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Without Reservation; Sense of Order; Jill's Day; Keeps on Giving; Told You So; Get Closer


Without Reservation

Recently Jill and I met for a walk after work, and soon we were hungry. Later we were still hungry. This was Jill’s fault.

First off it was raining, which was not her fault. We had splashed about three blocks, trying not to bump our umbrellas against each other, though she has a tendency to hold hers so it overhangs my jacket and soaks my shoulder. Splash splash splash we went, pausing before storefronts. We had a chuckle at the umbrella salesman on one corner who admonished the pedestrians passing him by. “Umbrella! Umbrella! Get yer umbrellas! You can’t run between the raindrops!” Ha ha, we thought, pretending our feet weren’t wet.

“Where do you want to eat?”

“I dunno. Where do you want to eat?”

We go through this every now and then. I’ve eaten in some pretty low-down places; I remember a Sunday afternoon in 1984 in an Eighth Avenue dive, where I munched chicken deep-fried in old oil and watched a junkie pitch a fit. I wouldn’t eat in such a place now. That’s because of Jill, who would object to the old oil. Frankly, so would I. She’s taught me that much.

“Oh, I don’t want to eat here,” Jill said outside a perfectly respectable coffee shop that had booths, fruit salad, old pie behind glass, char-broiled burgers and steaks-chops-seafood. It did not, however, have “Fountain Delites” on the menu, which Jill pretty much insists on. That’s OK — I’ve often walked out of restaurants if the person who seated me was surly.

“Let’s try Middle Eastern.”

“There’s a Middle Eastern place on Lex in the 20s,” I told her.

“I thought that was all Indian over there,” she said.

“It is. It is.” Silly wife. “But there’s one Middle Eastern place, too.”

So off we went, a happily married couple splashing along under two umbrellas in a downpour, walking about three feet apart so they don’t get the husband’s shoulder wet. At Lexington Avenue in the 20s there were indeed Indian restaurants, but no Middle Eastern place, at least on this block. “I think it’s —- this way,” I said, recalling a trick of command I learned from Captain Picard on “Star Trek.” Credibility hinges on perfect confidence.

I sounded confident, but three blocks of puddles proved that the correctness of my decision ended there. Indian, Indian, Indian, French, two Laundromats, Indian. “Are you sure there’s a Middle Eastern place around here?” Jill asked.

I’ve never known why Jill can’t eat just anywhere. Don’t get me wrong, Jill has turned me around on the subject of restaurants. I can now pinpoint a fussy, ultimately bad offering on a menu with the best of them. But I also know when to make my palate compromise with my wet feet.

“Yeah, another block, I think,” I said, adding as a bus went by, “and don’t get mad if it isn’t there.”

“What’d you say?”

“Nothing.”

It wasn’t there. Probably it hadn’t been there for years. The restaurant I’d been thinking of was probably some joint in another neighborhood, in another country, a restaurant I’d walked by around the time of the junkie incident and been shocked at the $8 dinners on the menu. Splash splash splash.

Splash.

“Listen, Jeff, I’ll take a coffee shop.”

Well we all know that’s a lie because of “Fountain Delites.” Jill seems to think many coffee shops are immigration fronts or something. I’ve eaten in some pretty raunchy coffee shops too, I may add, and have always been proud of it. Some that served junkies.

We blow off two coffee shops as the rain comes down in sheets and the runoff turns the gutters into little Colorado Rivers. One shop fails on account of the menu, the other because of the colors and decor. “How about Chinese?” I say. “Oh. OK,” she answers. Soon we pass a pizza place.

“How about here?” I say. I don’t know why I do that. I just like to think that once I’ve budged her on one point, maybe I can bump her all the way into eating anywhere.

“You said Chinese!” Jill says.

Cars have slowed to 10 mph, the tires carving curls of foam on the flooded pavement. Steam is rising off the streetlights. Under every shelter huddles a knot of laughing people, no longer dodging raindrops and laughing harder when Jill and I pass by. We wander, umbrellas bumping and we fail to notice. No one will find our bodies. We stop in front of a coffee shop (“Home of the Rueben!”). Jill gives the menu a once over, her umbrella still soaking my shoulder.

“I would eat here,” she says.

“Hmmm,” I say.

“You don’t want to?” she asks. “Do you?”

Suddenly I know exactly where the Middle Eastern place was. Is. The rain seems to be letting up, and through the window of the reuben shop, the waiter looks surly. I turn to Jill and say again, “Hmmm.” (Fall, 1998)

Sense of Order

(Note: Since I wrote this essay, Jill's organizer was stolen in a Target. I bought her another. But it's obvious in how she leaves it about the house, while she's off somewhere with pen and paper, that she's afraid to commit again.)

Jill bought an electronic organizer last week. Frequently since I can hear her beeping.

Actually the organizer beeps, as Jill types phone numbers, e-mail addresses and Notes to Self with two fingers on the 1/10th-scale keyboard. She has entered the phone numbers of everyone she has ever met, eradicating the business cards from under the magnets on the fridge door. She has entered the names and numbers of all the doctors we know, a running record of our baby's weight, times and locations of theaters showing movies we'll never attend. The scraps blow her way and catch like newspaper on a chain-link fence.

"Ooo! I'll put it in my organizer!" Beep. Beep beep beep. The thing is dark gray plastic, smaller and thinner than a slice of bread. The keyboard is supplemented with black keys slashed with white arrows and reading TEL, MEMO or SET RATE. The plastic lid snaps shut with a sound like a shot.

"This is fabulous," Jill says. "You should get one."

I don't need one. I know this because in 9th grade I took a course called "Family Life," and in this class they tried to teach us about ourselves as social beings. During one lesson, everybody voted on the outstanding quality of everybody else. The teacher then told us to pretend we were all in an overcrowded lifeboat, that food and water were running out and that we had to decide who had the most important qualities for the survival of the group. My peers voted me "most organized," and I survived. (My friend Tommy, who played baseball with grace and would go on to have a pretty girlfriend by junior year, got voted "most funny" and was thrown overboard.)

Now, everybody would be entitled to stay in that lifeboat if they followed my wife's example and dropped $20 at Staples. Beep beep beep. Snap. "Best twenty bucks I ever spent," says Jill, who types into the organizer even when she talks on the phone.

Last night she was on the phone with Matt. Matt lives in Florida, but he used to live upstairs from us in a sparkling, ordered apartment. We consider him an especially good friend because he once helped us move. At one point he was packing Jill's books: "Conquering Clutter," "Clutter's Last Stand," "Organize Your Time and Your Life."

"This is, like, a theme!" Matt said. Later he helped us sort the stuff on the hutch. His comment? "This is all just crap!"

During last night's call, Jill told him about the organizer.

"Oh no! We're doomed," he said.

"Matt. It - changed - my - life," Jill said.

I'm for that. To buy her organizer in midtown Manhattan, Jill took the subway 20 minutes from 168th Street, where our baby is still in the hospital. Alex has been in the hospital since he was born three months premature last June. He has damaged lungs and has stopped breathing twice. Once I saw him go limp in Jill's arms, once on my lap, and I can tell you that there's nothing even remotely organized about seeing this happen to your own baby.

Jill takes her organizer to the hospital, where Alex, our only child, has lived for 10 months. She is spending bigger and bigger chunks of time there each day, helping Alex on his own journey toward personal organization: giddy in the morning; dozy in the afternoon; rolling over; kicking. The other day she had just entered a lot of phone numbers while holding him when wham!, from out of nowhere came this little pink fist down on the "Clear" button. She said she was proud.

When I'm at work, I call Jill at the hospital at least two or three times a day.

"I found another use for my organizer!" she announced yesterday. "Actually two more -- two more! I changed deutschemarks to kilos! And when I do chest PT, I set it for two minutes. No more looking at that clock!"

Chest "PT" is when we cup our hands or take the little padded thing and whack Alex for two minutes each on his upper chest, his sides, and on his back near the shoulder blades. This loosens mucus in his lungs. Unless he brings up the mucus regularly, a drop could stick in his throat and his lungs could have what they call "a clamp down." This leads to a very disorganized period for the doctors, for Alex, and for his parents.

"I can't figure out how to clear it," I hear Jill say, her beeps in the background.

Jill figures out how to convert grams to pounds. Alex's weight is measured in grams by the hospital, and in pounds by us. So far we have 13 pounds. We started, about a billion years ago, with less than a pound and a half. Jill does this bit of beeping, tells me over the phone that Alex is going to sleep, and that she's headed home.

As a refuge, home offers us no more shelter than an open boat. There's food and water and toilet paper. But there are also the blue tubes of the breathing vent in the pictures of Alex that are atop the TV and beside the bathroom sink. Deep drifts of insurance papers cover the dining room table. In the study, his bassinet and blanket gather dust. Our nerves fray as we try to figure out the most important qualities for the survival of our little family. "When are we going to spot land?" we wonder.

I know she often thinks of Alex awake in his hospital crib, alone but for the "Calm down!" of the nurses and the whir of the vent. It just kills her. Of course it kills her, because even after all this time and all this battering, everything is in the right place in her heart. (Spring, 1999)

Jill's Day

At 6 a.m. I was impressing upon Jill the hard time I'd had over the past two years. She was responding that, in marriage, I just couldn't let my hair down whenever I felt like it. Dawn was at the windows. Not fun.

I told her I was considering canceling my dental appointment for later that morning.

"They charge if you cancel on the same day!" she said. "Don't do this!"

Alex's overnight nurse never showed last evening, and Jill and I got into this conversation after spotty sleep. The talk started, like so many, when she claimed I was hogging the middle of the bed. We retired to our sides, thoroughly jagged, and the talk disintegrated into words like "visitation." I'll skip the context here, because all it amounted to was one couple reduced to two individuals by the hot crucible of the past 18 months.

"In marriage, you can't just feel free to let your hair down whenever you want," Jill repeated. She went back to sleep -- because, I think, she's even more exhausted than I am. I got up. I looked in the mirror. My hair was a mess.

When I got home that night Jill said, "Well, I love you more now than I did this morning." I loved her about the same, but did not tell her so at that moment. I still loved her the same amount later when she said, "Why don't you write about me?"

I thought I did. Quite a bit, Jill being one of the few persons I consistently quote in these essays about Alex and about his hospitalization over the past 15 months. But Jill feels under-appreciated. This might be because every day she has to watch therapists twist and handle our son Alex, who is home but still on oxygen. Her day is revealed to me when I come through the door around six and find her with Alex on her knee, both of them in the living room on the yellow quilt. Sometimes the TV is on.

"He likes 'Divorce Court,'" Jill says.

Alex still gets a phalanx of medications. I give the big doses - about seven fluids injected into his feeding tube - at 8 a.m. before I leave for the subway. At night I ride the subway in the opposite direction to repeat giving him medicine, plus the 2 CCs of cisapride, at 8 p.m. I also give Alex a bath and equip him with a fresh, tiny T shirt and Pulseox probe for the night.

In between my two hitches come all other tasks, such as grocery shopping. It's four steps from the floor of our lobby to the door of the elevator, too - four long steps for a woman with groceries, a baby, a deluxe carriage and two air tanks that look like they just fell off a scuba diver.

"Usually somebody comes by and helps me," Jill says.

The contents of her day flash by me in two or three phone calls a day. Sometimes she'll call in a voice high and crackly, like today when the feeding therapist dropped in and made Alex spit up by rubbing his gum with a small rubber brush. Then the occupational therapist came over and strafed Jill with comments about what Alex wasn't doing, or couldn't do, or both. "She said all he does is hit. He doesn't touch or feel," crackled Jill.

I told Jill that she and I had endured months of medical professionals trying to convince us what Alex was like.

"But I have to be here with these people," she said. "Can you call the ENT doctor? Please?" Click.

Somewhere inside the jagged "please" sat the real question: How can we keep getting through this? Jill, however, is one of many women I've known who have storm fronts that move quickly. She called back a few minutes later and said she was sorry she hung up on me. That's okay, Jill. That's okay. Remember when Bart Simpson had the daydream that Homer had gotten a lobotomy, and in the daydream Bart broke a lamp at Homer's feet and there was a shot of Homer, a horseshoe of stitches on his scalp, slowly answering, "That's ... all ... right ... son ..." Sometimes that's how I say, "That's okay, Jill."

"That's okay, Jill."

"Listen, I'm just going to take him out and shop for dinner. And he loves this little brush. I don't know why he vomited when she had it."

Jill does most of the shopping and the dinner-making, and she collects the mail and does most of the straightening up. From my office, staring at the phone, I suspect that Alex couldn't care less about the little brush. What he loves is Jill and going out shopping for dinner with her, and sitting in the carriage and whapping the Beanie Baby and watching her straighten up the dining room table.

Pretty soon I have to go home. She wants me to pick up a dozen eggs. She didn't get them when she was out. She ran out of money. That's what she told me, anyway. (Fall, 1999)

Keeps on Giving

At the office the other day the subject was buying presents for wives, and my co-worker Mike offered the best advice: "Forget it."

He buys his wife what he'd bet $100 she'd like, he said, and it goes over like a professionally wrapped Mars bar. This I identified with, having on gift-giving occasions of the past seven years drawn from my wife Jill equal measures of delight and politeness.

"Look at these," she said on her sister Julie's last birthday, when Jill's brother-in-law gave Julie a pair of silver teardrop earrings. "These are nice," Jill said to me. "Look at these."

I did. Charlie Brown had an easier time understanding Christmas than I have shopping for Jill. What about the diamond-chip necklace I recently gave Jill? I took one look at that necklace -- a tiny diamond heart inside a bigger diamond heart, representing her and our baby son Alex - and thought it was a remarkable gift. So did Jill. I guess.

"I'm sorry," she said the other night. "I'll wear it. I promise."

I saw presents bomb decades before Jill. In 1974 my aunt and uncle gave their twin teenage boys leather coats for Christmas, which delighted one of the twins ("Leather!") but put the other in a funk because he wanted a big model tank kit for half the price. (Later those cousins got very tough for me to buy for - lots of trips to Spencer Gifts and tee shirt stores - and later still I lost touch with them altogether.)

That same Christmas in '74, the tank cousin suggested that I gave my mother a small engraved silver bell. Should have worked. Except that my mom grew up in Maine during the Depression, where and when she didn't need palm-sized sterling silver bells to wade snow drifts and keep the wood stove filled. (Through the following years she shined it dutifully with toothpaste, and finally just mailed it to me when she moved to Arizona.)

I also went through a money phase with my mom, in which every Mother's Day I tried to give her $20 in a card (people who've waded Maine snow drifts find no lack of class in a cash gift). She'd keep the card and stuff the money back in my pocket. So the following Mother's Day I gave her two twenties, and when she tried to stuff the cash back I said, "Oh, won't you keep at least half?" That worked until one year when she kept the card and both the twenties.

I think I've matured as a gift giver. Take the case of Jill's mother, who when she met me sat on the couch like a painting of a girlfriend's mother who was about to start a gunfight with this new guy. Later Jill said her mother had had a sore foot. I believe it. Time went on and birthdays and holidays came and went, and one year Jill's mom was facing thumb surgery and I happened to spy in a bookstore the first installment of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin books. Jill's mom is a former librarian and a one-time sailor, so I took the plunge.

Jill's mom devoured the dozen novels of "sea trash" quickly, and even wound up on national television when O'Brien visited the U.S. for a book signing. CBS didn't exactly capture Jill's mom throwing her room keys at the 70-year-old Irish author -- she spent most of the 10 seconds trying to wander off-camera -- but I felt my gift-giving skills were confirmed.

I don't remember the first gift I gave Jill; I do remember one of the more successful of her birthdays. I bought her about seven gifts, ranging from a newsletter-publishing course to a pen that looked like an ear of corn. I hid them around the apartment. With each present I stuck a note, written in cheap poetry and providing a clue where the next present was. It took work and was fun to plan and execute, yet I've never done it since. I should.

Ebay has revolutionized gift-giving in my house. Periodically over recent weeks Jill has shooed me from the computer because she was in the middle of bidding for one of my presents. "I think you'll really like it," she'd say, "but get out of here." I'm easy to buy for: Redskins stuff, anything to do with the Nelsonian Age of the Royal Navy, bookstore gift certificates. And I cruise ebay for crap for Jill, which I bet will be more of a winner than any silver bell. I can't say here yet what I've got for her, but suffice to say I didn't pay full bid. The trick, as always, is in bidding enough so I don't wind up on the short end of the Equal Holiday Spending Rule.

Small stuff would be great, because it's often expensive. With a baby around, though, I can't buy anything small. "You have to be careful," says Mike, carrier of holiday spirit. "Babies will swallow it." True: Alex is already taking off Jill's glasses whenever he can, and I can just picture noticing too late as $300 worth of diamond chips slides down past his tongue and we all get a look at how the hospital volunteers have decorated the emergency room. That I don't want.

What do you want? Julie asks. I tell her Redskins stuff or a bookstore gift certificate. "Oh you mean like every year for the last 10 years?" she asks. Yes. Sometimes, that's what gift-giving is all about. (Winter, 1999)

Told You So

(The following essay is a special treat: Jill speaks! Many thanks to those DRs who have suggested that she write on this site how she's feeling.)

I always thought having a baby would be a major event and I was right. As my husband Jeff will be happy to tell you, I love being right. Jeff didn’t want a baby, but I looked forward to the day I could say, "See? Told you so."

I imagined the rich, pleasurable emotions I’d experience, from the searing pain of childbirth to the exhilaration of seeing my little wet, red newborn, wrinkled as a Sharpei. The exhausting nights, up with our inconsolable bundle (teeth? colic? I didn’t know -- that’s what Spock is for). The first shoots of hope, around age 3 months or so. The baby holding up its head, smiling, reaching, playing, gradually learning to do the millions of things a baby does on the first steps of its long road.

Well, I was half right. What we got: exhaustion, a tidal sweep of emotions, uncertainty. What we didn’t get: a little bundle to take home. Our baby came equipped with an entourage that lasted about 13 months. In the delivery room: about eight doctors and nurses (a few for me, more for Baby).

I was prepared for a couple of months in the neonatal ICU; I was not prepared for six. I was not prepared for the rage I felt when I thought the doctors were doing a poor job helping our little son grow bigger. It seemed the neonatologists always had some convenient pseudo statistic on their side. "Oh, these babies do so well, he could be home before his due date," said the head of the NICU before Alex was born. When his unit couldn’t seem to make Alex grow, he said gravely, "Oh, it’s very hard to make these babies gain weight."

I was not prepared for offhand, cruel remarks from nurses. "You’ve been angry for five months," one of them observed, not seeming to realize that five months was an outrageously long time to spend visiting your baby in the hospital.

I was not prepared for the floods of bills that came in -- $19,000, $37,000, $14,500 -- figures that I’d thought we might pay for college tuition. I was not prepared for how drab and depressing and dingy the hospital was. Not a single amenity for an exhausted mother and a downtrodden father. No place to microwave a cup of tea or eat a sandwich: important things for a starving new mom who was pumping her breasts. Every day, we walked down the same brightly lit hall. Every day, I looked at the border of teddy bears in hot air balloons, holding bunches of helium balloons.

I wasn’t prepared to bring our baby home -- our bundle! our reason to own a copy of Dr. Spock and lots of cute outfits! -- and feel numb, frightened and depressed. How were we going to cope with this little boy and an oxygen tank?

As it turned out, we only had to do it for about four days. Then the same icy hospital that had mismanaged him for six months decided to go on mismanaging him. This time for about six life-threatening weeks during the longest, darkest part of winter. Numb, I stared at the frieze of Sesame Street characters in the pediatric ICU, wondering if someone had actually chosen this or if it had been given to the hospital.

"He can’t breathe on his own," said the PICU doctors.

Our lives -- all three of our lives -- turned around when we seized control. Went shopping for new doctors and found a pediatric ICU with a microwave, a sun room, tables and chairs, a soda machine, framed reproductions of bright abstract paintings. Nurses sharp-witted and energetic.

Within a few days Columbia-Presbyterian had done what our previous hospital refused to do ("He just can’t breathe on his own") for six weeks. Alex was off the ventilator and we went on as before, though with much nicer nurses, more informative doctors and better surroundings. Alex was breathing on his own.

Another homecoming, this one during a heat wave and a blackout that shut down half the hospital. The home-duty nurse didn’t know how to change the gauge on an oxygen tank and had never seen an oxygen concentrator, which converts room air into pure oxygen. "How much oxygen is in there?" she asked.

Finally, about a month ago, I began to feel the things I’d always been ready to feel. Joy and exhilaration at Alex’s baby chatter. Delight at his determination to turn over, again and again, and poise on all fours, like a hunting dog in a perfect point. Exhaustion, from nights when the monitor went off, the baby woke up crying ("What does Spock say?" "Who cares?") and we held him, rocked him, felt that little warm body, sturdy as the faded overalls he now wears on his daily rounds. (Winter, 1999)

Get Closer

I post notices about new essays on 31 Internet discussion boards. Though all have a right to kick me off, none has. Thank you.

Sometimes, however, people like Denise at www.babybag.com wonder what they're getting out of it. "How come you just come here to post notices about essays and never join in the discussion?" asked Denise. She also said she likes these essays. Thank you again.

As these boards all do deserve more than I give, I thought up the most gnarled question I could and posted it:

"Are you closer to your spouse now that you have kids?"

Chew on that one. I do, whenever I feel my wife Jill and I are taking frustrations out on each other. (Jill mostly does this.) Frustrations born of 13 months with our baby boy Alex in the hospital. Frustrations born of bills, callousness, the wrong equipment from home-supply companies who are blatantly using us to clean out their warehouse. Born of comments from doctors and nurses from whom we wouldn't have even bought a used car.

"Do you think I've changed?" Jill asks.

Jill and I are around each other a lot, and skins are thin. Particularly at 3 a.m. But of course I am to Jill, and she to me, the only other person on earth who was there through it all. And as Alex begins to suck formula on his own, as he babbles and stands upright like a bright flower amid two years worth of rubble, I wonder, "Are Jill and I closer now?"

I took my question to the babybaggers. They answered quickly, even as they seemed to shift in their seats.

"Hmm. Good question," replied babybagger TJ. "I think the nature of the relationship has changed ... Having children together has given us a bond that we share with no one else, and that makes it unique and special. Some may call that closeness."

"Good question, Jeff!" added Sue, who along with her husband wanted children for a long time. "We are simply happier now. I certainly have a lot more self-esteem. I'm awesome! (LOL)."

That means "laugh out loud," and is intended to make sure that the reader - especially a husband who logs on to see what his wife has been typing for 20 minutes - realizes the joke. Many of the responses to this "closer" question ended with "LOL."

"I would say for the most part yes," said babybagger Lo. "I think there are some very small ways that we aren't closer, but not very many at all. Of course that doesn't mean he doesn't tick me off often enough!"

From Piper: "In some ways we are closer and other ways we are farther apart. Like we have this incredible bond of our children and we marvel that we created them. But we don't get as much time together as we used to have, and after dealing with two energetic preschoolers or a job we both just want to fall into bed and sleep! LOL!"

From Marianne: "Having children is a growing experience. You find out things about yourself that you never knew existed. And about your spouse. There is a place in my heart so deep that (it) only belongs to my children. Before, I thought this was my husband's, but it is beyond his ... We decided to have children. It is our responsibility to give to them from all of our resources, to properly raise them, guide them and love them to adulthood. These are sacrifices a mature parent accepts. They are only young once and then you have the rest of your life to regain and increase that unimaginable closeness with your spouse. Until then, you learn to be creative."

Well, maybe not at 3 a.m., but that is good advice.

"In many ways having kids with my husband has made me love him so much more," said Donna. "I see him in a totally different light and we share in the little things so much more. However, in some ways I think we aren't as close ... I can tell you that I love my husband more now than ever before, yet at the same time I feel that we are much different people."

Karen said she sees the birth of a child as the birth of a new life for both parents. "Nothing is ever the same," she says. "We of course have become closer in a lot of ways and have grown way far apart in other ways ... It's a part of growing old together and learning new things and helping your children become adults with values."

Laura also wouldn't say "closer," exactly. "We have always had a good communication foundation, so I guess I haven't thought of it as closer, but just the next step in our relationship."

What about it, Denise? "We have become closer," she said. "Sometimes though, it bugs me as he shows more affection to (our daughter) than to me! We are closer, but sometimes he is doing work on the computer in his own world and I play with (our daughter) and feel farther apart. Does this make sense?"

There's a good question in its own right; I don't know if "sense" has had much to do with my past few years. I feel, and I think Jill does too, that our latest "step" has been steep, slippery and terrifying. We're both quicker to fury toward the world, and maybe toward each other.

One more question: "Do you think I've changed?" Jill asks. No, Jill. We've both changed, and grown closer in a way that is especially, truly different. (Winter, 2000)

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