They're Only Words - Yes and No


Sometimes books find a way into your life and you wonder how they synched into your life so well. We picked Citizen by Claudia Rankine as our common read on campus. It was the right book at the right time. Not only did the students have an open dialogue about race and social issues, we also spoke about the importance and relevance of language in the way we speak, socialize, and even protest. It was very powerful. And then the election happened. And strangely - it was the students who were well prepared. While there was shock and despair - Citizen as a book helped us have a very difficult conversation. We had talked about racism, inequality, society, power, protest, and hate. And then we had to talk about how all those ideas culminated into how we were feeling after the election. And it got me thinking about this. 

One of the things I hate about myself is the part of me that just accept things because there is nothing I can do about it. On election day night, I went to bed shocked and sad. But I also was saying - there is nothing you can do about it. I didn't want to tell my kids. I didn't want to talk about it. I didn't want to talk to my students about it. And I sat and simmered. 

Slowly, I woke up, along with other people and realized how absurd this all seems. But there is a part of me that just says - okay accept things. I hate that part of me. I wish I would just flip out and say something I will regret. I wish I could pull out the plug that stops me. I never speak out when it is the right time. I always speak out after, or save it up and dump it on someone who can't effect change.

This election has might have pulled the plug for me. If this president, this election, this future is where we are going -- why hold back and sit passively for something to happen? 

What is that? Professionalism? Fear of being rude? Do I lack some kind of courage or morality? I feel like I am shedding this acceptance. But I need to define it and find out what it is that keeps me quiet or accepting of these things. 

In an article A Pedagogy of Refusal: Re-Essentializing the Word "No" in the Trump Era linked here, sharpened the point clearly for me. It was acceptance in the form of "yes, I will accept this."  


"We must instead, he said, distance oursleves from our propensity to say "yes" and re-essentialize refusal into our social systems to affect change. When I said, "yes," even passievely, to Trump's presidency that day with my pricipal, I had denied the humanity of all of the people whose maringalization Trump will perpetuate. I am complicit in their oppresion.
We live in a society where saying "yes" is more important than saying "let's think this through." A society where "I agree" is more acceptable than "I challenege you to think differently." Our operation under a pedagogy of acceptance has brought us to where we are today; our constant "yes"ing has left us with a president who has never been told "no."

I suppose I've woken up quite a bit from it all. I don't want to watch it. I want to do something about it, and it feels like there is nothing to be done. I suspect that things are going to be difficult for the incoming president. But I also think that we have to continue to not accept where we are going and make every single step like walking on glass. 

But it has also snapped me out of a malaise that things are fine, even when they don't work in my favor. I don't accept things for what they are. 


"We must bring refusal back into the American dialogue. We must make statements like "I cannot accept that" as powerful as "I agree with you." We must re-essentialize the word "no" into the American vocabulary and psyche, and say it fiercely to all of the forces who have brought about the election of Trump." 

It will take me some time, but I will have to practice and be diligent in my use of the word "no". I know it is difficult. But I will gladly shed the part of me that I hate the most -- the part that nods my head and waits for someone else to say something. 

One of the things I spoke to students about all semester in discussing race, social issues and Citizen by Claudia Rankine, was that language is nothing but symbols and sounds. But they can change us. They can spur protests, movements, solve problems, and bring on chaos. Words start wars. Words bring about the birth of a country. We all saw this semester that it will take courage to say the things we believe, and for that will be better people, in a better community. 

I still continue to listen to Trump and realize that there isn't anything there - no sincerity, no reality, no truth. Words are don't matter - until they cut, push, and move people to action. 
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Book Review - A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing: Stories by Tim Weed

A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing: Stories by Tim Weed. Green Writers Press. 2017. 978-0-9974528-7-7 ($24.95) Hardcover.

Diving into this collection of short stories by writer and travel expert Tim Weed, you might want to pack your bags and roam the continent in search of great harrowing adventures. And in some ways, this collection delivers on that. But embedded in these narratives, is a deeper longing, a desperate, and sometimes frustrating relationship, between his protagonist’s fraught desires, fears, and dreams. The depth of emotions reveal subtle, dynamic, and often stunning revelations.  

In stories like “Tower Eight,” “Mouth of the Tropics,” “Diamondback Mountain,” and “Keepers,” Weed moves the physical world to the forefront where nature, mountains, fish, weather conditions, and the reality of nature itself become antagonistic. These stories echo the Hemingway tradition of fronting raw power and natural uncertainty as a means to test a character's fate. This can end in a lesson learned or life lost. But his complexity is not limited to this “surviving nature” theme.

Tim Weed’s balance of emotional connection and physical space is always true to the lyrical sense of his prose. At times, the physical locations: Cuba, Grenada, Colorado, the slopes of New Hampshire, Spain, Italy, all play roles in the narratives that balance the emotional depth to the physicality of these locations. Each story hinges on a moment where physical space and emotional connection criss-cross. In “Diamondback Mountain,” a field guide who has fallen for a movie actress finds himself caught up in such emotions it feels like it materializes into a great collapse of his life on the side of the mountain.

“At first he is frantic, but he can’t move more than a twitch, and gradually a feeling of serenity washes over him. When he thinks about it, he’s known for a while that this or something like it was coming. In a way, the pressure of the snow is soothing.”

The balance between falling in love with an actress and the collapse of any kind of his dreams come down on him, catching him in a balance between the physical world and the metaphorical realm that Weed strikes. “Six Feet under the Prairie” connects to the physical and emotional conflict of utility linemen working on the open prairie, fraught with two men at odds with one another, while mourning the loss of the open wilderness for that of suburban development. This harsh and sometimes majestic landscape is constantly fluctuating between a lyrical lesson and a very real and hard-won place in the world.

Beyond the natural battles and the lyrical vision of his prose, Weed is at his best when he is pushing the edge of obsessions. His stories connect when we feel the misguided love, the vision of beauty, and the hope that love will follow from one continent to another. In “A Winter Break in Rome, the narrator (Justin) is obsessed with Kate, another student on winter break in Europe. In the hopes of connecting romantically with her, Justin gets into a fight with local Italian boys and he is beaten for his troubles. In the aftermath, missing a few teeth, there is a deeply moving moment where Justin asks Kate to join him in Greece for the remainder of the trip. Instead of giving him an answer, she says, “Crete should be beautiful this time of year. Also Mykonos. You should definitely go there.” And the dream of being together is dashed in one allusive phrase. His physical beating and now his emotional loss cohabitate across the table. It is desperate, sad, and classically romantic.

A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing is more than a collection of adventure stories. It is a significant and moving collection of ideas, snapshots, and visions that leave a lasting impression. Tim Weed’s masterful approach to the opposing forces of his character (nature and emotions) always reveals well-crafted moving stories. It is clear that his experience as a travel expert, educator, and writer has honed his craft to transcend adventure writing to an emotional experience that is timely and deeply moving. Never predictable, this collection is a must for travelers, adventure seekers, and anyone who cares to examine the depth of his varied and flawed characters. Tim Weed is the author of the historical fiction novel Will Poole's Island (2014) and is available in e-book and print format.
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Between The Lines: Slaughterhouse Five Opening

Truth and fiction is a strange world. Writers are constantly invested in the vision of living many lives - some on paper while others are in real life. The complexity of writing fiction and understanding truth runs parallel to the idea that we can talk about truth and find its mirrored in fiction. In terms of writing, true stories and real accounts have a value to the general readership. We see labels splashed across book covers and movie posters that profess that they are based on a true story. And yet, the layers of fact to fiction can be complex and run deep into the story. 

Does it matter? Does fiction have to hold truth? Does a true story shift into fiction as soon as it is captured and told from different voices?  

It is important to write about these lines and ideas as they relate to both sides of the issue. It isn't black and white, truth and fiction, but a combination of millions of possibilities and connections that make truth stranger than fiction. This series continues to discuss this concept. Sometimes, these entries will be brief notes and connections, while other articles will a bit more elaborate. 

In Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, we are faced with the kind of strange world that I want to continue to explore - perhaps for the rest of my life. I want to be the truth expert in fiction... whatever that means. 

"All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn't his. Another guy really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunman after the war. And so on. I've changed all the names." 

In looking at the way this opening reads, it is clear that fact and fiction are coming together. Most of the sentences in this section have disclaimers to the truth. "All this happened" is very declarative until it is disqualified with "more or less." This builds the uncomfortable relationship that is being established. 

He moves on to the next idea, "The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true." Alluding to the idea that "pretty much" covers enough. As we move to the next sentence, we should acknowledge the emphasis on the words. "One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn't his." This is a moment where you feel like the writer wants to look you in the eyes, look, this happened. Notice there are no names here. The next sentence continues this serious tone, "Another guy really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by a hired gunman after the war." In these phrases, the narrator wants us to realize that there is truth, even fact in these words, but they can't be verified. They can't be questioned. You will have to take his word for it that they happened.

In the last two sentences, we have "And so on" as if we would just carry on with more of his stories. And then he forfeits it all by saying, "I've changed all the names." The obscuring of the names isn't at all a surprise, the narrator has teased out the balance between truth and fiction here, but to it does remind us - I will tell the truth by obscuring facts and leaving you merely with truth. Of course, this is merely an interpretation, but it does a back and fourth of reality that is being played one aginst the other. 

This work is considered semi-autobiographical which alone strikes at the heart of the matter. Half true, half something else. Part of what we are seeing here might be an answer for the mass destruction, the death, and the insanity of war. It can't be shown to the reader without cloaking it in imagination, shifting the reality away from the reader, intentionally block the brunt of the evil so that the readers can begin somewhere. This novel was written twenty-five years out from his personal experience. Perhaps it is this distortion that helps define the balance between right and wrong.  - #


Ron Samul is a writer and educator. For more information or to contact him, reach out at www.ronsamul.org

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Middle of the Night

The lines are breaking down and that means I'm going crazy or I'm humming with energy. Edges are like the sea to the shore. Rachel Carson said this boundary of sea and shore was where change was abundant and significant, where elements of land meet with the volatility of the sea.

But I'm up late not because of the sea, but because in the last few days - all the edges are interchangeable -  things falling away. Every page I read brings a significant idea or revelation, real moments stand apart like dreams - and like tonight, dreams so real that I woke up disappointed and broken... so I write. I'm hopelessly in love and have moments of overwhelming heartbreak, happiness, choking on an expression, laughing hard because I need it.

I slip between books like I'm searching for my words in between the covers of others - moving between philosophy, into nonfiction, to articles, to ideas. I can't settle my reading. Today, I stole Sula by Toni Morrison from the library and I feel like I've slipped across another edge, swept away to something more. Why did I wait so long to read this? There is a clarity to life when it is free from boundaries - because you have to feel and drawn in your intuition as to where you might be and why.   

Music speaks clearly - dreams make sense, and I am so tired that I fall asleep in my own dreams - only to wake up in another dream so simple and intimate that when I am drawn from it, I wish life would disappear so I can go back. Who cares where it is and what it's called.

Maybe this is the realm Coleridge described when he woke up from a troubled dream to write down  a stunning poem, only to have it dissolve in his mind as he was writing it down on his bed side.

Is this all just creativity held back - waiting to explode? Is this a break from reality? Or a refinement of my life? This life of being a chimera of creative thinking does feel crazy and thrilling, like I could sleep walk or speak fluent Russian off the cuff. But it also feels like power, like I've been waiting to feel like this and now it has arrived. I've been thinking about my last post and the idea of a young writer - writing because I had stories to tell - stories that weren't being told. A step further is that this is not some creative spurt or moment - this is a refined skill, a refined moment where creativity is fostered through blurred edges and connections. And here I am a skilled and seasoned writer ready to accept all the wildlife that I've been looking for.


I sit here in the early morning and listen to the distant fog horn. I'm not amazed by all this and I don't feel like this is a fleeting burst noticed because of a silly dream. This is a life that I've created - the life I deserve, and have worked desperately for. I'm owning it and I don't want to go back. I want my dreams to surprise me and even scare me all the time - I want the world to be as shifty and crazy as my stories. This isn't a call for recklessness - it is a moment of refinement, understanding that this is not only a good life, but imagine the great things not yet born by the words that are waiting at the end of my pencil. Imagine.

May 2014 / Ron Samul
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Unquestioning Writing - When Good Is Good Enough

by Ron Samul 

As writers, we are constantly thinking about the audience and the impact of our writing. It is a fundamental element of teaching, thinking, and writing. It made me think, when I saw this tweet by Maha Bali, when she mentioned this moment. 


This is a complex idea, and from a writing standpoint, it is also a brave idea. Writers as communicators and creative generators always seem to humble and diminish their craft. In this case, Maha is confident and sees that sometimes - no one comments because of the "powerful". I really admire the confidence and the realization that sometimes - that the power of writing can overwhelm. Why? 

Social Media 

The concept of finding something meaningful and important on social media is relevant to me. Online courses, MOOCs, connected learning, creative spaces -- all interact through social media. For me, learning, thinking, and listening to very smart and creative people comes from my interaction with social media. However, not everyone comes to social media to find that kind of connection. 

Some people are connecting with family and friends, some are just passing by while they watch their favorite TV show, some are broadcasting on Periscope as they walk to work. Why people use social media is tailored to each person. The depth of reading and interaction really comes down to the user. And it isn't happening in real time, it is happening along a timeline that could be shifting through time zones and cultures. Sometimes, the most important statements or blog posts don't get the attention I think they deserve, merely because I posted them on a Friday afternoon before a holiday (fail). 


But more importantly, people are looking for an interaction that is quick and reactive on social media. Things that make them stop, think, and experience deeper level thinking, (which relates to selective solitude, pausing, and deep reflection), may not fit into the "Like" or "+1" world of immediate reaction. This has spurred the age of important, meaningful quotes on stunning images. 


In this scan and click age, deep thinking and impactful ideas sometimes need a difference venue. It sometimes needs a blogpost, or some area where things can be expanded and slowly unpacked. And sometimes, the "Like" or the "Share" simply doesn't relate the importance of meaning at that moment. Sometimes, I see an image or a concept and I want to keep it. I want to hold on to it. But where would I keep it? Social media lets you keep it on social media terms. But when something is meaningful, we want to do more than just throw it on our timeline. Perhaps it is merely my personal need to embody ideas, art, and writing in tangible ways. Social media isn't going away and perhaps a thirty-year archive of my Facebook posts will allow me to go back and find that poem I recall so sweetly. But I want to make moments my own - outside of the screen. I want to print them out and save them. I want to fold them up and leave them in a book to discover them in a few years. 

Student Writing 

Being a writing teacher is a complex beast. Following syllabus standards, rubrics, college standards, your own vision, and the student's vision - we create a position where we are looking for the right answer to the assignment. Writing is subjective and I am looking at process, not the right order of words in a sentence. I am looking at critical thinking, how you cite sources, how you can create a document that convinces me. There is some excellent writing that comes by in terms of student writing, but I find that those elements are the product of good thinking, critical research, and planning. It comes from students who engage the learning process. And sometimes, compared to the whole class or the entire writing section, you have to acknowledge excellence as it comes to you. And sometimes, after two or three rewrites and a clear process of thinking and learning - there comes a moment when you don't need it better. They have learned - they have more than met your requirements, and they deserve to stand in that moment and feel the significance of their work. 

Creative Writing 

Creative acts are a different beast. When you apply rubrics and grading schemes to a poem or a short story, it gets awkward and complex. The "powerful" concept that Maha tweets about can be emotional, formative, and change the way we see the world. That is what art does. And sometimes, from a creative writing mentor point-of-view, you have to judge something that isn't vetted through a rubric or a course guide. It comes from emotion, it comes from form and content magically aligning to make a moment (perhaps in time if read or spoken) that matches our time and space with the ideas of someone else. 

I always question my role in interfering with the creative process. It isn't my story to tell, it is my job to make the writer think about making the story better. That is complex. And my suggestions are never - "throw this out and start over," because I would be devastated if someone told me that. But this "powerful" part of writing and speaking is fascinating to me. And there has to be a moment when we realize that expression and time meet you when you need it. There are so many poems, books, and important things written all the time. When I need them (personally), they will be there. I don't always see them now because I am looking at different things that I need now. We are all on different paths and moving in different ways. We find those moments that are "powerful" because we are looking. We need to stop counting "likes" and stats, and imagine that if one person moved forward because of the power of our words, it is always... always worth it. 


I don't think I am done defining Maha's "powerful" because I think there is a lot to the creative elements here. There is an important conversation here in defining the "powerful" in our writing, in our expression, and in our ideas. We need to value them - make an earnest and important effort to value those words and ideas that can change lives. It may not make you famous or popular, but it is a rich and deeply thoughtful life, one without regrets. 


by Ron Samul -- want to know more about me... go here. 

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DigiWriMon+: Rumination on Selective Solitude

Community and connections are a critical part of the digital world. Writers who are selling their own wares because big publishing is still trying to figure out their world -- we see audience builders and creative ways to sell books and stories. People who may never have considered themselves professional marketers are now creating their own book tours and creating their own connections and sales.

I recently finished True Detective Season Two, and while I won't spoil it for you, I know I was disappointed. In looking for a reason or cause for my dissatisfaction, I came across an article that suggests that the writer, Nick Pizzolatto was influenced by the feedback and criticism of season one of the series. *In creating the second season, he had to live up to the expectations of season one (which is largely acclaimed) and yet create something new and different. While this might not be the type of show you like, the point is simple - the criticism of the past haunts what you create now. In many ways, this is an intrusion of the solitude that we are talking about.

Are we, as writers aspiring to write a better and better novel? Or is the idea to write new and different stories? Telling different stories is better than telling a better story - isn't it? If we are telling stories based on the characters and the story they represent -- then we must accept that this isn't a better story than the previous, but just that it is different. Some of the concerns with my writing are just this issue, that I want to tell a variety of stories, not optimize my ability. Everything we write makes us better writers, but it doesn't make the stories that we tell better. That is where we need selective solitude - the ability to define truth in our art and in our stories. That isn't to say we are writing a true story, but that we are creating something that is in line with how we see ourselves in the world. That is close to a truth - to write something that is a direct line to our own vision of the world. That being said, it is very difficult to write with the voices of our harshest critics in our ears. It is very difficult to write with confidence when we feel like we are under scrutiny. And that is where writers tend to seek seclusion in an artistic sense. It is better to try something and fail (alone) than be surrounded by people who will judge them and criticism them while they are still thinking through ideas and connections. It might be worth noting that it is easy for a writer selling books - to disappear for three months to write, but it is a bit more complex for people with a nine-to-five job to disappear from the world and start a novel.

In the end, we have to find our motivation and our space to write. And sometimes, that comes by way of an hour, an evening, or a few days. Sometimes, that means writing a thesis for an MFA degree. Sometimes, it means shutting down all those things that speak out against you. It means finding selective solitude. Not only does it mean using your ability to create selective solitude, but it means using this place as an important tool in writing and thinking. Selective solitude is just as important as plot, character, and your lyrical poetry. It is the executive function that opens the door for creativity. It is there you will go back to what is most important to you: words, images, stories, and characters that are waiting to take their place on the page.



*It should be noted that True Detectives also starts with new characters and stories every season. We aren't stuck with old stories and connections that don't make sense. They are free to begin again. 
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Writing and the Act of Immersion

Find my new article about the immersive act of writing at Harvesting Creativity.

Oddly, when I am scuba diving I think about writing. Long boat rides, open space, and the feeling of being insignificant on the vast ocean plays with the mind. Five or six miles out on the Block Island Sound, the ocean opens up. It is hard to see the shore, and with the typical New England fog, you may not see the shore for hours. Guys chat about their gear, exotic dive sites, and skills they have acquired. I listen and join in, but I think about writing. When we are gearing up to dive, we stop chatting and we get to diving. Gearing up for a dive includes settling into a mental process of checking and rechecking your gear and getting into the water. Click here to read the rest.
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Fixing A Fatal Flaw / The Novel

by Ron Samul 
In this post, I would like to consider what writers should do if they realize that there is a considerable problem with their novel. It happens and sometimes, it can cripple the way you look at the novel or short story. At some point, it all went to crap and you have to either drop it in the wastebasket or deal with the issue. Writing a novel is hard work and it takes time and creativity to make it work. Part of what sets good writers apart from the rest is how they face adversity. Here are some things to consider. 


1) Can you identify the problem? 
This can be a challenge. Sometimes, the problem is complex or compounded by a few things. So, it is important to value your creative process, but it is also important to look for the flaws in your writing. Is it a character? Is it a plot twist? Is the location (setting)? Is it motivation? Conflict?


If you want to go with the gut check - go back to the pages where you were happy or felt like you had something special. Find the place where that feeling stops. And that is where you need to look. 

I remember writing about 90 pages and cutting all the way back to page 30 because I was just frustrated with the direction. I went back and tried it again. 

It also helps me to keep a writing journal - a log of my writing thoughts. It doesn't have anything but the project. These entries help shape my next moves, my ideas, and connects my own motives for adding and subtracting things. This might be a good way to create low-stakes writing when you are stuck or looking for an issue. 

Sometimes, you just can't define the problem. It is around this time that writing goes from the creative, inspiring art that you love, to the hard and sometimes oppressive work that you dread. Every novel has those moments of complete hopelessness. This is where lesser writers hang it up. This is where your talent, creativity, and your perseverance needs to master the art of writing. The craft starts when inspiration is gone. 

If you are stuck, then you need to find someone to help you find the problem. 

2) Have a core reading crew that you trust. 
If you can't find an issue or where the story went south, then create a small group of readers who can look around for you. This is akin to working on a car for awhile and getting stuck. You invite a few buddies over and they look over the engine and sip a few beers. Then they say, you do have gas in the tank right? And that panic
cuts right through you. If you aren't ready to show your work, then you have to find your own issues. But if you have a few reader that will take the time and give you good first impressions, they might be able to define some issues that will guide you back. 

Pick readers who are versatile. You don't want readers who are the same. You want a good plot person, and a good character person, maybe a good line editor, and one crazy person who gets your view of the world. They all don't have to read it, but pick the readers who might help the most. The hardest part: listening to their advice. 

When a reader takes some time to read pages for you -- then listen. Don't defend, don't get bent out of shape about the feedback. It takes some practice but listen. More importantly, ask good questions. What did you think might happen after chapter one? How did you see the antagonist by the third chapter? Where did you disengage? 

Once you have the feedback, don't make changes right away. Take the feedback. Sit on it for awhile, let it bake in your head. Reread their comments, think about what they said. Try to be objective and don't take it personally. (Harder than you think, I know). Then start making shifts and adjustments. In the end, you don't have to change anything, but if you know you have a problem and you are looking for a solution -- change is coming anyway. Why not hear it from the most trusted readers you know. 

3) Read books like your book. 
This may not solve your problem, but it might inspire you to see how other writers deal with some of the issues you are working on. For example, if you are writing murder mysteries, you might seek out books like yours and see where you liked the moves that were made. Maybe you like the protagonist and you want to rebuild your character a bit more. 


I also read those silly MasterPlots books in the library. Basically, they are overviews of novels, plays, and short stories. I read them and listen to the simplicity of some of the great novels and stories. I look for the twist or the elements that are important. Similar to Occum's Razor - often the simple and refined stories are the stories that make the most impact. By looking at them objectively in a reference book, you can see the refined simplicity and see if you can boil down your own ideas to one or two simple strands. 

You are writing a novel and you are stuck - this is where it gets good. You have skills, the ability, the support, and the internet to resolve your issues. Use the tools out there and keep writing. When you leave something for too long, it is hard to get back into it. Continue to think, write, and create even when you are stuck on something.  Don't give up. Even if you can't create new pages, work on research, find readers, or write in a writing journal to document what you are thinking. It is all important and it is all very serious. It should be very important for you to get on track again. Get to work and use the tools and abilities that you have worked so hard to acquire. 

-- 2016 Ron Samul 

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