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The Power of Regionalism

A Conversation with David Hackett Fischer

HUMANITIES, July/August 1999 | Volume 20, Number 4

Historian David Hackett Fischer, author of Paul Revere's Ride and Albion's Seed, has shaped the study of regionalism during the past thirty years. Fischer teachers American history a Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He spoke recently with NEH Chairman William R. Ferris about the depth and persistence of regionalism in America, from its earliest footholds through the technological revolution.

William R. Ferris: The United States has been a country of regions from the first waves of settlers. How you define a region?

David Hackett Fischer: A region for me is a cultural thing. It is people who share a sense of themselves, who form a bond with one another and also with the place. I like the way you work with that great theme of Eudora Welty, “places of the heart.” I think that is what regions are most of all.

Ferris: People in a sense define themselves through the places where they are born and grow up. Let me ask you, what forms that sense of place Eudora Welty describes? Is there something measurable or what scholars might call imagined places?

Fischer: It is clear that regions have a remarkable way of reinventing or reimagining themselves through time. But at the same time, regions have a fundamental foundation in a cultural reality that is not merely imagined or invented.

To look at New England is to see a region that has been reinvented beginning with English Puritans. In our own time, nearly every county in New England has a plurality of Roman Catholics. Yet even as there has been a radical transformation in the ethnicity and in religion, the idea of New England and its cultural foundation remains. One key to it is it becomes institutionalized. It becomes embedded in its institutions, so that as the Irish moved into Massachusetts, they learned to play by Yankee rules. John Kennedy became as fiercely proud of his New England heritage as he was proud of his Irish roots.

Ferris: Apropos of that, when we think about living in a region, how is it different for those who are born there and for those who are newcomers? What is that dynamic?

Fischer: I think that many of the American regions have the power to bring immigrants into their culture, as happened in New England, as happens, I think, in many Yankees who have been moving south in our own time. I'm told that the modal state of birth in Horry County, South Carolina, now is New Jersey. But the people who settled there acquire some Southern ways. They begin to pick up a Southern accent. They begin to share the culture that surrounds them. There is an educational process of great power.

We don't much attend to these questions in our history because they are about the power of persistence. Most of our great historical problems are about change. But one of the most interesting problems in American history is to explain the persistence of regions even in the midst of the presence of change.

Ferris: In some ways the stories that are handed down are as important as the actual facts of history in shaping how we relate to a region. When you come across myths like Paul Revere's ride or the Liberty Bell as a historian, how do you weigh these?

Fischer: The most powerful historical myths commonly have a solid core of historical reality. The story of Paul Revere for me was grounded in the facts of the American Revolution and the folkways of New England. Paul Revere's ride, when we study it close up, becomes a story of a man who awakened the institutions of New England, a man who engaged others in that collective New England way in an effort in the cause of freedom. All of that speaks to historical facts in New England's past. That has sustained the myth.

I'd say it is also the same in the South. There has been much writing about the myth of the Cavalier as if it were entirely an invention. I think there was a fundamental reality behind that as well, beginning with Sir William Berkeley’s elite and going on to ideas of honor that Bertram Wyatt Brown has done so much to teach us about. That is not merely a cultural invention.

Ferris: How much history does a community retain, and does it automatically turn history into myth over time?

Fischer: We've been in the mood to mythologize our history recently, and we've had important and useful books about the invention of tradition and that sort of thing. But I think we've gone a little bit too far in that direction; that is, of missing the cultural and historical roots of our myths.

Ferris: How are myths layered into a region's identity? What is that process?

Fischer: Well, I could watch that close up with Paul Revere. The story of his ride began to be told the day after it happened, and it was told again and again. Every time it was told, there was a moral to the story, and the moral was never the same twice. The great mythologist of the Paul Revere story was Longfellow, who told the tale on the eve of the Civil War mainly to make a point about the importance of individual and collective effort in the cause of union as well as freedom. Then the debunkers got hold of the story. We find a rhythm in the history of the myth of Paul Revere, as in the history of many regional myths.

That is, we will have a mythologist such as Longfellow, and then we will have a debunker who tells the story, and the moral is, "Don't believe what you've been told." Its moral is, don't trust our fables and legends. Then the myth will be reinvented, as it was in the late nineteenth century and again in World War II, when Esther Forbes wrote a wonderful book about Paul Revere that was published in 1942. There the myth had another moral, which was that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary acts— and it was a time for that to happen again in the year of Corregidor and Bataan.

As these myths are told again and again, they derive their power from their relationship to the world that produced them. They are not entirely invented. With each of the retellings, they return to the bedrock of the culture in some way, and then they are tested and challenged by the iconoclasts and born again— but always in a relationship with the history that actually happened.

Ferris: William Faulkner said early on in his life, he realized he could write for a lifetime and never fully exhaust his little postage stamp of native soil, and I've felt similarly about my work in the South with folklore. I know you've studied the towns of New England—Brookline and Concord, for example. Do you feel the same way about those worlds?

Fischer: Absolutely. I take my text from Thoreau, who said he traveled widely in Concord. We are not even close to the end of the beginning of our studies of that town. It was a town of less than a thousand people, through the eighteenth century, in the nineteenth, of only about two thousand. But the literature that it produced shows how inexhaustible this culture can be.

Ferris: In your book, Albion’s Seed, you define four distinct folkways that were brought over by the early settlers to the British colonies. What exactly do you mean by folkways?

Fischer: Well, to me, folkways are the accustomed ways of doing the ordinary business of life. I began each part of that book with language and architecture, the way people built their ordinary buildings.

But folkways go far beyond that. They also embrace customary ideas of order and power and freedom. I found that each of my four great migrations had four very different ways of thinking about freedom. These inherited ideas are still alive and strong in America.

I tend to think we didn't learn our freedom from European textbooks or treatises, and so much of the historiography of freedom has centered on that literature. But we own those ideas. We've lived with them for generations. They are rooted in our ordinary ways of doing things. But they weren't just one idea of freedom. There were profound differences amongst them. Many of the arguments in American history have been arguments between these folkways of freedom and order and work and power.

Ferris: How much influence did these early regional identities have on the newly formed nation? And how much do they still influence our identity today?

Fischer: It is interesting to read the letters of the Continental Congress that now have been made available. In the first and second Continental Congress, especially the first, John Adams had the feeling—in fact, he put it in so many words—that he was working with people of different nations. He wrote about the hours that they kept, the things they ate, the clothes they wore, and also their ideas of freedom and order and the rest. In the Continental Congress, we can begin to see these men who came together, often in amazement at what they met from other regions, struggling to find a framework for coexistence, some set of rules of engagement amongst people who had very different cultures. They invented a republic that mediated amongst these various ideas of freedom. By our own standards, all of those early American ideas of freedom were very limited, but the new framework was a device that began to expand the possibilities of freedom and representative government.

A classic example in the Bill of Rights would be the First Amendment to the Constitution and the clause on religion that the Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. It was a way of reconciling many different ideas—not to establish one—but to allow their coexistence. It was to protect the establishments of Massachusetts and at the same time to allow the religious liberty of the Quakers in the Delaware Valley to continue to flourish. I think we can see many of our constitutional inventions as mediating devices in that sense.

Ferris: There is a wonderful resource on the Internet called the Valley of the Shadow, produced by Ed Ayres, in which he compares two very similar communities during the Civil War, one of which, Augusta, Virginia, had slavery, the other, Franklin, Pennsylvania, did not. Are there clues that we can look for in a region's history that will tell us why this happened to two places that were so much alike in place and time?

Fischer: That is a wonderful project that Ed Ayres has done, and we're all much in his debt. It has already succeeded in its own terms, and, beyond that, is becoming a model for replication by many others.

What I find that is most interesting is that Ed has been able to use the new technology to bring together a lot of primary material that allows every student to be his own historian, to burrow into the materials. What I draw from that may be different from others, but I see evidence here that these cultural patterns are rooted in the reality of culture and history and not invented or imagined.

I also tend to think that we can see in both of those places, in Pennsylvania and in Virginia, the presence or absence of slavery. We can see cultural differences that go back before slavery. One of the great questions for me would be, why do we find slavery in one place but not in the other? Why does it persist so powerfully in Virginia and not in the other? That takes us beyond slavery to the linkages between slavery and the cultures and societies with which it was linked.

Ferris: David, you have written about slavery and said that slavery did not make the South but the South made slavery. As a Southerner, I'm very much aware that my history is intertwined with the history of slavery. Can the two subjects really be studied separately?

Fischer: They always will be studied together, but the question is, what are the terms of their relationship? We have been on these questions in a materialist mood in the twentieth century. We tend to think, even the great majority of us who are not Marxist, that the means have a kind of fundamental power over other things that Marxists call superstructures. It is interesting to me that we can see that character emerging in Virginia before slavery is an important institution. Many people think that the South, that the culture of the South was in some ways a shadow of a peculiar institution. But the tests of chronology tell me that it was the other way around.

I tend to think that we can see slavery developing, not only in response to material imperatives in the South, but to a kind of idealized idea of what a society should be. The men who ran Virginia were building a hierarchical society mainly with indentured servants for three generations. That world of indentured servitude in many ways—in its hegemonic structure, in its inequalities—was very similar to the slave system that followed it, not identical. I see slavery developing as a way of maintaining those cultural and social purposes as well as solving the problem of labor scarcity. There were, after all, problems of labor scarcity in other colonies that weren't solved with slavery, and, there again, we can see cultural purposes having a kind of causal power over what followed.

For me, the main test is the one I keep coming back to, which is just to look at the order in which things happened. We can see so many aspects of what we would later call Southern culture very fully developed in the seventeenth century in Virginia and in southern Maryland before we have slavery. For a historian, at least for me, that's a knockdown argument on the causal relationship.

Ferris: You have written and reminded us that African Americans are the only immigrant group that did not come here by their own will. How has racial slavery and discrimination made a mark on regional identity?

Fischer: First of all, African Americans have a regional history of their own that is very interesting. My wife and I have been spending some time in Africa recently. I have a book that is to follow Albion, which will be about the African American cultures. For me, it begins as a story not of one African migration, a kind of consolidated movement, but a web of movements from Africa to the New World. They also tend to be very sharply defined in time and place.

A good example is the work that Gwendolyn Hall has done on Louisiana, in which we see evidence that we have also confirmed by going to Africa, of a very strong movement from Senegal, from Mali, to Louisiana in the early eighteenth century. The numbers were small, but these people, who were often Bamana, or as we call them inaccurately, Bambara, settled in the area around New Orleans in what would be the heart of Louisiana. And they brought a culture with them that persisted.

We were in Mali looking for the origins of this culture, talking with Bamana speakers and trying to get some sense of the structure of that language, and we got on the subject of music. They said they had a word for music that was actually an adjective that meant sweet. I said, "What is it?" They said the word is jassi. Jazzy. And I think that could just be the origin of that word jazz. There are many theories and very few facts on that subject.

We can see very strong patterns of persistence as well among the Ibos, who moved into Virginia, and among the Angolans, who settled in the Ashley and the Cooper River valleys in the heart of South Carolina. They were followed by a great mixing and merging of other African groups. But the first people there set the terms of engagement, and they set them differently in the South, and so we get a richness and a complexity to African American cultures that goes back to the beginning and forward to our own time.

I think that is an extraordinary story. It has never been fully told because we haven't fully engaged the African origins yet. Not enough American historians have been to Africa.

Ferris: Exactly.

Now, you've written that out of the first forty presidents of the United States from 1789 to 1989, thirty-eight descended from the original four groups. The only two that didn’t were John F. Kennedy and Martin Van Buren. What does a statistic like that tell us about ourselves?

Fischer: I think it says something about the power of hegemonic cultures—not only to persist, but to make a difference in our leaders, in our choices. I tend to think not only that we find statistical patterns of that sort, but also we can see many of our presidents behaving in ways that are deeply rooted in the folkways from whence they came. We are often not even aware of these linkages. To look closely at Franklin Roosevelt, for example, is to find a president who was three-quarters New England Yankee, despite his name. He was educated in Yankee schools. He had a way of thinking about the world, both in the New Deal and in World War II, that was akin to those high moral purposes and to that very flexible and practical way of getting things done that was part of the Puritan culture from which his forebears derived.

Ferris: As a historian, you mix both the traditional historical approach with the use of charts and graphs and visual illustrations. How do you humanize history in a contemporary way when so much research today is based on surveys, numbers, and statistics?

Fischer: We have a great opportunity just now for history writing and history teaching. It is an opportunity that comes from the possibility of bringing together the best of the old history—of events and leaders and individual people—and the new social history, now thirty years old, and cultural history that is about processes and structures and systems. That is what I was trying to do in my Paul Revere book.

It seems to me there is a power of fusion just now, an enormous source of energy, if we can unite the strengths of these two disciplines. It is also these two parts of what is to be really the same discipline. I think that historians of these very different schools, two profoundly different paradigms of history, share the same discipline, and we can bring them together.

One way of uniting them is around the idea of contingency, which I think is a key here. It is a way of bringing history to life. Suddenly, in the late eighties and nineties a good many people began to talk about contingency, and they meant different things by it. For James McPherson, who wrote that wonderful history of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom, around the idea of contingency, it meant turning points. For paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who wrote about the Burgess shale fossils in his book he called A Wonderful Life, after the Jimmy Stewart movie, contingency meant mainly accidents that turned the course of evolution. And then I use the word contingency in Paul Revere—but for me it meant individual people making choices, and choices making a difference. My Paul Revere book is about a web of choices that were really very free and open. To bring that element of contingency back into history is not only to restore individuals to a place of power and agency in history, but also to create a narrative tension in the stories that we tell. These choices can really build a dramatic tension and a narrative power that we’ve lost. We tended, in the new social history—which I think was a great success and broadened the idea of history in important ways—to have structures of determinism that allowed individuals only to appear as examples of great forces over which they had very little control. That is, they became modal characters rather than agents. If we can get past that and bring these two kinds of history together, we can reach a public, we can teach our courses, we can make movies, we can expand the reach of history and realize the power of our discipline, which often comes down to these moments of contingency. I think there is a major change, an intellectual revolution, in the way people are thinking about these things. We are turning away from the determinants that dominated social science, and we are turning toward a more historical conception of the world. When I say historical, I mean the power of contingency and people making choices, and choices making a difference.

Ferris: You mentioned earlier your focus in part on the architecture of groups. While on one level architecture deals with building materials that are available in a region, what does it tell us about the people?

Fischer: One thing that vernacular architecture tells us about is belonging. The extraordinary persistence of New England architectural forms is, I think, an expression of identity with a cultural world. I don't see the architecture itself as having a kind of instrumental power. I don't think that it makes all that much difference from the perspective of cultural-social consequences whether we have a center chimney, as in New England, or we have gable-end chimneys, as in the Chesapeake. But it means that people have a sense of who they are, and then they join into other values that are instrumental, these ideas of order and power and freedom.

Ferris: And moving in a more organic way to landscape and natural resources, what imprint do they leave on a community?

Fischer: I like to have a window seat whenever I fly across the country and to look down at the fields, especially to fly across Ohio or another place where different migration streams passed side by side, and to see the field patterns on the Scioto River, where the Virginia military district was. We see the meets and bounds system of the Southern landscape. And then, in the Western Reserve or other parts of Ohio, where Connecticut Yankees settled, we see a New England landscape.

Many things flow from those different ways of ordering the land. It has linkages to not only to patterns of settlement and town forming, but also to patterns of litigation, of class relations, almost every aspect of life is in some way connected to the land. We can see these patterns, not as something which rose out of the land itself in the kind of physical determinism, but was imposed upon it by people on the move who remembered ways from their past of organizing the world around them. So the lands on the banks of the Scioto River are pretty much the same, and yet they were organized in very different ways.

Ferris: A number of groups who came to America in the early days were fleeing repression. Some wanted communities to practice their faith in peace, like the Quakers. These forms of worship are changing. Diana Eck at Harvard points out that we're not simply Protestant steeples of New England, that the mix of religion is enriched by Muslim communities, for example, and these communities change with the influx of new people. What do your studies show about religion and its interaction with our regions?

Fischer: In Albion, I concluded that religion was the most important factor in differentiating one of those cultures from another. All four of my major folk movements were people who were refugees from religious oppression—not only the Puritans, but also the Cavaliers, who were refugees from the Puritans, and the Quakers from both, and the Borderers in the back country as well. The deeper I went into their writings, the more I found an unhappiness about restraints on their religious practice in eighteenth century Ireland, Scotland, and the north of England. Most of us spring from a root of religious oppression. It is clear that this created the kind of diversity that has been continuing to expand even to our own time.

At the same time, it seems to me that there was something special about Protestantism. One thing that was special was its internal tensions and differences, so that the various Protestant groups who founded our regional cultures were continuously striving with one another for the true way. Many of the dynamics of an open and pluralist society can be seen developing in the seventeenth century amongst a plurality of Protestants struggling to find a way for their own faith in a world where others didn't always agree with them.

We see it in our own time, in my town, which was the old Sudbury that was founded before 1639. On what was the main highway through town we now have a big Jewish synagogue on one side of the road and across the way is the Boston Islamic Center. Yet this old town that now calls itself Wayland still preserves something of the spiritual purposes that the Puritans gave it nearly four centuries ago. So I see change, expansion, but continuity here as well.

Ferris: How much today would you say we are distinguished as a people by region?

Fischer: These differences are still very deep and profoundly important. We see them in many of our social statistics in our own time in rates of violence in our various regions. There are greater differences in homicide rates amongst American regions than there are amongst European nations.

Some of our dialects are fading. The old Brahminical Yankee accent is fading in the Boston area. But, still, these differences persist, and some of them are as strong as they've ever been. Appalachian dialects are strong, are stronger than they've ever been.

But the most important persistence is in regional identities, the places of the heart. It is also in the regional folkways that we continue even as we are not always conscious of them. Differences in ideas of freedom are a case in point. Differences in ideas of government, patterns of taxation in New England, in the South, preserved relative differences for three centuries. This is something that is not disappearing. So many social scientists have predicted the end of regional culture, and yet it doesn't go away.

One thing that is different today is that we think of our regions not so much as subdivisions of nations, as I think we did a few generations ago, but we think of them in relation to other regional cultures that give them a kind of existence apart from nations, in some ways even more powerful than nations themselves, with results that can be explosive in the modern world, as we are seeing in the Balkans, in Mexico, in Canada, in the old Soviet Union. These regional identities are, if anything, stronger in our global village.

Ferris: Right.

Fischer: Which is a remarkable paradox. But I don't think it's a contradiction. My dictionary defines a paradox as seeming contradiction. I think the growth of regional cultures is in some way linked to the globalization of culture today that is eroding the power of national identity. The regional identities become all the more strong by contrast.

Ferris: What would you say holds these regions together? Is there geographic isolation like the island of Tangier off the coast of Virginia? Or is there economic isolation in, say, rural or inner-city communities?

Fischer: Some regional identities always have been partly the result of isolation. But I tend to think that other regional cultures flourish in their interaction with people of different minds around the world. We can see New England's regional identities developing not from its distance, but from its engagement with other people. New Englanders were much involved, through shipping and migration, with other cultures around the world. But that didn't make them less of New England. They would travel around the world and establish their New England societies wherever they went, and their identities would be deepened by it. It is partly the growth of global communications that makes people more conscious of their regional identities. It is not just a function of insularity.

Ferris: Would you say the resurgence of religion in the nation has been a result of regionalism?

Fischer: No. I think there is a relationship between religion and region, but that religion has its own very powerful imperatives, and in many ways reinforces regional identities. Look at the atlas of religious history and the census maps of religion to see the patterns in the South and in other parts of the country, and to see the strength of regional identities.

But I think religion has its own imperatives in America. I see it more, not in terms of revival, but of persistence, of waves of revival that come again and again in American history. The first revival was with John Cotton in the midst of the great migration. These revivalisms come in almost every generation since the seventeenth century. It is astounding to look at the comparative data. There is a collection of social indicators in which people all around the world are asked, "How important is religion to you?" Americans are almost in a class by themselves for importance of religion amongst industrial nations, so different from Europe, closer to Asian and to African populations in that regard. We have been persistently that way for a very long time.

Academic people, who are by and large not very religious— there's a kind of secular culture in academe—tend to try to explain American religion in secular terms, ethnicity, or something of that sort. But I think it is a kind of spiritual errand that many Americans are embarked on, and that has its own sources and its own strength through time.

Ferris: Ethnicity and regional pride in this country are usually viewed as a strength, but we've seen them also go haywire in other parts of the world, and out of control in a sense. Do you see factors that could produce similar flare-ups here in the United States?

Fischer: Well, it could have happened here, and did in other periods. But I see fundamental events in the era of the American Revolution, in the early Republic, where we created a frame for the coexistence of different religions in different regions. It could have gone the other way. In many parts of the world, it did go another way. We could have gone the South American way and broken into many nations, with disastrous results not only for us but for the world. But that framework was invented by a process of contingency and choice. People making choices has proven to be an extraordinary thing. It is one of America's great inventions—its greatest, I should say.

Ferris: One thing that has fascinated me as a Southerner is my own region's language, the art, music, and poetry in that world. Perhaps Southerners are more loquacious than other Americans, but there is a clear sense of oral tradition. I wonder if television and the Internet will ultimately dissipate that.

At the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, we did an Encyclopedia of Southern Culture that explored everything from literary giants to what the coming of air conditioning has meant. I guess I'm asking if we're doomed as a nation to become a culture of strip malls and fast-food joints? Will modern life make us lose our local color?

Fischer: Time will answer that question, but I bet that our regional cultures will survive and even flourish. Some of these technological changes—the Internet or mass media—might function as cultural amplifiers of regions. That is, I will go into Southern strip malls and they look on the outside just like our Yankee strip malls, but inside there are Yankees or Southerners, and I don't think that that's going to disappear. I think that's going to be with us as far into the future as we can see. There have been many predictions in the past of technology as a solvent of regional cultures, but it hasn't worked that way so far, and I doubt that it ever will.

My own experience is a case in point. I suppose I could call myself a galvanized Yankee as a person who moved from Maryland, married a Yankee, and moved to Massachusetts. I have lived there for more than thirty years. By my Maryland origins are still very much part of me and my children as well.

Ferris: Patricia Limerick calls region a perfect bridge between university and public audiences. The Endowment is working on a new initiative that hopes to make accessible the rich resources of culture in each region. How do you see a network of regional centers helping build that bridge to the public?

Fischer: One thing that would help a lot would be for academic people in regional centers to learn to listen to the cultures around them. I find that academic people love to talk. They are not so good at listening. They have a lot to learn that way. One thing they have to learn about is the power of regional identity, which is not merely an artifact of something else, or the power of religion, which is not merely a reflex of some sort of secular interest or motive. Regional centers might be listening posts where academic people could meet the people of those regions and not do all the talking.

Ferris: That's a wonderful idea. Being a folklorist, I'm very familiar with the importance of sensitively listening to people and drawing out their story, be it your father and mother or people that you meet on a field trip with a recorder. I think, as Americans, we need to listen sensitively to other people and to learn to walk in their shoes.

I would love to get your thoughts on something you've spoken about eloquently, the international significance of regionalism and how, as we study our regions in America, we can link with international worlds as well.

Fischer: We can see other nations and other regions developing the power of their own culture, and it becomes more accessible to us through the technological inventions that we've spoken of—through the Internet and the mass media. But I think we can also see people struggling to find a way of coexisting in the presence of very strong cultural differences, and these cultural differences are not going to diminish. I think we shouldn't expect or even want that to happen. The question is, how can we get on together?

Another thing I see are certain values that weren't universal in their origin, but are becoming universal in their expression, values such as freedom and fairness. It is interesting that these ideas arise from some cultures, but were unknown in other cultures. Some of these values are beginning to spread around the world. Yet, as they travel they change, and in their change they become much more complex. That is, we can see ideas of freedom really changing as they begin to take root in other societies. It is a question of learning from these other ideas, not thinking about imposing our culture on them, but of learning from the variety of cultures the possibilities of ideas such as freedom. When we begin to understand these things, we can build relationships on a more satisfactory basis.

I think we are learning to do that as nationalism and ideas of hegemony in the world are becoming less important and the global system is more open.

We also have to learn how to solve a problem that Americans first addressed in the era of the American Revolution, that is, how to find the common rules of engagement that people can share without surrendering their differences. That is something we have only begun to sort out.

The global solution won't look like the U.S. Constitution. It will take a new form, and that is where listening comes in.

Ferris: That is a beautiful note on which to end, listening to each other, and I cannot tell you how grateful I am, David, for your taking time and sharing your thoughts about these questions.

Fischer: It’s a pleasure to talk with you, Bill.