Didn’t See It Coming

November begins in just a few days and I was beginning to despair that I could come up with a blog topic for October. Oh, lots of ideas have come and gone, but I just couldn’t seem to settle on something I really wanted to write about. Actually, I confess, I haven’t been able to write at all this month. My moribund search for an agent along with a rejection from a publisher sort of took the wind out of my sails. I spent much of this month wringing my hands, feeling like a fraud and a failure, wondering what in the world makes me think I can write. Knowing all writers experience moments of dejection and self-doubt was no consolation.

Instead of writing, I spent one day clearing junk off my laptop and discovered an article entitled Ten Steps to Becoming a Writer by Joe Bunting of The Write Practice (thewritepractice.com). That motivated me to at least start typing a journal entry every morning. Here’s how my first entry on Monday started:

From A.Word.A.Day (www.wordsmith.org)

 ORNERY
adjective: Having an unpleasant disposition: irritable, stubborn, combative, etc.
 Yes, today, I feel ornery. I want to indulge in being ornery. I don’t want to be Ms. Nice Guy. I want to rant and rave and rail against everyone from the unwashed masses that simply annoy me to anyone who makes demands on me. I don’t want to be the sane one, the smart one, the responsible one, the one who knows better.”

It went downhill from there.

Then on Tuesday night my sister and I went to Centre Stage to see Luna Gale, a powerful play in the theater’s fringe series. (If you live in the Greenville area, try to get to see it.) Before the performance, we stepped into the theater lounge and on the counter I noticed a stack of paperback books entitled Didn’t See it Coming. I picked one up and saw it was the work of The Writers Block Project.

I first learned about The Writers Block when Scott Lewis, the warden at Perry Correctional Institution spoke at our Sisters in Crime meeting earlier this year. Perry Correctional Institution is a maximum security prison here in South Carolina which has instituted a Character-Based Unit “composed of men who have indicated a desire to make changes in their lives, even if they will spend the rest of their lives there.”

The Writers Block Workshop is one of the classes the men can enroll in as part of the behavior contract they sign when they are accepted into the Character-Based Unit. I bought the book and read the section entitled “I Write Because…” I immediately knew what I had to blog about…what I had to share with you.

Below is a poem written by Arimatia Buggs in response to the writing prompt: “I write because”.

I write because I must

I write to release

To bring inner peace

To make sense of confusion

 To focus life’s kaleidoscopic illusion

To mend the souls of those broken kindred spirits

Who feel what I feel and see what I see

But never penned the words so it was left up to me

I write because I must

I write because of peace, love, joy and pain

Stress, hurt and strain

I write to appreciate

I write to innovate

I write to reveal

What I see, know and feel

To cry and to vent

To forgive and relent

To reminisce of time spent

I write because I must

I write to breathe

I write because I believe

You can achieve everlasting life when you write

Living forever on a page

Then reincarnated–through reading–through windows of

The soul to stand again upon life’s stage

I write because I realize I am who I am because of words.

Words that moved me, taught me, grew me

Made me into the man that I am

I write because I must.

Today I, Sally Handley, write because I have been inspired by Arimatia Buggs. Didn’t see it coming.

****************

To get a copy of Didn’t See it Coming (only $15), or to learn more about The Writers Block, visit www.thewritersblockproject.org.

Dolce Far Niente

Livingston ManorSummer is coming to a close. Even here in South Carolina the weather has cooled just a tad. School actually started last week in the Palmetto state. This morning I awoke early and saw a school bus picking up students at 6:25 AM. That is so wrong!

I feel total sympathy for these youngsters, deprived of the last two lovely weeks of summer. I know summer technically ends in September, but growing up, Labor Day always signaled summer’s end and the days leading up to it were savored, held on your tongue like that last piece of penny candy fished out of a little brown paper bag.

I’m an adult and I know I should be writing, but even I, of iron self-discipline, had to force myself to start writing this blog. The only thing that made me open my laptop this morning was my horoscope in today’s paper that warned, “You are committing daily acts of self-sabotage.” Ominous words, indeed! I haven’t written anything in weeks.

Still, I can’t stop rolling around in my mind a fabulous Italian phrase I learned from my friend, Nina, this summer. “Dolce Far Niente”… the sweetness of doing nothing. Yes, that to me is what these last, languorous days of August are for. Not for weeding and pruning, but for sitting on the porch or patio, sipping a cool drink, watching the grass grow. Not for swimming laps, but for bobbing on a noodle in the swimming pool. Not for working, or even planning, but for the sheer pleasure of doing nothing.

“Unlike aquatic species, the turtles have the ability to travel upland and estivate for the remainder of the summer.”

“Unlike aquatic species, the turtles have the ability to travel upland and estivate for the remainder of the summer.”

Another new word I learned this summer from my subscription to Wordsmith.org is estivate which means “to pass the summer in a dormant state”. If you read my January blog, New Year’s Confessions of a Retiree without Resolutions, you may remember I lamented the fact that I felt like a tortoise in a world of gnats and humming birds. How apt that Wordsmith’s sample sentence used to illustrate usage of the word estivate was this: “Unlike aquatic species, the turtles have the ability to travel upland and estivate for the remainder of the summer.” It’s official. I’m now adopting the turtle as my personal mascot.

Right now, I invite you to indulge yourselves, my friends. No matter how crazy, busy your life has become or how accustomed you are to constantly being on the go, take at least one day to sit down in the shade and reacquaint yourself with the sheer pleasure of doing nothing. September will be here soon enough. Estivate while you still can!

First Anniversary

One year ago today, July 23, 2015, I moved into my new home in South Carolina. For the first few months I enjoyed the newness of my surroundings, but I did not feel quite at home. Honestly, I felt as if I were on vacation for the longest time (I think the swimming pool in my complex was most responsible for that.) I’m not sure exactly when, but one day, sitting at my kitchen island, I realized I was home and it felt great.

Flower Bed 2015

Flower Bed 2015

Overall it’s been a terrific year. I’m lucky to be near my mother, sister and brother-in-law who’ve wanted me to move here for years. We get to do a lot together that simply was not possible when I was just visiting.

Since I arrived, I’ve also met many wonderful people…my friendly neighbors here in Mauldin, my fellow mystery writers at Sisters in Crime, my writing colleagues at Creative Writers of Greenville, my pinochle pals at the Mauldin Senior Center, and my sister gardeners at the Simpsonville Garden Club. Most recently, I’ve found another group of kindred spirits, The Newcomers Club of Greater Greenville. Isn’t that just the greatest idea…a club for people new to the area?

Same Flower Bed, J2016

Same Flower Bed, 2016

Taking advantage of all the cultural activities Greenville has to offer, my sister and I have attended plays and musicals at almost all of Greenville’s theaters including The Peace Center, The Warehouse Theater, Center Stage and the Little Theater of Greenville. The performances have been top notch and tickets here are sooooo affordable. We even saw wonderful free performances of Julius Caesar and As You Like It put on by the Upstate Shakespeare Festival in Falls Park on the Reedy River in downtown Greenville. Mauldin had a Friday night series of free concerts and dancing that culminated in a special celebration on Saturday, July 2nd ending with a fabulous fireworks display. Two days later we attended the Red, White and Blue Festival in downtown Greenville with another magnificent fireworks display. (We love fireworks.)

As I’ve written about in previous blogs, I’ve been gallivanting with both the Mauldin Senior Center and Lifewise, a Senior Program through St. Francis Hospital. We’ve travelled to Columbia, the state capital, historic Union, nearby Spartanburg, and Athens, GA. We visited historic homes and churches, plantations, and college campuses. We even visited a local farm in Simpsonville where we made bricks out of clay soil and harvested broom weed, making our own brooms.

Best of all this year, I have been blessed to have dear friends and family make the trip to visit me…Jane and Rip Noble, Carl and Phyllis Yaglowski, Patricia Rock and Trish Sutherlan, Joanne and Mike Frehse, Judy Olsen, Joanne Kempton, Nina Augello, Jay Johnson, and Joanne Manse. Every visit was special and I enjoyed showing everybody the sights of Greater Greenville.

Last night I re-read all of my previous blogs working my way backwards. It was a sweet trip down memory lane. One of the best parts of being here and being retired is that I have more time to devote to writing, though I admit I’m not as diligent about it as I’d like to be. Still I have managed to complete the final draft of my cozy mystery, Second Bloom. I’m pleased to report that one of the literary agents I contacted so far asked to see my first three chapters. That’s pretty exciting. The really good news is I’ve started working on a second book which includes the same lead characters as Second Bloom, Holly and Ivy Donnelly, two middle-aged sisters who love to garden and just happen to get involved in solving murder mysteries.

Bet you didn't know okra had such a beautiful flower.

Bet you didn’t know okra had such a beautiful flower.

If you’ve read any of my previous blogs, you know that a love of gardening is something I have in common with my main characters. I have to say the growing season in the South is another one my favorite things (that and the sprinkler system at my condo complex). I had a big job amending the clay soil, but after adding a considerable amount of topsoil, I planted vegetables in April and started harvesting zucchini and cucumbers in June followed by okra, tomatoes and eggplant in early July. Yes, life here is good.

I am pleased that through the wonders of technology and telecommunications I have been able to remain in touch with my dear friends up North. Once a month I Skype into an apartment on East 83rd Street in New York City with my book club of 30 years. Through Facebook, Linked-in, Twitter and this blog I’ve heard from so many people I’ve actually been out of touch with even when I lived in New Jersey. All in all it’s been a fabulous year and I’m looking forward to many more. Thank you so much for reading my ramblings and thanks especially to those of you who take the time to comment. I love hearing from you. So please keep reading and I’ll keep writing.

A selfie with my lettuce crop in April.

A selfie with my lettuce crop in April.

Spring Fantasies

According to the Book of Genesis human life began in a garden…the Garden of Eden. Any wonder why so many of us love to cultivate the soil and grow things? I have so much I want to say on this topic that I’m sure I can’t get it all into one blog. I also don’t know where to begin or how to organize my thoughts, so let me just jump in at the point where I got the idea for this blog.

Purple and Gold Pansies, March 18, 2016

Purple and Gold Pansies, March 18, 2016

On February 28th, I think it was, I marveled at the display of pansies at either end of a planting island on my street. The picture you see here was taken today, March 18th, but I have to tell you the plants looked almost as good a month ago. We have had an unusually warm winter, even for the South, so the pansies that normally survive the winter here, are thriving. What a delight to see them every day! (I smile whenever I look at the rich purple and gold hues…Garfield High School colors.)

One of the many reasons I chose the condo I live in is that I have my very own patio surrounded by mulched flower beds. The same way I pictured my furniture inside, I envisioned lush plantings of flowers and

June 2015

June 2015

vegetables in those empty beds. That brings me to another thing that triggered today’s topic — a quote from Marian St. Clair, a Master Gardener who writes a blog and a column for The Greenville News.  In a column a few months ago, Ms. Sinclair wrote: “Despite challenges and constant setbacks, or perhaps because of them, gardeners are stubborn folks who nurture a dynamic fantasy life. In our minds, perfection is always within reach and next year’s garden is bound to be the best yet.”

I just love that quote. Until I read it, I never thought about gardening as fantasy fulfillment, but that really is an accurate description. When you put daffodil, tulip, and hyacinth bulbs in the ground in the Fall, you are planting based on some fantasy you’ve conjured up in your head about what they will look like when they come up in the Spring. You’ve imagined it all first. (I do believe the rich fantasy life that drives gardeners is the same one that drives fiction writers…but that’s a topic for another blog, of course.)

I still remember the first time I planted red tulips and purple grape hyacinths in my yard in New Jersey. When they bloomed in the Spring, the shock of color nearly made me giddy. And, yes, as Marion St. Clair stated, I began imagining what I would add to my garden the next year to make it even better. Every year I added not just bulbs and perennials, but whole garden beds to my yard. One of the hardest parts of leaving my home in New Jersey, was saying goodbye to the many plants I’d nurtured over 25 years.

Snap peas, March 18, 2016

Snap peas, March 18, 2016

Not to worry, though… I’ve already begun anew. Just last week, I got out my basket of saved seed envelopes and planted what was left in a packet of snap-pea seeds. When the green leaves started to poke their heads through the dirt after the rain last week, I was ecstatic. Yes, we gardeners are not just stubborn; we’re resilient and ever optimistic.

Oh, I have so much more to say about gardening, but I’ll save it for another day. I must, however, end with a appreciative nod to the Simpsonville Garden Club which my sister and I joined last month. At this month’s meeting, we elected new officers. This is how it went:
1. Eileen Hofmeister from the nominating committee presented the slate of nominees: Judy Rogers, President, Judy McGinty, Vice President, Sylvia Lockaby, Treasurer and Christine Barnett, Secretary.
2. Current President Christine Barnett asked if there were any other nominees from the floor. There were none.
3. Eileen made a motion that we accept the proposed slate of nominees by acclamation.
4. Someone seconded the motion. All were in favor, and no one opposed the motion.
5. The slate of nominees was elected by acclamation.

I do believe our nation would do well to look to the Simpsonville Garden Club as a model for how to run an election. Congratulations, ladies!

Until next blog, whether you’re a gardener, a writer, or both, I wish you boundless optimism, limitless imagination and an abundance of rich fantasies to carry you into Spring.

New Year’s Confessions of a Retiree without Resolutions

This morning (January 7, 2016) I read in The Greenville News that Furman University student, Chris Drose, was named to Forbes’ annual “30 under 30” list.  What did he do to earn that accolade?  Well, Mr. Drose, who’s studying English and Economics, “uses his free time to research companies to determine how much their stock is actually worth.”  He then posts his research results on his blog: BleeckerStreetResearch.com.   His whistle-blowing report on patient deaths at the facilities of a company that provides treatment for substance abuse and behavioral health issues resulted in a 54% drop in their stock.

And then there’s my blog…I don’t think I’ll be making any “70 under 70” lists.  This is only my first post since December 2nd!  I’ve already broken a cardinal rule of blogging by not adding new content on a regular basis.  To my horror, I just checked out an article entitled “The 23 Unwritten Rules of Blogging” by Lily Herman .  This is what she says:

“5.      If you want to keep people engaged and coming back, you should post three or four times per week on your blog (once a day is even better!). Ideally, plan and keep to a regular schedule. This keeps your readers from wondering whether or not you’re coming back.”

Seriously?  Who can do that? And who has time or would even want to read something I wrote daily?  Surely, people have more important things to do than read blogs every day.

Honestly, I sometimes feel that I’m a tortoise in a world, not of hares, but of gnats and hummingbirds.  I confess…it makes me feel…well, old.  But that isn’t quite it because most of the time I feel the same way I did when I was in my twenties, and I can’t believe I’m 64.  It’s something about the digital world and cyberspace.

The attention span of a gnat is about .210005 of a second. Life span: 7 days.

The attention span of a gnat is about .210005 of a second. Life span: 7 days.

I’ve been on Facebook for several years, but it wasn’t until I started blogging and wanted to let people know  I posted something that I started checking my Facebook newsfeed regularly.  At first I found it exhilarating to be in contact with people I hadn’t been in touch with recently…school friends, former business associates, friends and family who have relocated all over the country.  That, of course, has not changed, but recently, I have caught myself losing the odd hour here and there scrolling mindlessly through tons of posts that really don’t have a lot of meaning for me. After encountering the same political statement or inspirational quote posted multiple times,  I had to ask myself if this activity was really serving any useful purpose in my life.

Hummingbirds flap their wings so fast (about 80 times per second) that they make a humming noise. Life span: 5 years

Hummingbirds flap their wings so fast (about 80 times per second) that they make a humming noise. Life span: 5 years

And now for Confession Number 2…since my December 2nd post, I hadn’t written a word until last Saturday, January  2nd.  Shocking admission from a writer wannabe, right?  Okay, in my defense, besides scrolling through Facebook, I cooked Thanksgiving dinner; threw a surprise birthday party one week later for my mother who turned 90 on December 3rd; spent the next week tooling around with my sisters (my sister, Jane, came up from Florida for my mom’s birthday and stayed for a week); did all the Christmas stuff…decorating, shopping, gift-wrapping, etc.; had a dinner for cousins from Connecticut who stopped for a visit on their way to Florida; met with my Cozy Mystery Writers critique group (which is kind of ironic, since I wasn’t writing much);  and did all the other things it takes to make a life…cooked, cleaned, did laundry, walked the dog, yadayadayada.  Confession Number 3: I’m not going to resolve to stop letting life get in the way of my writing because I’m enjoying my life, and I’m not exactly sure how much more of it I’ve got.

The fastest recorded tortoise speed is 5 mph. Life span: 80 to 150 years.

The fastest recorded tortoise speed is 5 mph. Life span: 80 to 150 years.

Confession Number 4: I have been a bit discouraged about my writing lately, but here I am today…blogging again.  I’m also happy to say that since January 2nd, I actually re-wrote the first chapter of my cozy mystery.  I’d gotten de-railed after learning that I violated police procedure in a crime scene I’d written in my first draft. It took me some time to work out a solution in my mind, but finally I did and I’m pleased with the result.

Slowly, I’m getting back on track…but, alas, that brings me to Confession 4. I believe I’m destined to remain a turtle in this fast-paced world of the 21st Century.  But maybe that’s not entirely a bad thing.  I just read that tortoises have one of the longest lifespans in the animal world and are a symbol of longevity in some cultures. There’s a good chance I may outlive the editing process.

Once again, I am encouraged.  Take heart, dear readers and friends, if , like me, you cannot multi-task, and the lighting speed of this brave, new digital world  leaves you breathless.   Let’s not forget the lessons of our youth.  Remember what Aesop said. “Slow and steady wins the race.”

Whether you are a tortoise, a hare, a gnat or a hummingbird, I wish all of you a most wonderful 2016 with abundant time to contemplate, savor and enjoy all that is dear to you.  Happy New Year!

Tortoise & Hare

The Transformational Magic of Creativity

I got the words for my title from an email sent by Grant Faulkner, Executive Director of NaNoWriMo, (National Novel Writing Month).  He wrote yesterday to buoy up all of us would-be novelists and urge us to keep writing whether or not we actually achieved the goal of 50,000 words last month.  I personally fell far short of that…a mere 6,014 words.

Whose idea was it to make November National Novel Writing Month anyway?   I mean, really…c’mon.  Thanksgiving weekend alone eliminates at least two days of writing…and if you were cooking dinner, maybe two more days for shopping and preparation. Wouldn’t January be a better month?  But I digress.  [See Blog 4 – It’s Hard to Be the Bard for more rationalizing, hand-wringing and complaining about how hard it is to write.]

Of course, I am pleased with the first five chapters I wrote, and delighted that my co-author exceeded that.   We have begun in earnest a novel we’ve only been talking about writing for months now.  And that, after all, is the point of Grant Faulkner’s encouraging e-pistle.  We need to take heart because we “created a beginning.”

”[T]he transformational magic of creativity”…Faulkner’s words have been spinning around inside my head since I read them.  Isn’t that just a beautiful turn of phrase that makes you stop in your tracks and think?

Transformational Magic

Transformational Magic

First of all, transforming, transformative, transformational…any form of that word is awe-inspiring and magical to me.  As a child, I only thought of magic in the most literal sense.  One of my all-time favorite TV programs was Bewitched. How my sisters and I wished we could simply twitch our noses like Samantha Stephens and transform the kitchen sink full of dishes into a spotless, porcelain basin.  As I’ve aged, I’ve broadened my definition of magic to include more than just feats accomplished by witches, warlocks, magicians and Jedi warriors.

My friend and co-author, Nina, refers to the ability to grow things as magical.  I always took my green thumb for granted, figuring anyone could make things grow, but I have to admit that I rather enjoy the idea that it is, indeed, my magical powers that transform seeds, soil and water into a beautiful flower bed or luscious vegetable patch.

I’ve also come to view cooking as magical.  Think about it. A cook takes various ingredients, that uncooked are inedible, and transforms them into a delicious meal that nourishes and sustains us.  Okay, it takes more than a twitch of the nose to produce a tasty dish, but, however long it takes, the result is undeniably transformative and magical.  [If you’ve ever eaten a badly prepared meal, you know I’m right.]

The transformative magic of creativity courtesy of Mary Ellen Handley

The transformative magic of creativity courtesy of Mary Ellen Handley

In addition to her gardening and cooking powers, my sister, Mary Ellen, also has magical abilities of a different sort.  She can take a box of old or broken holiday ornaments and glue various pieces together to create something new and altogether delightful.  She replaced the missing hat of a nutcracker with a small tree ornament resulting in a whimsical new character in my Christmas collection.  Mary Ellen can also take 13 cartons out of her attic and in a few hours transform her home into a Christmas Wonderland.

What I’m saying is that anything that can change or transform something from one thing to something totally different is indeed magical and creative…old clothes into a quilt … seeds into a flower… …words and phrases into a poem, play, or novel. I think not everyone recognizes his or her own creativity.  Especially as we get older, we take for granted all we do and we certainly don’t see it as magical at all. Whether you string words together in a phrase that inspires, or you knit a ball of yarn into a sweater, or turn some boards and nails into a treehouse, you have done something quite magical.  Believe me.

Perhaps I didn’t write a 50,000 word novel this November, but the pansies I planted in October are flowering, the Thanksgiving dinner I cooked was a success, and the 6,014 words I did write got the story started. I even posted to my blog three times and was rewarded with some wonderful comments and emails from people I’d lost touch with…now that was magical.

Thank you for your words of encouragement, Grant Faulkner.   I will keep writing because, for better or worse, I do believe in the transformative magic of creativity. I do. I do. I do.

It’s Hard to Be the Bard

 “…it’s hard to write well about anything — it’s just damn hard to get the words down right.”   David Mason, Professor of English and Creative Writing, Colorado College

Were truer words ever spoken?  David Mason’s observation is so simple, yet so profound.  If you’re wondering what I mean compare the following two quotes:

  1. “I don’t care who’s your daddy.”
  2. “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
    By any other name would smell as sweet”
The Bard

The Bard

Both groups of words say essentially the same thing.  The former is infinitely forgettable.  The second causes you to stop, to smile…perchance to sigh.

Whether you aspire to write the next Great American Novel or you are crafting a marketing proposal to win new business, or you’re writing a letter to your congressman, you struggle to find the precise words that will connect with both the cerebral cortex and the heart of your reader, words that will communicate your thoughts clearly and leave an impression.  The converse is also true.  While it’s hard to get it right, it’s quite easy to get it wrong.  There’s little worse than having a reader ask “I don’t get it. What do you mean?” after you’ve spent agonizing hours crafting your written piece.

Why, if it’s so hard,  do we do it then?  If business writing is part of your job, the answer is obvious.  But November is National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo.org) and thousands of people across the world have committed to writing a novel of 50,000 words this month.  While I think most everyone would like to have a best-seller and be able to earn a living writing, I don’t believe this is their primary motivation.

After participating in writing groups with writers of vastly differing genres, ages and backgrounds, I think writers write because they believe they have something compelling to say.  And I think they work really hard at getting the words right —in phrasing their thoughts in just such a way so that a fellow human, a reader, just smiles and says “Yes…I understand perfectly.  I see exactly what you mean.”  Ultimately, we’d also like to hear that as a result of reading our writing you, Mr./Ms. Reader, are motivated to think or behave differently so that the world becomes a better place. We can dream, can’t we?

Last night I attended the Creative Writers of Greenville Meetup, and as always, I left motivated.   Whenever I hear other writers share their experiences,  I am inspired to believe that I, too, can do this.  In spite of its being hard, writing is worth the effort.  Maybe I can write something that will entertain, amuse, comfort or maybe even inspire someone else.  Isn’t that why I’m writing this blog after all?

So to all of you aspiring authors out there, especially my fellow NaNoWriMo writers this month, I’d like to end by sharing with you lines from last year’s Tony Award winning musical Something’s Rotten, the last Broadway show I got to see before I moved to South Carolina.  What follows are the words sung by no less than Shakespeare himself, who, just like us, struggled with getting the words right:

“What people just don’t understand
Is that writing’s demanding
It’s mentally challenging and it’s a bore
It’s such a chore
TO sit in a room by yourself

Oh my god, I just hate it!

And you’re trying to find
An opening line or a brilliant idea
And you’re pacing the floor
And hoping for just a bit of divine intervention
That one little nugget that one little spark
Then Eureka! You find it you’re ready to start
So now you can write, right? Wrong!
You’re not even close, you remember that damn it,
Your play’s gotta be in iambic pentameter!
So you write down a word but it’s not the right word,
So you try a new word but you hate the new word
And you need a good word but you can’t find the word
Oh where is it, what is it, what is it, where is it!
Blah-blah-blah, ha ha, ah-ha -UGHHHHHHHH!”

[To hear Shakespeare’s lament sung in its entirety, click here: It’s Hard to Be the Bard.  And if you get a chance to see this show, don’t miss it.]

Happy Writing, my friends!

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