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The (Ghost) Stories We Tell

crows talkingWhen Michele Gwynn and Jami Brumfield asked me to come on their Blog Talk Radio program, Cover to Cover, I figured I was in for a good time – a thought-provoking, interesting, eminently bloggable time.

Case in point, Michele writes about murders, angels, aliens, ghosts and a German dominatrix who changes careers and becomes an officer in the State Police (dream job for an aging whippersnapper – badum ching!).

Jami is a passionate paranormalist (Is that even a word? Don’t know, but it fits) and hypnotherapist, no less, who writes fun and suspenseful novels about witches, vampires, ghosts, werewolves and forbidden love.

Pull me up a chair.

We talked about all sorts of things. History, and our love of it, visiting concentration camps, Germany as a seriously underrated vacation destination, and our admittedly genre-bending fiction. Not surprisingly, the conversation got a little bit woo-woo when Michele asked me about the paranormal elements in my own work.

ghost on tracks

It’s funny, I don’t consider myself a paranormal writer at all, and I think if you go strictly by genre rules, I’m not. I’m a Historical Fiction kind of girl, who weaves some pretty significant Thriller elements into my stories. But more often than not, a certain degree of magical realism does enter into the way I spin a yarn. My characters can have visions – religious or otherwise, divine love (albeit wrongly) from some pretty sadistic acts, and see the occasional ghost. One of my characters even becomes the Angel of Death after his own untimely demise. I suppose that is a bit divergent from, say, a Philippa Gregory or Ken Follett story – even if the latter, like me, tends to have a taste for the world of cloaks and daggers.

So, I guess a bit of enchantment is somewhat unusual for Historical Fiction, a genre which focuses on, as Ms. Gregory points out, “the animation and recreation of a life, of fleshing out historical bones.”

But is it unusual in history, this blending of fact and hocus-pocus? History is filled with leaders who feel they were communing with God or being guided by spirits. Just ask Joan of Arc, the Egyptians, or any number of Native American tribesmen and women – especially ones from days past.

Nor is a paranormal element unusual in historical writing. Homer comes to mind. Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Macbeth witches

In my own life, I’ve always felt a co-existence with the “other.” From niggling feelings that end up being prophetic – foreshadowing the death of a loved one, or a turn in luck. Perhaps a paralyzing wave of deja vu.

To simply answered prayers.

And I know a thing or two about living with the dead. Breathing life into a pile of bones, all while relishing the nitty-gritty of uncovering the very facts of a time and place – the ones that make that skeleton dance.

dancing bones

Like any self-respecting history buff, I live in a house that was built while Thomas Jefferson was still among the living, for heaven’s sake. A place ripe for otherworldly shenanigans.

While I’ve heard only a handful of whispers in the night during the dozen or so years we’ve lived there, those incidents have been as palpable as sexual attraction. They provoked a physical reaction, an electric charge of anticipation and fear, a thrill.

So, I can’t imagine telling a story that doesn’t acknowledge at least the potential for belief in the existence of other worlds, of souls, of an overlap in space and time that even Einstein allowed for. He did, after all, speak of reality as an illusion, of love as something outside the constraints of the natural world, of mystery as the most beautiful thing we can experience – the source of all true art and science.

Because really, does any one of us – no matter how rational or literal – know a single someone out there who hasn’t felt the hair on his neck stand up? Who doesn’t have a ghost story to tell?

campfire ghost stories 3

And here’s the link to the program:

The Never-Ending Surprise Party

4186-16854I was cooking dinner when my husband called. He’d already been gone for ten days on this punishing, potato sack race of an international business trip and still had another week to go. So, I just couldn’t contain myself when his number came up on my phone. I mean, really, I jumped up and down.

I always look forward to hearing his quirky stories and cranky observations, especially when he’s far, far away. Since having children, I’ve become mostly an armchair traveler, so his musings about foreign countries I know – Ireland, England, Germany –  and don’t know – Russia – were not only going to be a fun distraction for me, but a chance for us to connect and have a laugh, help me miss him less.

“What are you cookin’?” he asked.

“Chicken with lemon rice.” It’s a family favorite.

“Yes!” he said. “You slow-roasted the chicken, right? I mean, you didn’t cheat?”

Of course I cheated. I’m single-parenting until next Saturday and don’t have time to baste a chicken for three hours. “Cheat? Me?”

“Because my day took an unexpected turn this morning,” he continued. “And I’m going to be home in an hour.”

I got all verklempt.

“Are you crying?” he asked me.

Honestly, since having children I cry watching cat commercials, but I really was so happy that he was on his way home. And I love that he kept it from me until the last minute. That our son’s jaw was going to drop, then morph into a grin like a fat orange slice when he saw his dad come waltzing in. That our daughters would squeal. Well, one of them anyway. The other one gets all pre-teen and says mushy things like, “Hey, dad.”

As a family, we have always celebrated surprises. We take spur of the moment trips to podunk towns that do or do not turn out to be fun, we reach out to new neighbors, we move, we buy old houses, dream up schemes and stories, have more kids than we planned, don’t want to know the sex of our babies until they’re born, take on too many projects and surrender to rotten, good-for-nothing luck, not just in the hopes of surviving it, but with the belief that in the end something special will come out of our long, dark journey. Like a new best friend or a golden, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Or maybe just some wisdom and empathy.

All, not most, of the best things in my life have come from surprises, so I’m not just being a Pollyanna here. The Berlin Wall coming down was a huge surprise, as was my decision to move to Prague shortly after. Falling in love with my husband came so far out of left field that I still find myself humming that Talking Heads song,

“And you may find yourself in a beautiful house,
With a beautiful wife,
And you may ask yourself…well, how did I get here?”

over the threshold

Every facet of having children has been surprising – from finding myself obsessed with their interests and emotions to a pitying degree, to how much and how little they are like me. People tell you a lot of things about becoming a parent, but nobody tells you that children will be a mirror held up to your soul – exposing the best and the worst of you, making you desperate to fix your own flaws for their sake. Selfishness, vanity, any sense of moral equivalency or ambiguity – at least in regard to their welfare – don’t get thrown out the window, necessarily, but are definitely thrown a curve ball.

And no, sister, you can’t have it all. You get so much more than having it all.

Plunging into the role of wife and mother has been a one-way ticket to being a better person for me. More than the accomplishments I craved like street drugs when I was growing up, more than therapy, more than seeking enlightenment. Not to beat a dead horse here, but that’s been kind of surprising. It’s been a one-way ticket in coach, mind you, on a train that often smells of perspiration, spilled cognac, cigarettes and live roosters, but damn, it takes you to the most unexpected, often glorious places.



And lately, I’ve been surprised at the daughter I’m becoming.

Although we always loved each other tremendously, my mom and I weren’t actually close until my late thirties, when my youngest was born so sick. Without missing a beat, my mom kicked into overdrive. Her heroic efforts to ease our burden – taking the night shift at the hospital so that we could be with our other kids, massaging my feet after a shattering day, standing in for me at field trips and class parties – helped us both see each other anew. Since then I have slowly, sometimes painfully – in a cut and bleed, stitches and Band-aids kind of way – become a daughter.

It has been a narrow and bumpy road.

I’ve had to surrender some of my prized independence, care for my mother without taking on a condescending or bossy air, and accept the fact as lovingly and graciously as I can, that my littlest loves my mom more than anyone in the world.

More than she loves me.

Against everything that my younger self would have thought possible, I’m endeavoring to guide my mom through the twilight of her life – from the death of her husband to the change from her role as mistress of her own household, to being a part of mine. And I’m learning that I welcome and relish the challenge – most of the time. Even when I lose my temper and get it all wrong – which is often.

No surprise there.

surprise disaster

I’m sharing my kitchen – which is huge for me – letting my mom rearrange things, throw out perfectly good mops in favor of her own, over-stuff my pantry, and serve us her “Chinese” food with a French baguette instead of rice.

“Mmm,” I say, hoping she won’t trot out her other “ethnic” dishes. Like spaghetti and meatballs served with a sauce of Campbell’s tomato soup cut with milk. My mom spent seven months in an Italian refugee camp after fleeing Communist Czechoslovakia and is the only person I know who loved everything about Italy, except for the food.

But while her forays into international cuisine are dubious, she’s actually a wonderful cook – when she’s cooking Czech food. Her goulash, potato dumplings, schnitzel and sweet and sour cabbage are a welcome shake-up of our family dinners. I can’t wait to cook Thanksgiving and Christmas meals with her for the first time in years. Goose, mushrooms, fruit tarts, spaetzle.

surprise goose

And the best surprise of all is that I’m once again finding myself falling deeper in love with the man I married. A guy who is not only welcoming his mother-in-law into his home, but is creating two lovely smoking lounges for her on our front and back porches. A man who isn’t afraid to be the bad guy when he needs to be – setting boundaries and confronting very real issues. Like when my mom contradicts our parenting, either behind our backs or right in front of the kids. From “Oh, come on, she can have another ice cream,” (Not after chocolate chip cookies and and a full bag of gummi worms she can’t!) to “If mama won’t buy you phone, I will,” (What the @#$%&*!??)

“It’ll take some adjustment,” my husband says. “But we’ll get to go away alone now, too – have overnight dates.”

I’ll get to tag along on business trips and expand my own career universe without feeling guilty for leaving for a couple of days.

“Most of all, it’s a chance to grow,” my husband reminds me.

A surprise always offers that chance – to those who are willing to embrace it.

Well, Go Ahead and Blow Out Those 239 Candles!

“Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt

American Coldsters – go out and watch the fireworks. Eat barbecue, drink beer and really listen to the lyrics of our national anthem.

Non-American Coldsters – please raise a glass for us today and know that you’re always welcome at our table.

Happy, Happy Birthday, America. I love you with unabashed sentiment.

4th post 5

To The Men in My Life

cold war workoutI’ve been blessed with so many good men in my life.

Let me start with my grandfather, who used to wash my car by hand any time I left it in his driveway. He made me lunch during the mean girl years, when I would walk to his house midday to get a break from Middle School politics. Heating up pork and dumplings over the stove, he’d spoon them carefully onto my plate and pour me a generous glass of milk. A kiss on the forehead came with every meal.

To my dad, who married my mom when I was four and treated me and my brother as his own. He showed us the world on his dime and spent his money on our educations instead of getting a new Lincoln. There wasn’t a night I can remember when he didn’t get a call from one of his patients or a time when he ever complained about it. I realize now that he taught me, by example, to see the value of getting up night after night with my children – the bond that creates even when you’re so tired you want to cry.

To my boyfriends – even the worst of them were pretty darned good. And let’s face it, I wasn’t always an easy girl to please. I demanded a steady diet of adventure and engagement, when most guys would rather just save their pennies for that heart-shaped pendant they’d heard other girls wanted.

bad muthafucka

To a gang of the best guy friends a woman could have – men who can talk about anything from space travel to mommy porn and have been there for me through heartbreak and hurrah. If I may quote my friend Karl – who I’ve known since High School and who said this to me sometime during college, “Look, I know a lot of guys are a**holes, but I just want you to know that if any one of them ever really crosses the line and hurts you – I’ll break all of his fingers.” He meant it.

To my husband.

Now there is a man who I probably don’t deserve but am so lucky to have run into at an Irish bar in Prague some twenty years ago now. Feminists, cover your ears. The truth is, without my husband I would be half the person I am today. Maybe less.

But of all great guys, on this Father’s Day I want to honor my dad, who passed away this Spring. He had a long, complicated, successful life full of as much magic as misery. He was a great doctor, and a loyal and faithful husband to my mom. If I could have half his courage, I would consider myself something along the lines of Batgirl.

Butchering the Sacred Cow: Why We Need To Laugh at Everything

clown with drink and smokeI’ve often raised eyebrows among friends and strangers alike for my admittedly dark sense of humor. For me, nothing – and I really do mean that I can’t think of a single thing – is off limits. Not racism, not poverty, not cancer, not Alzheimer’s, not Nazis or Communists or Democrats or Republicans or religion – including my own Catholic faith.

I know that just the mention of these topics in anything but the most earnest, delicate voice leaves many aghast, and I definitely understand why there is a reflexive, negative reaction to what some call black humor and others simply call insensitive, politically incorrect humor.

But to me, black humor is deeply misunderstood.

I believe the hostility stimulated by farcical, often morbid jokes that make light of what are unquestionably very serious, painful subjects has to do with the misconception that the person making those jokes is somehow mocking the pain of a given people or situation. The imagined result is the further infliction of grief on an already damaged being – a child, a slave, a man born grossly disfigured perhaps.

But in true black humor, the only mockery is of the absurd, the tyrannical, the sanctimonious. It’s meant to slay the boogieman and allow nothing – not a hateful word or heartache – to hold power over an individual.

I was reminded of this when a friend of mine sent me a link from the New York Times that chronicled a new Czech reality TV series called “Holiday in the Protectorate.” In it, three generations of a real-life contemporary Czech family are sent “back in time” for a reality show reenactment of the German invasion of Czechoslovakia. The show’s “contestants” are made to live in a remote area of the Czech Republic that was the first part of the country to be invaded and annexed by the Nazis at the onset of World War II.

There, according to the NYT feature, “They must not only survive the rigors of rustic life with outdated appliances and outdoor plumbing [circa late 1930s Czechoslovakia], but navigate the moral and physical dangers of life under Nazi rule.” Some of these dangers include air raids, having their doors kicked down and property searched by the Gestapo (played by actors), being betrayed by snitches, having to scavenge and traverse the black market in order to have enough food to simply keep from starving.

If they perform well, in everyday tasks such as cooking over a chalet stove and milking cows, as well as in life and death challenges such as managing not to get shot, they stand to win about forty grand.


Naturally, I was all over this. I immediately posted the link to the article on Facebook, writing, “Move over, Kardashians, this is my kind of reality show.” To me, this much-maligned genre was finally taking on something of real, historical significance; a welcome antidote to the mere peeling back of the curtain on the lives of the shallow and pampered. I thanked my friend by name and within minutes received a note from her in the comment box saying, “I’m not endorsing it, Vic!”

In fact, not a single one of my 887 Facebook friends liked or commented on the article, except for my mother – a mischling who was actually born under the Nazi occupation, and whose parents concealed their own racial secret while hiding and smuggling Jewish friends.

But to everyone but my mom, the article was like Kryptonite.

And I can understand why. The show itself, while getting a lot of attention, has been denounced by critics around the globe as trivializing a “brutal and dehumanizing period.” Much offense has centered around the title of the show, as Nazi rule was “no holiday.”

The Czech director of the series, herself a very earnest woman in her thirties, by the looks of her, says she is surprised at not only the volume of attention her show has received, but the often sight-unseen condemnation. Couldn’t people understand, she told the reporter, that the title was meant ironically? That the episodes, in and of themselves, were meant to educate modern viewers about a time in history, make it real for them in a way that also happens to entertain and keep their attention?

And this is the crux of black humor, is it not? The fact that through irony, juxtaposition, comedy and yes, even amusement, we are able to look into, past, under, over and through the most agonizing, unimaginable events both in our lives and in the world at large.

Look, I know that my innate sense of the dark and the funny coming together like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup isn’t for everyone. Much of it comes from my Czech culture, so it’s no shock my people would come up with something like this: a Nazi-themed reality show that’s darkly humorous in concept if not context and execution.

Of course, my husband shares my sensibility and he’s Irish, so this is not a trait specific to the Slav. But the Irish are no strangers to making light of an inherently awkward, gut-wrenching or just plain ole bad luck set of circumstances either. (Anybody out there ever read Jonathan Swift’s pitch-black masterpiece “A Modest Proposal”?)

And we’re not the can dish it out, but can’t take it type, either.

A few minutes after our infant daughter received her cancer diagnosis eight years ago – and on my birthday, no less – my husband and I were faced with even more bad news. In addition to the potentially deadly chemo, our daughter would require more surgery to assess her damaged liver. Basically, we were told, if the liver biopsy came back bad, she was dead. Somehow, without missing a beat, I turned to the doctor and said, “So let me get this straight. If the liver’s ok, we get to try our luck in a gulag; but if it’s not, a rusty iron ingot will be driven through our eyeballs?” My husband doubled over. What started as a snicker for me became an all-out crack-up. I was shaking, my eyes were tearing – I couldn’t even look at my husband without dissolving into yet another fit of laughter.

Even our daughter’s surgeon wasn’t immune to the contagion. He held it together – barely – and said, “Well, that’s one way of putting it.” The good doctor was no stranger to gallows humor. He’d already heard worse – from us, no less – and deeply understood how badly we needed a laugh. We’d been dealing with our daughter’s health problems since right about my second ultrasound in my fourth month of pregnancy and her birth had taken us to a new level of stress. And now, he was telling us, the stakes had just been raised once again. A knock-knock joke just wasn’t going to cut it. The situation demanded a heinous and ballsy comparison to the pits of despair. It required unbridled insanity and a complete re-framing of our circumstances. Something that would carry us into the next day, or just the next hour. To help us even understand, for the love of God, what we were experiencing.

Because black humor, like prayer, takes some of the weight off. It can make us smarter about the real goings on – spiritual, political, metaphysical. It leads us into asking unorthodox questions and drawing unexpected conclusions.

Laughter, we forget, is also a teacher.

I always think of reading about when Robin Williams busted into Christopher Reeve’s hospital room shortly after the Superman actor’s devastating spinal cord injury. Disguised as a doctor and wearing an earloop surgical mask, he began describing in cringe-inducing detail how he was about to perform an extensive and invasive rectal exam on his paralyzed friend.

Christopher Reeve credited that laugh with helping him want to live, and with giving him insight into his own reserves. That bit of tasteless humor showed him that joy was still possible – even if he would never hold his wife or children again, or feel the warmth of their skin and their hearts beating against his chest. He would not walk, run, make love, caress, tickle, or be tickled. But damn it, he would laugh. Laugh so hard that he couldn’t catch his breath. Laugh until it was dangerous and his doctors had to intervene. And after he was done laughing, he would teach us all a little bit about what true resilience means.

laughter 6

Oh, and here’s a link to the original NYT article:

A Forgotten Name; An Unforgettable Act of Bravery

marine corpsI make it my business to honor Memorial Day in some way every year. I want my kids to know that it’s not just about the neighborhood pool opening up and going to a barbecue.

My late father-in-law was a Marine Corps veteran. One of my husband’s closest friends is a Marine Corps General who did two tours of duty in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. Both lost dear friends – no, they’d call them brothers – to combat.

I never got to meet my late father-in-law. He died just a few months before my husband and I fell in love. But I know my husband’s friend Dave pretty well. I know, for instance, that he has a hard time getting into the grillin’ and chillin’ aspects of this holiday weekend.

Memorial Day is a day of melancholy for him.

While I definitely planned on saying a prayer with our kids to honor our fallen, I really didn’t think I’d post more than a photograph and a few words of thanks on Cold today. I’ve only returned from a four-day excursion to Knoxville, TN, where my daughter was competing in a creativity competition. And since my focus has been on my little girl and her powers of imagination, I didn’t think I’d have the time to create something of any meaning myself.

But fate intervened with a spontaneous trip to the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, TN.

If you’re ever in the Knoxville area, I highly recommend a trip to this wonderful, quirky little museum. It’s got all the charm of a Loretta Lynn song, complete with the care and single-minded obsession of a professor consumed with a narrow area of expertise.

In this case it is a magical fusion.

Museum of Appalachia

As I walked the land on this meticulously restored farm – petting the goats and watching little ones chase the peacocks, ogling the artifacts – a banjo made of a ham tin, decades-old, hand-crafted marionettes of simple, country folk (a mother in an apron, a daddy with his fiddle), a wooden child’s coffin with endearments carved into its side, I came upon a brief and humble exhibit nestled between the quilts and the apothecary displays.

It caught my eye because it featured a picture of a little boy of about six with his two front teeth missing. He looked like Ronnie Howard in the black and white episodes of The Andy Griffith Show. This boy, a local, grew up to be a man who served his country in the Vietnam War. There was also a picture of him in full uniform from when he was home on leave.

But that would be the last time his family would see him.

Upon his return to Vietnam, on an enemy scouting mission, this young man volunteered to be lowered into a suspicious-looking hole in the ground. Turns out it was an enemy hideout and he was shot and killed almost immediately. But the hideout was destroyed, and the many Vietcong hiding in the hole were captured, so to his brothers in uniform he did not die in vein. In fact, this one act of bravery had undoubtedly saved many of their lives, as this enemy hideout had been strategically placed and vicious in its execution of attacks on American soldiers in the area.

Posthumously, this one-time adorable six year-old with the missing teeth became one of the most decorated soldiers in Tennessee history.

Ronnie Howard

Damn, I wish I could remember his name – he deserves more than to be called “that young man” or “the soldier from Norris, Tennessee.” I should have written it down.

Even nameless, with only his First Grade face imprinted on my memory, I couldn’t help but think of this young man from Norris, TN, as I pulled up to my house yesterday. I’d been driving for five hours and was exhausted. The creativity competition had been like spending four days in Disney World and I had an almost sexual desire to plop down on my living room couch with a glass of wine in my hand. But jutting out from one of the peeling, weather-worn columns on our house was my father-in-law’s World War II American flag – faded colors, only forty-eight stars, a bit frayed, but a beautiful, majestic piece of history. Every year, we try to fly it for a specific person – usually one our friend Dave is remembering.

This year, however, we’re flying it in honor of a young man whose name I can’t remember, but whose story I can’t forget.

Ivy Depot flag

Odd Little Post-Mother’s Day Post

baby snakeOn the morning of Mother’s Day, my son brought home a tiny, premature snake. I mean this thing was only a little bit bigger than a matchstick and wiggled his glossy body all over my kid’s fingers, biting them in a pathetic attempt at defending himself from what he imagined was a huge, goofy-grinned predator.

Charlie, I started calling him.

“It’s so sad,” my son said. “His mother was run over by a car and she was pregnant. Most of the baby snakes got smashed, too, but about four or five of them were squished out of her and survived.”

We took Charlie to our kitchen and fed him a little egg yolk before my son set him free in some bushes by our porch. The critter would have to fend for himself, as our pet snake, Felina, is not the nurturing type. Some months ago she tried to smother her own brother, Pickles, and seems quite happy to have her habitat to herself now, thank you very much.

Charlie was sweet, and almost cute. We hated to let him go like that, but we needed to do it quickly before he got used to being taken care of and my son got attached. The itty-bitty thing, smaller than a worm, slithered away without a hint of sentiment for the boy who’d saved his life.

“Such is the plight of the mother,” I told my son.

In response, he wrote me this Mother’s Day poem:

Roses are red
Windex is blue
Thanks for cleaning my poo
I really appreciate it.

Smart-assed thirteen year-old boy poems aside, I’m grateful to have had a much, much better Mother’s Day than Charlie’s mother. My husband and kids took me for a picnic by a trout lake nestled in a valley that looks up at the Blue Ridge Mountains. We ate Spanish ham French-style, with fresh baguettes, Manchego cheese and a container of bright green olives that looked like miniature Granny Smith apples. We took a drive in our Jeep – top down, and allowed ourselves to get a sunburn. It was a nearly flawless day, our good fortune brought into even greater relief by Charlie and the fate of his mother and siblings.

And as we pulled into our driveway at the end of this wonderful excursion, the words of a friend of mine popped into my head. I had to go searching for them in my quotes file, as I’d loved them so much I actually saved them there, waiting to re-purpose them. This whole Charlie episode presented a perfect opportunity.

“I came into the world kicking, screaming and covered in blood. I have no problem leaving the same way.” -Khalid Muhammad, posted on Facebook some weeks ago.

Because ain’t that the truth? This birthing business, whether you’re on the giving end or the receiving end, isn’t for the faint-hearted. It’s beautiful and terrible and thrilling. It’s dangerous for Pete’s sake.

Nothing has given me more satisfaction than being a mother and nothing has made me feel more insignificant. From the moment I looked into my first child’s eyes – the above mentioned son – I knew my life was over. Even if only metaphorically speaking. I became fully aware that if I did this thing right, I would put his interests above my own and go on to raise an independent, competent human being, who would learn the skills to leave me behind and build his own happy life with a family of his choice and making. Hopefully, he would look over his shoulder every once in a while – unlike Charlie, that ungrateful bastard – and shoot me a wistful smile. A “thanks for cleaning my poo” smile. “I really appreciate it.”

And hopefully, he and his sisters will take notice of how much I appreciate my own mom, who not only gave me life, but a good one at that. All I have to do is watch the news for five minutes to know how lucky I am to have her. Or just look at Charlie, who has to go it alone in this world.

mom and her girls


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