What We Knew and What We Didn’t

The following piece was an assignment for a class I’m taking at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. We were asked to write from the close third person point of view where the narrator seems to be looking over the character’s shoulder and is not omniscient. Tension is heightened because the reader knows what’s coming but the characters don’t.

In honor of the 14th anniversary today, I’m sharing this exercise with you. I hope you’ll remember with me the shock and uncertainty of that day and ponder all we now know – or maybe still don’t know – about what 9/11 means to each of us and to our country.

After fifteen years on the labor and delivery deck, Marjorie had earned the perk of working the 11 am to 7 pm shift. She loved it because she got off at a reasonable hour to have dinner with friends and she got enough of a morning to get lots done. On September 11, 2001, her mid-day shift meant she was able to be home for delivery of the rug she had sent out to be cleaned.

The carpet guy rang the doorbell just after 9:00 am, exactly as the company had scheduled. Marjorie was already a little miffed because this delivery day was a week past the date the cleaning company had originally promised. Her parents were flying in to visit in a couple of days and she wanted her living room back in order. Why couldn’t you count on the world to be dependable any more? At least this guy was on time.

The tall, sinewy man with a buzz cut went right to it and unrolled the room-sized rug with a single flip. After the last wrinkle was smoothed out, he straightened up with the surprising grace of a yogi.

“So, what I think is we’re under attack. This is war. Who knows where they’re going to hit next,” he said.

“Excuse me? What?”

“The planes flying into those buildings in New York. Haven’t you had the TV on? I was just at my last house and the lady there was watching CNN. You should turn it on.”

The first image on the screen was of the South Tower imploding inside an enormous grey column of billowing smoke and dust. The announcer’s voice was measured, reporting just the facts that they could confirm or see from news helicopters. Marjorie reminded herself to slow her breathing, trying to take it all in and not panic. She had patients waiting for her at the hospital, colleagues needing to be relieved. She had to continue to move through her morning to get to work.

Who knew what was about to happen, what city would be the next target? She thought of the important military installations in Colorado Springs, Cheyenne Mountain and all. Massive numbers of casualties could quickly overwhelm their health care facilities and overflow to the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver where she worked. She was on the hospital’s list of personnel with SUVs who were available to be called in for a disaster in any weather. All those years on a high risk labor and delivery deck had taught her to be ready for anything, babies or moms going south in a nanosecond. She had a reputation for being calm in the face of volatile life or death situations.

Thankful once again that there were scrubs waiting for her at the hospital, she watched the coverage as long as she could, skipped her shower, ran a brush through her hair and headed in.

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Struggling with the Downside of Atheism

Being an atheist has some significant drawbacks in this culture, especially in times like now when a dear friend is suffering a life-threatening illness. Most people aren’t public about not believing in God, so I often feel alone, on the outside of a caring community of believers who offer great comfort to each other. Painful social stigmas are attached to nonbelievers in some circles and I’ve certainly experienced that. But when it feels worst are in times of peril or sorrow when my Christian or other religious friends deal with their helpless feelings by invoking the power of their god through prayer. I don’t have that option.

I don’t pray. I don’t believe that there is a Higher Power to pray to. And if there were, I don’t believe he/she/it would be persuaded by people asking him/her/it for favors. What, does someone get to recover their health and live because enough people prayed for them, or the right people, the anointed, prayed for them? I hear my religious friends urge everyone to pray for someone as if one more person would be the deciding vote. How could anyone believe in an omnipotent god who decides people’s fate like that? Sorry, I’m not trying to judge. I’m honestly not able to understand that. And, yeah, I’m upset. And scared.

Don’t get me wrong. I think prayer is a good thing, not because it causes a god to do something but because of what it does for the one praying. It focuses their heart on someone who needs support and that’s of real value. Most people believe their god works through ordinary people so prayer means friends are paying attention to the person in need and that is very powerful, regardless of whether you believe in a god that will do something miraculous or not. I honestly hope the believers in my friend’s circle of support will continue praying.

My spiritual life centers around gratitude and mindfulness. I’ve always wished there were a box at the end of the choices – Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu – that said Grateful. Gratitude for an atheist is admittedly ironic since there’s no belief in someone to be grateful to. I just am grateful, to my core, as a default place I always return, and that works for me. In this instance, I am grateful for this friend, for her care and love for me across more than a decade. The spiritual path I try to walk is mindfulness. I learn, time and again, that there is room in my heart for all emotions, including sorrow and fear, hopelessness and powerlessness. Negative emotions (“upset. And scared.”) do not have to be fought with and defeated or relieved in some way. They just are. They exist right alongside love and joy and hope. For me, to be human is to accept and live inside the full continuum of human feelings.

I still struggle with what to say when others are saying “I’ll be praying for you.” My daughter has taught me the Quaker phrase “holding you in the light” which I love. I often say “I’m holding you in my heart”, pretty much the same thing. I don’t believe in a Higher Power and certainly don’t have any influence with one if I’m wrong about that. All I’ve got to offer are my compassion and acts of support. All I have is my love.

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A Kick in My Writerly Rump

From Cheryl Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” column in The Rumpus, reprinted in Tiny, Beautiful Things:

"Be brave. Write what’s true for you. Write what you think. Write about what confuses you and compels you. Write about the crazy, hard, and beautiful. Write what scares you. Write what makes you laugh and write what makes you weep. Write what makes you feel ashamed or proud. Writing is risk and revelation. There’s no need to show up at the party if you’re only going to stand around with your hands in your pockets and stare at the drapes."

Stay tuned.

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“Older Ladies”

This is an absolutely true, spot-on reminder of how to celebrate and embrace our older bodies. I, for one, plan to play this delightful music video daily for a while. Check it out and consider doing the same – the least you’ll get is your broadest smile!


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For Josh, Duncan, David, Malcolm, Lee and Phil

Today I celebrate you six magnificent men who father my beloved grandchildren. When I think of how you love them, what I see is their faces and your love in all its forms reflected there.

The full-on glee when you’re blowing raspberries into their soft baby bellies or roughhousing with them down on the floor;
The intense concentration when you’re teaching them something they want to learn, to work a chunky wooden puzzle or take the ready position in right field;
The beam of pride when you’ve praised them for that first terrifying swing all the way across the monkey bars or the enormous accomplishment that is graduating high school;
The small nod and quick, acknowledging smile when you’ve cheered their soccer goal or all out effort in a swim race;
The wide-eyed wonder as you’re explaining how to flip a pancake or where India is on a map;
The way their faces soften and quiet from tears of terror or pain or anger as you hold their small heads against your broad shoulders, patting them gently on the back for as long as it takes;
The explosion of joy when they run to greet you at the door, “Daddy’s home!”

It happens every day, in countless ways, many of which you may not see but we, their mothers and grandparents, we see. How you play with them, teach them, support them, comfort them and love them. But most of all, how you model for them how to be a parent and how to be a human being. For all these reasons, I love you and thank you, today and every day.

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David Seawell’s Tribute to Tom McCoy

My son David writes a blog of which I am extraordinarily proud at http://bustedclutch.com. Here is a sample that I hope encourages you to become a follower. Tom and I would love that.

He Was Here

For Thomas McCoy

He was here in the room the day I was born.547281_10151420780697017_357538899_n

He was here for my first play in high school, and my last performance in college. He was here the night I met a girl, and here the day I married her. He was here, here with me.

He was here when I found writing. He greeted my words like he would greet my kids, with love and pride and laughs. He nurtured them. Corrected and chided them when they were lazy or overly cute. He sat with them and cared for them, and showed me how to do the same. When fear or doubt made me run away to law, or to being busy, or just away, he gently reminded me of responsibility, and teasingly reassured me of my capacity to fulfill it. I write at all because when I wrote he was here, here with me.

He was here and pointed me to Conrad’s Preface, DeLillo’s Noise, and Kafka’s Hunger. His gifts, for every occasion, were words of his own. Full tender words of humor and depth. Words that showed how beautiful he was here. Here with us.

He was here that night I needed him most. Hours earlier and hundreds of miles away, I doubled over from the thought of losing him before I could say goodbye. After three years of being sick, his body fell out from under him. The pain, and the medicine, and the pain from the medicine closed in on his hospital bed. He fought through all that awful with jokes and tears, and he was here when I pushed through the hospital, and gave him the only words I had, “Tom, I’m here.”

Today, he is not anywhere, not anymore. He is not in days or places, just words. He is here.

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The Thankfulness of Anticipation

Recently I have been faced with two friends threatened by despair, one from a horrific diagnosis and the other an impending divorce. Turning inward, I searched for words, any meager words of solace and support, and found only a familiar, powerless emptiness. Then I remembered that a writer I revere had just the words of hope and healing I had been looking for.  I sent both of them this quote from Barbara Kingsolver in “High Tide in Tuscon”:

In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.

One of those friends told me she had shared the quote with her family and they were putting it into practice together. Once again I marveled at the power of art flowing from the artist to me, then through me to the next concentric circle out, and on and on.

Last week I watched Daniel Day Lewis animate the complex, tortured, noble life of Abraham Lincoln with a brilliance I can hardly comprehend. On a continuum of my interests, movies would be in the cluster at one end while historical anything would be as far away as possible on the other. I am grateful for Lewis’ portrayal that allowed me to access all the interwoven threads of the amazing tapestry of that man’s life and heroism as no college history course (which I consistently avoided), battlefield visit (as interesting to me as sitting down and watching its grass grow) or nonfiction Civil War  bestseller (so many books, so little time and none for these) ever could.

In this my favorite season, a time of thankfulness for the universe of gifts that enrich our lives, I want to remember the artists who work courageously every day, never giving up, to bring to us their works of beauty, insight, power, hope, comfort and joy. I’m sure it’s because I struggle to use my far lesser talents in service to these same goals, but I am keenly aware of their talent and effort this time of year. When I’m a little down, I try to remind myself that at that very moment there are artists all over the world working on creations that some time in the near future will bring me pleasure, reassurance, understanding, and appreciation for all that is best in life. Some time today, one or many of my artist/heroes will find that germ of a new creative idea, see the world from an exciting new angle, break through a paralyzing barrier, allow a character to make a surprising transformation, hear at last the perfect harmony, or write the words that perfectly express the humanity in all of us.

New books, films, paintings, photographs, poems, music, even wearable art, recipes and blog posts, are lined up in the creative pipeline. Anticipating the joy of receiving them fills me with thankfulness.

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Good News in Ghana

In an attempt to make amends for my Halloween Grinchiness, here are some heartwarming images and information about the NGO in Ghana that rescues children from child labor and slavery, and Semester at Sea’s involvement in supporting their efforts. Give yourself a dose of good news during this difficult week.


City of Refuge Orphanage – A Day in the LIfe

By: | Date: 11.02.2012

The City of Refuge Children’s Village outside of Tema, Ghana is a safe house for children rescued from child labor camps. Began in 2007 by Johnbull and Stacy Omorefe, the Refuge is steadily filling with children who once worked as modern day slaves for fisherman in the Lake Volta region of Ghana, where child slavery is rampant. “Children were everywhere we looked. In every canoe on the lake there were two or three young boys casting nets or pulling them in. Their eyes hollow, their stomachs distended and their muscles overdeveloped.” Children are often sold into slavery on the lake by single mothers who simply cannot afford to feed them. They grow up without education, without love, and without hope. For a few fortunate children all that is beginning to change. With organizations like the growing City of Refuge, which has a history of support from Semester at Sea students, young boys and girls sold into slavery are being rescued from the labor camps and given an opportunity to live childhood as children.

Painted children greet the sun as laundry dries on the line. The day begins at City of Refuge, a home and school for children rescued from slavery.

From a boats to a bunk beds, many of the orphans at City of Refuge come from Lake Volta where they are enslaved as fishermen, generally performing such duties as gathering nets from the bottom of the lake after they became tangled in sunken trees.  This is Gabriel.  He is one of the newest children in the City of Refuge.  Gabriel was orphaned when his father’s canoe flipped in a storm on the lake.

Armed with a new toothbrush from Global Grins, a young girl stands next to her clean clothes laid out on a rock pile to dry in the rising sun.

Chores are done around the house each morning before school. These young boys wipe down the table after a breakfast of boiled eggs, bread and milk. They don’t need direction or reminders.

Gabriel can’t yet read the books in his backpack as he has just begun the first grade, but he brings them to class because he is eager to try.  Many of the rescued children, like Gabriel, have received no education prior to their arrival at City of Refuge.

The classroom is empty this early in the morning, but it doesn’t matter. Life is much more precious to him here than on the lake. Gabriel takes full advantage, patiently waiting for the other pupils to arrive.

Holly Stewart, and American volunteer schoolteacher, sips her morning coffee and prepares her classroom for the day. She initially came for just a visit, but has stayed for the love of it.

What the school may lack in computers, overhead projectors, and microscopes, the teachers, like Jacob Atsu, make up for with hard work, skill, determination, and strength of spirit.

Mid-morning sees the arrival of Semester at Sea students. They don matching Global Grins T-shirts and boxes filled with toothbrushes to give away.

One of the founders of City of Refuge, Stacy Onorefe, teaches the Semester at Sea students about the child trafficking and child slavery problems faced in the Lake Volta region of Ghana.

Johnbull Onorefe, husband to Stacy and co-founder of City of Refuge, gives a tour of the village to the visiting students.

Semester at Sea students became tutors when they get the opportunity to help in the classroom. Matthew Poundstone (CA State University Chico) is clearly enthusiastic about his pupils correct answer in math class.

Ashleigh Mason (Va Wesleyan College) has her arms full.  A young girl sits quietly in the back of the class.  New arrivals to the Refuge often feel a bit out of place, but they warm up quickly in its’ friendly and loving environment.

The school does have electricity, but it really isn’t necessary as each room is filled with large windows. Katherine Saffelle (Elon University) sits in the soft window light of the classroom tutoring a young boy.

Sara Santomauro (Ohio State University) listens intently to the children’s stories. English is taught commonly in every school, with most teachers leading each class in english.

Jolina-Rose Blier (Western New England University) was “inspired to see how happy a child can be after going through so much in their short life.”

Yan Benink (U of Co Denver) comments, “this felt less like a service project and more like a trip back to Elementary School.  But better, because everyone is nice to me and I knew all the answers.”

Business Administration Professor Mark Peters (University of San Diego) gets back to the basics by tutoring the children in spelling.  Professor Peters is inspired by City of Refuge and encourages “SAS alumni to give serious thought to how they can support their good work and spread the word of the urgent need to combat modern day slavery.”

Schoolteacher Holly Stewart breaks up a little tiff between two boys in her class as they wait outside for lunch to be served.

Enoch was working 12-14 hours a day on Lake Volta prior to his rescue. Sold into slavery, children work for many years to buy back their freedom, by which time they are too old for school. Uneducated, unable to read, they are destitute and will spend the rest of their lives as laborers. Enoch is now learning to read, learning math, and living a new life filled with promise.

City of Refuge is a place where children are allowed to be children once again, not child laborers. Bryn Valaika (U of Colorado Boulder) plays a little football with the youngsters.

The sun goes down in the west; the students whom live in nearby villages have gone home; what is left are children, free from labor camps… free from enslavement… free to live, free to play, and free to still do chores like young men should.

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Bitter Truth about Halloween

I might as well start with a confession: I am a Halloween Grinch.  I’m not proud of it but it does feel a little better to own up to it. Where do I start admitting all the reasons why I wish we skipped from the last glorious celebration of summer, Labor Day, right through all the desiccating and dying of autumn, to my very favorite holiday, Thanksgiving?

The most acute phase of my problem probably began when the boys were little. With apologies to all the amazing women out there who know I’m talking about them, it was those super crafty, bubbly and uber-talented moms who made me truly hate Halloween. They spent months making incredibly creative costumes for their little darlings, my sons’ classmates in preschool and elementary school. All those hand-dyed witches’ robes, meticulously sequined fairy skirts, and six-foot long papier mache dragon’s tails that required a parent to carry them, following along behind like a royal attendant? They made we want to hurl with humiliation. I’m the last thing from crafty/creative/patient enough to pull that kind of costume off. Also, my boys were famous for changing their minds at the last minute. With my way of doing Halloween, an hour before the start of trick-or-treating, we had a flimsy Target Superman costume that stayed in the box and a linen closet minus a sheet that was frantically and miraculously transformed into an acceptable version of a Storm Trooper. I also adopted the conveniently high road position that a Halloween costume should display the child’s, or occasionally an older sibling’s, cleverness and creativity, not mine. The results were usually quite adorable.

But it doesn’t stop there. Sharp knives, slimy innards, candles dripping hot wax and excited little children never seemed like a good combination to me. I’m not a fan of the flavor of pumpkin and can’t wait for all that ubiquitous October pumpkin-ness – lattes, muffins, ice cream, soup – to just get over itself already. I don’t even mind the early start of Christmas decorations and TV ads because they remind me that Halloween’s days are numbered. I love going to movies but I can’t wait for this month’s batch of schlock to rotate off into DVDs and Netflix. Why would people pay good money to go sit in a dark theater and watch unspeakable gore and horror for two hours? And please don’t invite me to an adult costume party, see above.

Then there’s the candy. No matter how hard I try to buy candy that I don’t like very much, I always fail and am left with decimated bags long before October 31st. The stresses of election season just make the temptation worse. As Anne Lamott recently posted on Facebook, “My grandson Jax asked where so many of our candy corn packets had gone, just in the last 4 days, and I told him Dick Cheney had taken them.” I love candy corn as much as she does but chocolate is truly my sweet drug of choice. A little devil sits on my shoulder as I stand in the candy aisle and makes the irresistible case that ALL KIDS LOVE CHOCOLATE! I’m filled with dread that I’ll be that despised little old lady who gives out boxes of raisins or even toothbrushes for crissakes! So I load up with those yummy little bars of deliciousness, vowing once again that they’re just for the children. Lucy and Charlie Brown’s annual ritual with the football is classic because it’s so true. Once again I fall for the temptation, right onto my enlarging bum.

OK, fun is fun or not so much, in this case. Please don’t get whiplash but I have to get serious for a moment. I’ve just discovered a devastating issue about Halloween chocolate treats that is the actual reason for this post. Did you know that child labor and child slavery are huge problems in the chocolate-producing countries in West Africa? Maybe I’m the last to find out about this but the BBC produced a documentary about it  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=LD85fPzLUjo#!) and a mommy blog I’ve discovered, Rage Against the Minivan, posted an excellent summary of the issue (http://www.rageagainsttheminivan.com/2012/10/the-inconvenient-truth-about-your.html). I’ve been to Ghana and am familiar with an extraordinary NGO there that rescues child slaves from the fishing industry, as well as the US non-profit that was started by Semester at Sea students to support it: http://www.findingrefuge.com/. It makes perfect sense to me that child labor and child slaves are also prevalent in a Ghanian industry that is the world’s second largest supplier of cocoa. Neighboring Ivory Coast is the largest. The much more impoverished and rural Burkina Faso, just north of both these countries, is the source for many of the trafficked children.

The takeaway message is this: If you are concerned about this issue and haven’t bought your Halloween treats yet, please choose chocolates made by Mars (Snickers, Three Musketeers, Mars, Milky Way, Twix ) or Kraft (Cadbury, Green & Black’s, Toblerone) because, according to the sources I’ve checked, these companies are taking beginning steps to start using more sustainable, ethical cocoa in their products. Don’t choose chocolates by Hershey’s and Nestle because they are currently the worst offenders. You can look for fair trade chocolate at stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s or you can skip chocolate altogether and buy those candy corn packets. Just make sure not to invite Annie Lamott or me over to your house before next Wednesday.

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Remember those kids’ Choose Your Own Adventure books? Here we have a Choose Your Own Excuse blog post.

1. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot! I haven’t posted since June. Where did the summer go? It went to some glorious places as it turns out, or at least I did:

  • Costa Rica, Peru, Ecuador, Panama, and Belize on my favorite vehicle, Semester at Sea’s MV Explorer, in the company of smart, eager, compassionate students and talented faculty, new friends and old;
  • The peaks and shorelines of the magnificent state of Washington, accompanied by my son the newly minted Stay At Home Dad and emerging writer, his gracious wife the Starbucks VP/VIP and ferry commuter who actually tolerated the presence of her mother-in-law in lovely but somewhat close vacation quarters, the Old Soul five-year-old girl child, and the curly-headed grandson continuously muttering the color commentary for the Mariners game being played in his head;
  • Shreveport, to enjoy the warmth of extended family, scorching heat of July notwithstanding;
  • West Hartford, CT to scoop up and fly home the two youngest granddaughters of another son’s family as they began a long anticipated, heart-warming transition back to Colorado;
  • And finally, Jackson, WY to reconnect with longtime friends as we jointly celebrated 65 years on the planet from a vantage point several thousand feet above it in a hot air balloon and splashing and squealing through some gorgeous white water on its surface.

How is a person supposed to sit at a computer and update a blog with so much fun going on?


2. The Procrastination Monster has once again ravaged my best-laid plans and intentions of blogging regularly.  The theme that has bedeviled my retirement years is “Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?”

Other stages of my life have been wall-to-wall deadlines. I had to show up for work on the Labor Deck, not because I feared being fired but because I knew in my gut the hell of working short-staffed and I couldn’t do that to my colleagues. I also remember asking myself at 2:00 am one Christmas morning: “How did I not get these gifts wrapped and toys assembled before now?” Scrolling back in my memory through the last month, I realized that all of that time had been taken up with meeting other imminent deadlines like the last day to mail packages, the last day of school to take the gift to the teacher, the evening holiday party that necessitated spending the afternoon buying stain- and hole-free dress-up clothes for three boys, etc.

My current life certainly still has deadlines but far fewer and that makes all the difference. I procrastinate because I can. There are probably a number of other reasons why – I’m workin’ on those.  Check back with me later.


3. It’s an age-old writer’s thing: How can my work possibly be good enough?  My stories are boring, my insights clichéd, my skills and talent are meager at best. Woe is me. I suck.

I’ve also been told that “real writers” just do it, while it’s crystal clear that I do not. They sit down at the computer and write, regularly, no matter what. Then they put it out there. They don’t fuss over its imperfections for months on end. A techno blogger I follow wrote this from a different lane of the creativity highway:

“I could tweak the hell out of it, but as the coders say, real developers ship. Real musicians have to ship as well. The big problem with working digitally is that the temptation to tweak is so great and so easy to do that it takes a great deal of restraint not to want to dive right back in.” http://blurbomat.com/2012/02/16/bright-and-shiny-surfaces/.

Sometimes for inspiration I read other writers I admire, like Anne Lamott or Cheryl Strayed. Mostly that effort backfires because they are just so damn good I feel even more strongly that I suck. Sometimes I manage to get my butt in the chair and then get distracted; what else is new? I actually have ideas I want to blog about fairly frequently and even get them started in my head in the shower or during a walk. Later when I try to go back to that tapestry of ideas and emotions I want to create, I grieve that the colors have all faded or I’ve lost hold of the thread entirely.

Blah, blah, blah. I’m boring even myself with this excuse.

Rewind back to the beginning of this blog, the “sitting with the questions” intention. It feels important to me to figure out why I don’t write, to tease apart the complex ball of emotions and behaviors that underlie this whole effort. Most days I feel no closer to straight, understandable strands so I’m forced to sit with the mess in my lap. This much is clear: I love the feeling of having written. So for today, with apologies for my absence, I’ll just hit “Post”.

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