kids


This summer is only two days old, but already it has a theme.

It is The Summer of Fluidity. Not nearly as much fun as the summer two few years ago that everyone knew as The Summer of Frozen Drinks, or the one in the year 2000 that became The Year of Camping Trips Every Few Weeks.

Nope, this is fluidity—not just because it has rained every day for weeks on end, and “fluids” are starting to come through the porch skylights and are thundering through the drainpipes—but also because we are living the kind of life where nobody is ever sure what’s happening from day to day.

It’s kind of fun, actually. This is the first summer I can remember when I didn’t have a book due on September first, which in itself is astonishing. There are whole HOURS in the day when I am not typing. And I am not being awakened in the middle of the night by some character in the book who has chosen 3 a.m. as the time to finish telling me a story I MUST include in the final draft.

Also—Stephanie is back at home, at least part-time, between her internship with a casting director in New York and her various babysitting jobs. She comes back and forth so much she’s practically a commuter, which is lovely because she knows something that very few people know about the world, and that is that it is necessary to go to the ocean as often as possible.

I had forgotten this fact of life—surprising since I was raised on the beaches of Florida and then transplanted to the beaches of Southern California, and I spent three-quarters of my early life sitting on some damp towel on one of the coasts, contemplating whether I should make another sand castle or if the last one would suffice.

This is why it’s a good idea to have children: they remind you of things you always knew but may have forgotten while you were busy trying to raise them and make sure they got their homework done and brushed their teeth.

Stephanie returned from college this year just slightly worn out—sick and tired and overworked and oversaturated with city life—and she knew immediately that she needed to go to the beach. “I think the beach is nature’s hospital,” she told me. “And that’s where I need to be.”

And so that’s what we do. We bought a season pass so we don’t have to feel guilty if we can only spend an hour or so there—and we head for nature’s hospital whenever it is not absolutely pouring rain. Cloudy days are even fine. They have their own charm at the hospital, I’ve found—a kind of peace and quiet. I don’t even mind huddling under the blankets in the cold and sipping hot tea.

There’s something else about nature’s hospital that I’ve realized. It has an incredible arts and crafts unit—plenty of shells and rocks and seaweed to work with. Lately I find myself collecting little rocks that look like teeth and creating what could only be called “mouth sculptures” all along my towel.

Soon, I know, one of those mouth sculptures is going to start talking to me, telling me some story that I’ll realize needs to be written down and that perhaps will turn into my next novel.

But for now, it’s enough that it’s just me, the clouds, the little teeth, and the daughter—all of us spending the Summer of Fluidity in nature’s intensive care ward.

My friend Holly has a warm heart, a creative spirit, and a wonderful idea. She wants to write a book that allows young men to tell the world what life is REALLY like for them in this, the first part of the 21st century, a time when life can be a bit haphazard, confusing, and even dangerous. Why let so-called experts tell the story? Holly wants to invite guys to tell their stories themselves–knowing the truth can help others like nothing else can.

Here’s an email she’s sending out into the world, and I’m putting it on my blog today because I think it’s such a good cause. Please feel free to send it along to anyone you think might be interested.

The deadline is January 12, 2009 for submissions.

And now here is Holly:

My name is Holly Hanau Koncz and I am writing a book about what it is like being an adolescent male in today’s world. I am a former middle school teacher from Guilford, Connecticut. I have 3 sons, ages, 29, 26, and 22, and I have worked with teenage boys for 35 years.

Boys today are dealing with depression, self-image, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual and racial identity, stress, and loneliness, as they never have before. Many books have been written about you, from an adult perspective, but no one has asked YOU to tell us about your world. It is time to do that.

1- The book is going to be a collection of personal essays, stories, poems, and journal entries. I want to show as diverse a group of boys as possible, covering not only age, socioeconomic status, and race…but religion, birthplace (city or suburb), and a cross-section of the country.

2- Your work must be true and it will have very little editing from me, as long as there is nothing inappropriate. It is your voice I want to get out to the public, not an adult’s interpretation of your voice.

3- 500-750 words maximum

4- I wish I could reimburse you for your written work, but unfortunately that isn’t economically possible. I am hoping that being published will be an honor.

5- I will not reveal your real name in the book, but will list, for example, “a 16 year old from a city in the Northeast.” I will not share any of your personal information. It will be for my eyes only. Please include with your submission: name, home address, college, if applicable, age, cell phone #, home #, and e-mail.

6- I will contact you if your writing has been selected for the book. I need this by January 12th, but would love to receive your submission ASAP so I can show publishers samples of the work, as I am looking for a publisher for the book.

7- In addition to the underlined topics above, here are some subject ideas: friends, family, violence (the war, school shootings, etc), feeling different, learning or physical disabilities, prejudice, religion, academic pressure, bullying/hazing, cliques, hooking up, support, and love. You do not have to be confined to these subjects. Be creative!

You can e-mail me at teenboysbook@aol.com or write to me at PO Box # 243, Guilford, CT. 06437. I look forward to receiving your work. Thank you.

Holly Hanau Koncz

When I was young and used to make my living by babysitting, here is how things usually worked:

1. Someone called me on the phone and asked me to babysit.

2. I said yes.

3. At the appointed hour, I went to the house, and the parents left, while the children screamed and carried on as though the world had come to an end.

4. It was then my job to restore their will to live by feeding them snacks, rocking them, singing nonsense songs, playing games, WHATEVER IT TOOK, etc., etc., until at last they were so tired that I could finally put them to bed. After that, my job was mostly to make sure the phone line was kept busy until the parents came home.

But these days babysitting, like so many other things, seems to have changed. 

I know this because Stephanie, my college-age daughter, makes all her spare money by taking care of other people’s kids. And although sometimes her babysitting jobs resemble something like the above scenario, mostly they don’t.

Unlike in the past, when parents seemed clueless about the fact that they were leaving their little darlings rending their own garments and shrieking their lungs out, today’s moms and dads can’t have fun if they know they’ve inflicted the syndrome of Separation Anxiety on their own offspring. Plus, they’d be terrified of ever having a sitter return under such circumstances.

Stephanie has had actual long-term assignments with children who have never once awakened while she’s at their house. Once a mom told her that if the unthinkable happened and a child should happen to wake up and cry, just to please ignore it because the kid would be so shocked to see someone other than the mom appearing at the bedside that all hell would break loose. Mental anguish would ensue. Therapists would have to be summoned.

But wouldn’t it be worse, Stephanie asked, for a child to cry and cry and have NO ONE come?

Won’t happen, said the mom. And thus it didn’t.

I can hear you asking: But what about a parent who wants to, say, go out of the house alone during the hours when the child wouldn’t normally be asleep? Is there any hope for that kind of recreation?

Ah, yes, there is.

Recently Stephanie had just such an assignment. She was asked to babysit one afternoon for a toddler she’d actually never met before–the mom was the friend of a friend–and rather than go through all the painful introductions of a new sitter to the 15-month-old, the mother (we’ll call her Heather) just decided that Stephanie should meet her downtown while Heather was taking the baby for a walk.

Through elaborate choreography designed in advance, Stephanie was to come up to Heather from the side and then gently take the handles of the stroller, while Heather would gracefully drop away…and then, UNSEEN BY HER CHILD, Heather would head out to the movies. Stephanie would then walk the baby around for the next two hours, never once stopping or leaning over the stroller…and then she would meet back up with Heather after the movie was over…when Heather would simply resume control of the stroller, presumably handing over cash with one hand.

If the baby (whose name Stephanie never was actually told) whimpered, she was to hand her a bottle of apple juice, carefully reaching over the baby’s head and placing it in her hands without coming to a halt. Luckily when the baby was finished with the juice, she simply dropped the bottle onto the sidewalk, in true toddler fashion, and Stephanie scooped it up without missing a step.

It was a brilliant plan, and it worked divinely.

The only weird part was that Stephanie kept seeing people she knew, people who kept coming up and saying, “Wow! Who is this cute baby?”

If you pride yourself on your babysitting professionalism, you never want to admit you have no idea.

The truth, she said later, was that in an odd kind of way, the people who were approaching the stroller knew way more about the kid than she did. They at least knew what she looked like…and whether or not she had at last fallen asleep.

Do you remember when you first found out you were going to be a parent, and how suddenly the whole world seemed to have advice to throw at you? Did you have people saying, “Get ready for your life to suck” and warning you that you would never sleep again?

And did it seem to you that people were almost gleeful as they described the myriad ways in which your life was now going to be in ruins?  

You’re not alone.

In fact, that kind of unsolicited, “helpful” advice provides the framework for a hilarious and touching new musical just written by Bill Squier and Jeffrey Lodin, two award-winning writers from Stamford. The two have taken Dana Bedford Hilmer’s book, “Blindsided by a Diaper”, which was  published last June by Three Rivers Press, and turned it into a stage show that captures the almost universal experience of panic, fear, excitement, love and confusion that comes into play when the little pink line appears on the pregnancy test stick.

The book is a collection of 30 essays written by men and women who give an unflinching portrait of how having a baby changed their relationship. Some of the essays are hilarious, some are sad, but all have a breathtaking honesty to them, as they tackle some aspect of parenthood.

And I got to see a read-through of the show on Monday night.

The show is a wonderful, amazing compilation of the essays, all framed around a young couple discovering they’re expecting a baby…and realizing through the pregnancy exactly what they’re in for. Bill and Jeff have taken many of the book’s essays and turned them into stories that other people tell to the couple, warning them about what to expect.

The result is both funny and powerful–and so universal. There’s not a single cliche in the mix, probably because the essays come from so many different people, all writing about their own powerful experience.

And, oh yeah, full disclosure here: an essay that I wrote for the book (“Dating the Hubs” about how my husband and I finally got to go on a date and had to learn all over again how to talk to each other) got turned into a skit, and even had a song written about it.

Oh my! 

May I just say that I was unprepared for what it was going to be like to sit in an audience and see somebody who was playing ME, saying my words and singing a funny song that illuminated them perfectly? I felt as though my nerve-endings were electrified. 

And although I’d been warned by my friend Beth (who is Bill’s wife) to bring along Kleenex, I wasn’t prepared for what it was going to be like when the woman playing me looked out at the audience and read the part about how going out on that date was just the first bit of learning to say goodbye to our child…and now that she was going off to college, she was the one saying goodbye to US.

I could barely breathe.

And when at the end of the skit, the cast stood up and sang in a low voice, “Go, speed racer…” which is the song my husband used to sing to our daughter during those  middle of the night walks around the dining room table…well, thank goodness for Kleenex. And waterproof mascara.

Now the show just needs a million dollars so it can turn into a real stage play and go to Broadway. That’s all. I’m saving up my quarters.

 

On Friday, I came home to find my cell phone bill in the mailbox…and it was double the amount it usually is.

And just when we had decided to stop our wild, spendthrifty ways, too. We have had three months now of trying to be soooo careful–radical things like eating at home ALL THE TIME, canceling subscriptions we can read on-line, cooking all the food we buy instead of throwing half of it out, not driving places unless we absolutely have to, and clipping coupons. I’m even learning to turn off lights when I leave the room.

And then, wouldn’t you know, the cell phone bill goes completely haywire.

It’s not like a regular human can actually READ a cell phone bill to try and figure out what happened, so I called up customer service and said, “Would somebody there please walk me through this 14-page document and explain how it is that my cell phone is always $114 but now is $229? Did I somehow walk in my sleep and sign myself up for a new deluxe, charge-me-for-everything plan or something when I had to replace my old phone last month?”

The woman who had answered my call said, “Oh, didn’t you just want to faint when you looked at that bill? I know just how this is!”

I was silent for a moment. “As a matter of fact, I did consider fainting,” I told her, “except that I knew I would probably just bonk my head on something on my way down to the floor and then I’d have an additional medical bill to pay.”

“Well, let’s just see what’s going on here,” she said. “Sit down and take a few deep breaths, and I’ll see what I can do.”

She kept typing things–I could hear the clicking of the keys–and after a moment she said, “Oh! I see exactly what this is! One of the people on your family plan made lots and lots of calls last month!”

“Yes. That’s my daughter,” I said. “She’s at college and she doesn’t have a land line. She uses her cell phone for everything.”

“Ohhh. She must have had a tough month. Usually we see this when kids are stressed out at school. That’s when they need to talk to their friends.”

“Yes,” I said. “They do.”

(March had been a tough month: lots of sickness, a couple of friend crises, some heavy decisions about next year’s courses and housing situations.)

“Well,” said the woman. “Let’s just make all that go away. You’re back to where you usually are. Just tell your daughter to use the phone nights and weekends unless her friends are on the same network, and then they can talk anytime. This was just a one-time deal, though, I bet. She’ll be more careful from now on.”

I sat there stunned. “You took the extra calls away?”

“Yes. You’re back to where you usually are. Your bill is $114.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“No! Have a good day.”

“YOU TOOK THE CALLS AWAY?”

“Yes. It wasn’t your usual bill.”

“Um, can I send you some chocolate chip cookies?” I said.

“Oh, no,” she said. “You know how much trouble I’d get into for that?”

Has anybody else ever had anything like this happen? Are there LOTS of companies just waiting for us to call them and say we need our bills explained?

Maybe I should call up the heating oil compan. Would they say, “Ohhh, I see what happened! George Bush really messed up the economy with that war in the Middle East. You shouldn’t have to pay $3.80 a gallon for heating oil. Let me just put that back where it used to be….”

My novel misbehaves in the middle of the night. Last night it woke me up with a start at 2:14 a.m., insisting that I get up out of bed and FIND MY NOTEBOOK and a pen QUICKQUICKQUICK, which are not easy things to locate in the dark at somebody else’s house. (I have been visiting Boston for the past two days, where Ben and Amy live.)

Now it’s daytime, and I’m sitting in Panera with my laptop, and even though it’s waayy past lunchtime–already 2:45–the place is just teeming with humanity! Much of this humanity consists of people under the age of one, all of them munching on pacifiers and flirting, or occasionally flinging bottles of formula to the floor just for the pleasure of seeing perfect strangers react with surprise and then jump up to retrieve those bottles. Again and again and again. 

I have not had much sleep. With a novel waking me at 2:14, and real live adorable children coming in to see me at 6:30, there wasn’t a lot of truly good rest time in the middle.

I awoke this morning to find Charlie (a deep thinker of four years of age) sitting cross-legged next to me on my bed. “Oh, you’re awake,” he said when I opened my eyes. “I was wondering what you think about the light fixtures in here. Are they interesting?”

I looked at them. They were nice, but on the whole, as I told him, I’d rather think about them after 7 a.m.  So then I persuaded him to get under the covers with me and go back to sleep. We got exactly twenty more seconds of shut-eye, and then Josh (ten months old) woke up, and the day had officially begun. We all went upstairs (their two bedrooms and the playroom are on the third floor) where we played drum-like instruments and read stories and changed one person’s diapers and found Mickey Mouse underwear for another person, and got dressed–(“comfy clothes, no pants with snaps today!” said Charlie), and then Ben came and we all went on the Breakfast Train to the first floor, where we cooked eggs and ate pears and waffles and Cheerios. And then Ben took Charlie to preschool, and I put Josh down for a nap, which was THE most luscious time of all. Just sitting in the glider with a fat, cuddly baby drinking from a bottle with his eyes closed, is a divine experience, even when you’re tired. Maybe especially when you’re tired. Just looking upon those plump, pink arms and hearing those wonderful sucking, sighing noises he makes. The lashes on the cheek. And the way he just tucks himself right in, snuggling as close as can be. He drank and drank and drank and then, in his sleep, pushed himself away from the bottle, with milk running down his chin like a drunken sailor…and I reluctantly put him in his crib and went to take a bath.

And now I’m in Panera, and just a moment ago, I dived for my notepad to see what I’d been so driven to write in the middle of the night, since I have absolutely no memory of what was so vital, and here’s what it says, in nearly indecipherable handwriting:

“And you know what? My mother became my real mother again, just a bad year, not w/father but w/__________.

Also, in telling of past, goes on and on. Then talk about Mentor. Way he was at fault somehow. THEN we see Jeremiah. Surprise?”

This, I don’t have to tell you, is Novel Misbehavior of the highest order. The first rule I have for novels (in the middle of the night, or any time) is that they try to make some sense. And if they have to wake a person up for some all-important news flash, they need to phrase it in something approaching coherence. Something one can find the way back to, eventually.

The sun is shining on me here in my armchair here in Panera, and I see the way this could so easily go…Maybe this is the kind of message from the subconscious that will make more sense to me if I just go back to sleep for a moment or two more before I head back home to my Real Life, where there are no babies with fat arms and children who want to discuss the interestingness of the light fixtures with me, or any other deep subjects.

Yesterday when I picked up Charlie from preschool, he stared off into space in the car, clearly lost in thought.

“What are you thinking about?” I asked him.

“Well, I’m thinking about blame,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about that for a long time.”

Yeah, me too.

He may end up writing novels, himself. I just hope his novels let him sleep through the night.

 

Have you met Google Talk?

I have to admit: I’m on it all the time, whether I want to be or not. It’s the main way I write my novel AND talk to my kids all at the same time. Sort of like major multi-tasking.

I’m getting used to having the little screen pop up in the corner of my novel, and I can dash over to it and type a few lines, and then go right back to my book without ever having to click out of anything.

But the other day I was there, typing away to Allie, when suddenly my computer started to sound like a phone ringing.

I jumped back.

And then there was Allie’s voice, COMING OUT OF MY COMPUTER. She was saying, “Hello?” and she sounded as baffled as I was.

“How is it that we’re talking to each other instead of typing?” I said.

She didn’t know. Except that it turned out that her baby, Miles, was sitting on her lap, and then he leaned over and pressed a button on the computer, and suddenly we understood what that little “Call” box was referring to.

YOU CAN ACTUALLY CALL THE PERSON YOU’RE TYPING TO.

We felt a little ridiculous when we realized that this had been available to us all along–times when we foolishly used the telephone to communicate, for instance.

“The BABY figured this out?” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “Get used to it. Children always know more about modern technology than their parents do.”

“But, Mom,” she said, “he’s not even eleven months old.”

They learn fast these days.

 

P.S. I tried to tell my friend Alice about this amazing happening.

“Allie’s voice came out of your computer?” she said.

“Yes, after the sound of a ringing phone. Allie’s computer had called my computer, don’t you see, and then we could talk to each other.”

“How did the computer CALL another computer?”

“Well, who knows? There’s a button you click on.”

“No,” she said. “No. That didn’t happen, and it’s not true, and I can’t hear about it anymore.”

“Well…” I said.

She took a sip of her wine. “But I’ll tell you another amazing thing,” she said. “My son was visiting over the weekend, and he used his CELL PHONE to check his email! Did you know people could do that??”

Yes, I said. I’ve heard of that.

My daughter Allie is a member of a book group consisting of moms with babies. They call themselves the Dead Tired Society and they meet whenever several conditions can be met: (1) they have all read the same book, or nearly all of them, at least; (2) they can agree on a day when a majority of them don’t have anything else they MUST DO; and (3) their babies are in relatively decent health, or at least good enough so that they won’t be the one blamed when two days later, the entire group is throwing up.

I think they’ve been together nearly a year, and they’re up to three books. My hat is off to them. It’s been a bad year for babies and flu.

Last week they invited me to come and talk to them about my book, What Comes After Crazy, which was the novel that took me 17 years to write. (I wrote it while I, too, was raising kids, and thus had to wait for conditions to be perfect). I told them I LOVE going and talking to book groups.

“Wellll…” said the hostess, whose name is Sam. She’s the mother of Esme, who has just turned 1. “There may be more crying at this group than you’re used to at most book groups you talk to…”

I said I was familiar with crying at book groups. Usually somebody has to go and get tissues.

But then there wasn’t any after all. We all sat in Sam’s wonderful Brooklyn apartment, while babies climbed over us, poked fingers in our eyes, played with rattles and balls, tried to climb over partitions so they could get to Sam’s valuable computer system (how is it that all babies can sense immediately where computers are located and just what button to push to dismantle them?) A very energetic toddler named Zane–admired by the others for his ability to actually WALK–went down the hall to the nursery and managed, with great difficulty, to come out with the entire floor covering for the nursery, a rubber puzzle mat consisting of the ABC’s, I believe. This was a very time-consuming project for him, but he was definite that it had to be done, and all the other babies were impressed.

It was lots of fun sitting on the floor, passing babies around. Young moms have such an incredible ability to do such things as breastfeed, wipe noses, change diapers, search out hidden pacifiers, tie shoes, soothe tears, and save a baby from leaping off a couch–all at the same time and ALL WHILE CARRYING ON AN ADULT CONVERSATION.  They don’t even break a sweat doing it. It’s always a pleasure to watch them. I think women in their twenties and thirties could run the world without any trouble at all, even on the limited sleep most of them get.

Because the book is about a woman raised by a mostly crazy, fortune-telling, narcissistic mom, book groups always love (and I love) to talk about our own moms, for good and for ill, and what they forced us to cope with and how we managed to grow up. Everybody always wants to know whether the book was really about my mother.

“Sort of,” I say. My mother wasn’t a fortune-teller, and we never lived in a trailer, and she didn’t get married seven times…but let’s just say there are certain qualities that she shared with Madame Lucille. When my publisher asked me if Madame Lucille was essentially my mother but just “exaggerated a bit,” I had to admit that she was partially my mother but actually TONED DOWN some.

That made the group laugh, and then they started telling stories about their moms–all except for poor Allie, of course, who had to sit there, smiling and insisting that she had a perfectly normal, sane childhood with a loving mother and no problems whatsoever.

I think I owe her, big time.

If you are a reader of the fabulous blog Boing Boing, you know that every now and then things get so gross that they have to run a unicorn chaser, which means they run pictures of happy unicorns, hearts and flowers just to clear everybody’s mind of the horrifying images they’ve put there.

My friend Nancy says I’ve reached that point. Since I wrote about my colonoscopy, she says I absolutely must not tell any more gross stories without offering a unicorn chaser of my own. 

Okay, here you go–beautiful purple water lilies. Feel better?

No? Okay, then. How about a dramatic sunset?

Okay, and here’s a sweet baby to look at–little Miles, six months old.

Tra la la.

And now–unicorn chaser over!–I have a gross story to tell you.

Last Friday I hung out for most of the day with little Miles, who, as you can see by the picture, is running for president in 2052. He’s quite serious about his campaign, too, intent on smiling and cooing and kissing everyone he sees, just to ensure that he has their vote.

At one point, we were in a restaurant together, he and I and his mother Allie, and he worked the room like any good politician would, making faces and grinning at everyone–at one point even banging his cup HARD on the table when some people at another table seemed interested in going back to their own conversations rather than continuing to admire him.

Don’t worry: a little table-banging brought them right back to attention. I tell you, we were all riveted by his platform.

And, as a way of thanking me for my support and my promise to vote for him, he grabbed onto my face at one point and sucked on my nose as hard as he possibly could. I was sure I was going to pull back to find my own face unrecognizable, possibly minus its nose altogether.

But, hey, who needs a nose when you have the love of a baby? I was so flattered–and yes, laughing so hysterically–at the intensity of his attention that I was willing to ignore the fact that Miles had had quite a runny nose himself–and now, of course, I am struck down with all manner of upper respiratory symptoms.

I am sad to report that I have a cough, a sore throat, chills, a killer sinus headache, laryngitis, and a runny nose, all at once.

Go back and look at the water lilies and the sunset again if you need to, Nancy. I’m going to take some more Sudafed and drink more Earl Grey tea. It’s freezing in here.  

We are in the midst of a veritable population explosion in our family! It’s spring, and the little boys just keep popping out everywhere.

This newest member is Joshua, who was born on May 5, and who is in this picture just three hours old and has already discovered the magic deliciousness of his mother’s index finger. He’s being greeted by his parents, Ben and Amy, and his big brother, Charlie, who is three and a half, and who explained to anyone who would listen just exactly where this baby came from.

He kept saying to his mother, “So you’re not pregnant anymore?” and she would say, “That’s right.” And he kept shaking his head in wonder. It is a mysterious thing.

Also mysterious is all the technological equipment in Ben and Amy’s house, which luckily Charlie was adept at operating. I got to spend four days hanging out with him, and he helped me learn to work the GPS (“You turn right and you turn left and you turn right again, and then you reach your destination!”) and the TV remote, the car radio, the filtered water in the fridge, the night light, the living room lamp, and the key to the front door. In his spare time, he found time to educate me about big rigs, dump trucks, and how certain candies can resemble BMW hubcaps he’s seen go by on highways. 

I am getting so many new babies to rock and cuddle–it’s really a wonderful springtime. On Josh’s birthday, all the leaves burst forth on the trees, and the yellow tulip in the front yard suddenly opened…and we were finally able to take off our sweaters.

Charlie wore his BIG BROTHER t-shirt to the hospital.

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