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8.01.2019

wallander, roddy doyle, one of us is lying: what i'm reading between massive biographies

These biographies are taking me a very long time to read. The list of books I want to read continues to grow, as always, and it feels wrong to use so much time on just one title. I wish I read faster. I wish I spent more time reading. I wish I had a parallel life in which all I did was read.

Back in the real world, in between these massive nonfiction tomes, I need to read something lighter, but my lighter reads still have to be quality.

Roddy Doyle, one of my favourite authors, has written an improbable novel. Funny, smart, sweet, compassionate, with all the signature crisp dialogue and perfect understanding of human motivation that we expect from Doyle -- and then you fall off a cliff. The author pushes the reader off a cliff. It's confusing and disorienting. It's shocking.

I don't know if it works. I have to read the book again to decide. But one thing: it's a bold choice, a daring and ambitious choice. I can't imagine the Roddy Doyle of The Van or Paula Spencer writing this book. More power to him.

That's all I'll say. I'd want to kill anyone who spoiled this for me.

* * * *

I continue to read Henning Mankell's Wallander series. I don't read genre books, but I love finding writers who take the form and do more with it -- complex characters, interesting relationships, political context, a strong sense of place. Mankell does this for me.

* * * *

A locked-room murder mystery set in a high school? It hardly seems possible to pull this off, but Karen McManus does it. One of Us is Lying is a rare treat: a young adult mystery that really keeps you guessing. It's also about the media, rumour-mongering, secret-keeping, and of course, coming into your own. There's a lovely coming out story of an athlete destined for professional sports, and very credible subplots of friendships across label barriers.

I liked it so much that I'm actually going to read the next one: Two Can Keep a Secret. I very rarely do this with YA.

* * * *

Next up, The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead's new book. A new book by Colson Whitehead is always a cause for celebration, but when every reviewer gives it a flat-out rave, it's extra exciting.

I didn't actually read the reviews, though. I always go in cold. I'm just so happy that Whitehead is finally getting the recognition he has always deserved.

I also have several graphic novels waiting to be read, including the graphic adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank that Allan included among my birthday gifts.

When I'm ready, the next biography is Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig.

7.28.2019

frederick douglass, susan b. anthony, and the ridiculous (and dangerous) quest for moral purity

Reading David Blight's monumental Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, I learned some facts about both Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony that were very unpleasant and, at least in Douglass' case, baffling.

This brought me back to a topic I've revisited several times on wmtc: the rejection of art or culture or historical admiration, based on some moral or ethical failing of the individual.

I only want to know about perfect people

I was amazed to learn that Douglass himself could be racist! In his speeches, he used the stereotype of the drunken Irish immigrant to bolster his case for universal suffrage: if this lout is allowed to vote, why not the Negro? Douglass also had a huge blind spot regarding Native Americans. He would contrast the civilized, educated Negro with the Native American who preferred their own savage and backwards ways to that of the white settler.

Douglass did (verbally) to Native Americans what white oppressors were doing to African Americans -- while Indigenous people were being slaughtered, herded into death marches, and forcibly displaced at the very time he was speaking!

Susan B. Anthony was classist. Her entire life was dedicated to the cause of universal suffrage, but at some heated and contentious points in the struggle, she was willing to throw working class and poor women under the bus to achieve suffrage for the educated classes, as long as that included women.

It was difficult and disturbing to learn this.

From what I've read and seen, many people, knowing this, would now write off Douglass as a piece-of-shit racist, and dismiss Anthony as an elitist, therefore unworthy of their time, thought, education, or admiration.

Douglass and Anthony were both brilliant, radical activists, light-years head of their time. They fought ceaselessly for the good, and they changed the world -- they changed the status of women and African Americans in the world. In an era when change moved more slowly, their activism was even more radical. Their obvious flaws do not outweigh their achievements. Nor should the discovery of these flaws alter their prominent place in progressive history.

It's not possible to understand the movements for African American and women's freedom and equality in North America without knowing the work of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. Their individual flaws don't change that.

One strike and you're out

Back in the 21st Century, two feminist writers and social critics -- women whose work I have read, loved, and admired -- have recently made me cringe, one with a racist "joke", the other with transphobia. This hurts me. I don't understand it. I wish it were otherwise.

It also doesn't change the good that both women have accomplished, their excellent thinking and writing on other topics, the work they have done for the greater good. But many outraged leftists are ready to (metaphorically) burn their books and boycott them altogether.

I didn't realize how far this trend had gone (typical me) until I read a letter in a newspaper. The letter writer was sad, baffled, and a bit frightened after hearing that a university student "had thrown [famous writer]'s book in a trash can" because he learned the writer had made racist statements in the 1920s. Don't admire the man? Sure. Refuse to read his work, because you don't agree with all his views? Time to re-think.

To experience art, I must approve of everything the artist has done and thought

People who reject books, music, paintings, essays, any created work, because of the revealed misdeeds and opinions of the creator will soon find themselves in a very small world of narrow opinions. This is a sad way to go through life -- and a dangerous one. Great art has been created by flawed people. Why is it so difficult to separate art from artist? In the political and social justice sphere, why is it so difficult to accept that great deeds have been (and will continue to be) accomplished by people who were not perfect?

When I last wrote about this topic -- dylan farrow and woody allen: a feminist, a rape survivor, and a woody allen fan weighs in -- I included this.
I was talking about books with a friend from the library. I mentioned I had re-read Ernest Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls before I went to Spain, and how much I enjoyed it, how it made me appreciate Hemingway in a whole new light. My friend said, "I won't read anything by him. He was a bad person - a womanizer, a drunk, a disloyal friend." She had read The Paris Wife, a novel based on Hemingway's relationship with his first wife, and now she will not experience the man's art.

Let's leave aside the fact that The First Wife was a novel; in this case, it doesn't matter if the novel was 100% factual or not. I was amazed that someone would choose not to experience art because of something they know about the artist. The implications of this are enormous - and absurd. Shall we lay bare every artist's life story, examine their motives, their worldview, their moral code, pass judgment on them, then if we find the artist to be upstanding moral citizens, read their books, see their plays, view their paintings? I don't subscribe to a stereotype of the artist as outside the bounds of morality, but neither do I set myself up as judge and jury. When it comes to art, I'm not there for the artist's personal life. I'm there for the art. An artist may choose to infuse her work with morality, but the personal moral code of the artist is irrelevant.
(If you bother to read that post, more good and valid nuances are discussed in comments.)

As I've written in the past, no one will die if they don't read Hemingway or see a Woody Allen movie. But who will be read? Who will be deemed pure enough? How much must we know before we decide that we can engage with this person's work?

Bear in mind I'm not referring to work that is overtly sexist, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and otherwise bigoted. Picasso may have been a misogynist, but Guernica is not.

If  we continually stomp off because Famous Writer made a racist statement or Agent of Historical Change was a flawed human being, how will we experience the larger world -- the world outside our own heads?

Holy, holy, holier than thou

I have many questions for people who take this position.

Can you not disagree with someone and still appreciate their art? Do you only experience art created by people whose worldview you share? Do you vet the artist before sampling the art? Whose art will be pure enough for you?

As your world shrinks, as the variety of ideas and creativity that you engage with diminishes, aren't you engaged in something that is the opposite of progressive thought? Do tolerance and compassion come into play? Does the zero-tolerance policy you hate in the right wing look better on the left?

And above all, I want to ask, For What Purpose? What does this moral indignation give you? How does it benefit you, or benefit the world?

Do you imagine you are more just, more moral, because you seek to purge yourself of association with the morally imperfect?

At bottom, I see this behaviour as self-righteous, limiting, and utterly useless.

No need to be extreme

Of course there are extreme examples (or we can invent some) that blow a hole in this line of thought. There are opinions and associations that are so grossly repellent that we can never admire the person or experience their art without the knowledge of those opinions intruding.

That has always existed and is not the problem.

The problem is discovering a shred of unpleasantness, a non-perfect person, a person with prejudices -- especially a non-feminist man or a racist white person -- and shunning them from your mental landscape.

7.27.2019

what i'm reading: frederick douglass, prophet of freedom

My biography reading continues: I finally finished Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by the historian and Douglass scholar David Blight. It is a monumental work, not an easy read, but extremely enlightening and very satisfying.

The book is notable for Blight's refusal to ignore or sugar-coat Douglass' flaws. Douglass was a genius, and a hero -- my vote for Greatest American -- but he was a human, and therefore imperfect. Blight's willingness to show us the whole man, including flaws and foibles, gives his work extra credibility.

The Douglass of Prophet of Freedom is not a myth. Although his words and his work reached mythical proportions, the Douglass of this book is a man. Blight brings us the full man, not just the parts we admire. In our present culture that rejects anything but the illusion of moral purity, where heroes and world-class talents are discarded because of their failure to measure up to idealized standards, this is a bold choice.

In addition, Blight also tries to make visible someone who has been invisible in Douglass' story -- Anna, Douglass' first wife. Douglass spent his entire life crafting autobiographies and memoirs, yet the mother of his many children -- who held the home together while her husband traveled the world, and who endured her husband's intimate friendships with several other (white) women, one of whom lived in their family home -- is barely mentioned. Blight uncovers whatever information is available about Anna, and invites us to imagine how she may have felt and what she may have done at various times in the history.

Douglass' story is more improbable, and more complex, than any fiction. He was born a slave, survived slavery in varying degrees of horror, and while still enslaved, began a journey of self-education and discovered his unquenchable thirst for knowledge. He escaped, and helped others do the same, then fashioned a life dedicated to the cause, first of abolition, then of full equality.

Really, the phrase "a life dedicated" is inadequate. Douglass' life was his work, and his work was his life. The extent of his writing, speaking, publishing, sponsoring, enduring grueling travel with punishing schedules, and public notoriety that put his life in danger on a daily basis, seems superhuman, impossible to be the work of only one man. He was an international celebrity, drawing crowds of thousands in several countries, the most photographed man of his era, and although he enjoyed fame, it was dangerous (it's miraculous that he was not assassinated), and his fame existed for only one purpose: to further the cause.

Prophet of Freedom sees many other historical figures crossing paths with Douglass, from the obvious ones, such as Susan B. Anthony and Lincoln himself, to the radical abolitionists John Brown and the legendary Harriet Tubman, and later, the anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells.

Douglass was a radical through and through. He knew slavery would never end without bloodshed, and he knew that no compromise was possible. He categorically rejected any attempts to relocate African Americans to a different country (this idea was huge and omnipresent), and did the same for any attempts to define Black Americans as second-class or other in any way. He insisted on abolition and full citizenship.

He lived to see his dream realized, but also to see its unraveling, as post-war Reconstruction was hijacked by former Confederates, and the era of lynching and Jim Crow began. Reading about these years is heartbreaking beyond measure, and the grief almost breaks Douglass. But "The Lion" regroups and keeps fighting.

In his older age, Douglass joined "the system," and was employed by the US government in Haiti and Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic). This gave the aging Douglass a more feasible way to support himself and the ever-increasing numbers of people who were financially dependent on him. His radical ideas never faltered; he truly believed he could advance the greater good working from within. (Spoiler alert: he couldn't.)

Douglass was a radical in his personal life, too. He maintained close and devoted friendships with various female abolitionists, and insisted on their right to be seen in public together. After his beloved, neglected wife Anna died, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a brilliant, dedicated activist, who was white. This was scandalous on both sides of the colour divide in a way we can scarcely appreciate today.

In The New York Times Book Review, Jennifer Szalai writes:
Blight isn't looking to overturn our understanding of Douglass, whose courage and achievements were unequivocal, but to complicate it — a measure by which this ambitious and empathetic biography resoundingly succeeds.
Those two words best describe Prophet of Freedom: ambitious and empathetic. In the acknowledgements, Blight tells us that he researched this book for 10 years, but since his first published book was about Douglass, in a sense the book represents his entire scholarship. Blight is the director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University, as well as a professor of history and African American studies.

In The Guardian, John S. Gardner writes:
If Frederick Douglass had been born white in 19th-century America, he would be remembered as a self-made man in the style of Thomas Edison. In 20th-century America, postwar, he could have been a counselor to presidents, like James A Baker, or perhaps a media personality, even Walter Cronkite.

But he was born a slave, in Maryland in 1818, and he escaped to freedom and a life of voice and pen, thundering against slavery and for justice and the rights of African Americans and women – while becoming all those other things as well.
This is an interesting idea -- but it's wrong. Douglass would never have been tame enough, or diplomatic enough, or palatable enough, for either the modern White House or for network television. His ideas were radical, far-reaching, and uncompromising, and we should continue to study them, now and always.

I feel I should end this with Douglass' own words, which are found several times in this blog.
Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North, and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages, and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world; but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.

7.24.2019

backyard baby bear

This adorable little dude was not actually in our backyard, but close enough! He or she was just over the back fence of our next-door neighbour's yard.




He was crying and mewing so loudly, we were worried he was scared or in distress. So I spoke to a conservation officer and got a little bear education. He said the bear was frightened up the tree (by the sound of dogs or people) and the vocalizing was telling mama bear where he is. Then when the perceived threat is gone, cub climbs down the tree and reunites with mama.

We thought the cub was in distress but he was just staying in touch. Luckily for us he stayed around long enough for some good pics!


Here he is without the telephoto lens.

Non-bear note. My mother is here for an extended visit. Expect more pics as we show her (some of) the beauty of the North Island.

7.17.2019

why it is interesting and significant that i own a piano

When we were negotiating for this house, through realtors, the former owners asked if we were interested in keeping their piano. I had noticed the old upright as soon as we walked in, and I immediately said an enthusiastic yes. (They also had a beautiful grandfather clock, but they weren't interested in leaving that!)

A friend asked if either of us play. I said, short answer, I used to. Here's the full answer.

Piano of childhood

I grew up with a beautiful baby grand, a gorgeous instrument that had been my grandmother's, and was then my mother's.

My mother played Rodgers and Hammerstein show tunes, and classical music, and some random things like Cole Porter and the easier Gershwin tunes. I loved to sit beside her on the piano bench and turn the pages, and sing along to the show tunes. South Pacific and Oklahoma were favourites. Her big Rodgers and Hammerstein song book had an image from the movies for each song. I can easily see them in my mind.

My siblings and I each took piano lessons as children, then at a certain age, we were allowed to decide whether or not to continue.

I started lessons at age 6. In my school, you could play an instrument in the school band or orchestra in 5th grade -- with the exception of violin, which you could play in the 4th grade. I opted for that, but I didn't enjoy it. The teacher was an idiot, and even worse, I discovered there was a stigma in school about playing the violin. (No idea why, but carrying a violin case in school made you subject to ridicule.) When I started violin, I quit piano. So after quitting violin, I was done.

Piano of teenage years

In high school, I hung out with musicians, and a friend of mine would always play when he was at my house. He wanted me to play, too, but I wouldn't. He told me about his piano teacher, who he said was super cool, and was really helping him develop musically. I decided to take lessons on my own.

This was a Big Thing. I had a job -- something my father was vehemently opposed to and tried (but failed) to prevent. Which meant I had my own money. Which meant I had a measure of independence. Which is why my hyper-controlling father didn't want me working.

I was also depressed. I didn't care about school, and although I was already political, I hadn't yet become an activist. I had friends, but was lonely. I was adrift, or that's how it felt.

I saw piano lessons as a chance to focus. Something to do that was only mine. A gift I would give myself.

The beginning of my junior year of high school, I started lessons with my friend's teacher, Beth. I had forgotten how to read music, but it came back pretty quickly. Beth wasn't into tedious scales and insipid beginning songs. She turned me on to Chopin and Mozart right away. (My mother listened to a lot of classical music, so I had some familiarity.) I worked hard, and I really enjoyed it. I was never more than passable, but that was hardly the point. It felt good. It revived me a bit. (An interesting note: I was not allowed to practice if my father was home. He literally forbid it.)

With the exception of my friend Chris and I, Beth's other students were all little kids. That made us special. Beth had an annual event where she took all her students to see The Nutcracker at the New York City Ballet. Chris and I attended and helped Beth with the kiddles. We were all dressed up, and we were kind of adults. It was so much fun.

Chris and I confessed to each other that we had crushes on Beth. She was beautiful and seemed so poised and elegant. I have no idea what she looked like in any objective sense. But our lessons were often the best part of my week.

I played for two years, through junior and then senior year. I stopped my lessons after I graduated high school. I had some vague idea that I would continue playing in university, but I never did. As it turned out, I never played piano again.

The piano that was mine

It was always understood that I would inherit the piano. I was the one in the family who appreciated it the most and who was most attached to it. Over the years, I thought about it now and again -- how we would transport it when the time came, if we'd have a place big enough to accommodate it -- but since it was going to be an inheritance, I didn't like to think about it too much, and I was in no rush to claim it.

Then my mother, at 84 years old, after living in the New York-New Jersey metro area her entire life, decided to move to Oregon!

My brother and sister-in-law had pulled up stakes and relocated from New Jersey to 50+ acres of land in southern Oregon, much closer to their adult children. And when the first child of the next generation was born, and my mother became a great-grandmother, she decided to join them. She moved to an amazing retirement community, very near all her west coast family.

And she gave me the piano. Not physically, but she told me now was the time. She said it was mine either to sell or to keep.

One of my nephews is a musician, and I decided to give the piano to him.

I knew he would appreciate it the most, and he would play it with his daughter, my grand-niece. The piano could move west with my mother's belongings, it could stay in the family, it could stay loved and appreciated. Allan and I would be able to make our life decisions without having to consider the expense and logistics of moving a baby grand.

Just like moving to Canada, and going to library school, and moving to the west coast, as soon as I made this decision, I knew it was the right thing to do. Everyone was very surprised. My nephew was stunned, and it took my mother a bit to get used to the idea. The decision made me a bit sad, a bit wistful, and my nephew was concerned that I would regret it. But just because something makes you a little sad doesn't mean it's a bad decision or the wrong choice.

The end, or not

So that was the end of my piano story. Or so I thought.

Now in a life full of improbability -- I'm a librarian, we live in a tiny town on Vancouver Island, we own a home -- I once again own a piano.

The former owners left a slim book of sheet music for us. I can't read it at all. I awkwardly played a C scale, but I can't remember any other scales, and I can't play left and right hands at the same time. A total beginner again! But I'm going to try.

7.14.2019

indigenous designs are all around us: more thoughts on accusations of cultural appropriation

Coast Salish Orca
In 2017, I wrote this post: accusations of cultural appropriation are a form of bullying -- and don't reduce racism, and a follow-up: postscript: some clarifications and addenda to my recent post on cultural appropriation.

For a less-lengthy refresher, scroll down to "The current climate of accusation is misguided and harmful. Some thoughts.". I respectfully ask you not to comment without reading the second post.

Now, two years later, I live in an area with a significant Indigenous population. I engage with Indigenous people every day -- library users, service providers, community partners. Although I treat all customers with respect, I understand the special sensitivities involved here, and try always to "walk the path of reconciliation," as an Indigenous person said to me recently.

When I moved here, I noticed that many people -- Indigenous and non-Indigenous -- wear and use gear with Coast Salish, Kwakiutl, or Haida designs. These designs are displayed on jackets, backpacks, hoodies, and all manner of household goods. These are sold at schools, cultural centres, museum gift shops, and similar places. They are sold by Indigenous people for the usual reasons -- to display culture and to generate income.

It is not considered impolite or racist -- and certainly not genocidal! -- for non-Indigenous people to wear and use these objects. Undoubtedly some were purchased from more authentic sources than others, but there's no way to tell.

Would it be inappropriate for a white person to "dress up" in Kwakiutl ceremonial robes for Halloween? Of course!

Is it inappropriate for the local high school that serves both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students to use an Indigenous design as their logo? No. It's considered respectful and appropriate.

So I've had my own perspective reinforced. Not only are these accusations of cultural appropriation bullying and based on assumptions -- they are often complete bullshit.

This short column in The Guardian expresses it well.
What the row exposes is that such controversies are less about equity and opposition to racism than about cultural gatekeeping – self-appointed guardians licensing themselves as arbiters of the correct forms of cultural borrowing. Such policing is deeply problematic, both artistically and politically.

It’s true that cultural engagement does not take place on a level playing field but is shaped by racism and inequality. Confronting that requires us, however, to challenge racism, not police cultures. It’s difficult to see how creating gated cultures, and fragmenting struggles, helps promote social justice or who it empowers beyond the gatekeepers.

7.10.2019

three thoughts arising from a focus on the housing crisis

Today I attended a working meeting that included almost all the service providers in the region. These service providers were brought together by the Mount Waddington Health Network to build a coalition that will deal with the housing crisis.

I was there mainly to stay informed and to network, and to keep the library visible -- and because so many groups that I will work with were also there.

Three thoughts.

* * * *

These organizations are doing amazing work by working together rather than in silos -- more efficient (no duplication of effort), more strategic (not competing for the same funds), and stronger (speaking in one voice). This process -- a multi-year plan -- has seen real results in several places, and I expect it will in the North Island, too.

The people are great -- sharp, committed, experienced, inclusive, taking a holistic view. I was so impressed.

But. But I can't help thinking, all this would be unnecessary if housing were a human right in our society, and if this most basic of all human needs were not subject to the so-called free market.

* * * *

There was a presentation on Ambrose Place, a managed alcohol residency program in Edmonton, Alberta. This is a form of harm reduction, similar to needle exchange, that saves both lives and tax dollars. But this program is based in an Indigenous worldview. It employs natural medicines, ceremonies, rituals, and other Indigenous ways of knowing to restore mind, body, and spirit.

It meets people where they are, with compassion and love and a minimum of rules, because change, in this worldview, is only meaningful if it is chosen. A certain number of places are reserved for people with disabilities, and a certain number for palliative care.

For those who care only about their tax dollars, the numbers are staggering: over a period of two years, costs plummeted. Emergency room visits, EMS calls, inpatient visits, inpatient mental health -- all markedly down. Inpatient mental health and addiction costs went from $2,715,000 to $171,400! Other numbers were similarly impressive.

The non-monetary gains can hardly be counted -- the lives restored, the violence prevented, the relationships healed.

There is a world beyond "just say no" and surrendering to a higher power.

I want to see this happen in our region.

* * * *

The presenter was a social worker with the Salvation Army.

I have read and seen much about the Salvation Army, about both homophobia and Christian proselytizing. I've also read that those incidents were localized (individual rather than institutional) and in the past. I don't know what's true of the organization as a whole. But in Port Hardy and the north Vancouver Island, the Salvation Army does amazing -- and inclusive -- work.

The organization's role in the area is similar to the United Way's role in southern Ontario. They are an umbrella provider of social services -- women's shelters, group homes for street-involved youth, rehab, mental health, and more. In addition, they work with Indigenous communities in the respectful and inclusive way that is expected here. And they celebrate Pride.

Maybe they've learned something? Maybe they're different here? I have no idea. But I know I don't have to avoid them, and I can work with them as community partners with a clear conscience.

* * * *

A final word about the Mount Waddington Health Network. When it comes to health, they take the broadest view. They talk about the social determinants of health. Imagine a health network that wants to work with the library on digital literacy for seniors! More about this as it happens.
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