On the Connemara Shore, Looking Back

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I’m looking out across the Wild Atlantic Way, where for thousands of years others looked out from these small islands on the west of Ireland, from the cliffs, from these craggy hills. Celts, Vikings, on through my own ancestry of McCormicks and Walsh’s and more, on through to poets such as Yeats and Seamus Heaney, all sat in these fields, on this beach in Connemara, in Connaught, and looked out across the Atlantic to the setting sun, to the once unknown flat vastness or inconceivable largeness of the wild seas stirred from storms. 

It is calm today, and I’m thousands of miles from home, as I have been many times in my life. But this one is different. I’m not far, maybe walking distance, at the most a short carriage ride, from where some great-great-greats set the DNA ball rolling toward me. And a part of me, while waking here everyday in wonder at the distant connections, often thinks, well, who cares really? The world is not recognizable from those days; the criteria they used to make decisions about where to live and who to marry and what to do for a living don’t even fall in the realm of memory–they are on a separate plane. I am alive, now, rooted in my more immediate ancestry of fathers and grandfathers, cousins I communicate with on a platform for which there would be no explaining to an aboriginal Irishman from my centuries ago. I like now. I love now, in fact. 

But another part of me feels more complete because of being here on this land looking at the ocean from the opposite side of my normal routine. It’s as if some long ago blood which once mixed in this soil can run through my fingers when I brush the grass, or when I run my palm on the wind-blown patterns in the sand, and it helps us meet each other somewhere in the between. 

This is as close to going back to then as is physically possible. When I walked out this morning and looked across the gardens to the ocean, where at one time those McCormicks and Walshs watched the waves pull and push to shore, it was like I had found the edge of some abyss of time, and I leaned over my past, beyond my parents and their grandparents, to a time so long ago that this, right here, is the only common ground left. And I wondered again if I am just distracting myself from the here and now. Maybe it somehow grounds me? 

John Edgar Wideman wrote that we all need two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great grandparents, then thirty-two, then sixty-four. And that’s only six generations back to a time, he points out, when thirty-two men made love with thirty-two women, all in some subtle conspiracy to make me possible. And certainly some buzz of DNA filtered through which connects me to them, of course, but something else. I guess it is because I live at the water and spend most of my mornings looking out, looking “back” to not only a place but a way of being which was at one point part of who I was before I became. 

Certainly I do not need knowledge of them to fully become myself, nor was there ever a pressing need to appear on this shore. I’m not Sean Thorton returning to Inishfree to reclaim a homestead. 

Still, I could stay here. Oh lord, if reincarnation is a reality, and time were not as restrictive as we have made it, I could be born, breathe, and cease to be on the shores of Connemara, disconnected, without a need to cross the Wild Atlantic Way. I have been many places where I believed I could have a whole life. What a sad and sardonic reality that we have one life to live when a thousand times a thousand lives are not enough to completely experience being human, being here. We all play a roll, of course, and sitting here on the grass somewhere someone before me sat makes me feel like I understand my character a bit better. 

Perhaps the most significant gain for me on these paths west of Galway is that I wouldn’t trade my life at all. I would never gamble with the memories of my childhood, my son’s childhood, the sunrises and sets, the Scotch with my father, the early morning talks with my mother, the laughter–oh the laughter–with my siblings. I wouldn’t lay one bet down against the birthday parties and anniversary parties, the pool parties, the block parties, the quiet moments late at night, the places I’ve been and the people I’ve known. 

Perhaps I came here to thank the spirit of place which stirs again in my bloodline as I walk through the sands of Connemara, for being part of the cycle which made walking to the river with my son on my shoulders possible. 

And I can hear, quietly, a sweet Irish blessing:

Thanks for the fullness 

of days spent together

The friends that we pray

will be with us forever.

The feelings we’ve shared

the food and the fun,

with faith that God’s blessings

have only begun.

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A Letter from Siberia

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress about traveling across Siberia with my son. Part of the book is framed in letters to my Dad. May 23rd would have been his 94th birthday, and I miss him dearly every day. 

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Dear Dad

You should be with us. We could sit in the dining car and have a few beers; you’d read Journey to the End of the Russian Empire and we’d write letters home to Mom. When I think of trains I naturally think of my youth and you at the station going and coming home. I remember one time we rode the train to the city for dinner and a show, but this ride is nothing like the Long Island Railroad. It’s odd how the Siberian rail feels safer and less shaky, but then I was so young. I would love to ride trains with you again, have a drink in the dining car and talk about baseball. If you were here you’d order the burger and fries and have a Baltika, their best beer, and of course we would have some caviar just to be able to go back home and say we had caviar. I think of you a lot and it is most likely because I am more of a father now than I’ve ever been, your grandson and I alone on the other side of the world, slightly ecstatic, slightly terrified. And it is only now, out here, that I realize no matter how strong you showed yourself to be, inside you were probably scared as well. It is my turn. 

Strange how you just never know when that last ride will be. I don’t remember back then knowing we will never do this again. Those lucid moments of finality are rare and tend to sneak past us. We must be in those seats facing away to see them and I get weary always looking backwards.

So we barrel along, just a father and his son. I wonder if Czar Nicholas looked out at these same birch forests and had some sort of premonition. Did his son stand nearby like Michael stands near me now? Did his young heart still hold hope the hard days were past? Did he smile and think about being able to spend more time with his dad? When I was young, on those rare times we traveled to the city I worried about getting lost, or strangers, or the sheer majestic size of the surroundings, but I always knew somehow you’d figure it out. I guess Alexi felt the same around his exiled father. And Michael too waits for my cue to disembark or head to the dining car. I’ve come to understand finally that you were as anxious as I am, wanting your son to have the time of his life yet protect him in a world of strangers. It turns out on the rails in Russia rushing through forests, we are the strangers.

Still, If I had the ability to forget my roots, to never remember the people I’ve known and loved or the places I’ve been, I could stay forever in Siberia. I’d disembark the trans-Siberian rail and I’d live on the shores of Lake Baikal. The gentle, helpful people in this pristine landscape at once made us feel at home. This morning I thought, very clearly, “I’d love to be exiled here.” The Decembrists didn’t mind so much. These revolutionary aristocrats of the 1800’s built beautiful homes with sunrooms and gardens. They entertained nightly, wrote books and continued their lives untethered by Czarist concerns. Today the riverfront in their Irkutsk is an oasis of pubs and cafes, international foods and festivals, with banks and other businesses lining boardwalks with architectural masterpieces. 

As to our companions I’m afraid to say we won’t get to know them well; no one we’ve met travels very far on the Siberian railroad. A few stops mostly; maybe one or two nights and certainly not all the way to the far side of the empire. No wonder the conductor recoiled when he asked our destination and I said “Vladivostok.” This isn’t a tourist route; for that people head south to Moscow and cross Russia and Mongolia into China, ending up in Beijing. This “Imperial Route,” St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, is mostly rural and roughly the same distance as traveling from New York to Hawaii. For some perspective Dad, it’s as if you boarded the LIRR at the Islip station to head to downtown Manhattan and met someone continuing to Honolulu. The other travelers, nearly all men, are heading to or from work projects or visiting family just one or two stops away. Some people travel further, and in third class a few families carry a month’s worth of belongings to summer dachas, but so far only Michael and I and a family from France are covering the entire nation. We talk with travelers, we get out at stations, and we eat and drink.  

A woman sold blueberries this morning at the platform. Another man sold books, including Chekhov. We called the woman Blueberry Babushka for her outfit was mostly a blue-flower design, and she carried two metal buckets of berries. I bought a large bag and for a moment thought she was going to count them out, like you do with your bowl at breakfast, and I was suddenly sorry I am not home to help you separate the good berries from the bad. Still, you’d be proud of your grandson—he ate nearly an entire bucket before boarding. They are about the freshest food we’ve found. But I left without Chekhov, so I decided to record my own journey to the end of this vast land, and, like Anton, do so partly in letters home, to you.

The sun is setting Dad, and it is hard to see the birch trees. Michael is off somewhere between cars, staring, no doubt, out some window at this vast and beautiful landscape. In a few days we’ll head deeper into Siberia, passing that point where we will be closer to you going forward than heading back, and it feels fine. But for now this father and son are headed to the bar car.

–Always,

 

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Small Talk

I wrote this piece a long time ago and it received a lot of positive feedback and has since popped up in various online publications. I’m posting it here today because my mother is very much on my mind as yesterday was her birthday, and we had a great day. At one point we talked about life long ago when we had family over for a barbecue. This remains one of my favorite pieces. 

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A lady in line at the market turned toward me and said, “I so much prefer iceberg lettuce over Romaine.” I did not provoke her. I didn’t make eye contact or in any way use body language to indicate I was remotely interested in conversation. In fact, I was engaged in the celebrity headlines on the rack above the Doritos. But I looked up. Damn it I looked up, which the woman interpreted as “Oh please continue.” So she went on. “Romaine is so dirty. I mean I know it has so much more nutritional value than iceberg, but it is always grimy no matter how much I wash it.”

I know people, good-natured people, who can handle this. I have friends who might willfully and enthusiastically engage this poor, lonely woman in conversation about various greens, their benefits, and possibly even move on to legumes or even poultry. I’m not one of those people. I have never been good at small talk, nor do I care. Halfway through her very innocent observations about the roughness of Romaine, I stopped listening, wanted to say, “Who cares? It’s a head of lettuce!” but didn’t. It seemed rude. Instead, I said simply, “Oh I know,” in a definitive manner, clearly indicating to the average person that “Oh I know” was all I planned to say. She didn’t get it.

“My husband, God rest his soul, loved Romaine lettuce, but he also loved plum tomatoes. Oh my, tomatoes are a whole other problem for me. You know just last week I was trying to decide between cherry tomatoes or plum tomatoes for the salad and I remembered that…”  Shut up! is what I wanted to say, but instead I stared at her with vacuous eyes. I cannot explain this physical reaction, but it is real and akin to the shortness of breath I experienced as a child at mass when Fr Charles at Our Lady of Lourdes parish would go on and on in his homily. I truly can’t breathe in situations like this. My blood sugar drops, time slows to some immeasurable pace, and my left arm starts to hurt.

Once when a woman asked which Chapstick flavor was my favorite I answered in Russian. I used to use Spanish but people started answering me in Spanish and then I had to have small talk in another language. Once I actually abandoned my cart in line and left the store.

When Iceberg Lady left, I paid for my groceries and wheeled to my car still thinking about the difference between the two types of lettuce. I wonder now what I would have thought about had I not be hijacked to think about this. I learned to like Romaine when I was older, and it can taste dirty, she’s right. But at least it isn’t bitter like some of the other dark green ones. See, I can think about irrelevant minutia all day long. But I can’t discuss it. I prefer conversations with depth and direction, meaning and thought. Give me a good Aristotle-like argument over a coupon swap any day.

Most people will say when you’re only passing through someone’s life for a few seconds in line at the checkout, small talk is all time allows. But I insist the opposite is more valid. If I were to hang out with the lady for a while, then perhaps eventually we’d get to ridiculous discussions about lettuce, but we only spent five minutes next to each other. Five minutes in all of time, eternity coming and going, our lives from birth to death and beyond and before, and in such a flash of explosive existence, five valuable minutes are spent with a woman contemplating lettuce! We negotiate neighbors and strangers alike like this, trying to fit in fragments of our lives as we spin along.  Shouldn’t that time, that precious, fleeting time, be worthy of something substantial? When she said, “I so much prefer iceberg lettuce over Romaine,” I should have said, “Yes, that’s interesting. I wonder if it is because of your youth, or how your taste buds formed when your mother or perhaps grandmother cooked for you. Where are you from? Have you ever wondered if hunters and food gathers were picky or did they just grab what they could and move on? Are you afraid of death?

Instead I know this about her: She prefers iceberg lettuce because it doesn’t taste like the ground.

So I put my groceries in the car and wondered when I started eating Romaine. Growing up it was always iceberg. Perhaps because it was so much cheaper, or maybe that was more widely available back when I was young. But I remember standing at the kitchen counter while my mom smacked the head of lettuce on the cutting board to break the core. Then she’d pull it out and toss it, and I’d help her tear the lettuce apart in small chunks for salads in the black bowls we got at Esso for free after so many tanks of gas.

She’d pull the lettuce apart and start cutting Beefsteak tomatoes and ask about my day. I’d tell her stupid stuff like how Jimmy O’Roarke asked if I wanted to come to his house to have some candy. And she’d comment about how Jimmy always had candy, and then we’d talk about our favorite candy; or I’d talk about how I played football at recess with Norman but I just couldn’t keep up with him so I’d end up just watching everyone. Then we’d talk about what cousins might be coming over and what we could do for fun when they did. It was nothing, really, nothing at all. I loved those mornings when she made sandwiches for school. In winter it was still dark out and my siblings were in bed or already in school and just Mom and I would sit in the kitchen and the radio played late sixties music and we’d talk about food. I can still hear an FBLI bank jingle playing right before the news at the top of the hour, and I can sense the stillness of the quiet winter mornings as I walked to the bus stop. I don’t remember caring that it was cold, and my friends and I would talk about the snow and wait for the school bus.

I drove to the next store on my list thinking about my mom, about how little I was against the counter helping her make a salad. I can still smell the cucumbers sliced on the plate, and the hamburgers cooking on the grill, like it was right there with me. That was so long ago. My dad would work the grill, and our neighbor Joe would stand by keeping him company while I leaned against the kitchen counter and Mom would let me have small chunks of ground beef or slices of salted cucumber. I’d tell her about what my friend Charlie and I had been doing and she always seemed interested.

So just for fun I grabbed some bread and ground beef, cheese, onions, and iceberg lettuce because that’s what we used to use on burgers. Of course. And I stood in line thinking about mom and how most of who we are is tethered in beautiful ways to who we were.

I held the lettuce in my hand. It was firm and fresh, and I said, “Iceberg is still the best lettuce for burgers!” to the man behind me in line. He just stared at me.

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The Sounds of the Day

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For most of my life I’ve been surrounded by beach sounds. The ocean, of course, its current coming ashore in a predictable, rhythmic pattern (though sometimes, more so lately, the water makes lazier progress with a more common calmness, a wave seemingly wandering to the sand almost as a second thought instead of its normal troop movement speed and persistence).

Also at sea are the gulls, calling and diving, chasing each other for scraps of found food or small fish claimed just below the surface. And pelicans occasionally lift from their glide to angles of light and school movement, then dive into the shoal rising slowly with a catch. It is the only time I hear a pelican; they are quiet. Dolphins, too, seem silent unless one breaches and spins, and even then she would have to be quite close to shore, which happens, sometimes.

On the beach is a symphony I’ve tuned in to since I’m a child. There’s the music from other blankets and people sunning in beach chairs, from vendors and from the speakers during scattered events up and down the strand. In the sixties when I was a toddler it was transistor radios with the “tiny tin voice of the radio man,” and in the seventies in my teens it was boomboxes mixing disco and Beach Boys; always the Beach Boys. Add to this the constant conversations ranging from requests for suntan lotion application to talk of kids and parents, to talk of work, to the best places to eat according to the guide they found in the top drawer in their room, to the heat, to the humidity, to financial plans to boyfriends and girlfriends and wedding plans and sunburned shoulders and faces and the dreaded burns on the backs of knees.

Further back still near the hotels, a store owner on the boardwalk is hosing down the sidewalk and a sanitation truck rolls by surrounded by workers walking while peering in garbage cans at each block, and the joggers muffled headphones, their shoes methodically hitting the pavement, and the two men in suits who always stand in the same spot next to a table of bible literature, never pushing but always encouraging people to have a good day. They refuse donations. They’re okay, those two men.

And it all works. It works as if Leonard Bernstein or Toscanini stood atop the twenty-feet tall Neptune statue at 31st Street and covertly conducted the separate sections, blending them so everyone anywhere on blankets and beach chairs, under umbrellas with kids or strolling with elderly parents on the boardwalk, and the three guys throwing a football, and the handful of surfers at First Street and the bike rental girls wearing bikinis and holding clipboards and the people fishing off the pier and the businessman on break talking on the phone, one foot on the rail between the boardwalk and the sand talking to someone about an appointment that didn’t go well, all of them, charted out in three quarter time and blended to some shoreline perfection.

I don’t know if it is some sort of Doppler effect or another sound-wave phenomenon, but if you stand on the sand right where the waves break and look to sea and listen, it is like being in an altogether different theater than when you simply turn around and face the boardwalk.

I spend a lot of time looking east across the pounding and ever receding tides. The seasons remain on their perpetual flow, and after some time you can recognize the nuances, the subtleties of change.

In fall I look forward to the slow erosion of tourists, some in September, and by October they’re nearly all headed home to West Virginia and Pennsylvania and Quebec. That’s when the dominant sounds are the natural ones coming from the current. But come spring, when the sun has risen higher and so have the room rates, and the traffic is heavier and you have to pay the parking meters again, and stores which had not been open since Labor Day once again have their baskets of body boards and circular racks of T-shirts on display on the sidewalk, I welcome the movements of summer, the sounds of the season, as the months slowly drift by of their own free will.

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The Frequency Illusion

Red Semi Leads Traffic Down An Interstate Highway

You know the routine: Someone says to you, “Hey I’m thinking of buying an Outback,” or they casually say, “I’ve seen more bluebirds than I used to,” and for the next several days you notice way more Outbacks or bluebirds. In college the practical joke would be to tell someone to “watch out for red trucks.” Of course, they’d suddenly be aware of them and so see them more.

It’s called “the Frequency Illusion,” also called the Baadar-Meinhoff phenomenon. It is what distracts us; but it is also what helps us focus. If you know you’re going to look for a new coat, you are hyperaware of others’ coats. If you are trying to lose weight, you are hyperaware of Dunkin Donut shops everywhere. Tragic. The point is, once we become aware of an idea, usually the first time or at the very least when the idea is brought on with some sort of urgency, we find it in the cracks of our lives where it most likely has always been lingering, it’s just that we haven’t.

I’m going to Ireland in two weeks, and don’t you know that for the past month I’ve noticed All Things Irish. Shops, songs, foods, teas, books, everything. I’m certain the world didn’t suddenly drop Ireland onto the map now that I’m going, but that is what it feels like for all of us subject to this psychological saturation.

Someone said to me she was more aware of her constant use of the phone when there exists a significant gap between the percentage of time using it compared to the amount of work getting done. After reading an essay I wrote about cell phone distraction, she more often sees the numbers of people with their head’s down, not communicating with life around them, not even noticing the life around them. I’m glad I had a small part in that.

So I have an idea I’m trying out. Each morning I’m going to list five or six things to look for that will make my day better. “Look out for children playing,” I might include. Or “There are going to be a lot more nice people out there today.”

Or

The colors of spring are more abundant this year.

Or

I’ve noticed getting stuck at a red light really doesn’t slow me down all that much.

Or

I can’t believe how many nice people I encounter in one day.

It might not work, but not doing it at all isn’t working either. I’m aware, always, of the nature around me, even when in the city, and I notice the numbers of people who pass through parks deeply engrossed in the stresses of somewhere else. I bet if someone had said to them, “Have you noticed how tall the trees are getting in the park?” their day would have been different. Even if ever so slightly.

I noticed in the last year something grounding in my life; I have a better chance of changing the course of my day than I do the course of my life. And, of course, doing so in the end changes my life.

So, be sure to look out for sunsets; they’ve been more brilliant lately.

(and look out for red trucks…I won’t say why, just…you know…look out)

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From this Promontory

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This is not writing:

“I had a good weekend. I was driving through the countryside a lot, and on Sunday my son and I went to a local pub and watched the Masters while eating from their brunch buffet. Last night it rained, but overall it was a good weekend.”

No, that’s a brief brain dump; it’s a tweet storm. It’s not writing.

But this:

“Oh my God, last night about three I woke to something slamming in the backyard, and it was a can that was tossed by some gale from the porch to the patio. Just then the alert on my phone buzzed to tell me to “SEEK COVER NOW! TORNADO WARNING!” Before heading downstairs I looked through the skylight and didn’t see the normal trees which blocked the view to the sky so I ran…”

The first concerns more than forty-eight hours, with no details, no direction, and little more than a conversation with a stranger. In fact, the next line in almost any situation would probably be, “How about yours?” It’s not good when you can see the next line coming. The second, however, is about a few, brief seconds. That’s it. It has direction, a sense of urgency, because not only does the reader enter the story in the middle of some action–in medias res–the subject in the piece literally wakes in the middle of the action.

At my office at the university where I teach a couple of courses and a professor in the next office is telling her student to stop being so specific; good essays have a vagueness about them which forces the reader to fill in gaps. WHAT?!?! I’m not sure if I thought that or actually screamed that out loud. In any case, I picked up my stuff and headed out. I have been wondering for quite awhile if my lethargy and general malaise is from my heart meds and basic depression or from being around heartbreaking, basically depressing situations. I changed the meds and briefly felt better. Then that. Yeah, it’s the second reason.

I did a small test. I withdrew from all situations, all connections, all thoughts of obligations and expectations, I withdrew from routine and wifi and social media and, well, everything. Totally withdrawn. Get it? Promontory Man. And I tracked my health and the results were clear: I felt healthier, more rested, more alert, calmer, and more energetic without exception. I felt myself when I think of how I wish I would normally feel on the best of days. And this told me something most research institutes have been stating for years–our health is directly related to how we spend our time. When I left the college earlier, I was exhausted, though the truth is I didn’t do a single thing to cause such tiredness. It was psychological. 

When writing I’m working on isn’t going well, I get tired. Some fluid in my brain changes its level and I am suddenly left with too little or too much of some sort of orphine, and I want to lay down. But when it goes well; when I sit back and see that I’ve managed to keep my own attention on a piece, I feel awake, ready to do whatever I’m itching to do. In both cases when I sat down I was equally tired or, more likely, evenly calm. I didn’t produce well because I sat down wired with all the wires cracking in my brain. It’s just that doing well at my craft somehow energized me. It’s as if if I write well I get to have a hit of something like concentrated caffeine. I come to life. It happens too when I’m walking and have a decent idea about something. 

But if it doesn’t go well, I lay down and fall asleep while staring blankly through the skylight, or, like now, lean my head against the window here at Panera and hope no one hears me snore. This tricks me into thinking I need more caffeine, which of course I don’t, but if I get some coffee or tea or, you know, straight caffeine, I don’t produce better, I just get more restlessly tired and lay down but can’t sleep. 

So I flip to social media or Netflix, or send out some filament from this promontory trying to connect to anything to make me feel productive, but of course it doesn’t work, so I put in a movie and figure I simply didn’t sleep well last night, tossed and turned, never got that deep sleep we need, today’s shot, I’ll try again tomorrow. 

My point (and I did have one earlier in this missive), is when I am aware that if my environment is not working for me, I need to change my environment. 

Oh, the point, yes:

I am coming up on exactly one year later this week that I walked out of TCC after almost thirty years and never so much as glanced back. I know the arguments for that career–the income, the opportunities including world travel, grants, further education, connections, etc. Yeah, it was amazing and as close to not working as working gets. 

And? 

You cannot create passion. You cannot bribe people into becoming passionate. The passion must always precede the efforts, and my passions always lay elsewhere. Leaving TCC wasn’t so much an exit as it was an escape. It isn’t their fault–nothing that place did caused my indifference and general malaise. I arrived that way. Truth be told, I never should have been there to begin with. At some point we understand the gap between passion and being practical. I was very practical–it was a great ride for three decades, but it came at the cost of that drive, that internal motivation, which, for each of us, rises eventually. And I found it again after I left, and here I am being anything but practical but feeling healthier than I ever have. 

Okay, I’m being vague here. But good essays have a vagueness about them which forces readers to fill in the gaps. 

Well, anyway, I’m heading to Ireland soon. And maybe I’ll just go back to Spain. Turns out from this promontory, I can go just about anywhere. My God, you should see the View from this Wilderness!

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