Thursday, July 30, 2009

Don't Assume Anything - especially that the milk of human kindness flows freely

Way back in March I wrote a blog - The Wicked Step-Mom Rides Again - I was cautioning about leaving undone legal matters, especially in the case of second marriages and premature death of a spouse. My step-children chose to attack me three years after their father's death and hurl all manner of baseless accusations at me. The more outlandish ones being that I had transferred assets belonging to their father to my name prior to his death and that I had changed his life insurance policy in the weeks prior to his death. Not only do claims of this nature leave a bad taste, they speak to the way in which young people (maybe not just young people) are swayed by sensational media stories and think they can find a quick buck.

David and I were very generous to all "our" children, providing down payments for first houses; providing business loans that were forgiven and in general looking out for welfare. We also did everything the right way in terms of wills etc. and that's where my heading here, Don't Assume Anything, comes into focus. The latest from the step-children attack now that it been clearly shown that you can't make a case out of nothing, is that I now have a "demand" that I pay their attorneys fees for "forcing them to take a legal route to get information"; this from their attorney who obviously hasn't been paid.

Don't assume anything has particular resonance in this age of second, even third or more, marriages and committed relationships. No matter how smooth the surface might be, never assume that some deep, slow growing resentment over a perceived slight, a careless word, doesn't lurk beneath the surface. And neither should you discount plain old greed and unkindness. The 93 year old mother of a dear friend, her mind still as sharp as a tack, has just been served eviction notice from the home she and her second husband lived in for 30 years. It was left to his children in his will with a notation that she was to live in the house for "as long as it was reasonable and agreeable to all parties" - lord, room for interpretation there! Now six years after her husbands death, her step-sons want her out and the house sold. It is their contention that she should be 'in an assisted living facility" and therefore it's unreasonable that she stay on in the house! This from two successful men, now in their forties, about whom she keeps saying "but we have such a good relationship"; my friend was at a family reunion with the two just three weeks before this all came about. Never assume that the milk of human kindness flows freely!

Equally as distressing is an email received this week from a really old friend - we go back 45 years. Her own son and daughter-in-law have been siphoning off her assets for several years now since her husband's untimely death when she turned over some asset management to them so , as she put it, "I wouldn't have to think about it". Don't assume that you can trust just because it's a family member.

I'm not encouraging paranoia but I am encouraging a careful look at relationships and documents that involve money. One of the saddest things I ever heard was from a man in his seventies who sold his business on a handshake to a son-in-law ; all terms of the sale were verbal. The only signature was on the actual transfer of ownership. I'll leave you to imagine what happened when the young couple divorced.

Ah well - there are good people in this world and lots of positive good emanating from them; there are many good relationships forged with step-children. Just don't take anything for granted. If you are thinking mid-life second marriage or commitment, deal with the thorny issues of finance and assets before the rosey glow fades! Long before you plan that ceremony you should plan the "what happens when and if I/you die first " scenario. It's not morbid - it's good thinking.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Life - Living for today

I do not need cancer to humble me, teach me my place in the universe. Within the space of 12 months I lost both my husband and my dearest friend. I learned lessons about fortitude, kindness, helplessness, loss. I am not alone in learning those lessons.

Yesterday my youngest brother, the good brother, the one I am very close to even though we live an ocean apart, let me know that he has been diagnosed with a malignant tumor in his right kidney. He is told that it is contained, has not spread and that he can live perfectly well with one kidney - the remaining kidney will compensate, grow bigger. He has surgery scheduled for August 5th.

Edward is 12 years younger than me. He was always my baby brother. I even taught him between graduating and taking up a fellowship in the US. He went to great pains to disassociate himself from me, the teacher! A young policeman whose beat was in the area of the school would fall in with me as I walked home, offer polite observations about the weather. He was desperately shy. Years later I learned that he had cornered my brother to ask my name - Edward’s response was "she’s not my sister, just some lady who follows me to school."

Just some lady who loves him very much. He was the really good one amongst the three of us. He stayed around as my other brother and I flew the coop. He was the one who took care of our mother after dad died. Ran her errands, did the jobs around her house; saw that she got medical care and, despite avowedly anti church sentiments, would take her to church.

He married first at 19 and his bride was 17. They were children. Passionate about causes, he got caught up in the newly emerging LaborLib political party in England and was encouraged to run for the local council seat that he won hands down. Politics became central in their life and there was talk of him running for national office. The backroom tactics, the manipulation, for want of a better word, politics of being a politician, soured him and destroyed that first marriage. He was distraught when he came to visit me in the US in 1981; he was also drinking heavily. Once back in England he met an older woman who was influential in his life, kept him on the straight and narrow and they began building a life together. On the occasions when I would visit them I was conscious of a lack of joy, a lack of fun. She was a hard taskmaster, not a giving person but I don’t question her saving Edward's life and putting purpose back in his days. And neither does he.

It came as a shock about ten years ago when he called and came right out with “I’ve left Sue. I’m in love”. It was a traumatic, painful time, full of recriminations, threats and not a small amount of verbal abuse. He kept his head high and said not one negative thing about his time with Sue. He walked out of the house giving it to her.

The new woman, Pat, he'd known for 15 years. The onset of their attraction for each other was sudden and overwhelming. She has a heart as big as the Ritz; a plain spoken, devastatingly honest woman, hard working, kind, considerate. I took to her immediately. I watched the two of them blossom in love and caring for one another. Neither has had any children; their partnership is with one another and I believe for the first time in his life my brother is experiencing genuine, all-giving love. Last year they 'eloped' and got married. I was thrilled.

It was she who wrote to me yesterday that she wants to believe that everything will be all right; that the cancer, contained, can be removed. And, she added, "no more putting off for tomorrow, we have promised now to live our dreams each minute and not wait for the right time, the right weather, the right bank balance." I had to break the seriousness and tease her- "and not for the right pair of shoes" I wrote back to this shoe addict sister-in-law of mine. I was crying. I know she was.

Image: Edward and Pat Spring 2007

Articles from archived Connections for Women

Breast Cancer Screening
Blindsided by Cancer
Stepping off a Cliff
Life - Take 2
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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Life - You got it wrong Professor Higgins

Higgins old chap, ask not "why can't a woman be more like a man but why can't a boy be more like a girl?" Having just survived nine days, unmitigated by any other adult presence, with my grandsons, eight and twelve, I'm shell shocked!

Tell me why a boy prefers standing on the back of a couch shouting "wiener butt" over a quiet game of Scrabble. Tell me why a boy prefers dragging his brother feet first down the stairs to create rug burns over his body to baking cookies. Dear Professor Higgins, just tell me why I am so exhausted by all this budding testosterone that I fall into bed at 8:00 p.m., huddle under the duvet and whimper in my sleep!

And this morning, explain why when I woke at 6:00 a.m. to a house devoid of boy sounds and smells it all felt so empty.

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Friday, July 24, 2009

Life Blog - A Sound Bite World

Is it just me being cranky or has our whole society opted for the sound bite way of living. "Don't bore me with the details, just summarize life' - condense everything down to a few snappy quotes and to heck with thought and deeper meaning. Don't savor the moment, race onto the next one. I read that Buddhist philosophy is centered on the moment and space that you are in and western philosophy centered on what’s next. The example given was of a Buddhist and an American walking across a lawn to a meeting. "What are you doing" someone asked. The Buddhist replied that he was standing on grass, feeling the grass under his feet. The American responded that he was heading for a meeting and then lunch.

It seems that more often than not people are impatient. As I traveled this year so many times individuals pushed to the front of lines; waiting for luggage in Johannesburg airport I watched a woman berating a man for the delay – clearly he had no control over the situation; in the grocery store yesterday the woman in front of me tutted and eye rolled as the young cashier fumbled to get a new tape into the cash register. And don’t get me started on traffic!

My grandsons, intelligent young kids have little staying power. It’s finish one thing and ‘what’s next’ – an almost frantic search for the next thing to do and then the interest level wanes. I guess kids are programmed in thirty-minute units – one class then the next; one activity then the next. Zoom, crash, screech of the video game way of life. Genny and I talked about this yesterday – the instant gratification society that we live in. No slow, careful process to an end goal with all the delightful byways to entice along the way but a headlong rush to have been there, done that.

I catch myself falling into the same way of thinking and doing. Why do I take my morning coffee to go? Why don’t I sit and watch the world go by for a while – nothing is pressing me to hurry. That’s something I can change in my own life. I’m planning a road trip for September and my initial thinking was straight line a to b. Then I asked myself ‘why?” – no reason. So now the map is out again and I’m going to take the coastal route and dally at places that take my fancy.

I awoke at 5 a.m. this morning and made myself tea. I stood out on the deck and watched the morning mist hovering over the surface of the pond and five great Blue herons, statue still, taking in the morning. I got dressed and walked down the lane to the tunes of a breaking dawn. I saw a Great Horned owl heading home to bed and a group of female Elk with young ones stirring under a huge oak where they had spent the night. I was fully awake to each moment and I came home energized and appreciative of the world around me.

My former husband's grandmother lived well into her nineties - she was a tiny woman, an immigrant from Finland. We all addressed her as "Aiti" the Finnish for Mother. I asked her one day what she was doing. We were on the porch of her house. "I just sit and breath" she said. A lesson we can all learn.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

On Grandma's Golden Pond

The grandson saga up at the cabin continues. "Nothing to do", "I'm hungry", "I'm bored", "He's looking at me funny" - the early morning chorus rivals that of the birds. I've established some ground rules and the primary one is quit whining! It works. So does a healthy dose of creative bribery. "Give me an hour to work and then we'll do ...." and we check off something on the wish list. I've also involved them in cooking and clean up.

The oldest has it in his head that a 12 volt motor for the inflatable boat (I won't let them drill holes to mount one on the canoe - oh mean G'Ma!) is the only way to travel on the pond. He announced triumphantly that the box said the inflatable came with a 12 volt motor and mount. Show me I said. A quick search and no motor. That lead us to a definition of the word "optional". I left him to do the research through the manufacturer (he was on hold for 30 minutes) and then through dealers to locate a motor. No Arizona dealers appear to have one in stock so we will try our local "You need it, we've got it" Western Drugs. Seriously, this place has everything from knitting needles to ammunition. Between the two boys they assure me that they have the necessary money for this purchase but since their money is in Tucson I'll have to front the deal.

Meanwhile my golden pond is shimmering in morning light, hummingbirds are mobbing the feeders and the dogs are cleaning muddy paws under my feet. Why do dogs always assume you want them that close?

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Barter is back!

Earlier this year the 17 year old daughter of a younger friend asked me if I had any "old, really old like from the seventies" cocktail dresses. Her school was having a "way back then" theme dance and she assured me "the seventies are in". I did have a couple of dresses from that era stashed in my closet; an off the rack Albert Nippon and a Clovis Ruffin (anyone remember that designer?). She was thrilled and I was left wondering what it was like to fit into a size six – those days are "old, really old". Point here being that nothing ever goes totally out of style, not even Elvis’s high collared white sequined jackets and Tom Jones.

Back in style because of economic necessity, creativity, thrift and common sense is a concept rooted in history - bartering is back big time. A quick Google search will bring up dozens of web sites dedicated to the art. With the above teenager I bartered the loan of my dresses for picking up my mail while I’m out of town.

Over the past few years I’ve engaged in an increasingly popular form of barter – house swapping. I’ve had vacations in wonderful places and strangers have had the use of my house. (Follow the guidelines we set out in Connections for Women before embarking on this – or sign up with us or another established house swap agency). I’ve traded use of my cabin in return for essential repairs to skilled trades people; I’ve traded editing skills for garden produce. When I had a very large house with spectacular gardens, I offered the use of my garden for a wedding and in return, the husband an artist, gave me a beautiful outdoor bronze. Most recently, my daughter who is an attorney had a client in a poor cash flow situation; he owns a tile shop. She had two bathrooms that needed re-tiling, a deal was struck and he provided the tile.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see where barter can fit into your life. Think of a skill or treasure you have that someone else may love. My hair stylist traded a haircut for calligraphy from a client; an accountant friend helped his handyman with a tax form and earned an overhaul of his irrigation system. Cash free societies used to thrive and barter created a healthy, mutually supportive, living environment.

We’d love to hear from any of you who have set up successful bartering deals and better yet, use our Bulletin Board to advertise your skills and what you are looking for in return. Right now I have a beautiful pedestal sink looking for a new home and, in the light of my last blog, I’m wondering if anyone has granddaughters they’d like to swap out for grandsons on this rainy “there’s nothing to do” afternoon!

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Monday, July 20, 2009

On Being a Grandmother

I make no bones about not being the type of grandmother who wears “I love my grandkids” sweatshirts. I do not dote on my grandkids, carry a brag book nor make myself a slave to them. Rather, I like to think, I have an enlightened approach to grand parenting that has allowed me to develop a relationship with each one as an individual and one where I have definitely retained my identity as a distinct and separate adult in their life.

I have little tolerance for the excesses thrown at kids today and for the dependency that many kids have on being entertained. My daughter and her husband run a tight ship with the kids who are, in general, polite, well behaved, avid readers and, well - boys!

Oh dear, here I go – when I was a child I spent a lot of summers with my grandparents in Ireland. I was allowed to go barefoot, venture far a field, forage for mushrooms and strawberries and light a small fire over which to roast the mushrooms. Often times my grandma would pack a lunch, usually a bacon sandwich, and I’d be gone for the day. Along with my brother I explored the stream where the otters played, built forts from hay bales, climbed trees, scrumped apples. I learned that pigs in apple orchards are mean; that geese are so strong that one whack from a wing can break an arm; that you can catch trout in the river shallows by tickling them; that stubborn as a mule really does apply to both mules and donkeys and that riding a pony bareback and without a halter can have painful consequences. The adults in my life then did not have time to play with me – their lives were constrained by daily routines necessary for keeping their small farm running.

All this brings me to today and the cabin. My grandsons. 12 and 8 are with me for two weeks. Day one brought choruses of, “we’re bored, there’s nothing to do here”. Horrors, no TV, no Game Boy (although I still don’t think I know what that is). Just acres of wonderful alpine meadow land, trees, and an eight-acre pond with three islands dotted in it. Oh, let’s see what else – dirt bikes, a canoe, a raft on the pond, assorted toys and a massive chest full of board games plus more than enough room to swing a dozen cats inside. G’Ma is mean too. There are rules about making beds, picking up clothes, returning dishes to the kitchen. What a bummer!

Day two: in the absence of electronic entertainment they helped me make bread (pronounced delicious and can we do it again); played several games of Scrabble (boy, am I rusty) donned life vests and swam to the island; hauled out the metal fire pit, lit the fire and roasted toasted s’mores, learned how to adjust and use binoculars; kept track of birds for me. Bed by eight, exhausted…all of us!

Day Three: I suggested they walk around the pond and introduce themselves to people across who I know have grandkids staying. I watched the slow tortuous walk, lots of hesitating and the older boy pushing his brother in front. Noted the loss of courage and the beginnings of a retreat. I called the Crowe’s – “hey, don’t you have grandsons with you”. Affirmative and they came out to meet my two. Delighted to note the eight year old proffer his hand to Dr, Crowe by way of introduction. This time I watched through the field glasses as they headed off to a tree house and later ‘sailed’ cross the pond in a 12ft. skiff with an electric motor, stopping to land on the islands and in general do what kids should do - mess about with boats. And yes, after the first excursion strict protocol has been established about wearing life-jackets.

I took my two out to lunch; they informed me that they had been invited to play again in the afternoon. A massive storm came in that made crossing either water or land a hazard. “Why don’t you drive us over” they demanded. My suggestion was, I think, more diplomatic. “Why don’t you call and suggest the boys come over here for poker and brownies.” It had already been established that all four were poker players – blows my mind. Call was made and the response “we’ll come when the rain slows down”. My eight year old established himself at the window, scanning their house through binoculars for signs of life. “They’re coming”. And two figures emerged under umbrellas heading our way. My two grabbed the one umbrella we have and raced to meet them. The image was wonderful. Two groups of two, under umbrellas, converging at a meeting spot. Reminded me of the Cold War era and meetings along lines of demarcation.

Today: hand signals and yahoos across the pond by 8:30 a.m. Boys are playing and having fun! I’ve already been informed that there are plans for a cookout at the fire pit tonight and that, “G’Ma, it’s really cool here, how long can we stay”. I assume the other grandparents involved are equally delighted.

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Out of Africa

My African odyssey is over. So many memories, images firmly in my mind and a wonderful time bonding with 22 month old Maxine and quality time with my son and daughter-in-law. When I last wrote we had just returned to Addis from Lamu, on the Indian Ocean in Kenya and culture shock at the return to what is truly a third world environment was setting in.

Annie is now close to 14 weeks pregnant. Two plus weeks ago she came down with something initially diagnosed in Addis as Cerebral Malaria. Panic. Her emergency insurance covered air evacuation to the nearest hospital equipped to deal with a seriously ill pregnant woman. She was taken by air ambulance to Johannesburg, South Africa (a seven hour flight) and Benjamin, Maxine and I followed on a commercial flight the next day. My stated role was to take care of Maxine whilst Ben spent time at the hospital. The physicians at the School of Tropical Medicine in Johannesburg discredited the initial diagnosis
and an alternate diagnosis of “some un-named viral African crud” and, bacterial pneumonia is the final word. Good things come of bad events and she received excellent care in South Africa and both Annie and the baby are fine now.

Once Annie was out of hospital but committed to additional time in SA for check-ups, I rebooked my return flight out of Johannesburg rather than return to Addis. Hindsight is wonderful. My initial roundtrip ticket was purchased through BA but discounted and unchangeable. Big mistake, it cost me 90% of the original round trip booking cost to change the flight. I made another mistake during a seven-hour layover in Terminal 5 Heathrow – in search of a place to sit and relax after an 11-hour overnight flight, I wandered into Ramsey’s of chef Gordon Ramsey fame. A coffee, toasted tomato and cheese sandwich and bottle of water cost $33.08. There are plenty of other places to eat at Heathrow that don’t break the bank.

Flight to Phoenix was packed – I swear they had people standing in the aisles – mainly groups of teenagers heading home after a European tour experience. I was one of the last to board and the steward took my daypack and put it in an overhead bin some rows back. On the shuttle between Phoenix and Tucson, I looked for my phone and realized my baby Mac laptop was missing. Fruitless hours on the phone with BA customer service (hah!) and on a super unfriendly web page to report the loss and I ended up with a stock memo saying that I would hear from them in “several weeks”. My own insurance through USAA (big cheer for the best insurance company in the USA) was much more accommodating although they too are hoping for a report from BA.

Got home on a Monday night. Picked up loyal dog from Annie’s parents on Tuesday morning. Priorities kicked in – haircut and eyebrow wax! Thursday I did a family dinner (Chicken with Mango Salad) for my youngest son’s birthday and Friday I hightailed it up to the cabin and out of the heat. I have my two grandsons with me and two additional “cousin” dogs. As I write, the boys are out on the lake (more of a pond really) in a skiff with two other kids and are cruising the islands. Last year, a couple who ran the only restaurant for miles around failed to get E-2 visas renewed and I learned yesterday on my dump run that their place has been leased to the former chef from the Hyatt in Albuquerque and is now Bistro Escudilla. In the spirit of supporting local area business, we are heading there for lunch.

So much to write about Africa and I will collect my notes and over the next few weeks share some of my experiences. A close friend told me that the trip would “change your life” – Rocco, you were correct on that one.


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Thursday, July 16, 2009

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Genny and Gerry

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Three Cows, Nine Donkeys, Goats Galore and a Close Call

I’ve become brave since my return to Addis Ababa from the gentle, sophisticated idyll of Kenya. Twice now I have risked all to walk the several blocks to Novis, the corner “carry anything we can” store. This morning the benefits of torrential rains were evident – streets looked clean. Used condoms (sorry but this is reality time) and goat heads are not nearly so repulsive when glistening in the rain! Reusable REI bag over my shoulder, rain jacket zipped up and waterproof shoes, I was almost jaunty as I set out on the morning task. A shopping list is pointless because you haven’t a clue what will be in stock. Highlight of the walk was greeting a Mom and little girl whose hair was done up with dozens of bright beads. Her mother told me it was the child’s birthday and on my return I passed them again, this time the child was being serenaded in English with Happy Birthday by a group of young men they all appeared to know.

My haul today was pretty good – tomatoes, oyster mushrooms, garlic, potatoes (exceptionally good here), honey, tea, corn oil and the most precious cargo, fresh eggs, nestled on napkins on the top of the bag – no such thing as an egg container. I also scored a Kg. of freshly ground beef to cook with loads of rice for the dog named Dug, newly acquired by Ben and Annie. Dug is a beautiful longhaired German shepherd whose Australian owners could not take him with them on their next posting. He appears to be settling in well here much to the housekeeper’s dismay – she’s been following him with a mop in an effort to keep the floors clean –lady, it’s a lost cause in this rain season.

In the course of my 15 minute walk I had a close encounter with a herd of goats, kept a respectable distance from a string of nine donkeys carrying sacks full of potatoes and an even wider distance from the three cows with very large, curved horns that adhered to the Masai philosophy that they came directly from heaven and therefore had a right to hog the narrow road. My closest call was reserved for one of the Blue Donkeys – the laboring Lada’s used as taxis. I crossed the main Bole Rd. (not sure where that suicidal thought came from) in a vain effort to get a relatively current newspaper from the vendor. His most recent offering was a Herald Tribune from last week so I passed. I have to admire this man’s initiative. He has a deal going with some of the airline stewards who save papers from incoming flights and pass them on to him for re-sale. Recycling at it’s most efficient.

With Annie pregnant and all of us in revolt over Ethiopian food, I’ve taken on the Herculean task of teaching Yeshi, cook/housekeeper, the art of “American” cooking. Yeshi is a good cook, no doubt, and there is some good Ethiopian food; my quarrel is with the primary cooking method for everything – namely fry in oil and then subdue further by boiling until everything is a uniform brown and homogeneous mush texture. Tastes pretty good though! Yeshi is also a tough cookie. A tiny lady, Coptic Christian (and today is Wednesday, fasting day), she’s unusual in that she’s divorced and raising sons 8 and 10 – with an iron rod too to judge by some of her comments.

First cooking lesson was pastry making and to my chagrin first batch was awful; the flour simply not conducive to the flaky pasty for which I have modest fame in home circles. I bought three different kinds of flour and the third proved to be closest in texture and substance to good old all-purpose flour so we produced a credible and edible crust for quiche. The gods intervened big time later and yesterday was the second day in a row without power. Finally electricity was restored around 8 p.m. and quiche came out of the oven (not without drama, the shelf slipped and it was only an act of sheer heroism or desperation on my son’s part that prevented quiche ending up on the floor) absolutely perfect. Will have to do a repeat act since Yeshi quits at 3 p.m. so was not there to witness the triumph. Today we are making a pasta sauce.

Daily life in Addis despite cooks, housekeepers and gardeners is not easy. The most simple of tasks take forever. There’s no such luxury as “I’m just popping down to Safeway for …back in ten minutes”. We have major roof leaks at the house and contacting the landlord is another lost cause. His very substantial rent (you could rent a foothills palace in Tucson for what they pay here a month) is paid six months in advance and since he’s just been paid, he has no inducement to respond. The only option is for Ben and the gardener to do a patch job and then to call an associate of the landlord’s to shame him into action. The foreign aid worker community here is huge and since properties that even vaguely approximate western comfort and amenities are in short supply, rents have been driven sky high and landlords hold the strings. Gas stations are frequently “out” and that apparently has something to do with bills to Libya, the primary supplier of petroleum products, not being paid because Ethiopia has a cash flow problem. Same goes for the miles of half finished road works. China came in big time with ambitious plans for rebuilding roads and infra structure but with payments behind schedule, they appear to have packed bags and gone leaving massive holes in roads and skeletons of bridge structures.


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