It’s a Brave New (Sobering) World

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Since the beginning of time, parents have lived by the phrase “Do as I say, not as I do.” I was recently challenged to think about that contradiction in one specific aspect of my life.

I attended my first blogging conference last month, and on the first night there was a pep rally-themed social event. Pom-poms were given out, a photo booth was set up and bartenders served beer and wine, which we sipped while listening to the winning essays from a contest held exclusively for attendees. The event was, oddly enough, hosted by Responsibility.org, an organization that educates families on ways to combat drunk driving and underage drinking.

After everyone had imbibed a little, the Responsibility.org representative stood up to thank us for attending. Then she showed us this video and talked about the kind of alcohol-based humor we bloggers frequently use on social media, and how many young eyes and minds might be seeing and internalizing those messages.

It was kind of a buzzkill.

She challenged us to join the #RefreshYourFunny campaign by refraining from posting any alcohol-based humor over the next month, and to write a post on our blogs with our honest reactions to the campaign.

As I stood there, swirling what was left in my wine glass and guiltily wishing I had one more drink ticket, I scanned the crowd for reactions to her presentation. They were, by and large, not very good. It seemed like some assumed the Responsibility.org rep was asking them to put down their wine glasses right then and there, and to drink less around their children, if at all. Certainly to be a censored version of themselves online, for the sake of their kids and others.

That’s not really what she’s saying,” I thought. In fact she told us more than once to have a great time and enjoy the bar. “Or was it?” I wondered, swigging the last of my wine.

One obvious difference between our lives and our parents’ lives is that ours have become publicly posted scrapbooks. We have carefully constructed, tightly edited versions of ourselves put out there for public consumption. People’s feathers were ruffled that night over the very idea of self-censorship, but can anyone honestly say they’re not already doing that in some fashion? I certainly am.

I don’t air my dirty laundry on Facebook, or share every fear and failure (or, for that matter, success) on Twitter. I don’t post a selfie of my angry mom face after I’ve told my boys 17 times to Pick. Up. The family room! or Stop. Touching. Each. Other!! Sometimes, but not all the time. I have a penchant for using foul language in my personal life, when my kids aren’t around, but I don’t swear in front of them and I keep the f*cks off Facebook because they’ll see that, eventually. (And my mother will see it now. Sorry, Mom. Also, you’re welcome?)

I censor my life online all the time, and I bet most everyone else does too. So what’s the big deal about easing off the wine memes? Perhaps I’m down with the idea since it seems like it’s become a tired joke anyway, bordering on a cliché – the frustrated mom pacing in her kitchen, waiting for 5 o’clock so she can use some of the wine in her house to soften the edges from all the whine in her house.

Trust me, I do that too. Sometimes a glass of wine at the end of a very, very long day feels like the best kind of reward. But do I have to share that glass, or that sentiment, with the world, where my kids might eventually see it and wonder how they were so awful I had to self-medicate just to get through the day with them? If I need to share, can’t I instead opt to commiserate about my terrible day with a trusted girlfriend over the phone while I sip my wine, or have a riotously funny text exchange with a former college pal who enjoys the same beer I’m drinking?

Social media has tricked us into believing that if we don’t share it with the crowd, if people don’t “like” something we’re doing, then we remain alone, unvalidated and unheard. It’s a tough line to toe for bloggers and writers like myself, who want to connect with others by sharing the parts of our lives that might resonate with you, there, also alone in your kitchen and frustrated as hell. *Clink!* But are we sure that what resonates today won’t ripple across tomorrow and beyond?

I don’t want to be all doomsday about social media in general, or adult beverages specifically. (Because yum…) Lord knows Facebook alone has given me a means to keep up with friends, connect with colleagues and get a much wider audience for my work. But sometimes it feels like the whole world is a social experiment. My boys know words and phrases that didn’t exist when I was a kid. They swipe and click and ask to see my phone all the time.

“Can I look at the pictures on your phone?”

“Can I check the weather?”

“Can I send a text message to Daddy?”

And I give them access to that technology – certainly not unfettered access, but access nonetheless. And they soak it all up, in ways we notice and in ways we don’t. Because there is so much about this brave new world that we simply don’t know. We don’t yet know how they’ll be affected by all this oversharing, by all these public stories and jokes, by how we make our lives — and sometimes them — a punchline. We don’t know what the result of all these selfies and memes and instant updates on their lives and our lives, their triumphs and our triumphs, their mistakes and our mistakes will be.

The other day I asked my kids if they knew what alcohol was. They didn’t.

“It’s a certain kind of drink that’s just for adults,” I explained. “Like beer and wine.”

“Ohhh, I don’t like that at all,” said Kostyn, who’s 8.

“How come?” I asked, genuinely surprised he had an opinion.

“Well, because Evan and I snuck some once, a long time ago, we tried it, and it tasted awful. Awful!”

Sure, the childhood sip of beer is practically a rite of passage. But the point is I had no idea they’d done it.

Even when we think we know, we sometimes don’t know what they’re seeing. What they’re thinking. What they’re tasting. And that’s a sobering thought.

This piece will be submitted for a writing contest sponsored by Responsibility.org, but I am not being compensated for the post, and all the opinions are my own.

[POSTSCRIPT: I won the contest! First place winner! Scored a $500 prize and a fancy graphic as proof. Look how very official I am in my first essay contest.]

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My Favorite Summer Tradition Is Full of Trash and Treasures

 

My happily gloved environmentalists.
My happily gloved environmentalists.

“Who would do this?” Evan asks, picking up a smashed water bottle and dropping it into the plastic bag I’m carrying. We are walking to the end of our street, where it bends around a corner and spills into a gas station and convenience store. The boys insisted on starting this litter cleanup tradition a few weeks ago, fueled by a passion for the environment sparked in their elementary school. They are on summer break, but I’m finding that school is always in session for me.

This is the same half-mile stretch where nearly all of my runs begin. Here I start up my running app, and here I pause for the traffic light, and here I adjust the volume on my phone and pick a good pace song.

“Who would do this?” he says again, dropping a silver gum wrapper into the bag, and with sudden embarrassment I think about the earrings I tossed aside right here one day while jogging. They were an old pair, inexpensive, not my favorites, and I’d forgotten to take them off before leaving for my run. They were long and dangly and it took just ¼ mile of them jangling against my earbuds for me to become annoyed enough to discard them.

I pulled them out of my ears and tossed them toward the edge of the sidewalk, never breaking stride, feeling like a badass runner who sacrifices anything that gets in her way. I thought maybe I’d see them on my way back through and carry them home. But I never did.

I wasn’t a badass that day. I was part of the problem my kids are now diligently trying to solve, one stray wrapper at a time.

The bigger the find, the more incredulous the boy. "Someone threw THIS on the ground?"
The bigger the find, the more incredulous the boy. “Someone threw THIS on the ground?”

A few weeks ago they came to me and announced I had a new title. “You’re Reuse, Mommy,” Evan said. “Kostyn is Reduce, and I’m Recycle. So your job is to make old things into new things.”

“Uhhh,” I said. “OK.” Ever since then Kostyn has been turning out the lights and pestering me about water usage while brushing my teeth. Evan tries to recycle everything. Everything. And when cornered, I lamely point out how I reuse plastic grocery bags to pick up dog poop in the yard, and turn empty toilet paper rolls into mini helmets and cars for their smallest stuffed animals. It doesn’t feel like enough, but it’s something.

They walk a few paces ahead of me, both wearing thin black winter gloves they pulled out of the closet before we left. Kostyn is also wearing a winter hat – mine – which he says helps to keep the flies away from his head. I smile at the two of them, imagining what passing drivers think of my gloved environmentalists who occasionally stop to chase little brown bunnies through the empty field to our left.

Besides the rabbits, we see groundhogs and squirrels and bluejays and a pretty white cat Evan momentarily mistakes for a statue. We see wildflowers, and trails of ants, and berries I tell them not to eat. This has quickly become my favorite summer tradition.

“Maybe if people see us doing this they’ll want to do it too,” Kostyn says, picking up another cigarette “bottom.” I tell him that’s really the best way to teach somebody something, to lead by example, and what a great job they’re doing.

They ask a lot of questions about the cigarette butts, and I tell them smokers probably don’t think about the fact that the ends of their cigarettes contain chemicals and plastic and traces of tobacco. They look harmless, small things that don’t matter, discarded with a simple flick. Like cheap earrings, I think with shame.

The evening's haul.
The evening’s haul.

Our plastic bag is stuffed full by the time we reach the bend in the road. We cross the street hand in hand in hand, and I tie the bag’s handles together and toss it into the garbage bin, then offer to buy them a treat.

The first time I offered, Kostyn asked why they were getting treats, and I wanted to hug him, hard, for the intrinsic reward he’d already felt. This day when we walk into Sheetz, the teenager at the counter smiles.

“It’s the litter cleanup crew again,” she says.

“You remember them?” I ask, putting a Twix ice cream bar and an ice cream sandwich on the counter.

“Well, there aren’t many kids who come in here this time of year with shorts and gloves on,” she says. I smile and turn back toward them, but they are in mock battle with each other by the doors. The gloves have morphed into something else in their minds, and I rein in their superhero antics before a display gets knocked over.

On the way home I wave and call hello to an old man sitting on his front step. “Mommy, isn’t that a stranger?” Kostyn asks in a low voice.

“Well, yes, but he’s also a neighbor,” I say. It’s a difficult concept to understand, that we’re all strangers and neighbors. It is not just his yard. Or my earrings. Or your cigarette butt. It is their world. It is mine. It is ours. And every day, they are making me into something new.

Mother Nature does her best to make up for mankind's failings.
Mother Nature does her best to make up for mankind’s failings.

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A Little Death at Dawn

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The first piano notes fell softly into the quiet room at 7:04 a.m., when my phone’s alarm began playing its pre-set wake-up tune, “The Aspidistra Flies.” It’s a lovely song by a band called Stars, about which I know nothing except that they have this one particular song that has become “ours.” It was the first song I danced to with Evan, when he was just a few days old, and I have been singing and swaying to it with both of them in my arms ever since.

All the umbrellas in London

Couldn’t hide my love for you

All the rain on Thames-side

Couldn’t stop shining through

In a few moments I heard a thump, and then little feet rushing toward me. I kept my eyes closed, wondering which one was joining me for a quick snuggle before we could no longer ignore the oncoming rush of a typical Thursday morning.

I dreamt of you last night

Lying next to me in blue

All the umbrellas in London

Couldn’t hide my love for you

It was Kostyn. He climbed in and pressed his body against me, all bony limbs and soft skin. I felt his chest rise and fall, the warmth and heft of my comforter keeping us safe in our cocoon. It was light outside but my curtains are heavy and dark, holding morning at bay until we’re ready. I lay my hand on his tiny shoulder and we listened.

Run to the window and call out my name

We’ll meet where the sun goes to hide from the rain

From the rain

From the rain

When the song faded away, he whispered, “Can we hear that one again?”

I lay still, knowing that my alarm is set on a loop and it would begin again momentarily. The same soft piano notes floated our way and he sighed.

The gloom of the city at evening is still

You whisper come to me

And I always will

Always will

Always will

By halfway through the second time my mind was easing into the day and I turned over and stretched silently. Or so I thought.

“Can you please stop making all noises?” he whispered. I froze and smiled, suddenly aware he was still very much into the song.

I counted all the lights

They don’t shine as bright

They don’t pierce the night

Like you do

Like you do

Like you do

Like you do

“I love the end,” he whispered as it faded to silence. I reached for my phone to turn off the alarm. It was about time to get moving. Still, I was curious.

“What is it about the ending you like so much?” I whispered, staring up at the ceiling fan. I wasn’t sure why we were still whispering, but I didn’t want to break the spell.

“It makes me think about the end of my life, and how much love I have for everything,” he whispered. My breath caught in my throat. He’s 7. I traced the lyrics back in my mind, searching for a hint of death or even melancholy. I found nothing a child might latch onto as dark or disturbing.

“It makes you think about the end of your life?” I whispered as casually as I could. “And that doesn’t make you sad?”

“Well, it makes me feel,” he said, and my heart leapt toward him and his old soul with a jolt of gratitude for the gift that he is.

I thought about a conversation I’d had recently with a friend about whether it was better to love or to be loved. “To love,” I’d said without hesitation. “In love there are the highest highs and the lowest lows. You get to experience the full range of human emotion, even if some of those emotions feel terrible.”

It was a perspective that had taken me many years to appreciate. My 7-year-old already gets it. That he could momentarily embrace the thought of the end of his life simply because it brings with it a rush of gratitude and love for everything is remarkable.

Just as my mind swirled with heady thoughts of how much he must be appreciating the love of his family in those contemplative moments, he reminded me that he is, indeed, still 7. “I mean even just all my (stuffed animals), and how much I love them,” he whispered. My smile grew wider.

“You’re amazing, sweetness,” I said, kissing his shoulder and dropping the whisper. “Now I think it’s time to get up.”

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A Love Letter For My Six-Year-Old

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I spent part of my birthday helping out at your kindergarten Valentine’s Day party. It was the best present I could have given myself.

Dear Evan,

From the moment you were born, you have been a delightful mystery.

You cried out when you entered this world but you settled down quickly, and you didn’t cry again the rest of the time we were in the hospital. Not when you were hungry. Not when you were being changed. Not a single tear the entire time. Your daddy and I sat in our hospital room 24 hours after your birth, waiting to be discharged and talking about you in hushed tones. Was there something wrong with our son? we wondered. How could he be this alert, yet this quiet? Everything we’d learned about newborns from your older brother included crying and fussing and general discontent. Babies cried a lot, we remembered. A lot.

And then we strapped you into that giant infant car seat and you wailed all the way home while we laughed with relief. That was my first lesson in Evan: You are not living out someone else’s history, you are making your own. And you will do it however you darn well please.

That ride feels like a hundred years ago, not six. I guess because six years includes a million moments and a thousand triumphs, hundreds of tantrums and tons of kisses and countless prayers and tears and “firsts” and “lasts.” It’s true what they say, that childhood is comprised of the longest days and the shortest years.

But this note is for you right now, the Evan that you are at 6 years old, the Evan that I love and cherish and often don’t understand in the least. I want you to know that I am utterly captivated by your mystery, by your contradictions, by your sweetness and light and tears and heart.

Both you and your brother are sensitive kids, but where he is more contemplative, you are reactive. You express the full force of your emotions moment to moment, with very little regard to what’s around you or what’s “appropriate.” When something happens – or doesn’t happen – that differs from the image or expectation you had in your mind, it is impossible for you to hide your disappointment.

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You caught your very first fish this past year, and you were so proud of it.

The good news is, as quickly as you unravel, you also regroup. If something catches your eye and pulls your mind away for a second from the terrible injustice you were just lamenting, you might happily scamper off, with no remnants of distress apparent on your face. Many, many times I have been left standing, astounded, in the aftermath puddle of an indefinable meltdown after that switch has been flipped. But only you can flip it.

Though your mood can change on a dime, you actually hate change of any kind. If I move a piece of furniture, or you outgrow a shirt, or somebody tries to sit at a different seat at the dinner table, you come undone. The images and memories and expectations in your mind are so strong – so unbelievably strong – that any deviation can be devastating for you. When I wished you a happy birthday this morning, your response was classic Evan: “Just call me 5 still.”

The contradictions by which you live are powerful, all-encompassing and very often amusing. You run around all day in your underwear complaining of being hot, then ask to be tucked under four blankets at night. You dress up and play as a ninja and a Power Ranger and a mash-up of superheroes all the time, yet never want to watch a movie with any kind of good guy-bad guy conflict. For an entire year you wanted to be the same thing for Halloween (Darth Vader), and then you emphatically changed your mind three times (Wolverine! No, a lion! No, a ninja!) and I bought three costumes (and returned two) in the eight days leading up to the holiday. You proclaimed tortellini to be your favorite food and requested it for dinner, and then told me you hate tortellini and couldn’t possibly eat it as soon as it was placed in front of you. And when I put my foot down and insisted that you have 10 bites anyway, you took a bite, started to chew, ran frantically to the kitchen trash can and gagged it out, then returned to your seat, dutifully took another bite and began the whole process again. Nine more times.

You are wild and strong-willed and irreverent. You almost always wear your shirt backwards, sometimes your pants, too. All winter long you insisted on wearing your winter hat on top of your jacket’s hood. For five months you refused to get a haircut, throwing two massive fits both times we went to the salon (Because you, Mr. Contradiction, promised me you were ready to get it cut until we were inside the salon, at which point you reacted in a way that suggested getting a haircut was the same as cutting your head off), nor would you let me comb it or tame its unruliness for all of those very long, shaggy months.

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This hair drove me crazy, but you were not about to back down.

You are extremely particular about textures and fabrics. You rarely match, and you never care. You won’t wear sweaters or collared shirts or jeans or anything with buttons. You don’t like to feel the seam in your socks, and they can’t be too high or too low on your tiny, muscular legs. Your shoes have to be on just tight enough but not too tight. Your mittens must go on before you leave the house, not while you’re walking out or after you’re in the car. You cannot get dressed – not even a single shoe – while you’re talking to your brother. Multitasking is not your specialty.

You are a fierce little one, brave and bold. You will stand up to kids three years older and a full head taller than you on the playground after school, particularly if you think they’re messing with your older brother. You are adventurous and outdoorsy. You love to be in the spotlight, until you don’t. You are creatively talented and incredibly imaginative. Sometimes your artistic medium is a bin of Legos, other times it’s a bin of markers, but you always create something impressive.

You are astute and playful and sweet. You loved shoveling our driveway with me after a snowstorm this winter, and you were so proud to learn how to wash the dishes. You like helping me with laundry, and you love to cook and bake.

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There is nothing gluten-free about our baking.

You will do just about anything for a warm, soft pretzel, though a dark chocolate treat and a dish of ice cream are also direct routes to your heart. But there is no more direct route than through your brother. You adore Kostyn in a way I have rarely seen among siblings. You will defend him against me when I am trying to reprimand him for something he has done to you, even if it was you who pointed out the grievance in the first place. The pictures and stories you bring home from school often include the two of you doing something funny or just plain fun. I think your kindergarten teacher said it best at your parent-teacher conference when she said, “I have never had another student who loves his sibling as much as Evan loves Kostyn.”

This year of change – at school and at home – has been huge for you, and you have done so well, Evbo. Life has shifted and you have shifted with it, growing, thriving, loving us and teaching us so much along the way. You make us laugh every day. You give the best hugs. You keep me on my toes. You keep all of us on our toes.

A few weeks ago you asked me to write something new about you, “something like the other things you wrote about me and Kostyn, about funny things we said and did a long time ago.” You love it when I read the old entries on my blog, so you can hear what you were like at age 1, and 2, and 4. You have such pride and joy in who you are, and I want that for you always.

So this is you at 6, Evan. I will read it to you today, and you will read it again many times in the coming years, and you will know that you are a sweet, God-given mystery, and I am beyond lucky to spend every day of my life trying to figure you out, and delighting in the clues that you give me.

You are a puzzle I know I will never fully solve, and that may be the best Evan lesson you have taught me: To be present in the moment being experienced right now, because the very next one is simply unknowable, and the present one, if you take it for what it is – in all its raw emotion, mess, energy and surprise – is breathtaking.

Happy birthday, sweetness. I love you infinity.

Love,

Mommy

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The eyes of an angel … even in those moments when you are seemingly possessed by the devil. 😉

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The Northern Lights

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She caught my eye as I walked through the lobby of an assisted-living facility after visiting a friend. I had seen her before, always sitting in the same Victorian high-back chair against the wall, with her walker parked in front of her and a Penn State key ring draped around her neck. She wore slacks and a pastel sweater, her short gray hair framing her face with soft bangs that curled under just a bit.

She held up what looked like a narrow-lipped bowl made of sunny yellow yarn. An unraveling ball of yarn and two knitting needles sat in her lap.

“I don’t know what this is supposed to be,” she said, smiling at me. I couldn’t tell if her eyes were pleading or dancing. I stopped in midstride and returned her smile. She looked down and turned it over in her hands, inspecting it from all angles, shaking her head.

“I think it was supposed to be a hat, when I started,” she continued, puzzled by her own creation. “But do you know any heads this would fit on?”

We smiled at each other.

“Hmm,” I said. “It does kind of look like a beret, but you’re right – you’ll need to find a pretty small head for it at this point. Do you have any granddaughters who have dolls?”

“I was thinking maybe I could just keep going and make it into a little throw pillow,” she said, pretending to toss it like a Frisbee across the room. I smiled wider.

“Or you could knit a handle across the top and make it into a cute little basket,” I offered. She looked at it again, this time with wonder, happy to have options. Then she looked back at me.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“My name is Robyn.”

“Robby?”

“Ro-byn,” I said, slower and louder.

“Robby, that is an unusual name for a girl,” she said.

“No, RAH-BIN,” I said. “Like the bird.” A dawning of recognition crossed her face.

“Ahhh Robyn. I see.”

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Kathleen.”

“Ohhh, what a beautiful name,” I said. “One of my favorite songs is called ‘Kathleen.’”

“Uh-huh. ‘I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen’?” she said dismissively, looking back down at her fuzzy yellow mystery.

“No, it’s just called ‘Kathleen,’” I said. She raised her head, her interest piqued. “It’s by a singer named Josh Ritter.”

“Huh. I don’t know that one.”

“I bet you’d like it. You know what the first line is?”

She sat up straighter, shook her head. I leaned over and spoke directly in her ear. “‘All the other girls here are stars, you are the Northern Lights, Kathleen.’”

I drew back and watched the teenager within her blush and inhale. “Oh my, really,” she stammered. “I’ve never heard that one!”

“Would you like to hear it?” I asked, pulling my phone out of my coat pocket. She looked at me like I was a mirage.

“Well, yes! I would love to hear it,” she said. I scrolled through my iPhone’s music library until I found it. Josh began strumming his guitar and I glanced around the lobby before clicking the volume up as loud as it would go. I held the tiny music player in front of her, wishing it was attached to speakers that would fill the room.

“All the other girls here are stars, you are the Northern Lights…”

She looked up at me with dazzled eyes, then quickly back down when she heard his voice again.

“They try to shine in through your curtain — you’re too close and too bright…”

“Oh my goodness,” she whispered, intently focused.

“They try and they try, but everything that they do is the ghost of a trace of a pale imitation of you….

I’ll be the one to drive you back home, Kathleen….”

We listened and smiled and she stared at the phone in my hand as I leaned over her and wondered who might be singing to her in her mind.

I know you are waiting and I know that it is not for me

But I’m here and I’m ready and I’ve saved you the passenger seat…”

An old man wandered into the lobby and stood watching us. I tried hard not to sing the words out loud like I usually do.

Every heart is a package tangled up in knots someone else tied

I’ll be the one to drive you back home, Kathleen….”

When the last lyric was sung I clicked off the phone as she began rummaging around in the purse hanging from her walker.

“I will have to tell my son about that one,” she said. “I wish I had paper here, I could write it down.”

I walked to the sign-in desk and fetched a scrap of paper. In the same carefully neat, extra big penmanship I use to write lunch notes to my kindergartner, I wrote:

“‘Kathleen’ by Josh Ritter.” Below that, just for fun, I added:

“All the other girls here are stars, you are the Northern Lights.”

I handed it to her and she read it over, then folded it and put it in her purse.

“Thank you, dear,” she said. “You have a lovely, lovely day.”

“Oh I am,” I said, turning to go. The front doors parted and I walked toward the rest of my sunny Saturday, seeing stars.

This post was written as part of the 1000 Voices For Compassion initiative, which involves more than 1,000 bloggers, including myself, flooding the Internet with stories of compassion. Because yes, more of that, please.

 

 

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