Saturday, June 20, 2015

fresh air

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“Smile, breathe and go slowly.”
~Thích Nhat Hanh

For as long as I can remember, I’ve prized fresh air. Trying to figure why that is, a few causes come to mind. Perhaps having been an artist since early childhood explains my abiding reliance upon intuition and impressions. Each of my senses are very sharp. Another is that I began life in the congestion and foulness of inner New York City. This latter aspect drew me to strike the contrast between the everyday asphalt and smog, as compared to occasions amidst mountain air and seabreezes. Even the leafy neighborhoods of both New York and Paris offered contrasts. Another cherished aroma to this day is rainwashed air. Living on the coast of Maine for many years developed my tastes for the different flavors of ocean air- in varying degrees of saltiness, dampness, and depth. Night walks during snowfalls reveal the wonder of reflectant dark blue, especially by moonlight, accompanied by what I call vanilla ice cream air.

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While instinctively gravitating to fresh air- as something of a nutrient, a history of enduring oppressive odors has often been parallel. One example relates to my first career, which was in commercial photography and photographic lab work. Through 13 of my 15 years of this livelihood, I toiled 50-hour work-weeks in close, underground darkrooms. Photo chemistry is notably odorous, incorporating such ingredients as acetic acid, fixatives, developing agents, along with hosts of solvents and additives. While some of my coworkers would take cigarette breaks, I would stand on the back loading dock for my fresh-air breaks. As often as possible, I’d walk down to Commercial Street and stand on a stout wooden pier, with the cormorants, drawing in the lifegiving Atlantic air. I came out from beneath the ground level, to aspire skywards. Recent years have placed me in recirculating-air environments; not as pungent, but with notable staleness. Even now, when I find a rocky ocean ledge for a writing perch, or a high balcony in a city, the natural motion is to take deep breaths. It’s synonymous with realizing where I am. Immersing in good air causes me to also exhale as much as possible, thinking of expelling what I dislike from my system.

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We tend to extol things ordinarily implied without words, or taken for granted, when they are endangered. Since the middle of May, the air inside my home had been fouled from no less than 3 directions. Though my apartment is in a nonsmoking building, the new downstairs neighbor brought in his chainsmoking habits, and upstairs neighbors added their fumes. Smoke travels through vent shafts and penetrates floors. I also found that second-hand smoke penetrates brick walls: next door, and facing my apartment, is a social club (which I will not name). They have recently installed an exhaust system for their smoke-saturated bar, and the fumes expel directly at my place. Something as simple, yet essential, as the air I breathe became quickly threatened. Right in my home, my sanctuary.

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While reporting the infractions to my landlord, as well as to city health officials, there remained the continuing hardship of waiting for results and trying to live with poisoned air. My calls and missives persisted, along with my own measures with fans, salt lamps, and air fresheners. I found myself dreading to come home after work days, looking for places with tolerable air, and sleeping in the kitchen- as far as possible from the worst of the smoke. Instead of writing essays, I continued documenting these conditions. Finally, after about four weeks, all three sources began to dissipate: the downstairs tenant was evicted, the upstairs people were reprimanded, and the city officials came to their senses and addressed the social club that operates the bar (which allows smoking despite Portland’s anti-smoking ordinance in all bars and eateries). They have since dialed their exhaust system back; hopefully permanently.

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The change was sudden and immediately noticeable. After weeks of headaches and burning throat, due to the onslaught of second-hand smoke, it took several days for the lingering to leave my senses- not to mention my apartment. Going outside to places of fresh air helped the process. Finally, I began opening my windows. Quite suddenly as a fond and distant memory, my treasured clean air began returning to my living space. The latter spring has manifested within, and has begun to draw me out to its colors and aromas. One evening, about two weeks ago, aperch in a city park and reluctant to go home to yet another sleepless night, I wrote in my journal about my imagining the finest air must exist in whatever heaven must look like. The perfume of rugosa blossoms and Penobscot Bay; savory salty brine and balsam pine. If it turns out to be just like that, I won’t be surprised.

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Monday, May 4, 2015

pencil pensive

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“An observing spirit
can thus derive pleasure from the most
trivial circumstance.”

~ Thomas Cogan, Treatise on the Passions and Affections of the Mind.

familiar, yet anew

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In this fledgling, burgeoning season yet untracked, I take up the pencil anew. Just as the approach of Labor Day weekend annually brings school beginnings past to mind, so late-April rain rekindles the sense of semester-end promise. Gradually, it is becoming easier to write outdoors. Lengthened days remind me to get out and away from walls and ceilings- when possible. Apparently there is life to be lived, aside from the constant dawn-to-dusk workday grind. As daunting as inertia can be, rote repetition of denial has its detriments. Self-limitation can become a debilitating habit. By recollection and writing, at least in spirit I can vault the fence. It does mean expending energy, for a measure of transcendent vigilance. But it’s worth it, and the alternatives would be still more regrettable.

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Back when I had some schedule flexibility at my job, I’d take my coffee breaks outside- even in winter- as daily as I could. Occasionally this is still possible. My pocketable idea journals- after which I named this blog- have been constant companions for years. The musings and fragments are the ingredients for essays to be developed. Aperch on a public bench or at an outdoor café, I’d scratch down the date and time, then pencil some ruminating words beneath the quick heading, graphite today. Not exactly enough time for substantial stream-of-consciousness writing; perhaps more like rivulets. Such trivial habits create links that maintain the vital momentum of inquiry and ideas. Re-reading the lines and pages of these small books help me retrace my discoveries and thought processes- and at present I’m able to retrieve morsels of confidence to continue.

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new season

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At the season’s threshold, attending a baseball game, it was impressive to see the bright and well-tended grass on the field. The rest of Portland is still shaking off the ashen grit of a protracted winter. But the pleasant distraction of time measured out by innings has similarities with my writing intermissions: these microcosm journeys have lives of their own. Within the common threads are my pencilled notations. The intricacies of play-by-play baseball scoring are best expressed in sharp pencil. In the province of graphite, notations can be corrected and emphasized with the game’s progress. Causes to adapt a play’s documentation include a fielder’s choice, a passed ball mistaken as a wild pitch, a force-out, or a stolen base. Space needs to be made for pinch-hitters and relief pitchers. As umpires will occasionally amend a call, the erasable medium capably responds. To erase is human, indeed.

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The materials and instruments of a craft are means toward ends. In their respective contexts of writing and photography, scribal and image-recording tools serve to record perceptions. In turn, recorded thoughts are elements with which creative works are constructed. Well-crafted tools can have their own intrinsic value as objects. Such extensions of our creative selves present inherent inspiration.

For the moment, on the topic of the humble pencil, I’ve long found this particular writing medium to be as patient as it is tactile. Following pensive spells of recollection- which are misinterpreted as stoppages- a pencil will not dry out and have to be re-inked, as is necessary for pens, nor will the display of text shut off, as it happens with computer screens. I prefer writing instruments that wait for me, as opposed to my having to compensate for syntactical dissonances in the tools. (Ponder that, during your next download, update, reboot, server failure, and virus scan.) With the pace- whether fast or slow- is the proprietary way a pencil changes while it is in use. A sharpened point broadens to a smooth chisel edge that mirrors the angle of the writer’s grasp. Similar to dip-pen writing, emphasized downstrokes reflect as bolder lines. With enough writing and sharpening, a pencil transforms into something weathered. Wood dissolves into shreds and sawdust, the eraser (if there was one to begin with) flattens, and its temporal life shortens as its stamped lettering disappears. Like nutrients, pencils are provisional- vehicles that are transformed en route to their intended purposes.

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ideas and speculating

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Through a meandering journey measured in jots, my pencilled notions represent various reaches. Sentences scratched in curved graphite parallel my often fractured prayers: constant and unvarnished. But these held thoughts are purposeful means toward ends. I develop ideas and observations by tracking and articulating them. Pilgrimage is surely a voyage of comprehension. In the 18th century, Thomas Cogan wrote voluminously about emotion and philosophical speculation, in his Treatise on the Passions and Affections of the Mind. He described our abilities to cultivate ideas as a testament to our existence, fascinated by the ways we know that we possess our ideas. Cogan describes an idea as follows, from vol.2, p.153:

“It is that wonderful something which pertains to the thinking principle, it is its exclusive property, is indicative of an awakened state of mind, and which the mind knows to exist with such an infallible certainty, that we consider the conscious possession of ideas, as the strongest evidence of our existence.”

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Speaking for myself, not all my ideas are wonderful somethings, but wonder is surely a motivating ingredient. Writing, reviewing, and writing more ideas provides a continuum of recorded motion. Thoughts may be expressed into tactile and tangible lines in a notebook, for example. Instruments and surfaces for our ideas have their primary qualities- in this instance, the intrinsic properties of the physical writing tools. From there, an individual’s creative discernment can derive secondary qualities- impressions- based upon practice and experience. Strong sunlight upon writing-paper that reflects the warm end of the light spectrum; the sound of pencil-point upon the surface; the aroma of sharpened wood; the sense and warp of paper humidified by ocean winds.

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During one of my always-enlightening lunches with an elderly Chinese colleague, we talked about classical “thinking gestures.” Comparing generalities and tendencies of East and West, we noted the tradition exemplified in Auguste Rodin’s Thinker, with head-holding gesture. My friend described the Asian gesture of a “thinking philosopher” as having folded hands across one’s torso. This brought up how western spiritual practice has tended to emphasize the mind, compared to eastern practice emphasizing the heart. Even the classic Eastern Christian teaching about contemplation has been to “descend into the heart” so as to make ascent.

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Above: Rodin's Thinker;
Below: Korean Scholar, 16th century.

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One day last week, having successfully stolen away to read and write, I suddenly noticed my own gesture while trying to fathom a very complex text. My hand tends to prop my forehead, while holding a pencil. Comprehension may require writing down something! Hence the digestion by the soul, via the craftsman’s motion. Pursuing the essence of the sacred draws the writing outward and onward, often drawing the map while the exploration is in progress. Realizing this, I gratefully look ahead to more graphite todays.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015


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“There is a reason, well known to Job, why
even good men must drink the bitter cup of temporal adversity:
in order that the human spirit may test its mettle
and come to know whether it loves God
with the virtue of trusting faith and for God’s own sake.”

~ Saint Augustine, Civitate Dei, Book 1, chapter 9.


Wakeful nights are generally unlit. The grainy grey crepuscule misses the advantage of critical navigational visibility. Pacing my darkened apartment, I notice the dormant windows of the nine-storey building across the street. Or perhaps they are not all dormant. Others might be awake and about, in their respective shadowlands. Amidst the carbon dimness, snippets and scrapbooks of the mind reopen. Decades of scenes and words return to my thoughts in astonishingly categorized compendia. Being threatened on a New York street during a work day of delivering groceries when I was 16. Rewording what I should’ve said during a lecture I gave last week. Noticing the books I’ve collected and wondering where they will go when I’m gone. Opening a drawer of pencils and pens, slowly.

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Years ago, I worked with a former Navy photographer who had a million stories. One that stuck to me was about another photographer he worked with, a fellow who worked tirelessly, and eventually died on the job in the print room. My twenty year old self found the death horrifying, but John thought the setting was even more shocking. A frequent recollection comes from a more recent job, at a college. I often ate lunch with the chaplain, who was hilarious, yet grimly serious, and extremely energetic. Admiringly, I asked him what kept him going; he instantly responded, “Fear!” By that, he meant a fear of being unable to accomplish all that was required of him. A fear of inefficiency and failure. Achievement is frequently synonymous with survival.

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Having recalled and gleaned collected anecdotes, the dusky scrapbooks close, and my steps circuitously return to more attempts at repose. Marveling at all I’ve seen and experienced, my sense of intact self-survival is offset by doubts about misdirected turns. What have I learned? As I wonder about surviving, my thoughts turn to preservation and how I’ve been tenaciously conserving archives and books as a career. My colleagues and I go to great lengths to safeguard the conveyance of past and present into the future. Archives are assessed for their informational value, and thus interpreted in their indexing. We want these artifacts and their respective contextual documentation to survive.

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Why preserve knowledge? Does it have a future in this throwaway wilderness eviscerated by impatience? Do I genuinely survive? The wakeful questions persist. A vital aspect of an archivist’s work is to assess material for its authenticity and relevance. The invisible side of painstaking conservation is what our profession calls “the fine art of destruction.” Both parallels demand scrupulous conscientiousness. Imagine a human mind’s “records retention policy.” In order to survive, and survive well, there are burdensome excesses to discard and otherwise surrender in favor of what is worth preserving. Perhaps that is built into the continuum of personal survival. But as with archives, the process must be worth the vigilance.

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What is the purpose of survival, and what good is it? Persistently, achievement does not surface, and things appear to be adrift. I’ve found stagnation to be synonymous with erosion. Seeing no dividends from the promises I have tenaciously banked, naturally I am brought to question my investments. What is their worth? Will they mature in value and remunerate? It is easy to absorb the contagion of a popular culture that obsesses over “metrics,” “outcomes,” and “monetization.” Definitions of what is “redeemable” change with the rapidity and fickleness of software upgrades. Wondering about the value of survival also causes me to question the effort and its emphases. Why endure, when cost and “collateral damage” are so steep- or to borrow another corporate nugget, “unsustainable?”

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Goals must be re-examined, to justify all it requires to get there- let alone to tread water. Perhaps this perspective demonstrates my exposure to that very outcome-based culture that causes me to bristle. Ancient and profounder wisdom teaches me to savour the journey. The insomnia-riddled present questions all my tireless striving. Why excel and exert as I have all these years? Amidst the piles of wakeful thoughts are musings about why I’d done so well in school and worked so hard at all my jobs. What of that “permanent record” we were all warned about during 12th grade? Countless exams, research papers, projects, and presentations; where have they brought me? They are no more of a foundation than last week’s time-sheet. Can a mind weep over what was- and what might’ve been? Where does the road turn?

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survival is longing

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Only a few minutes’ reflection brings esteemed survivors to mind. I have personally known survivors of wars, the Holocaust, near-fatal illnesses, severe accidents, and various traumas. Their examples and insights have made deep impressions upon me. Thinking of these individuals brings me to recognize that built into survival is a driving sense of longing. Perhaps the forces that fuel the spirit of survival contain hope that is certain as to the transcendence of misery. Survivors entrust their aspirations to an innate knowing that their trials do not have the last word.

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My days witness endangered treasures. Facilitating and teaching history, I’ve versed myself in the critical dates and sites of destruction, repurposing, and transition. On my daily errands, my mind’s eye sees what once stood upon today’s empty lots, malls, and cheap sheet-metal postmodern structures. Privately, I see the deterioration caused by ailing health among loved ones and colleagues. Even parents, whom I habitually continue to perceive as mighty and everlasting, look uncharacteristically fragile. Memory has come to include places and people that predate me, affecting a past as powerful as the dynamic present itself. An archivist that is spiritually awake is never off-duty.

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Striving, and thus surviving, my abiding ache is to see fulfillment. It is as much a personal as a professional longing, and long overdue. Yearning indeed drives survival. Experience and knowledge sown must come to fruition. I have inherited portions of the survival legacies of many, and for that mere sake the squandering of such treasure is an unbearable prospect. A notable survivor, St. Augustine, wrote in the late-4th century with insights that read today as strikingly modern. The north African Christian leader and philosopher wrote through his own survival. Trying to make sense of the highly complex mystery of layered thought, he distinguished the realm of mind as differentiated from that of memory. Augustine observed how we can remember sadness with a mind that is gratefully glad. In exemplary Eastern fashion, spirit is shown to reside deeply within the viscera:

“Surely this does not mean that memory is independent of the mind. Who could say that? No doubt, then, memory is as it were, the stomach of the mind, whereas gladness and sadness are like sweet and bitter food. When they are entrusted to the memory, they are as if transferred to the stomach and can there be stored; but they cannot be tasted.”
~Confessions, ch.10.

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How or whether I survive to see better circumstances may be a question from which I’m best off disengaging. Perhaps the very aspect of the unknown as it concerns the future, its very open-endedness, will help me survive for whatever length of time is necessary. With my sense of what archival records-management means, choosing only to preserve what is vital, a great deal of faith is needed. Better than to survive is to survive intact. I know merely to press on, in spite of poor visibility. Part of that unknowing is my astonishment at how I’ve survived this far. Through this mortal life, alas, the simple answers are outnumbered by complex questions. There isn’t a wakeful night or an essay to solve them all, but as the sun rises there comes another try.

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Monday, March 2, 2015


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“Everyman, I will go with thee
and be thy guide,
In thy most need
to go by thy side.”

~ Knowledge, speaking to Everyman, The Summoning of Everyman.

My intention is not to write about disillusionment. There are more than enough reasons for discouragement, and so I will resist the temptation of enumeration. For the moment, it suffices to merely acknowledge adversity and the existence of troubled times. To hopelessness, I say to it that I can see it; I know where it lies, and I know how near to my boundaries such threats lurk and encamp. And I continue writing, pencils sharpened, aware of threats and vulnerabilities, along with the blessed mystery of open ends unknown.

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As well as being a steady companion, writing is at once historic witness of things past, and reminder of what is hopeful. The phrase, “the unobserved life is not worth living,” attributed to Socrates by Plato, is surely subverted by those who write of their lives. We may say the written life is one that is accompanied, and acknowledges that very accompaniment. Sojourning among mountaintops, valleys, and protracted stretches of surface, reflective writing does not waver in its importance. Persistence as an active observer through disillusionment finds a parallel with perseverance in belief.

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Over the years, I’ve seen many individuals define their identities by their adversities. Indeed, not one of us can avoid being shaped by that which affects us. Somehow just the other day, when a colleague talked about street crime, in passing I mentioned having been mugged four times in New York. In subtly embedded ways, such ingredients find light of day long into an unpredictable future. Relatively small grains of time potentially leave undiluted impressions. Assaults, confrontations, and betrayals span from youth through adulthood- all with a first-person narrating protagonist in common, all with the threat of disillusionment, all with some sort of incidental instruction. It seems I retain a foothold in the territory of childhood, as I continue to see and recall as I had many years ago. There remains an idealism that affirms a belief that productive work will lead to advancement, and that it is of greater consequence than cronyism, even when success does not materialize.

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Writing proves to be a witnessing documentation, no matter the level of accomplishment in an individual’s life. Disappointments and fears have their places for acknowledgment, truthfully within our contexts. But not all points of reference serve well as focal points. A costlier pitfall than failure is that of cynicism. A rarified form of perseverance is an outlook that is free of bitterness. I would rather be identified by my aspirations than my defeats. To write honestly, both aspects deserve their place; it is for the journal writer to determine their emphases.

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Through my years of studying medieval history and philosophy, I’ve long appreciated the Everyman quotation. Books printed by the publisher Everyman’s Library include the phrase on their front flyleaves. The source is a morality play, in which the characters are named after various traits- an aspect also found in such classics as Piers Ploughman and Pilgrim’s Progress. Everyman struggles with temptation, making an arduous pilgrimage of reckoning. He carries his “account book,” or ledger of his deeds. We might say he keeps a journal. Among those he meets along the way is his friend Knowledge, who pledges to be Everyman’s guide in this odyssey en route to eternity.

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An underpinning for this blog is the perspective of an everyman. I’m an everyman, a writing soul that documents a pilgrimage of trust. In my blog photographs, I do not fully face the camera, and I use a pseudonym. The pilgrimage is the grand, overarching setting for an ordinary life. In spite of anonymity, there abides something unique even in an ordinary worker’s life. Common and fragile as a reed, as Pascal observed, yet no less than a thinking reed. A weathered, vulnerable plant that can distinguish significance, being, and articulation. An anyone that writes, insisting upon my own meaning, despite having been denied it at many points in my history. Thinking, or speculatively observing, along with writing, entwines as an unfolding testament to hope. Essentially, creativity is aspiration.

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An everyman (or, an anyperson) that is demandingly individual. Do these terms conflict? The contrast may find its sole exception within the complexity of a human’s life. Though dust, and to dust shall we return, each sojourning soul has potential as a creative instrument. Temporal and eternal, the wavering reed and the rock of eternity, exist together. A humbled everyman, I am distinct enough to write my journeys. Journal-writing is an affirmative to living, a declaration of meaning- albeit held privately. But the pursuit must not be self-obsessed. I prefer to think of reflective writing as an interaction with my environment, a mode of communication that combines contemplative recollection and exploration. Writing gives place for acknowledgment of what my soul witnesses and experiences. With the freedom to contemplate and write honestly, even if just for my own eyes, I’m able to respond to any person, thing, or event- now, near, or far.

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And indeed, with a medium such as the one through which you see these words posted, we have the fellowship of writers’ and readers’ crafts. That means writing, even journal-writing, allows me to participate and contribute in the direction of something larger. Part of this contribution is encouraging others to write their observations, and thus sharing the craft- from the documentation aspect to the arts of handwriting. Learning and observation must continue. These days, in between my work and caregiving responsibilities, I am writing to find some new goals. A life of short projects causes my ambitions to look too modest. Beyond my occasional “busman’s holidays” to Boston, fine as they are, there must be something grander. My hope is for this to materialize as I continue writing and reading, which thankfully happens without much effort. Let Knowledge go alongside this Everyman.

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