“Take My Advice”

I’ve had a “forced” hiatus from my writing the last week or so.  Chronic sinusitis now and then sidelines me to the point that I can’t think past changing the channel.  After a couple of doses of my favorite antibiotic, I was actually thinking about my storyline again today. Instead of writing, however, I took a little time to visit some of the tips for writing I’ve gathered in the last few years.  I should have done it sooner.

Even though I taught Creative Writing several times, I’m a relative newbie at prose fiction, especially novel-length prose.  I’m a bit of an introvert, too, so I’m more of an observer than participant in life.  Because of that, writing dialog is my nemesis.  I harped at my students to “Show; don’t tell.”  Dialog, I told them, is the story ALIVE.  I can preach.  I’m still learning to follow through myself.  Twenty minutes this afternoon with some of the tip sheets I have collected the last few years has me a bit inspired to get back to it.

I had forgotten some of the tricks/tips I read again today.  My collection is mostly some short tidbits gleaned from Writer’s Digest, but there are a few others mixed in.  It really doesn’t make any difference what the source might be, my advice for you (and myself) is to now and then go back to class…read some of the advice that is abundant and mostly free.  We’re a good bunch, writers.  We don’t mind helping one another.  It’s out there.  You don’t even have to ask for it.

Just go look for it once in a while.

DrDan 04-17-2018

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“24/7/365”

It has taken me a very long time to learn what I believe is the best technique for writing.  I really wasn’t looking for it, but I’ve been terribly sporadic in my “writing career”–years without doing any creative work at all at times–and complaining that the only writing I was doing was for my teaching jobs.  Curriculum and lesson plans and all the administrivia of the job ate up my creative juices and my time.

That was my excuse.

The technique I’ve learned?  Some. time. every. single. day. WRITE!  Even if I don’t put down a word, I think about what I’m writing or want to write.  I get quite a bit of my inspiration while on the treadmill or driving cross country.

I’ve learned to do research that is relevant to stories I’m telling.  Preparation for fiction by looking into reality helps.  Sarah Orne Jewett told Willa Cather to “write what you know.”  Even when writing about places I’ve lived for years or visited often, a little research helps ground my descriptions.  I’ve discovered that I don’t know as much as I’ve thought about some of my subjects–weather, geography, fashions, language–all sorts of the details that are the color of my fictional worlds.  I look at topographical maps for information about the terrain; I check the time and distance from one place to another (is the character walking, driving, going by train?) and the different routes possible.  I might even look for a video that shows the landscape, or visit a zoo or safari park to get a good look at an animal I’m describing, or a botanical garden literally to smell the roses…or some more exotic flora.  Talking to people who do the jobs I’m trying to describe can provide all kinds of interesting tidbits for description and jargon.

Sensory details are important, too.  I find myself writing the visual description easily, but remembering to include (when relevant) the smells, tastes, touch, and sounds of the environment (or characters) makes it more real.  At times I do a revision, or multiple revisions, just to add one or more sensory descriptions.

One of the hardest things I try to do is tell the story through dialogue.  I was constantly telling my Creative Writing students to “Show.  Don’t tell!”  I rely on several readers to help me keep my dialogue as real as possible.  Dialogue tags are important, too.  A first draft might be one “she said” or “he said” after another, but changing the “said” to some other verb and adding descriptive modifiers (e.g., “haltingly,” “desperately,” “with a sneer”) are the stage directions of narrative.

Narrative means that time is passing.  How long does it take to do a certain task?  What was happening during the year(s) the story is taking place?  Are you sure of the dates?  It’s too easy to look up calendars on the Internet to be sloppy about the details.

All of this puts me more directly into the story I am developing.  In fact, the more I get into a story, the more it tends to tell itself.

The biggest problem in all of this?  Sleep.  My characters are keeping me awake at night.  The story isn’t finished, and they want me to tell it.

This reflection helps, too, just as having someone to talk to about the writing helps.  Trying to explain a character, a plot line, a dilemma to someone else is one way to grow the story and solve problems.

So thanks for “listening” to my writing.

DrDan 04-02-2018

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A Novel Approach

I have wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember (OK, the older I get, the shorter THAT time seems to be!).  When I was in high school, I even earned an award for Creative Writing and an essay contest that won me a trip to Washington, DC.  My college Creative Writing teacher thought I was pretty good.  I wrote quite a bit then.  Then I got married, my first teaching job, my sons were born, two advanced degrees….  I wrote only sporadically.  Usually just short poetry.  Maybe a couple a year.

What was I expecting?  What did I think being a writer entailed?  Oh, sure.  I read all sorts of books from famous writers on the craft and the publishing nightmare.  I suppose I thought “being a writer” was just writing and being published and making a living doing it.  A good living.  Famous even.

Not happening.

When I retired after my wife died, I wrote for many reasons.  It felt good.  It gave me purpose.  I liked being productive and creative.  I tried different things.  I made myself write something every day for a while and produced quite a bit, and short stories and essays as well as poetry.  With the new wave of self-publishing possibilities available with the computer age, I even published a book of the poetry (Dandelions and Other Flowers) I had written over forty years or so.  Haven’t made a dime.  Enjoyed getting it done, though.  And I decided I could honestly call myself a writer.

Writing a long short story (The Wolves of Evanheir) convinced me that I could even write a novel.  I have a great idea (I think), and I started working on it in 2013 or 14.  Then a funny thing happened.  I got married again.  I got happy again.  Both of my sons are married and they have four children between them.  My new wife has three daughters and six grandchildren.  The ten of them range in age from four to twenty-four.  Guess what we’re doing?

But…I started writing again last fall.  Seriously.  Seriously writing.  This winter and spring it’s intensified.  The story keeps pulling at me.  The characters keep shouting that they’re not finished and want out!  The ideas keep coming…because I keep writing.

It’s always been the best advice I’ve ever heard or read, and it’s the best advice I ever gave to my own students when they said they couldn’t think of anything to write.  “Write!”  It doesn’t matter what.  Just write.

So I’m writing about writing on this page.  I spent about four hours on the novel this afternoon.  I need to leave it alone to percolate for a while.  I’ll be back at it tomorrow, probably.  No.  It really isn’t a “novel approach.”  It’s almost cliche.  If you want to be a writer, you have to write.  You don’t even have to publish anything.  Writers write because they really don’t have a choice not to do so.  Even if they’re the only ones who read what they’ve written, they have to write.

Call yourself a writer?  Only if you’re writing.

Sometime this year you may get a chance to read my novel.  I first have to see where it’s going from here…and write it down.

Good luck.

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“PB&J”

We have thoroughly enjoyed watching the Olympic games this year. I have always marveled at any athletic competition and how people push themselves to test their limits and discover what the human body is capable of doing. I’ve done some of that myself.

I knew from a young age that I was never going to be a “star” athlete, but my mindset has always been that my toughest competition is myself, so I’ve constantly tried to push myself to achieve a new Personal Best—PB. The coverage of the Games, ever since they were first televised, has been focused on the most popular sports and athletes. Streaming media has made it possible to watch even some of the least known, but Prime Time continues to focus on the big names and the sports most people wish to watch. So…we see a few dozen athletes out of the thousands participating.

The interviews of those achieving the medal stand, however, at least the ones I’ve heard, have been stories of athletes striving for gold, but for the most part just wanting to achieve that PB. The comments I’ve appreciated most have been those that say they are honored to be participating, they have been impressed by their teammates’ achievements, they have made great friends from other countries and have cheered them on to their own Personal Best attempts.

Eighteen days of glorying in human athletic achievement and potential and peace. Sure the “agony of defeat” has played out, but those consoling the athletes who have given their all and not “won” a medal have been competitors from other countries as well as teammates.

We all have our ups and downs. The older I’ve become—itself an achievement, a daily Personal Best!—the more often I have to adjust my expectations. I used to run ten miles a day. Now I can’t run at all but walk as much as possible. Once I could ski all day long and party into the night. Now I get in a few hours and look for the liniment. But I strive for my Personal Best in whatever I’m doing, whether it’s an athletic endeavor, a new hobby (still working on the guitar), taking care of my family, dealing with all of the people in my life.

I do love a PB&J—Peanut Butter and Jelly. What I love even more is a Personal Best because every one brings me Joy.

I hope you get lots of PB&J in your life, too.

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“The State of Our Union”

Here is my perspective today…

Almost three years ago we decided to ally our separate states and form a more perfect union. We took up arms against our discord, grief, anguish, and sorrow and vowed to one another to govern our lives with peace and love and mutual support.

In this short time our individual natures have grown and flourished. We have solved health care issues. Our economy is safe and secure. Dependents have also found stability and happiness and their futures and ours look bright.

Affiliated friends of our union seem to approve of their continued association and we share mutual admiration and support for one another. The harmony within our borders shines a beneficial light on life in general.

We do not anticipate aggression from any quarter. We endeavor to improve our physical health in order to enjoy the benefits of life and society and stave off attacks of illness. Through wise administration and oversight, our economic wellbeing satisfies all our needs and allows for not only those necessities but pleasant luxuries, as well.

Our “open arms” policy allows the free immigration of new friends and acquaintances who continue to benefit our state. We learn from them, grow from knowing them, and have even received life-affirming and physical improvement from our association with some of them. There are no walls between us.

A secure infrastructure and sound fiscal policies allow us to plan for a future of continued peace and love and exciting adventures. We hope to reach out and explore new territories, to reach beyond what we have known and experiment in the arts, science, technology, and travel, and grow in our relationships with our dependents and all those allied with us.

The future is bright. We awake each day anticipating joy, depending on one another’s love and support, and embracing whatever life brings us because we meet every challenge, face every obstacle, and celebrate every success in our state of perfect union.

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“Once There Was a Zoo—A Fable”

Once there was a zoo. People like zoos. They like to watch the animals and reptiles and fish and birds and get to know about the animals that inhabit our world.

This particular zoo, however, was special. It had only two animals: a grey old pachyderm and a jackass.

It was a novelty. People came to see these two unlikely sharers of the same compound. They would watch as the zookeepers fed the elephant and the donkey and clean up after them. Piles and piles of food went in; piles and piles…went out. The noise could be deafening. The donkey hee-hawed night and day. The elephant’s bugling could be heard for miles. It was a cacophony; an odiferous din.

The elephant and the donkey usually just stood there and consumed everything they were given, and then passed it along to their handlers when they were finished with it. Those watching seemed only to watch.   After observing several years of this give and take in the paddock, however, they got tired of the same old…excrement and effluvia. The crowds dwindled.

Actually, those onlookers had decided they were not merely tired of watching and waiting for something to happen; they gathered together and decided that unless the jackass and pachyderm could make themselves useful—or at least entertaining—at various sites, on one special day, new beasts should be procured to replace them. The populace wanted more than waste and trumpeting and braying.

In the meantime, the zookeepers were put on notice. They needed to become more useful and efficient and ethical, or they would be fired and then prosecuted for their corrupt behavior. It was no secret that they had been feeding the elephant and donkey food of poor quality, lacking in proper nutrients and healthful supplements. They had convinced the two creatures of their own importance, and that it was not necessary that they perform any service to the populace. In fact, they had trained the jackass and the pachyderm that their offal was not only expected but appreciated.

Nothing changed. The day came. At polls across the country the people came in the thousands. The counting began. The next day the trumpeting and the braying were louder than ever. The difference was that both sounds seemed sorrowful, and as the day wore on, the noise faded. Eventually those harsh, discordant notes were replaced by the new animals the people had chosen.

The cooing of doves is quite soothing.

 

 

 

 

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“March On!”

Today was the “Second Annual” Women’s March. I’ve seen photos of HUUUGGE crowds all across the country. Some news outlets are describing these as protests of President Trump and the current administration and their policies. I am quite aware that they are actually simply demonstrations of a movement similar to the suffrage marches of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Britain and the United States. Even those were not merely focused on gaining the right to vote, although that was the immediate aim. Those early demonstrations and these current ones are, I believe (and have seen commentary to support my opinion), gatherings of women—and men—to show the world and other women that women have their own voices, that they are a powerful force to be reckoned with, that they are finally going to take their places in society and no longer wait patiently for a seat at the table. Damn. It’s about time!

I have never understood why the “other half” (probably the better half) of humanity has been denied so much. Psychologists and biologists and anthropologists and apologists have for centuries been explaining why women are—and according to many of them should be—second class citizens, or even non-citizens. I don’t get it.

Maybe it’s my belief in the Romantic notion of “Might for Right” and not “Might Is Right.” Just because most men are more physically powerful than women and can physically suppress them does not give them the right (and not just in their relationship with women) to put them down. I hate bullies. I got in so many fights as a kid because some bully was picking on someone weaker. Got my ass kicked most of the time since they tend to have groups to support their cowardice.

Why, though, has “civilization” denied half the population? I’m not even going into race or religion or any of the other groups that have been discriminated against. Just think of the female side of it. How many times has the woman with the key to world peace been silenced? Or the woman with the cure for cancer? Or the woman with the clue that unlocks anti-gravity or faster-than-light travel?

It has been my privilege to know hundreds of incredibly intelligent and talented women, and I have been even more fortunate to have fallen in love with and be loved by two of the most amazing women I have ever been lucky enough to meet. Just those two have given the world five children—two men and three women—who are unbelievable parents, artists, socially conscientious and powerful advocates, proponents of peace and love, and examples of the promise of the future.

I taught for more than forty years at the high school and college levels. I have known female students who were then and are now more important and powerful and significant to the world than I can ever hope to be. Despite that, they are hindered at every turn by corporate “glass ceilings” and societal mores and historical barriers that prevent them from achieving all that might be possible, or at least possible as easily or as soon as their male peers might achieve similar goals. Some of those students have chosen life paths that they didn’t really want, or did not choose career paths in which they might have become “all they could be” merely because those paths were not open to them.

Today women marched to show the nation and the world that they’re not going to be silent any longer. They’re not going to be held down. The #MeToo movement and some of the horrific abuse scandals that are being revealed lately are also paths women are marching today. Their voices are strong individually, but together they are loud enough to drown out the thousands of years of “No!” I remember Helen Reddy—I can hear the roar.

What really pleases me is that the women are not marching alone. They are accompanied by their young daughters—and their sons—and many of their husbands and boyfriends and men they don’t even know.

March on. Please. March on.

 

 

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Beside a Mountain Stream

I always seem to be more myself in the mountains. It doesn’t matter what the season might be. The deep snows of winter afford me my favorite pastime and I look for every chance I get to ski. Spring is a short time, as is Autumn. One is full of the most beautiful flowers (and mud). The other is a stunning palette of gold and green and red (and mud). Summer, short as it is, presents the Rockies in all of their purple majesty, and hiking through the valleys and up the steep slopes to dizzying vistas is always exhilarating.

Whatever the season may be, there is always something new to see—wildlife and wildflowers and trees and clouds and lakes and streams. I do love mountain streams. The Snake River runs nearby our second home here. We wander along its banks or sit beside it and listen to its conversation with the mountain.

A nice walking path follows the Snake for a few miles and we walk it quite often. We meet many fellow walkers, and joggers, and bicyclists and sometimes they stop to chat. Always part of the conversation is “Where is your home?” Hardly anyone is actually a native. We call ourselves “part-time locals.” Quite often we’re asked for directions or recommendations.

We find ourselves stopping all along the river just to sit and watch it move along its course. Some places have deep pools; a quick bend might create a shallow eddy; a tumble of boulders offers a noisy cascade. Now and then we will catch a glimpse of a quick brown flash or even get a few moments to watch a trout lazily sweep its tail in the current before darting away. Among the human footprints we might find the tracks of a fox or moose or even a bear.

The seasonal changes along the stream are like costumes at a masquerade. We have photographed and tried to identify hundreds of mountain flowers and watched them change from early spring to fall. The trees offer the same challenges although there aren’t nearly as many different types. The birds are always fun. Crows are ubiquitous. Mountain Jays offer a note more shrill to join the cawing. A real prize is sighting a mountain blue bird flitting among the aspen and firs. In the Midwest we laugh at the squirrels and their antics. Here the chickarees are as much fun.

I can sit for hours beside a mountain stream and listen to its music, watch it swirl and tumble over and around the rocks, enjoy the flowers and trees that grow along its banks, wonder in amazement at the animals that come to it. I think about the snowpack higher up the mountain that is the source of the waters and the centuries that have passed with its constant rushing to carve the path that carries it away. In the short time I have been here I have seen it change over and over with the seasons. It is a rushing torrent sweeping away everything in its way from early May to late June; a burbling freshet in August and September that I can walk across in most places; and in mid-winter it plays hide-and-seek under the ice and snow, peeking out in pools where the sunlight gives it an opening or slipping down growing icicles in the steep drops.

But always it is the river. Beside it, I am me.

At the mountaintop, even before the river begins, I stand and look out over the world and enjoy what I see no matter how it changes. It is a limited perspective, of course. I only see what I can see, but I also see what I choose to see, and I can come down from the mountaintop and see the river and the forests and the flowers and the animals much closer and more closely. I know the closer I get to the village the more likely it is that I will see the detritus of human existence.

I have waded in the waters, pushed against the current, and I have yelled with delight while crashing otter-like over a Class IV rapid. I have struggled through the chest-deep snows and swooped down the mountainside like a stooping eagle.

You figure out the metaphors. I do live in this world and I am conscious of the tragedies and the triumphs on all levels because I choose to be a thinking person. I choose to be myself.

One of my favorite descriptions comes from a woman who is one of this country’s great writers and least heard voices. When I first read these words, my breath caught. Here they are quite out of context, I suppose, except that I love the independence they express. Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “… I am a dark rock surged upon, and overswept, but through it all, I remain myself. When covered by the waters, I am; and the ebb but reveals me again.”

 

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“I Still Hear the Bells”

Sometimes when I wake up late at night, I can smell pine trees and fresh snowfall. I look out the window and the stars are like streetlights, lining the avenues of my imagination. In the chorus of the wind, I can hear the bells and the hoofbeats…and the “Ho, Ho, Ho.”

I believe.

I have to. In the consciousness of my reality, I waver, but when I let the silence in and listen to my heart, I hear the bells, and I know that I am Santa.

The peace in my world is believing in the innate goodness of all people. I don’t have to see to believe. I can feel it, but I do see it in the efforts of those who try so hard not only to better themselves but those around them—the people who ache for those who are struggling with their demons, with the vicissitudes of living, with their heartbreaking care for others. I want to embrace them, wreathe them in the warm glow of a Yule fire and a hot toddy and the companionship of loving friends…and a little elven magic….

I believe in presence as the best present. We must all be in each moment of our lives to live our lives to the fullest! If we can even come close to that, we will also be in the most precious moments for those we love as well as for those who need us the most. My best moments are those times when I come sliding down a chimney and find someone waiting in dreams for their greatest gift. Each time I am lucky to be there, I receive my best gift as I watch that recipient awaken to awareness, open to Self, and begin the most important journey to belief in him- or herself. They don’t even remember that I’ve been there, and that’s OK with me. I believe in me.

Of course, it’s easier with the little ones. They haven’t been taught to doubt yet…at least most of them. Unfortunately, today so many more seem to be learning about the empty bag, the missing tree, the reindeer in the zoo, the Mall Santa, instead of being allowed to know the magic. So…I see as many as I can and try to bring them back to belief. And I talk to their parents and teachers and hope to convince them that the best thing they can do is lead their little ones on to imagination and the sound of the bells.

It is depressing, I admit, to see and hear what is happening in the world today. Sometimes I can even feel myself fading away from the disbelief, the hatred, the misunderstanding. It seems as if the basic tenets of all the world’s great religions have been perverted to espouse and condone violence, hatred, bigotry, and intolerance. How my heart aches when I know that each of those disciplines advocates Santa—acceptance, tolerance, solicitude, love. I’d like to load the sleigh with bombs of compassion and drop them everywhere on Christmas Eve. Maybe I’d mix in some logic and common sense, too. Those definitely couldn’t hurt.

Do you hear the bells? Listen. How sweet the sound of the silver bells on the reindeer harness. See them prancing, eager to be aloft, bearing gifts and happiness and peace? They are the spirits of the world. I don’t need the whip, they are pulling so hard to be…Up, up, and away!

Happy Christmas to all. And to all a Good Night!

Daniel J. Cox
12-04-2017

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“Do It Now!”

The recent passing of my dear Aunt Louise Long prompted me to write about how much she meant to me. It also caused me to think more about something I’ve been mulling over for some time. Below is what developed tonight from those thoughts.

Life is a road of twists and turns, hills and valleys, ruts and pleasant by-ways. We live it fully if we can. The older we are privileged to be, the more we experience the highs and lows, but the more philosophical we may become. My world, so often eclipsed by tragedy and death, it seems, has also been illuminated by the brightest of lights. What is so hard to bear, at times, is that those great moments of illumination are also the cause of the greatest eclipses.

Many of those beacons in my life have gone out. Only those of you who have been privileged to know such warmth and love and compassion and meaning in your lives can also understand the devastation and grief and sorrow…and pure, unadulterated joy in the memories of such lives. I have been blessed beyond measure to have known so many who have given me these wonderful, wretched moments to relive the best of my life while suffering the anguish of knowing that these great hearts are stilled but for memory. I am a lucky, lucky man, yet I am heartsick each time.

These are the most telling instances. We are reminded that we must cherish each day, each moment, each one who means so very much to us, but these aren’t the only reasons to live to our fullest in this short life we are given. Look around, but most of all, look within. What is missing that shouldn’t be? What experiences are yet to be lived that we have the opportunities to know? Why aren’t we doing it?

Nike’s most famous motto is “Just Do It!” On a ski lift not long ago I was engaged in conversation with three young men about our ski lives. One asked me how long I’d been skiing. When they learned approximately how old I was (I’d been skiing off and on for some fifty years at the time), one of them asked me for some advice about life. I told him, “Don’t just do it; do it NOW!”

I don’t know what prompted me to that bit of wisdom, but I’ve thought about it often since then. Too many of those great lives I’ve known were taken from me unexpectedly—heart attack, stroke, crushing and immediate disease. Not long ago I was given a cancer diagnosis myself. Luckily it was caught soon enough that surgery “cured” me, and because of the miracle of modern medicine, I anticipate many years more of this adventure. But the “now” has become more important to me.

For some, the first inclination with this philosophy might be to give up everything and live a life of hedonistic pleasure or take off at twenty and backpack around the world, living off handouts and the kindness of strangers—or their parents’ incomes. That is not my meaning at all. Doing it “now” when you’re just starting out in life might mean determining just what life is supposed to be, how it’s to be lived and where, what occupation or career to pursue or what intrinsic meaning that life is supposed to have in the end, and then developing a plan to achieve those goals. Doing it now at that stage would be doing “now” what needs to be done to have the life intended or desired. For those with more of their lives already lived, some reflection is definitely in order when they’re unsatisfied with the current outcomes, but the process is still the same.

I wanted my life to serve others. I wanted to have a family and provide for them. I wanted to write. I wanted to ski and enjoy nature. So I went to school. I earned three degrees. I went to work. I fell in love. Married. Had children. Helped them to be successful themselves, and I keep reminding them that I am here to help them as I can. I had a good teaching career and still hear from countless former students who are themselves successfully pursuing various careers and life endeavors. I am outdoors almost daily in various environments and take the time to look around and “smell the roses.” And I write…and ski.

I read once something to the effect that we should live our lives so that we come to the end with no regrets and no wishes that we had done something we didn’t do. If I live a thousand years I’ll not achieve those goals, but I try not to miss any opportunities. I don’t pass up the chances to tell those I love that I do. I try to find something new in every day. However, I don’t write as much as I would like. I’m still trying to learn to play the guitar and to draw well enough to satisfy myself. I don’t ski as much as I’d like, but I’m getting there.

Whatever it is you want to do, do it now…or at least put the wheels in motion to get there, no matter how much water is already over the dam or how far “down hill” you’ve already come. When you’re just sitting and wishing that you were doing something else, get up and get started!

Now, excuse me. I need to finish that novel I started.

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