  The gunfire that we could hear off and on through Saturday night had died down by Sunday morning, and my father insisted we go to church as usual.  During the service, the police appeared at all entrances to the church, blocking our exit except through the one door that opened onto the square.  Just in front of that door, close enough so that we must negotiate around it, the police had dumped a wagonload of bloodied bodies.  As we passed by we could see movement within this noxious heap and hear low groans.  Some of them had not yet died.”

Jorge turned his face away from Delia as the tears appeared in his eyes.  She shuddered and cried with him.  What seemed to bother him the most was the hopelessness.  The people grumbled and cursed, but they were apathetic. The opposition made speeches, but they were meaningless; when in power, the opposition had been corrupt too. Fidel had been released from prison but was in exile.

As deep as Jorge’s anger was, Delia conquered and subdued it as their relationship grew.  And for a time his country’s turmoil became as distant to him as Ike and Iowa were to her.

To Delia’s father, what was happening at home was infinitely more important than what was happening here in Cuba.  As a result Cuban papers rarely found their way into the household.  The New York Times did, however, although by the time it arrived the news was as cold as a Manhattan January.  Nevertheless it served the noble purpose of convincing him that he had not fallen off the edge of civilization.  And it was from this unlikely source that Delia learned the fantastic news.


“Mama Eu Quero” originally appeared in the literary magazine Dandelion.  It is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.



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January 19, 1944: Patriotism and Prosmiscuity

A movie released for national distribution back on January 19, 1944, depicted the predicament of a young woman named Trudy Kockenlocker. It’s seen today as a rather tame screwball comedy — and a good one at that, listed by the American Film Institute as #54 on it’s list of all-time best comedies. Yet it’s a wonder it was ever released.

Miracle at Morgan’s Creek starred Betty Hutton and Eddie Bracken and was directed by Preston Sturges. It tells how Trudy wakes up one morning after a farewell party for a group of soldiers to discover that, while drunk, she married one of them whose name she can’t remember. A short time later, she discovers she is pregnant.

Well, didn’t the alarms go off at the Hays Office, that noble outfit charged with protecting Americans from perversion through diligent censorship. The script was sent to the office in 1942, and Paramount quickly received a seven-page catalog of complaints, starting with the fact that Trudy was drunk and working its way up to the possible comparison of Trudy’s dilemma with the virgin birth of Jesus. When the Hays Office had finished its snipping, only ten pages of the script remained in tact. The War Department weighed in about the conduct of the departing soldiers. A pastor in the film who delivers the moral warning against mixing patriotism with promiscuity got the hook as well.

The film was finally released, the Hays Office was bombarded with complaints, including one critic’s suggestion that the office had been “raped in its sleep” for allowing the film to be released, (evidently, Sturges had somehow forgotten to share the film’s ending with the Hays Office). and it became Paramount’s highest-grossing film of the year. It also won an Oscar for Best Screenplay.

A Tale of Two Babies

A lot of folks would spin the channel to CBS in 1953 to catch  another birth, this one a tad less controversial as Lucy gave birth to Little Ricky (Ricky Ricardo Jr.) – 71.7% of all television sets in the United States were tuned into the I Love Lucy program that January 19.  On the same day, Lucy gave birth to a nonfictional son, Desi Arnaz Jr.


Mama Eu Quero, Part 1: Cuba 1955

The flickering image on the T-V screen – strong eyes, the familiar beard, the damn fatigue cap – stole Delia’s attention from the book she had determined to finish this evening.  And his voice – still defiant, but the words he uttered were words of defeat, stepping down.  All these years, and your revolution will end with a whimper.  I’m afraid it’s getting old and wrinkled, Fidel.  Like us.

The face on the TV screen changed, metamorphosing into another image from the distant past that probably wasn’t really there.  It was a gentler face with a mischievous smile and a great big nose, a face that forced both a smile and a tear as he cooed:  “Good night Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.”  It was an odd association, these two faces, but for Delia, lasting and inevitable.  Jimmy Durante disappeared into the darkness and Fidel was back.

Delia didn’t hate Fidel the way so many of the others she knew who had had associations with Cuba did.  Of course her association with Cuba had been very short – but intense – a mere two months during that bittersweet summer of 1955, three and a half years before Castro took power.  She was a young woman – a girl – plucked from the American Midwest by a tornado and whisked into a wild and wicked Oz called Havana.  There to meet Jorge.  And Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha.

Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha was not born in Brazil as many think.  She emigrated from Portugal, arriving in Rio de Janeiro in 1910.  But once there, she so fully absorbed the culture of her new home that she would one day personify its people, its infectious rhythms.  On the world stage and in the many movies that, years later, Delia would watch on television, Carmen Miranda was Brazil.

By today’s reckoning, the revolution was already two years underway that summer Delia’s father got an assignment with an American sugar company in Havana. In a way, by working for a sugar company with vast interests in Cuba, her father and by extension his family, including Delia, were in their own small way partially responsible for the revolution.  Sugar (Delia still couldn’t put it in her coffee) was both Cuba’s lifeblood and its yoke.  A third of the country’s income depended on sugar, and American sugar companies controlled three-fourths of the land on which it could be grown.  And the entire blame, at least in Delia’s eyes, seemed to have fallen on one sixteen-year-old girl.


“Mama Eu Quero” originally appeared in the literary magazine Dandelion.  It is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

January 18, 970: The Mice That Roared

On an island in the Rhine River near the German village of Bingen am Rhein, there’s a structure known as the Mouse Tower which has a curious history if you choose to believe it. The tower was first erected by the Romans, and in 968 it was restored by Hatto II, the Archbishop of Mainz.

Hatto was not one of Germany’s nicer guys. Aided by archers and crossbowmen, he used his tower to extract “tolls” from passing ships, all in all a lucrative sideline to his religious duties. He also filled his barns with grain in anticipation of a future rainy day which soon came in the form of a famine. The nearby peasants ran out of food and you know who was ready to sell it to them at prices they could not afford. Naturally, the peasants were not a happy lot, and Hatto got wind of a possible rebellion. Hatto assembled the peasants at his castle and promised to feed them.  He sent the hungry but now happy peasants to an empty barn to wait for the food he would bring.  But when Hatto and his servants arrived at the barn, they were not armed with food. Hatto ordered the barn doors locked, and immediately set the barn on fire. Hearing the screams from inside, Hatto was said to have remarked: “Hear the mice squeak!”

Hatto’s amusement was short-lived. When he returned to his castle, he was set upon by thousands of mice. With the mice in pursuit, Hatto fled the castle and crossed the river to his tower, in hopes that the mice would drown if they followed. They didn’t. They swarmed the island, gnawed their way through tower door, and — well, as a poet described it:

They have whetted their teeth against the stones,
And now they pick the bishop’s bones;
They gnawed the flesh from every limb,
For they were sent to punish him!

The Kid’s Got Talent?

As the program began, the spinning of a wheel would determine the contestants’ order of appearance. As the wheel spun, Ted Mack would chant the magic words: “Round and round she goes, and where she stops nobody knows.” It was January 18, 1948, and The Original Amateur Hour, episode number one, was on the air. And each week, we would be informed how many episodes had aired. The final broadcast in 1970 was number 1,651.

Ted Mack brought the Amateur Hour to television from radio where it amateurhourhad been a fixture for over a decade under the command of Major Edward Bowes. Mack’s television version was one of only six shows to appear on all four major TV networks – ABC, CBS, NBC, and DuMont. (the others were The Arthur Murray Party; Down You Go; The Ernie Kovacs Show; Pantomime Quiz; and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet).

Contestants were often singers and other musicians, although acts included jugglers, tap dancers, baton twirlers, and such. The television audience voted for their favorites by postcard or by calling JUdson 6-7000. Winners returned for another appearance, and three-time winners became eligible for the annual championship and the chance to win a $2000 scholarship.

During 22 years on television, you might guess that the program would discover a throng of celebrities, but you’d be wrong. Gladys Knight, Ann-Margret, Irene Cara, and Tanya Tucker were a few of the handful of future stars. Pat Boone was a winner, but his appearances caused a bit of a tempest in a TV pot. After his winning appearances, it was discovered that he had appeared on the rival program Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, and was therefore not an “amateur” singer. He was booted from the program, but his fame was already a given, and within a few years he was hosting his own variety show The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom (and Ted Mack was never a guest).

Elvis Presley, on the other hand, was turned down for the show.



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January 17, 1893: Wanna Go Back To My Little Grass Shack

Back in the eighth century, simple Polynesian voyagers in their handmade sailing vessels arrived on the islands of Hawaii, not known then as the Hawaiian Islands or even the Sandwich Islands. They led an idyllic existence – hula dancing, surfing, exchanging leis, trading banter: “Kulikuli, Ku’uipo” or “Hau‘oli Makahiki Hou” and occasionally chanting.

hawaiiFor nearly a thousand years, Hawaiians lived like this (not the same ones, but many generations), and then came the  European explorers and – the Americans. American traders came to Hawaii for the islands’ sandalwood, which they sold to China. Then came the sugar industry followed naturally by missionaries. They moved right in and immediately upended Hawaiian political, cultural, economic, and religious life. In 1840, the monarchy, which had given us such notables as Kamehameha and Kamehameha II and Kamehameha III, became constitutional and lost much of its grandeur.

Four years later, a man name of Sanford B. Dole was born in Honolulu to American parents.

During the next four decades, Hawaii’s ties to the United States grew closer thanks to a number of treaties, and in 1887, a U.S. naval base was established at Pearl Harbor as part of a new Hawaiian constitution. Sugar exports to the United States grew, and U.S. investors and American sugar planters broadened their dominion over Hawaiian affairs. Queen Liliuokalani, who ascended to the throne in 1891, wanted none of this and said hele along with a Hawaiian gesture involving a ukulele.

The Americans were above trading unpleasantries. Instead on January 17, 1893, a revolutionary “Committee of Safety,” organized by the aforementioned Sanford B. Dole, staged a coup against Queen Liliuokalani. The United States turned a blind eye to the Hawaiian troubles, but 300 Marines who just happened to be in the neighborhood watched from offshore.

Shortly afterward, the US annexed Hawaii and sixty years later it became the 50th state. The Dole family – well, just think pineapple.


fuchsia January 17, 1501

German botanist Leonhard Fuchs was born in 1501. He died in 1566, but not before giving his name to the shrub that remains popular today.

No, it’s not the Rose of Leonhard.



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January 16, 1777: We’re Outta Here

It would appear that the state of Vermont got kicked around a lot back in Revolutionary times. After it had been governed as a part of New Hampshire for 15 years, King George III decided in 1764 that the territory should belong to New York. It didn’t take long for Vermonters (they weren’t really called that yet) to realize they didn’t want to be a part of the Empire State (it wasn’t called that yet), so in 1777 they got together and declared their independence from everybody — New York, Britain and New Hampshire.

They called their independent state New Connecticut (they had some identity problems). After a few months, they renamed the state Vermont, a bastardized translation of the French for Green Mountain. A month later, they wrote themselves a constitution, the first written in North America and the first to prohibit slavery.

Throughout the 1780s the U.S. Congress refused to recognize their independence (kind of snarky for someone having just fought a war for independence). In 1784, the governor of New York asked the U.S. Congress to declare war on Vermont, but Congress (probably sick of war) did not oblige.  Vermonters turned to the British, requesting readmittance to the empire as part of Canada. Finally, in 1791, Vermont was admitted to the new American nation as the 14th state.

Crazy Aunts in New Hampshire’s Attic

Democrats recently took over New Hampshire’s House of Representatives.  One of their first acts was to repeal their own right to legislate while armed to the teeth.  This undid one of the first pieces of legislation Republicans passed when they had control, one I discussed in one of my very first posts:

I don’t like to speak ill of a neighbor.  But if your neighbor has a crazy aunt locked up in the attic, you’ve got to say something.  And our New England neighbor New Hampshire has a bunch of crazy aunts locked up in the state legislature attic.  New Hampshire has a history that includes its desire to have a nuclear weapon.  And where would this nuke have been aimed?  Duck and cover, Montpelier.

Jumping to the present, New Hampshire has just armed its state legislators, but in a tip of the hat to Yankee reserve, legislators are not allowed to brandish those weapons; they must keep them concealed.   I guess if they’re threatened, they shout:  “Don’t mess with me, I’m carrying a concealed weapon.”  “I don’t believe you,” says the threatener.  “Show me.”  “I can’t, but I really do have a concealed weapon, honest I do.”  This of course has been disastrous to the holster industry, which has been struggling for quite a while.

Who are these legislators?  Let’s do a little demographic digging.  There are 400 members of New Hampshire’s House of Representatives.  According to Wikipedia, that’s one representative for every 3,300 residents.  If the United States had the same level of representation, the U.S. House of Representatives would have 99,000 members.  About 300 are Republican.  We might as well forget about the Democrats (New Hampshire has) and concentrate on the majority.   They’re mostly male.  In ethnicity, they range in color from eggshell white to antique white.  Their average age is somewhere around 103.

As long as we’re on the subject of crazy aunts and weaponry, we should probably mention Utah.  It’s my state of birth, my state of youth.  Thus I follow its news a bit, its sports a bit.  It, like Vermont, has snow, snow, snow. But unlike Vermont it now has a state gun.  You got it, a state gun.  And not some romantic firearm like a Winchester Rifle or a Colt 45, but a semiautomatic whatsis.  Utah is the first state in the nation to have a state gun, but others will follow.  I won’t name states.

Being a state gun and all, you can brandish it freely (“I can shoot the ear off anyone in this state.”)   I’m guessing that eventually the sight of a bunch of snow bunnies with bullets to their brains lying in the snows of Utah will send people to the snow, snow, snow of Vermont, where, I might add, we have designated it as the official state precipitation.

There’s No Business Like Show Business

Born on January 16, 1908, Ethel Merman was the Queen of Broadway for three decades, belting out song after song in a voice described as trumpet-clean, penny whistle-piercing, Wurlitzer-wonderful.”  When she was not appearing on Broadway, Merman enjoyed a successful movie and television career.

Merman was also known for her salty language, never delivered in a whisper. Once while rehearsing for an appearance on the Loretta Young television show, she was told it would cost her a dollar each time she swore since Young disapproved of foul language. As she was fighting to get into an ill fitting gown, Merman shouted: “Oh shit, this damn thing’s too tight.” Young held out her curse box and said, “Come on Ethel, put a dollar in. You know my rules.” Merman is said to have replied: “Ah, honey, how much will it cost me to tell you to go fuck yourself?”


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January 15, 1797: Flamboyant Haberdashery

John Hetherington, a London haberdasher was hauled before the Lord Mayor on January 15, 1797, charged with inciting a riot. His breach of the peace had caused passers by to panic, women to faint, children to run screaming, dogs to yowl and one poor lad to suffer a broken arm from being trampled by the mob.

What had Hetherington done to cause such turmoil? According to authorities, he had appeared in public wearing upon his head “a tall structure having a shiny luster calculated to frighten timid people.” That is, he was the first person to wear a top hat on the streets of London. And for his act of flamboyant haberdashery, he was forced to post a ₤500 bond.

Hetherington’s chapeau was a silk topper also known as a high hat, silk hat, beaver hat, or stove pipe hat. It became popular soon after Hetherington’s breach and remained so through the middle of the 20th century. Folks associated with the top hat include Fred Astaire, Charlie McCarthy, Uncle Sam, and Rich Uncle Pennybags (the Monopoly man).

In 1814, Louis Comte became the first magician to pull a rabbit out of a top hat, and in 1961, John F. Kennedy became the last president to be inaugurated in one.

One If by Treacle

It was midway through the lunch hour on an unseasonably warm day inmolasses Boston, Massachusetts. Folks outside taking in the nice weather were the first to hear the loud rumbling sound and feel the ground beneath them shake as if a train were passing by. And then they were suddenly engulfed by a sweet tsunami, a 25-foot wall of molasses moving faster than molasses ought to move. The goo rolled relentlessly through the streets of Boston just like the creature in The Blob (with nary a Steve McQueen to save the day).

Some conspiracy theorists (before they were swallowed) thought it might be an invasion from outer space. But no, this was a locally spawned terror. The culprit was the Purity Distilling Company, producer of molasses used primarily as a sweetener throughout the United States but also fermented to produce rum and ethanol, and a key component in the manufacturing of munitions. The wayward molasses was stored in a large tank holding over 2 million gallons, awaiting transfer to a plant in Cambridge when the tank burst on January 15, 1919.

The result was devastating. Molasses, waist deep, covered the streets,swirling and bubbling about the wreckage of automobiles, trucks and even a passenger train. People and animals alike were trapped like flies on sticky fly-paper. Twenty-one people and several horses were killed; 150 were injured. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were engulfed.

Cleaning up the gooey mess took several weeks and over 87,000 man-hours. The harbor was brown with molasses for months. Purity, despite its innocent-sounding name, was held responsible, even though the company tried to blame the whole thing on anarchists. Turns out the molasses tank leaked so badly that it was painted brown to hide the leaks.

Some local residents in the true spirit of enterprise made lemonade, collecting enough molasses to sweeten their tea for years to come.


January 15, 1870 – First depiction of Democratic Party as a donkey (by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly)



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January 14, 1500: For the Ass Was a Donkey, You See

The Feast of the Ass held on January 14 from around 1100 until 1500 was meant as much as teach-in as a party-in, a way to present religious doctrine to the illiterati who had no books or Internet access. This festival, held primarily in France as a cousin to the Feast of Fools, celebrated the flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus into Egypt.

Traditionally, the most beautiful young woman in the village splendidly attired in gold-embroidered cloth, carrying a small child and riding a donkey would be led in a solemn procession through the town to the church. The donkey would stand beside the altar while a mock Mass was performed. Instead of the usual responses to the priest, the congregation would “hee-haw.” At the end of the service, instead of the usual benediction, the priest would bray three times and the congregation would respond with another round of hee-hawing. The choir would then offer up a hymn and everyone would bray along — except for the ass who thought the whole thing rather ridiculous and that these people were all making you know whats of themselves.

Another story from these Years of the Ass featured King Henry IV (of France not England as in yesterday’s post). The king was visiting a small town where he found himself listening to and growing tired of a long and rather stupid speech being delivered by the mayor. As the mayor spoke a donkey brayed loudly and the king with a tone of the greatest gravity and politeness, said: “Pray, gentlemen, speak one at a time, if you please.”

How Cold Was It?

January 14 is also St. Hilary’s Day which honors 4th century bishop St. Hilarius who sounds like a pretty jolly fellow.  In England, the day is considered the coldest day of the year, probably because of the great frost that began on this day in 1205 and lasted through March.  In many subsequent years, folks would hold festivals with thousands of them stomping around on the frozen Thames.

. . . pickpockets were sticking their hands in strangers’ pockets just to keep them warm.

. . .  politicians had their hands in their own pockets.

. . . the squirrels in the park were throwing themselves at an electric fence.

. . . when I turned on the shower I got hail.

. . . mice were playing hockey in the toilet bowl.