Why I stick with Facebook

Not a cat video; he doesn’t move. And I had to include a wineglass

I opened up my Facebook page today and was greeted by ads to subscribe to The Economist magazine, and for a Subaru fall sale, State Farm Life insurance, and the Do-It-All Shoe. I also received a request, on a different page I administer, to pay FB to boost views — and thus attendance — at a long-past event. However, despite these efforts to pry into my buying habits, I still see value in FB.

It’s not that I don’t agree with those who criticize the social networking site.  It does have its issues. One source describes it rightfully as an “amoral corporation collecting personal data.” To anyone who uses FB regularly the personal data collection is obvious. My last car was a Subaru and I have State Farm insurance. However, I’ve never heard of the Do-It-All Shoe and am dying to know all that it does, but without having to click on the ad and support FB advertising. Though, if I thought it might clean the cat box I’d change my mind.

We all know other FB negatives, such as the 3,000 ads linked to fake accounts which were linked to other fake accounts set up by a “pro-Kremlin troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency.”

But I don’t turn away from FB any more than I turn away from searching with Google on the grounds that people use that to find pornography and white supremacists’ websites.  I wouldn’t be filling the pages of my historical novel, albeit very slowly, without Google and other search engines. And I wouldn’t re-connect or stay connected with friends without Facebook.

When I left high school I didn’t look back, not to teachers or classmates. Thanks to FB, I’ve not only written to, but seen elementary and high school friends and a college roommate.

Before retirement, I worked in a school system with 2,000 employees and knew many of them. Since retirement, I’ve never run in to more than a dozen of them, usually at the grocery store or a shopping mall, and see only a half dozen regularly. With FB I can keep up with the rest, as in people who have traveled and taken beautiful photos allowing me to see some of the same places they have. Or friends who should be congratulated for celebrating a birthday or a large-numbered anniversary. And I can follow up on plays or art exhibits that other friends have recommended.

Since I haven’t yet formed the habit of reading obituaries, Facebook friends sometimes share the important news about who is sick, dying or dead.

Funny thing: before writing this I thought I still kept in touch with many people I used to work with.  I just looked at my contacts’ list on my computer and realized that I keep up with most former colleagues through Facebook. So that’s the point, the reason why I can accept cat videos, too many pix of grandchildren, and even more pix of meals and wineglasses in the sunlight, because FB allows me to keep in touch and know that friends and acquaintances are usually content (if not, they don’t usually post that), aging well and making the most of life. What other tool can do that?

 

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Labor saving devices?

“Alexa, feed my cat.  Alexa, write my term paper and then scrub the kitchen floor.” According to a recent New York Times article, people are falling in love with digital assistant Alexa, Amazon’s voice service found in several of its products.  Alexa can’t do these chores yet, but with your help “she” can now create your shopping list, and make dinner reservations, and probably a bunch of other things. I expect she will do much more in the future.

The same article says, “This year, more than 25 million Americans will use an Alexa device at least once a month. Ovum, a market research company, has predicted that by the year 2021, there will be more Alexa-like digital assistants on the planet than humans.” Right off hand that sounds like too many.

Although few owners would put “her” in the same class as a remote control and other labor-saving devices — in the same piece above, one woman said her husband views Alexa as a hybrid mistress-nurse — Alexa and other “home bot” helpers — current and future — pose one big problem. They will make us fat(ter).

Many years ago I worked as an employee wellness program coordinator and studied to become a fitness trainer to help me in my job. I still remember my instructor saying, “Put the remote control away. Get up and walk to the television to change the channel. All our labor-saving devices are making us fatter.” (Imagine how many calories channel surfers could burn if they got up off the couch to change the channel every ten seconds.) Okay, I tried but couldn’t figure out how to change my television’s channels without the remote, but her point is well taken. Every new gizmo pushes us into a more sedentary lifestyle.

Our grandparents packed away the carbs and fats. They could get away with eating heavy meals, because they did physically demanding work. The women washed the family’s clothes in ringer washers (or in earlier times in a wash tub) and hung them up to dry. My grandma was born in 1885, which means the following describes her mother’s experience.  “According to an 1886 calculation, women fetched water eight to ten times every day from a pump, well, or spring.” Now all we have to do for the same results is turn on the tap for drinking water or push a few buttons to fill the washing machine.

It’s ironic that the devices that save us time and energy also require us to compensate for that savings by spending more time and sometimes money to get exercise. With every new car and its digital parking assistant, kitchen appliance and Alexa device, we need to consider taking the stairs and not the elevator, parking farther away from stores’ entrances, working in the garden, stepping up our pace in the malls and doing physical activities we enjoy.

This is where the digital assistant is most useful. “Alexa, find me a gym near my home. Alexa, remind me to get up from the computer every half hour. Alexa,”say something every time you hear the refrigerator door opening.”

 

 

 

 

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How our brains mess with us

Wikipedia: public domain U.S.: author’s life + 70 years

Donald Trump says the news media lie. In most instances he’s wrong, but that’s not the focus of today’s blog. Many of us face a bigger threat to receiving honest information than from the so-called fake media. What could that be? Unbeknownst to us, our brains are busily telling us lies about ourselves.

After the fall election, a friend gave me a quote from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):  It said, “Your brain doesn’t always tell you the truth.”  Because I was so upset about the election, I thought she was trying to tell me not to stress out.  After eight months of this president, I suspect she had another message in mind, because stressing out over national politics seems like quite a reasonable reaction.

It wasn’t until after reading something in a writer’s blog last week that the topic of “our lying’ brains” (a new country western song title?) smacked me over the head like the NAMI quote never could. The blogger said that despite having eight published novels, every time she sits down to write, she still questions whether she has what it takes to be a writer. She says, “My brain lies.” After ignoring my friend’s NAMI quote for months, I now know there is so much more to this idea than I realized.

2008, New York Times (NYT), “Your brain lies to you.”
2014, Scientific American, “How the brain leads us to believe false truths”
2015: BuzzFeed, “6 ways your brain is lying to you every minute of the day.”

Here’s part of the explanation the NYT gives: When we recall old information, “our brain writes it down again,” restores it in a different place than where it was originally stored, “and during this re-storage, it is also reprocessed. In time, the fact is gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex and is separated from the context in which it was originally learned. With time, this misremembering gets worse.” The article uses the research on memories to show how negative political campaigns work, but the studies work in many other contexts. Here’s my personal example.

When I was a child my mother took me for a walk in a stroller to a beach near a railroad bridge.  We arrived just in time to see people trying to rescue a five-year-old who had stuck his head between the tracks.  I remember being fearful fear that an oncoming train — not yet on the horizon — would arrive in seconds and decapitate him. Later, I told my mother of my fears.  “It was his hand,” she said, “not his head.  They got it out easily. He was in no danger.” Wow! I never suspected my brain had been messing with me for such a long time.

The “6 ways your brain is lying” also hits home. “#4. It insists you’re right when you’re not.” I don’t think I have to explain this to anyone who’s been married. In any argument, my husband and I are both always right.

I also appreciate other points in this piece.  “#2. It [your brain] makes you feel like a fraud.” I used to teach a workshop to help women overcome math anxiety. Research showed that if women did well in math courses at one level in school, they concluded they had just been lucky, really were frauds, and would be found out when they entered the next level.

The successful writer above who wonders every time she sits down to write whether she can do it, also must feel like a fraud.

And “#3. If people think you’re stupid, it makes you stupid.” We trust stereotypes and others’ negative views of us and don’t accept evidence that tell us they’re wrong. When I turned in an essay to my freshman English professor, who obviously was not an advocate for the Lake Wobegone effect, he told me I would always be an average writer. At least that’s how I remember it. I’m thankful for a professional life filled with writing responsibilities and glad I never asked him for a recommendation.

For all the research out there on how our brains lie to us, there’s little available on how to manage this phenomenon, except perhaps to question our memories. It looks like what my friend shared is the one real option: remind ourselves that something very close to us might be telling us a lie.

 

 

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My first eclipse

Guanajuato, Mexico, photo by Instituto Falcon

During next week’s solar eclipse (92% of totality occurring where I live) I managed, inadvertently, to schedule a doctor’s appointment. Still, I am thankful I have my memories of July 11, 1991.  That’s when my husband and I witnessed a total solar eclipse, not here in the Pacific Northwest, but in Guanajuato, Mexico. For those of us who found ourselves in just the right narrow swath of sea and land between Hawaii and Brazil that year, the view was perfect.

The best part was that we just happened to be there for Spanish study in the Instituto Falcon, and were living with Marilu Reynal, a Mexican friend, so we were not vying for limited hotel rooms, though it’s likely, since everyone else in the U.S went to Hawaii, that we would had found one. And we saw no traffic jams, as are predicted for central Oregon next week, except possibly one caused by the odd burro walking down the middle of the street.

Years later, I learned that what we observed was a special kind of eclipse, which Wikipedia calls a “central total eclipse” that lasted nearly seven minutes and will not occur again until 2132.  We’ll probably miss that one.

Real folkloric dancers

Fake folkloric turtles

Since it was Mexico, we couldn’t observe an eclipse without a party, so the school’s director, Jorge Barroso, hosted La Fiesta del Eclipse on the morning of the event. A week or so before the eclipse, he hired a professional folkloric dancer named Sofia (center front in both photos) to teach the women students a traditional dance. She even managed to find matching costumes to fit all of us, who were not exactly petite. The dance she chose was La Danza de Las Tortugas, dance of the turtles, which originated in the eastern state of Veracruz.  (I’m the second tortuga from the left.) All I remember about the dance is that we were supposed to be depositing our eggs on the beach.

photo by Luis Alberto Melograna from Wikimedia Creative Commons

The men also had their chance to perform a mini-skit.  My only memory of this is that my husband, Greg, played the figure Chac-Mool, whose role in historic Mayan culture has many interpretations, including the one we chose, which was that his flat belly served as a “platform to receive blood and human hearts.” Greg was thankful he had a non-speaking part and wishes he still had the flat belly.

Then there was the eclipse, what eclipse photographer Fred Espenak describes this way:  “In the last seconds as totality begins, the daytime sky is quickly replaced by an eerie twilight as the Moon’s shadow sweeps across the landscape at speeds in excess of 1,200 mph.”

I would add that everything around us, including the roosters, grew silent and suddenly we were as cold as we would be in the middle of the night. After what must have seemed the shortest night of their lives, when the sky brightened the roosters went back to crowing.

I haven’t thought of the eclipse and its accompanying fiesta for many years. Even if I could see the totality of the eclipse next week, for me it could not generate fond memories like those from 1991.

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A visit to Hamlet’s castle

This has been my summer of Shakespeare, particularly of “Hamlet.”

Kronborg Castle (Elsinore), courtesy of Wikipedia

My obsession with the play began when I learned that our June tour of Scandinavia would take us to Kronborg Castle in Denmark, Shakespeare’s inspiration for Elsinore in “Hamlet.” Shortly before we left the U.S., I’d picked up the book, “Hamlet Globe to Globe,” subtitled, “Two Years, 190,000 Miles, 197 Countries, One Play” from my public library. It tells the story of a small group of actors from London’s famous Globe Theatre who performed “Hamlet” in nearly every country of the world, even in refugee camps. I was immediately hooked on the powerful prose of author Dominic Dromgoole, the way he connected the play to the histories of the countries where the actors were performing (for example, the Killing Fields of Cambodia and Hamlet’s attitude toward murder), and the reactions of different audiences to the performances. I made a promise to read “Hamlet” as soon as we returned home.

We were to tour the castle on a dreary day. The wet weather made the walk from the bus to Kronborg seem long. Hamlet was less on my mind than finding refuge from the rain.

It wasn’t our first Danish castle nor our first European castle. After you wander through a few castles they start to look the same: mile-long hallways, too many rooms to count and too few windows in them, enough spare bedrooms to accommodate my entire high school graduating class of 526, and no central heating.

Seeing this niche at the entrance pleased me; still it was just another castle. That is, until I began to pay attention to other people strolling through the halls and popping up in various rooms. They were clearly not tourists. Nor were they locals, unless locals were fond of late 16th century dress. They were actors.

I nudged my husband.  “Look.  Do you think that woman is Ophelia?”

She was. And we were no longer in an ordinary castle. We wandered into another room. Soon, the actors were not just hanging around, but acting.

I took the next three photos while watching this exchange between Hamlet and Ophelia.

H: “I did love you once.”
O. “Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.”
H. “You should not have believ’d me…I loved you not.”
O. “I was the more deceiv’d.”
H. “Get thee to a nunn’ry…”

Since Denmark, I have read Hamlet once, though it merits multiple readings, attended a “Shakespeare in the Park” performance, ordered another Hamlet-related book by Dromgoole, and watched a summer TV series called “Will,” about Shakespeare’s early entry into the world of London theatre. I own two other books about Shakespeare’s life and soon will move them from the bookshelf to my nightstand.

If you must have an obsession, even if just for the summer, it might as well be about the man considered by many the greatest writer in the English language.

For “the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king” and spur our own interest in Shakespeare.

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Work habits of creative people, unusual and otherwise

When people find out I’m working on my second novel they often ask about my writing schedule. “Do you have a particular time you write every day?” “Do you start writing as soon as you get up?” “Do you prefer mornings to afternoons?” I’ve never understood the point of the question. Why would anyone care?

After reading “Daily Rituals, How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work,” I realized I was wrong. I’m fascinated with this examination of creative people’s schedules and their rituals around the schedules. Here are a few examples.

Study in contrasts:Poet W.H. Auden maintained a schedule during the day that was ideal for anyone with obsessive-compulsive disorder, timing his activities “to the minute,” then let loose at night imbibing several strong vodka martinis followed by “copious amounts of wine.”

Bare bones approach: Founding father Benjamin Franklin created a tight schedule, but sometimes had trouble organizing his materials. He began his day early by reading or writing without any clothes, what he called his “air bath.”

Unusual warm up: Composer Ludwig van Beethoven rose early and got right to work. He started many a morning standing naked in front of a mirror and poured “pitchers of water over his hands” while singing scales.

Stripped down schedule: Psychotherapist Sigmund Freud got help in maintaining his work schedule. To spare him time handling mundane tasks his wife chose his clothing and went so far as to put toothpaste on his toothbrush every morning.

Working away from home: Toulouse-Lautrec painted in brothels.

Most everyone observed a regular schedule, whether they worked in the morning, afternoon, evening or all night.

I confess to people who ask me about my schedule that mine is irregular, and I admit to writing fully clothed.

I operate somewhere between those who put in six or seven hours at a time and contemporary writer Marilynne Robinson, who says, “I really am incapable of discipline. I tried that work ethic thing a couple of times…”

Of course not all the creative people described in the book were quirky. The women tended to find a regular time and place to work and combine this with house cleaning, cooking, gardening, and caring for children. Gertrude Stein was one exception among the women. She liked cows, and with Alice B. Toklas took evening drives in the countryside to be inspired by these creatures. If a particular cow didn’t strike her fancy, they’d drive on in search of a different cow.

One thing I noted was that since famous creative people from the past had no television, iPhones, or Facebook they had, theoretically, more time than present-day artists to pursue their craft. I see a possible strategy here for finishing my novel sooner not later.

As far as the rituals these artists pursued, the nudists above stand out. George Sand did keep a chunk of chocolate on her desk to nibble on. I keep mine in the refrigerator, but I could always move it closer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The garden as therapy

The best thing about retirement is that you can slow down and enjoy the simpler things in life. Except that I keep forgetting to slow down. No. That’s not entirely true.  I devote my early mornings to reading the news, walking and drinking tea on the couch with the cat on my lap. After that, my days fill.

The one thing that can make me stop everything and stand still is the view from the kitchen windows into my backyard garden. From there I step out on the patio. Starting in the spring and extending until November, my plants bring me joy. As do the dragonflies, bees and hummingbirds. Friends of ours have a garden that produces the same effect.

My reactions made me curious as to whether anyone had researched the subject of gardens and mental health.

I found reassurance from Michigan State University Extension program that I am not alone. “Nature has long been known for its relaxing qualities, as a place for humans to find tranquility and healing.”

Psychology Today shares “10 ways horticulture helps us heal, overcome anxiety, and overcome low mood.”  Apparently spending time in nature “releases happy hormones,” and who could say no to the triggering of “happy hormones.” Also, “being amongst plants and flowers reminds us to live in the present moment.”

I found many on-line sources on the benefits of gardening, but didn’t focus on them because I’m not a serious gardener. Beyond pulling weeds, watering, and assembling pots of annuals every spring, my efforts are limited. Flowers and bushes are mostly what I see from my patio, and someone else planted them. So I take no credit, except for keeping them alive.

However, I’ve included one of the many references to the health benefits of getting outside and getting your hands dirty.   An article in Nursing Times says, “Gardening is a source of mental clarity,” something I know I can benefit from. And that working in a garden engenders hope.  You plant a seed and put your hopes that one day soon it will sprout and grow. Your hopes aren’t always fulfilled, but by the following spring you’re expecting that this year you’ll have success. If you don’t, you can always recycle them and find something better. That’s how it goes with this year’s failed strawberry crop.  Next year, with more water, fertilizer, all-around attention, they’ll thrive. If not, I’ll be ready to plant daisies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Poverty chic: stigma or style?

Dorothea Lange’s iconic photo “Migrant Mother,” Wikimedia Commons

I just listened to a humorous song called “Problems” by the Seattle-based trio, Uncle Bonsai. The title is short for “We’ve got problems in the first world too.”

What are these problems? Per the song, they include having too much mayonnaise on a sandwich, missing out on a buffet lunch, living with slow wifi, and sleeping on a pillow stuffed with duck down, not goose down.

It’s become a joke now that when someone shares a trivial concern, he or she will say, “That’s my first world problem.

I’m using this blog to offer up mine: I really dislike seeing people in shredded jeans.

My recent trip to Scandinavia confirms that Europeans are as in love with having their knees and thighs exposed as Americans. A friend who just vacationed in Hong Kong says this fashion statement also is the rage there.

So what’s my problem? I guess it’s my age. I associate holes in clothing with abject poverty.

I compare my life with the lives of my grandparents, dirt-poor farmers who lived through the Great Depression and World Wars I and II.

As a result of a life of shortages, my grandparents saved mounds of rubber bands and string long past the time these goods were scarce. During the Depression, my husband’s grandparents were migrant workers who moved from orchard to orchard in Eastern Washington to pick apples. But that generation would patch the tears in their clothes. They had too much pride to walk around in tatters like characters in a Dickensian workhouse.

The iconic photo above by Dorothea Lange of a woman and her children during the Great Depression symbolizes what shredded jeans mean to me and it’s hard to shed that association. It’s not only my issue. It belongs to others in my generation. “I was ashamed to have a hole in my jeans” said a friend, “because it meant we were poor.”

I realize that these days, no one associates shredded jeans with poverty, because they cost twice as much as jeans without holes.

Oh well. Holey jeans are not famine, a plague of locusts or war. And from an article I read recently, it seems I’ll soon get to re-direct my annoyance toward a new fashion trend: jeans with mud worked into the denim. After a few days kneeling in the garden pulling out weeds, perhaps I’ll qualify as a trendsetter.

 

 

 

 

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Meet the modern Norwegian troll

It’s not only sports teams that have mascots. Cities and countries do too. Last time I was in Washington DC — many years ago — panda statues inhabited many city streets. These were large creations produced from the same mold. A different artist painted each one, which guaranteed that no two pandas looked alike.  At one time, Vancouver B.C. had whales and Seattle featured pigs. My own town decorated with stags. Somewhere I’ve seen cows, but I can’t remember where.

But Norway is the only country I’ve visited that has its own mascot. While it’s true that moose designs appear on nearly every t-shirt and trinket sold to the tourists there, it’s unlikely a tourist will ever run in to a moose on the street, although two fellow travelers did eat a mooseburger at one of our lunch stops.  (As an aside, our guide translated the menu for us and insisted the mooseburger was on it, though my husband and I kept hearing her say elk. We wondered how she could not know the difference between a moose and an elk until she later spelled out the Norwegian word for moose: elg.) Anyway, a moose hardly counts as a Norwegian mascot. It’s better left to Alaska to claim that one.

No. The real symbol for Norway is the troll.  My on-line dictionary says a troll is “a mythical, cave-dwelling being depicted in folklore as either a giant or a dwarf, typically having a very ugly appearance.” They live in caves and rocks, and for all of us who read the folktale of “Three Billy Goats Gruff” as children, we know they also live under bridges. 

Seattle has its own troll of the under-the-bridge type. This is fitting because it’s located not far from a part of town to which many Scandinavians immigrated in the late 1800s.

our troll prize

Although we had no plans to buy a souvenir troll, we won a troll in a contest created by our tour guide to name as many famous Scandinavians as we could.  We managed a fourth-place win despite butchering the spelling of several names and forgetting a few important ones we remembered later.

Another reason trolls are more fit candidates for mascothood than moose is that they are everywhere and they don’t move, so you can take pictures.  I’ve included only part of my collection here. The troll story has been Disneyfied over time.  The troll the three billy goats met threatened to eat them up.  The ones pictured here are all smiles…though on second thought their bellies do look full.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Escaping brand names while you travel

Country living, Norway

With a global economy and a growing number of people from developed countries traveling to other countries, sometimes the modern world looks the same no matter where you are. With widespread immigration, residents of many European countries and the U.S. are sometimes indistinguishable. Just as people from every world ca live in our city, they also live in every city in Europe. Everywhere we’ve traveled, people have been friendly and helpful. So even courtesy is a common attribute, not that I’m hoping to find a corner of the world filled with snarky citizens just for the sake of a having different experience. And everyone speaks English, many better than we do.

There’s also the widespread popularization of many food items — pizza, caesar salad, pasta, and hamburgers for example. And Starbucks, McDonalds and other global corporations born in the U.S. are found in many parts of the world.

Fashion designers also rule the planet, at least that’s how it seems when you’re visiting large cities anywhere.  Go to Madrid, Paris, Stockholm, Honolulu, Bruges, Tokyo and Shanghai and you’ll likely see streets or shopping malls infested with stores belonging to the big names in clothing, shoes, handbags and jewelry: Coach, Prada, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Louis Vuitton, Nike, and many more. The most ubiquitous brand I’ve seen is “The Body Shop.” Is there a metropolitan area anywhere that doesn’t have at least one of these stores? When I’m abroad, I’m on a quest for Old World Charm, not skin care products that I can buy a few blocks from home.

Stave church, Norway

In the current era, what sets one city apart from another? Architecture is one element. Gothic cathedrals, residences, city halls, and museums in Europe; pagodas and temples and country houses in Japan; emperors’ palaces and a great wall in China; interesting bridges in many cities; and private residences everywhere.

It’s embarrassing to remember that when traveling to Europe soon after college graduation, three of us landed in the central square in Brussels — the Grand Place — on a Sunday. In those days nothing was open on Sundays but churches. Back then, I wandered past the 14th and 15th century structures and thought this had to be the most boring setting in the world, nothing to look at but old buildings.

Residences – Stockholm

These days, old buildings have tremendous appeal. Their exteriors are ornate. They are not temples of glass and steel, and have interesting shapes, rooftops and other features, such as a gargoyle here and a grotesque there.

It’s likely that my impressions that all cities are the same come from staying where the tourists normally stay – in the heart of town.  And tourists generally only spend a few days in each place they visit, so they rarely get anything but a glimpse of what life there is like. Spending several weeks in one place away from the tourist centers of a particular city wouldn’t offer an in-depth experience, but would supplement the judgements and pictures that form in our minds when passing quickly through town. That sounds like a plan for the future: visit a large city, stay for more than a week in a neighborhood outside the central part of town and hope not to encounter The Body Shop.

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