Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

Yesterday, as one of a group of selected 9/11 family members, I had an opportunity to meet with President Obama. Although the number of invitees swelled at the last minute and the format changed from a sit-down to a stand-up affair, I had my moments with the man. Problem is, I got kind of tongue-tied and forgot some of what I’d hoped to say:

  1. You look AMAZING.
  2. Would you consider closing Gitmo and turning it into a salsa club? I think you’d win points not only on your moral gesture but also for a project that could aid Cuba’s economy, thus marking the first step towards normalizing relations. Even the conservative Miami Cuban-American population would appreciate your cultural sensitivities and their support could be key in winning Florida in 2012.
  3. Michelle has you working with weights, doesn’t she?
  4. Some people are concerned that Pakistan, stung by being out of the loop when it came to the bin Laden mission, will become more dangerous, harboring terrorists and perhaps even sharing its nuclear power. But if you made a movie of the operation, you could cut Pakistan in on international distribution and related ancillary rights as well as job-creating monies generated by filming on location. To play well in certain parts of the world, the filmmakers might create an interactive version in which viewers get to choose alternate endings. This could be a book to another growing cottage industry—the conspiracy theorists. Win-win.
  5. You’re getting grey, Mr. President—but I guess you know that.
  6. You totally rocked at the White House Correspondents’ dinner—and considering it was the night before the big take-down,  you deserve an Oscar.
  7. Say, maybe instead of the usual photo ops, we might take a minute, just you and I, to do some serious talking about domestic and world issues. I have a lot of good ideas and I think it would be very moving to have you sitting with an ordinary 9/11 family member sharing a moment to talk about the personal and the political while you’re holding a copy of my book upright and facing the camera.
  8. Can I sneak a peek at your long-form birth certificate? Please?
  9. Did I mention that you look AMAZING?
  10. It’s an honor to meet you sir. I don’t have anything to ask of you; I just want to thank you for being here today and for doing what you’re doing. I’m a big fan of yours—have been for some time—and oh, by the way, my sister loves you, too.

 (actually, I did say that last bit, which might account for his big grin)  

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You probably didn’t know Sally Goodrich. She was, among other things, a teacher and school administrator; a cancer survivor; wife of a small-town lawyer from North Adams, Massachusetts;  the mother of a young man killed on 9/11; and eventually, a dedicated advocate for Afghan civilians, particularly for girls and young women.

It was in this last role that Sally attained a modicum of notoriety. Not nearly as much as Greg Mortenson, the internationally acclaimed humanitarian and author of Three Cups of Tea. This week, in a devastating article published online and in a “60 Minutes” interview, author Jon Krakauer accused Mortenson of falsifying his memoir and worse, of ripping off the charitable foundation he established.

We’re going to be hearing a lot about this story; we already are–which is why I’ve been thinking of Sally. The accusations against Mortensen, if true, present a depressing “teacup half empty” view of relief efforts in Afghanistan. Sally’s story, heartbreaking though it is, fills the cup again.

Immediately after 9/11, Sally started, along with her husband Don and a few others, Families of September 11 (FOS11), an organization that worked on behalf of 9/11 relatives around the globe. I got to know Sally when I worked with the organization, first on the board and then as its executive director. She was a gracious and giving, with a sharp New England wit. Like all of us, she was suffering. Worse, on top of the delayed grief and depression, she had to deal with a diagnosis of ovarian cancer which came in 2002. It was a difficult time.

Then, in 2004, Sally heard from a Marine in Afghanistan, a friend of her late son Peter, who asked her to collect supplies for school children. It was then Sally found her calling, a way to lift herself out of depression and create something positive to honor her son’s spirit. In 2005, Sally and Don founded the Peter M Goodrich Memorial Foundation.

The organization has raised over a million dollars which was used to build a 500-student coed school and support others. It also supports an orphanage in the Pashtun region. Sally and Don have helped many students attend college in the United States. It also raises money for, among other projects, disabled landmine victims, a dental clinic, exchange students in the United States, victims of natural disasters and other school projects.

Sally made several trips to Afghanistan beginning in 2005. That year, she was ABC’s “Person of the Week” because she “turned personal loss into hope for hundreds.” She traveled back in 2007 and again in 2009. Then her cancer returned. In December of last year, Sally died at the age of 65.

Sally was an eloquent woman but she never wrote a book, never went on a speaking tour, never took any money from the foundation. The projects gave her back her life, she said, and that was enough. For the hundreds she’s helped, it’s more than enough.

Filmmaker Rick Derby has created a short film—Axis of Good about Sally’s work. I hope this might take some attention away from the Mortensen story. Of course, big scandal and big money make up a bigger story, but sometimes a small tale holds a big heart.

image: Axis of Good

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 My early teen years were a struggle, to say the least. I was ungainly, unsure and decidedly uncool. Eventually, I would  attain the even teeth, the carefully ironed long hair,  even an  acceptable body shape.  But in 1964, I wanted to look like my older  brother’s cheerleader girlfriends. More seriously, I wanted to be
someone else–anyone else except me.

I was miserable at school. I couldn’t hide my smarts or keep my mouth shut; couldn’t get my footing  or find my place. Ripe for teasing, I tried to stay clear of the mean  girls and sought refuge in music and books. Then, beginning September  22nd of that year, I had a chance to latch onto a debonair chap and his sexy partner, the stars of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

UNCLEThe show was both an homage to and send-up of the popular James Bond movies and starred Robert Vaughn and a young Scottish actor named David McCallum. They played agents of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement (UNCLE), an international organization dedicated to stopping THRUSH from exercising its evil plan to take over the world.

The casting was impeccable, the setup fantastical and the details were  inspired. Vaughn’s character, Napoleon Solo, was the classic spy in the 007 mold: suave, clever; with a fondness for the good life and a weakness  for women.  He was cool in an old-fashioned sort of way; a throwback to previous decades.

But it was McCallum’s character, the elusive Illya Kuryakin, who caught and held my attention. The Beatles had landed in the U.S. a few months earlier and like so many girls my age, I was drawn to the safely boyish Paul McCartney. But in Illya, I found my soul-mate: a mysterious,
educated (Masters degree from the Sorbonne; PhD in quantum mechanics from University of Cambridge) Russian whose hip calm exterior hid, I was certain, a treasure trove of passion. He seemed to own a wardrobe of swoon-inducing black turtlenecks.  Best of all, he and Solo were working in a spirit of global cooperation to defeat terrorists, anarchists and the like in the middle of the Cold War.  I was hooked.

My mother, in a display of solidarity and support, took pictures of our television set when the show was on and gave me the images. I can’t tell you what that meant to me; it was like having your mother approve of your first boyfriend.

“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” lasted four years and took me through high school. Even after I grew out of my ugly duckling phase, I remained loyal to the intrepid spies and to the attractive Illya.   Encountering McCallum in recent times on another show that has saved me–NCIS–is like  olderMcreuniting with an old love. McCallum’s Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard is a little fussy, but also funny, smart and sensitive, with a soulful side
that probably owes to his Scottish origins (okay, I’m projecting). He’s not quite the sexy Kuryakin I remember–except perhaps for the twinkle in his eye. But he seems wise in ways that matter. I’m sure he’d forgive my crush on  Mark Harmon’s character. I like to think we have a deeper, more meaningful relationship. He was, after all, my first love.

sources: IMDb; Wikipedia
images: nnbd  firstachurch, photobucket

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I’ve been thinking about a movie I saw recently: Source Code, starring Jake Gyllenthaal. This science fiction cum action thriller (with a dash of romance) had a fair amount going for it: stellar cast, great special effects, tight plot; even the requisite happy ending.

I liked it. A lot. But then again, I’m a sucker for films that posit such an optimistic view of the brain’s power to transcend any and all physical limitations.

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Outside the Boxes

I’m moving.

To be honest, I’ve been promising/threatening to move out of my townhouse for eight or nine years; but this is the year I intend to set my intention into motion.  Perhaps it’s the tenth anniversary of my husband’s death or the fact that I’ve lived alone in the house we bought together for nearly as long as we shared the space. Maybe it’s the crack in the ceiling or the bumps in the wall; the peeling paint in the garage or the rising property taxes. Most likely it’s the fact that several of my closest friends have put their houses on the market and are dealing, painfully, with closings and contractors, agents and buyers, finishes and new beginnings. Whatever it is, I’m ready to go.

I haven’t settled on the “where” quite yet, although I’ve narrowed it down. I fanaticize about a perfectly designed free-standing, one-story, one-person house, energy-efficient, well-appointed; unique in its design and its aspirations. I’m inclined to use an architect because I’ve worked with designers for much of my work life and because I want to create something special: not just a model home but a template for other singletons; neither too small nor too large but just right…assuming we singletons have made peace with living alone.

To get ready, I’ve begun to tackle the “stuff”, all those objects one unthinkingly accumulates over years of staying in one place. I don’t hoard and I’m not above sweeping a drawer full of items into the trash from time to time. Still, I’ve lived in this house nineteen years, half that time with another person. In the finished basement I scarcely visit, there are boxes on shelves built by my former roommate, aka my late husband.

(Is there an expiration date, I wonder, for terming him “late”, as if he’d simply stayed extra hours at the office?)
I sit on the floor and open the boxes. Some are empty, which I take to be  a good sign. Others contain records, mostly albums, but also a few 78s. I open one filled with sheet music and “fake books.” These are the staples of any piano bar crooner, which I was for at least a dozen years (Billy Joe put in half that much time, but he got a hit single and a career out of it). I catch the faint scent of Scotch and cigarettes and flash back to evenings in the company of a tip jar and a group of mostly sad, tired people. The song I wrote was far more downbeat and jazzy than Joel’s, I think but in its own way, just as evocative:

Life at a bar begins around five
The cocktail crowd brings the place alive
Talk turns to business, baseball, and broads
One for the road turns to two

(©1982 Nikki Stern & Owen Vance)

Next to that box is another filled with lyric pages, vocal scores and charts from my years as a theater and pop composer, a memorable but highly unprofitable career I abandoned more than two decades ago. No one writes music by hand now; music software “listens” to what you’re playing and translates it fairly accurately into notes on staffs. I’m not even sure who reads music anymore.  I look at the scribbles–the notes, the fading pencil marks, mixed in with a couple of photos taken with a Polaroid at a recording session. Who was that person? What did she expect would happen?

There is a box of trinkets—there’s no other word for them—that I clearly valued at one time. They should be my madeleine, my gateway to a long-ago world but when I touch them, nothing happens—no sharply recalled moments visit me in the cold basement.

The bulk of the photos are in albums stretching back more than forty years: My senior prom, my college roommates, my mutton-chopped boyfriend; images of our family, Mom and Dad looking predictably vibrant; programs, diplomas, yearbooks, newspaper clippings (Nixon resigns!)—they’re all here. The thirteen years’ covered by the images of my husband remind me how much time we spent together–and how little time I really had to become adept at navigating a lifetime relationship. There is a box of his with items from his early years. It’s logical that he would bring his cherished mementoes into the house and the life we were supposed to inhabit together for longer than his time with his parents.

I sit among images and belongings of dead loved ones and missing friends, of younger selves with ambitious dreams and untainted hopes and I prepare to feel the predictable flood of emotions: a cocktail of grief and longing, sorrow and not a little rage at what was not achieved, not finished, not retained, lost forever, goddamn it.

The wave never comes, only a little sigh escapes me, as if I were finally exhaling. This flotsam and jetsam is the tangible evidence that I’ve lived my life up to now. The memories are stored in the dusty closets of my mind; I can get to them as needed. I will one day need them. Old people go back as their future closes in on them. I’ve already had a glimpse of the hemmed-in existence that awaits me.

But in this moment, I have to live, I want to live outside these boxes. I still want what’s new: new experiences, new places, new patterns; new connections. So I consolidate everything into one box; whatever doesn’t fit goes into a trash bag and out to the garage. It’s time to get moving.

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I think, therefore I am.

I am, so why not be

Or not to be; then possibly

T’was blind, and now I see.

The change I want to see

I must be, but am not

If not to reason why

Then should I try to think,

Or not?

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Look Up

I first saw the man at the airport. He was on his Blackberry…or maybe it was an iPhone or an Android. He was reading or texting, preoccupied, his gaze never leaving the object in his hand.

All around him were people likewise fixated on their various devices. Some nodded in time to silent music or held murmured conversations with invisible colleagues. Occasionally, they glanced up, only to transfer their attention to an electronic device at some remove—an arrival notice, a gate number or one of the ubiquitous wide-screens delivering an endless stream of infotainment.

This is the new paradigm, I thought. We’re addicted to input and to the devices that deliver it. Outside our perimeters, we are barraged with sounds and images; inside our small bit of real estate, mostly taken up by our physical selves, we have the illusion of controlling the flow of data, receiving only what we want to when we want it. But we are caught by our need to be up-to-date, ahead of the curve, not in the moment but in the next moment, somewhere else; anywhere else.

On board, I found myself next to the same man. He offered a polite smile; then bent over his phone urgently, as if to squeeze in every last bit of communication possible before the jet doors were closed and we were asked to shut off our electronic devices. Immediately after takeoff, my seat companion powered up his laptop and set to work for the duration of the flight. I kept my head down as well, reading. Occasionally I glanced out the window. It was a beautiful day for flying.

When the wheels hit the ground, I quickly turned on my cell phone, as did everyone else on the plane, scanning for important updates we might have missed. Force of habit, I told myself, although in truth the habit is no more than ten years old and most of us have been flying a lot longer than that.

I drove to my hotel on a tiny beach in Key Largo for my first day of vacation. It was warm, windy and sunny. Yet I ended up in the lobby with my laptop. Just a few things to check, I promised myself. One hour later, I was still online and the sun was going down.

At dinner that night I sat alone with my food, a glass of wine and my phone, trying to read Facebook updates on my small screen. The phone is a terrific dinner companion for a single person; you never feel alone or disconnected and you look busy, maybe even important. When the waiter asks if you’ll be dining alone, you can reply in the affirmative while keeping your eyes down and ignoring his expression of pity. Still, it’s a stupid activity to engage in on a balmy night in south Florida so I raised my head to look around. At the next table, I noticed a group of middle-aged people saying grace. No, wait; they each had phones and they were wrapped up in various efforts to reach out to someone—anyone?—who wasn’t sitting at the table. Occasionally someone tossed out a comment and there was a burst of conversation. But even then, no one made eye contact. I considered that a group of strangers could sit down at the table and start eating and the original group might not notice. The thought amused me; it also depressed me.

The next morning I was up bright and early…and on my computer. After a couple of hours, I stood up, powered down and got ready to go out. I reached for my cell phone and changed my mind. Who needed to reach me? Who did I need to contact? What was the meaning of the word “relax” in our wired/wireless world anyway?  And how was I going to get rid of the crick in my neck unless I lifted my head?

The beach was tiny but absolutely beautiful. Looking out across the gulf, no towers were visible, no cranes, no high-rise buildings; just water. A few people milled about, including, to my surprise, my seat buddy from the flight down. He’d obviously reunited with his family—two small children, a boy and a girl and an attractive woman I took to be his wife. But he was still tethered to his phone, perched on the edge of his chair, squinting at the small screen, as were several others. A flock of pelicans swooped low to the water, delighting the little girl. “Daddy, daddy,” she cried to her multi-tasking father. “Look at the birds!” she cried. He waved, but never took his eyes off his phone.

I didn’t need to be told twice, however. I looked up. Watching the birds, warmed by the sun, I stretched my neck and eased into my surroundings.

images: cio.energy.gov; brown pelicans by Mia McPherson (http://www.onthewingphotography.com)

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As I prepare for my entrance into what are colloquially known as “the cranky years,” I’m becoming especially sensitive about the marketing—or lack thereof—of services and products to the senior population. Besides pills, pads, portfolios and various insurance vehicles (including my personal favorite, the reverse mortgage, in which at least one of the participants hopes for an early death), pickings are slim. Apparently, people over sixty don’t give a damn about music, art, exercise or, god forbid, fashion–okay, except for Lauren Hutton and maybe Steven Tyler.

Lauren Hutton (image: marie claire) and Steven Tyler (image: TV Guide)

But baby boomers—and God  help me, I am one—are not going gentle into that good night and designers and manufacturers are belatedly turning their attention to developing stuffs we future oldsters don’t yet know we want.

Yeah, fine; it’s about time.  But now this: in order to assist product designers and marketers, The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab has designed the “Age Gain Now Empathy System,” an ungainly turn of phrase that allows the developers to playfully call it AGNES (presumably after someone’s grandmother).  AGNES is actually a bulky, space-age looking suit with various restraints, harnesses, weights and other features that are suppose to mimic age-related limitations. According to the AgeLab website, AGNES “has been calibrated to approximate the motor, visual, flexibility, dexterity and strength of a person in their mid-70s.”

 “I’d rather be writing a paper”

I’m all for products that, in the words of an upbeat health policy analyst, “allow for wellness and prevention and lifestyle enhancement.” But I’m flabbergasted that MIT would squander its resources developing an ugly-looking space costume that twenty-year-old students can wear around to understand what seventy-five feels like. Why not ask a 75-year-old?

Better yet, why not develop a system that allows those in their mid-seventies (or those who feels that way) to experience being twenty again? See, I had this idea…

Introducing the “Age Reversal Now Illusion Experiment” or ARNIE® (patent pending)

 The ARNIE® features a Lithium battery-powered propulsion system that keeps its wearing moving along. Double torsion springs absorb excess stress while high-capacity electric cylinders offer the strength of a college football linebacker. Glasses provide optimal vision using digital SLR technology. A small onboard computer monitors vital signs and supplies infusions of B-6, B-12, glucosamine, Viagra, and, for an additional cost, medical marijuana via a discrete, non-invasive transfusion system. The deluxe version also included New York Times crosswords, Sudoku, and reruns of “Jeopardy.” Best of all, the ARNIE® emits a powerful mind control beam that can reach up to 500 people at a time and creates the illusion that the wearer is a young, hot, twenty-something. Comfortable and lightweight, the ARNIE® can be worn year-round (even to the beach!) and folds to fit comfortably in your pocket or handbag for those times when you might want to take advantage of senior citizen discounts.

 Come on, MIT! Let’s put those research dollars to good use!

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Make It Easy On Yourself

New Year’s resolutions: they’re irresistible. We make them, break them, flout, revile, or ridicule them but they are as ubiquitous a ritual as champagne on New Year’s Eve. The calendar and the clock conspire to awaken in us the promise not only of longer days and warmer weather but also of redemption: “This year, I will…”happyny

In the interest of providing comfort, ease and peace of mind to our friends, I have, with the help of several compatriots, compiled a list of resolutions most of us will not fail to achieve. Herewith, in 2011,  we resolve to:

1. get some sleep
In a nod to the insominiacs, we do not specify how much sleep we resolve to get nor add the burden of expectation that we will sleep every day (which also includes the party-goers among us).

2. eat
Here we define “eat” as taking sustenance in any form.

3. drink
Same thing.

4. turn head to the right
Anyone who drives will want to turn the head in order to back out of a tight space or engage in parallel parking. Those who don’t may have occasion to cross the street or glance back to make sure they’re not being followed.

5. smile
This is a bit more challenging. After some debate, allowances will be made for grimaces, smirks, tight-lipped half-smiles, and foolish or vaguely threatening grins.

6. look out a window
Even cellblocks have them, although they can be difficult to reach.

7.  leave the house wearing clothing
Any clothing is permissible; we wanted to allow for those of us who may shuffle out the door in our pj’s to get the paper. Anything after that is a matter of common sense, of course.

8. ignore someone
It’s going to happen anyway; might as well make it a resolution.

9. complain

10. spend time on one or more social networking sites
This really is a no-brainer.

Feel free to share your can’t-miss resolutions…and have a great entry into 2011.
image: photofurl

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Once upon a time, people did not race to the malls in order to dash from store to store in search of the perfect gift, or even an acceptable one. They did not face crammed parking lots, overburdened clerks, uninspiring displays, and a lunch of greasy fries or sugary treats that invariably led to a bad case of acid reflux.  Once upon a time, we went to grand department stores and, as we used to say, made a day of it.

These big stores, most of them built between 1870 and 1925, were often baroque-style structures. Most  featured high, mosaic ceilings and tile floors, wide aisles, crystal chandeliers, and any number of fine restaurants and tea rooms. Every major city seemed to have at least one of these “grand  dames”: Seattle (Frederick and Nelson), San Francisco (the Emporium), Boston (Jordan Marsh), Dallas (Neiman Marcus), Miami (Burdine’s), New York (Saks, Lord and Taylor, Bloomingdale’s), St. Louis (Famous Barr), Philadelphia (Wannamaker’s) and Chicago (Marshall Field’s), to name a few. Many were modeled after their European counterparts, Harrod’s of London or Printemps in Paris, but always with an American twist.  

As a little girl, I eagerly anticipated our yearly holiday department store outing because it involved much more than dropping in on our respectably staid local department store, Gimbel’s. Instead, our day would consist of a trip to Chicago by train, where we’d invariably visit the renowned Chicago Art Museum and then head to Marshall Field’s. 

In the years since, I’ve been in many department stores. But in my six-year-old  Midwestern eyes, Marshall Field’s was the grandest store imaginable. 

The man behind the business, Marshall Field, was an entrepreneur who described his enterprise as an “emporium.” His motto was “give the lady what she wants,” not exactly pc but an accurate reflection of his loyal customer base for many years. In its heyday, Marshall Field’s was a formidable brand that included well-known confectionaries* and a popular cookbook. The store itself was a temple to consumer goods with some stunning architecture: the clock at the State Street entrance, the stunning Tiffany Mosaic Dome, and the elegant Walnut Room.  Field’s, as it was sometimes called, featured six well-regarded restaurants, including a Men’s Grill Room and place for afternoon tea. At Christmastime, an area was set off for “Santa-land,” a fantasy concoction of elves and trees, fake snow and twinkly lights and a path that led directly to a real-looking Santa with a real beard (being a department store Santa was once an honorable profession). The entire store looked like a gigantic gift package, from the extravagant window displays to the festooned crystal chandeliers.

*Marshall Field’s world-famous Frango mints, (chocolate mint truffles) actually originated with Seattle’s Frederick and Nelson but Field’s broadly expanded the market. Marshall Field’s also sold caramel turtle candy in competition with its Chicago rival, Fannie May.)

 Our trip to Chicago was a dress-up occasion; we wore jumpers or dresses with gloves and hats (my mother kept us in matching outfits until I rebelled shortly after my eighth birthday) and patent-leather shoes unless an early snowstorm necessitated boots. We ate breakfast on the train and went to the museum when we arrived. Then it was time for lunch in the Walnut Room and sometimes a fashion show.  Although I was only mildly interested in clothes and shopping, I loved those lunches; they provided me with a window into what it might mean to be a grownup.  After lunch, we’d walk the store and look—and look and look. We bought candy, of course, and sometimes a gift for my father, if for no other reason than to have it gift-wrapped by people whose magic transformed a gift box into a work of art.   

There was, I realize, as much ostentatiousness on parade in the old department stores as in the new. We really weren’t as a people any less acquisitive one hundred or fifty years ago than we are now; but perhaps we were more inquisitive. And I’m sure there were hurried, harried shoppers then as now. But there was, I’m fairly certain, more wandering going on, more watching and looking and taking it all in with a sense of wonder. Of course I was very young and many things were wonderous to me.

 A number of the grand department stores have been bought by Federated, which owns Macy’s. There’s a sameness about them that’s a little dispiriting, not to mention all those people with bent heads barreling through the store. But the grand architecture remains, as do some old traditions and perhaps some new ones, such as this event that took place recently at the former Wannamaker’s (now a Macy’s) in Philadelphia. Christmastime may be commerce time but that doesn’t mean we can’t all look up and take in some wonder.

Marshall Field’s cookbook
History of deparment stores 

Bring Back Marshall Field’s

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