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Monday, November 30, 2015

Happy Birthday, Winston! Thoughts on Churchill


Today would have been Winston Spencer Churchill’s 141st birthday. I propose we share a toast in his honor before his ghost guzzles all the booze left in the world.
I’m on page 432 of the third and final volume of William Manchester and Paul Reid’s epic bio of “The Last Lion.” That means in one year I’ll have absorbed 2,920 pages about the man who to me is one of the most interesting human beings since Jesus Christ.
He’s profane, irascible, witty, brilliant, wise, artistic, sentimental, egomaniacal, self-deprecating, uncompromising, indifferent, hilarious, profound and daring. 
Sure, most of us know individuals who are all of those things, but how many of us know one person who is all of those things?
Churchill was like the Swiss Army Knife of drinking buddies.
Because, drink he did.
I’ve written that if it’s true impairment begins with the first drink then I’ve been impaired since 1975.
It’s, I think, a clever exaggeration.
But Manchester, a scholarly researcher, painstakingly writes of how Churchill after he turned 50 never again drew another single sober breath. He lived another 41 years, dying finally in 1965.
Understand, he wasn’t fully drunk.
But he was never fully sober.
When told he drank too much, he said, “I’ve taken far more out of alcohol than alcohol will ever take out of me.”
He lived to be 91.
I’m enjoying the Manchester biographies so much I think the first thing I’m going to do when I stop reading about Churchill is begin to read Churchill. He authored 40 books and in 1953 was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
So today on his birthday, I’m going to list some of my favorite anecdotes and quotes about this monumental man so worthy of our attention.
• He was persistent. He said, “When you’re going through hell, keep going.”
• He was brave. During his military service, he saw combat in Cuba, India, Sudan, South Africa and the World War I. During the Boer War in South Africa he was captured, escaped, and became a national hero by traveling 300 miles to rejoin his unit and resume fighting. He said: “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.”
• He was arrogant. He once got into an enormous row with a man servant who had the nerve to stand up to Churchill. When the argument was finished, Churchill upbraided the man by saying, “You know, you said some very rude things to me.” The antagonist quaked and said, “Well, you said some very rude things to me!” Churchill said, “Yes, but I am a very great man.”
• He was durable. While visiting New York in December 1931, he was nearly killed in when a car ran him over while he was on foot crossing Fifth Avenue. Historical archives in prestigious libraries include hand-written notes from his family physician insisting that the patient, in spite of American Prohibition, must have alcohol to survive.
• He was thoughtful. When he was called on to edit a national newspaper during a labor crisis, he asked one of the pressmen what was the purpose of all the ceramic cups near each work station. He was told they were for beer. Churchill asked, “Do you have enough beer?” We do, he was told. “Nonsense!” he said. “You can never have too much beer. Order more beer right now!”
• He was indulgent. Manchester writes how he clashed with Sir Alan Brooke during World War II over personality that, “for Brooke, self-control was a duty, for Churchill, an impediment to life’s joy.”
• He was flexible. He was a liberal when he was young and became the leader of the conservative party when he was older and said the man he most admired above all others was liberal president Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
• He was precise. Whenever he had to spend time with Eisenhower's dour Sec. of State, John Foster Dulles, he'd always remark, "Dull, Duller, Dulles."

• He was secular. He disdained moralizing prig Stafford Cripps and once when stranded in the Sahara desert said, “Here we are marooned in in all these miles of sand — not a blade of grass or a drop of water or a flower. How Cripps would love it.”
• Also about Cripps: “There but for the grace of God, goes Cripps.” And, “He has all of the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.”
• He was scathing. On Nazi appeasers, he said: “They are sheep in sheep’s clothing.”
• He was inspirational. The British people were so deeply moved by his defiance in the face of Nazi annihilation, they named their children after him even before anyone dreamed he’d prevail. In fact, another famous Briton was named after him. Born on Oct. 9, 1949, he was John Winston Lennon. Although he was alive to understand the impact of Beatlemania, I’ve seen no Churchill comment on the phenomena.
• He was artistic. At the behest of artist Paul Maze, he in 1915 tried his hand at art. It became a consuming passion and he painted over 500, some of which have sold for millions of dollars and are critically acclaimed. The Guardian in 2014 wrote a story headlined, “Painting: The hobby that saved Churchill’s sanity.”
• He was profound. He said, “History will be good to me because I intend to write it.”
• He was elite. He said, “The best argument against democracy is a 5-minute conversation with the average voter.”
• He was an animal lover. He said, “I like pigs. Cats look down on you, dogs look up to you, but pigs treat you as equals.”
Happy Birthday, Winston!
Pigs may have considered you their equals, but few men should ever dare to.


Friday, November 27, 2015

Abe Vigoda's still alive! (for now)


“The Godfather” was on AMC ‘round the clock yesterday and you know what that means.
I’d check the internet every 10 minutes to see if Abe Vigoda was still alive.
In the movie — spoiler alert! — he gets offed for playing mob footsie with Don Barzini and Philip Tataglia.
In real life, Vigoda will, it seems, never die, despite persistent reports that he is, in fact, already dead.
The first of these happened in 1982 when People magazine referred to him as “the late actor Abe Vigoda.”
He took the declaration of his demise in good, er, spirits and posed for a life-affirming picture of himself sitting upright in a coffin reading a copy of the erroneous People issue.
David Letterman in ’97 held a seance for the ghost of Vigoda that ended with the still-living actor ambling on stage to berate the host with, “I’m not dead yet, you pinhead!”
Subsequent Vigoda death rumors sprang up again in ’98, ’04, ’07, ’09 and again last year.
I feel like starting an Abe Vigoda is alive rumor.
I think the reason he’s so frequently rumored to be dead is because he was born with such an ancient face.
Check him out next time “The Godfather” is on which, given what I know about AMC programming, should be right around lunch today.
As Tessio, he looks 94. When the ’72 movie was released he was, in fact, 52.
My age!
The difference is I always look roughly my age. I looked about 40 when I was 40, 20 when I was 20, etc.
Vigoda seems like he came into the world looking 90. Born in Brooklyn in 1921 (he’ll be 95 February 24), I imagine he was getting served in taverns without being carded in 1926.
It’s like there are no visual records of him looking young.
He’s the facial doppelganger of supermodel Christie Brinkley, 61, whose lovely appearance hasn’t changed in 40 years.
Unfortunately, neither has Vigoda’s. 
It’s like the acting Abraham could have been contemporaries with the Biblical one.
Usually, you see someone like Vigoda in some obscure role prior to their finding fame. They’re giving it their best as a struggling sodbuster in an old “Gunsmoke,” or a luckless bartender in some vintage “Twilight Zone.”
Not Vigoda. It’s like he emerged fully formed in 1972.
I saw him in an old “Hawaii Five-O” playing some Italian mob boss’s crafty henchman. But that episode appeared in 1974, two years after Vigoda became famous playing some Italian mob boss’s crafty henchman.
Clearly the guy’s a great actor. Any Jewish gentleman who can consistently appear to be an Italian tough guy while giving off a decidedly geriatric vibe has got some chops.
But his IMDb credits lists only six minor roles from 1949 to being cast in “Godfather,” which itself is stunning.
It’s like he went from some Hoosier high school to the New York Yankees without the requisite stint in Scranton.
What was he doing from 1949-72? Did he ever think of giving up his acting ambitions?
Did he ever sit around staring in the unforgiving mirror and thinking, “My big break better come soon. I’m not going to be this young and pretty forever.”
He’s just so enigmatic to me.
He’s worked steadily, if modestly since “Godfather.” Who can forget his memorable stint with the still-funny "Barney Miller?"

He set sail on “Love Boat” three times; got roughed up by “The Bionic Woman;” and played an elderly grandpa on “B.J. and The Bear.” The work’s continued through the ‘90s when he played Zeus on a production called “Farticus,” which has now zoomed to prominence on my viewing bucket list.
His persistent existence makes me wish I was still doing the occasional “Where Are They Now?” feature on B-list celebs for National Enquirer.
I remember doing ones on Harry Morgan, Elinor Donahue, Al Molinaro, and I think about three or four of the forgotten kids who’d appeared on “The Waltons.”
The stories were always fun because the stars were uniformly grateful for the attention and the opportunity to let their fans know they were still around.
It would be fun to do that for Vigoda, to let people know he’s still with us and still doing well.
At least I think that’s the case.
It’s been 10 minutes since I last checked.

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Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving Re-Run: A slouching idiot says thanks


This one’s from Thanksgiving ’11. I’ll be thankful if you read it aloud at the dinner table right before the Thanksgiving prayer.

Kidding!

Thank you for being my friends. I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving Day and remember the men and women serving in our armed forces in your prayers.



I advise you to start tomorrow, as I do every Thanksgiving, by playing the 2006 Ray Davies song, “Thanksgiving Day.”

We can argue all day and night about our favorite Christmas songs, there must be a million of them, but there’s only one Thanksgiving song.

And I mean that. Can anyone name even one great traditional Thanksgiving song?

Leave it to an Englishman to write the song about one of our most authentic American holidays. Be sure to download it as soon as you finish reading this. I promise to keep it holiday snappy.

The song’s got it all. The poignancy, the longings, the Greyhound rides home, the hearth, the family dysfunction and in the end the euphoria of my very favorite holiday.

I’ll be thankful tomorrow for Ray Davies.

And I’ll be thankful for the U.S. Marine Corp and all who serve.

We were in Washington, D.C., over the weekend where I went to write a story about the lavish Christmas festival at the Gaylord National Hotel (and, man, I’m thankful I get to do cool stuff like that as part of my job).

The place was crawling with Marines in their dress blues. The hotel was the site of their annual ball.

It diminishes me even further, but I get kind of squishy whenever I’m around a serviceman or woman, especially a Marine.

I’m grateful for their service. They are just the most impressively composed human beings on the planet.

I’ve never seen a Marine in action, but I imagine they could overwhelm most any enemy with just manners and posture.

I understand they teach other more lethal things in grueling boot camps, but if someone told me it was 13 weeks of manners and posture I’d believe it.

It’s like they are constructed with steel spines that make slouching physically impossible. My body would assume a natural slouch if it was suspended from a noose.

I was in the company of about 100 other journalists who, like me, stood around slouching for hours at a time waiting for someone to bring us something free.

I’ve never seen a more vivid mingling of the givers and the takers.

I’m sure if I’d have spilled a free bourbon a Marine would have sprung from the rafters and thrown his medal bedecked jacket over the puddle to assist my wife and daughters over the floor hazard.

I don’t know how to say thank you without sounding cliche or maudlin, so I just tried to make eye contact and say, “Happy Holidays,” hoping it would convey so much more.

But that, too, has pitfalls, as I learned on the elevator.

We got on together in the lobby. I asked this man who does so much for me and our country to do one more thing. 

Could he please push 15?

Guys like me can’t do anything for ourselves.

He was wearing a Steeler jacket. Eureka! I could make Pittsburgh small talk!

If my room had been on the 353rd floor it might have given us enough time to talk up a real friendship.

But we had a very friendly chat, enough so that when the elevator floor bell rang I felt comfortable looking this strong, proud man eye to eye and saying, “Happy Holidays” hoping he’d know what I really meant, which was:

“Thank you for all you sacrifice for me and my loved ones. Thank you for the friends you’ve lost, the tears you’ve shed, and the enemies you’ve killed. I hope your holiday season is filled with love, joy and a peace that’s so often elusive to warriors like yourself. And I hope the Steelers we both cheer act like United States Marines and kick the asses of their every opponent clear through to the Super Bowl.”

It was perfect. He knew exactly what I meant. The door opened and I gave one last firm nod and gathered up my stuff.

Damn. Wrong floor.

He was too gracious, of course, to point out I asked him to push 15 and was exiting the elevator on 11.

But to ride four more floors in awkward silence risked ruining the perfect micro-conversation.

So what did I do?   

I marched right the hell out that elevator door like I knew where I was going leaving this Marine to logically conclude I’m an idiot.

I’ll bet the nation is full of slouching idiots like me.

We have to wait around 364 days until the one day comes when we’re comfortable saying a truly heartfelt thanks.

So Happy Thanksgiving to all our servicemen and women, their families, Ray Davies and to each and everyone struggling to get along in this great, big beautiful land I’m forever thankful to call my home.




Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Vegans vs. meatlovers at Thanksgiving


I admire vegetarians and understand what motivates them but there’s about as much chance of me becoming one as there is of me resuming my virginity. 
It just ain’t going to happen.
My wife’s always threatening to become a vegetarian — as threatening as any animal-loving pacifist can be about differing morals.
She aspires to be like Lisa Simpson, who once told Homer her goal was to never eat anything that cast a shadow.
Sure, it’s a goal you really “root” for. But is it attainable?
For some, maybe.
Like many who struggle with avoiding meat, steak is Val’s Achille’s heel. She finds a good, juicy steak irresistible.
And the meat-lover in me wonders how Achille’s heel would taste if it were slathered in BBQ sauce and slow-roasted.
I’m one of those guys who believes ham radios would be more popular if ham radios were made entirely out of ham.
I recently saw a news story that said an embarrassing number of devoted vegetarians admit to consuming meat when they’re drunk and no one’s watching.
They experience shame. They’re doing something they know that will lead to ridicule. They don’t want anyone to know what they’re doing.
I know exactly how they feel. I used to feel the same way about a clandestine activity.
Then one day I realized nobody really cared and today I just blog whenever the hell I feel like it.
I understand there is across the nation lots of tension at some family dinner tables between meat lovers and vegans who resent literally people trying to shove flesh down their throats.
It shouldn’t be that way. There should be understanding. It should be live and let live.
Except for the bird.
It’s got to go.
I just love the Thanksgiving meal and it wouldn’t be the same without turkey. And don’t forget the leftovers. We waste nothing and, guaranteed, on Saturday I’ll be using the picked over carcass to make my annual turkey gumbo.
But our traditions are mostly modest.
I think the thing that’s upsetting our vegan friends most — and I’m with them on this — is that what used to be about giving humble thanks is now about pure gluttony. 
Thanksgiving today is to giving thanks what Roman Emperor Caligula was to tasteful party hosting.
It’s often repugnant.
I blame John Madden and the turducken.
The old Oakland Raider coach and long-time CBS broadcaster used to always do the traditional Thanksgiving Day NFL game. I remember the corpulent coach waxing euphoric on the gastronomic Frankenstein involving stuffing a deboned chicken into a deboned duck into a deboned turkey.
Then, of course, stuffing the entire unholy creation inside a human rib cage.
I remember hearing Maddon’s drool practically puddling beneath the microphone.
It sounded simultaneously repulsive and delicious.
It’s led inevitably to the dubious appearance of what some are calling “The Roast Beast:” three turduckens, two lambs, one pig all stuffed inside a Wagyu beef saddle.
You hear that and you just know some deviant chef is making his plans to next year get his or her hands on a black market Giant Panda to one-up his colleagues.
Combined with the inevitable Black Friday shopper riots, it’s just become too much, one of those rare occasions when the tasty is being lapped by the tasteless.
Maybe this year we can begin to scale back, to make Thanksgiving less about consumption.
Maybe by making Thanksgiving more meager we can make it for the first time more meaningful.
Like a virgin!
Or at least like a pilgrim.

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Monday, November 23, 2015

Teaching history/current events to innocents


I remember being flattered my spring semester sophomore year when my history professor asked me to tutor a fellow student who was having trouble.
She was a local Athens girl, a farmer’s daughter and pretty. She wasn’t stupid. A junior, he’d just gotten confused by the tumult of the 20th century American history and needed someone to explain the complications.
I minored in history and the professor must have sensed I could offer insightful help.
We’d sit on the front porch at the rickety place I used to live and I’d explain to her all the shifting alliances and how America sailed the often turbulent seas of war and diplomacy.
I remember her asking a question that struck me as sweetly naive.
“Did World War II ever end?”
I told her yes, it did, but I could see why she’d think it hadn’t. I told her that we were engaged in a proxy war with the Soviet Union. I said it was ideological and that battles were always raging around the planet in one place or another and that war seemed to be an inevitable part of the human condition.
Then we made out.
It was great. Really, I don’t know why I didn’t right there declare an end to my writing ambitions and pursue becoming a history professor.
I remain fascinated by history, an interest I impart on my daughters. But sorting it out is as confusing now as it was then, so here’s a helpful guide based on some of the questions about wars past and present I’ve recently discussed with my youngsters:

KIDS: Who started World War I?
DADDY: It’s complicated, but the Germans had a lot to do with it.

K: Who started World War II?
D: The Germans.

K: Are Germans bad?
D: At times over the past 100 years, no one on the planet has acted with more pure evil than Germans.

K: Isn’t mommy’s family German?
D: Yes, but try not to read too much into that.

K: Who wanted Germany to win World War II?
D: The Japanese were big fans.

K: Are the Japanese evil?
D: At times over the past 100 years, no one on the planet has acted with more pure evil than the Japanese.

K: Do we still hate the Germans and the Japanese? 
D: No, we’re international BFFs.

K: How’d that happen?
D: Our leaders decided after the WWII that a generous peace made more sense than the spiteful kind imposed on Germany after World War I. Plus, we found someone new to hate.

K: Who was that?
D: The Russians.

K: What’d they do?
D: They became friendly with the Germans during World War II.

K: Ooh, that was bad.
D: Yes, but then they decided they didn’t like each other and went to war against each other right in the middle of World War II.

K: What happened then?
D: We became fond of the Russians because they were helping us kill Germans.

K: When did we stop liking the Russians?
D: Almost immediately after the Germans cried uncle.

K: What happened next?
D: The godless Russians became our most bitter enemy for the next 50 years.

K: Wow. That must have been a really terrible war.
D: No, we never fought.

K: Whew.
D: Yes, in a way, it was a relief. It was called The Cold War because America and Russia never really went at it. Instead, we encouraged smaller countries around the world to do the fighting for us.

K: Was that good?
D: It was unless you lived in places like Korea or Vietnam.

K: What about all this killing going on in Paris?
D: Well, that all stems from wars going on in the Middle East and it’s a bit more complicated than all that other stuff.

K: More complicated!
D: I’m afraid so.

K: Can you give us the simple version?
D: I’ll try … a group that calls itself the Islamic State killed a bunch of people in Paris because they mistakenly believe they can scare everyone into bending to their medieval ways. They started a religious war in Syria where revolutionaries tried to depose Bashar Al-Assad for his cruel rulership. ISIL is like al-Qaeda in their violence, but ISIL and al-Qaeda hate each other almost as much as they hate innocent Parisians. These bad al-Qaeda guys rose to prominence for the 9/11 attacks that killed 3,000 Americans. They were in Afghanistan so went there to kill them, but we decided we also needed to go to war in Iraq because rigged intelligence convinced the bone-headed neocons Saddam Hussein made a sporting target. We’d previously been to war with Hussein, a bloody butcher, in the 1990s, about eight years after we were cheerleading Hussein, the same bloody butcher, in his war with Iran which even though it’s spelled almost like Iraq and they’re neighbors have had historic trouble getting along. Now the war is spreading to Lebanon where Hezbollah is eager to de-stabilize the government in the hopes it’ll lead to more authority in the West Bank and the Palestinian territories where the United Nations in 1948 created a Jewish state to preserve the future of the people the Germans tried to annihilate in Europe, but whose imposed presence has now for nearly 70 years infuriated people in Egypt, Syria, Iran, Iraq and other gulf states for years enriched by oil money. And now it looks like the people of the United States, Russia, Germany, France, Japan, Great Britain and other nations where people enjoy things like secular liberty, ice cream and Muppet movies are going to get together to kill all the bastards before they can kill all of us.

K: And where exactly is all this happening?
D: In the land where God sent Jesus to announce peace on earth, goodwill toward men.

K: One more question.
D: Yes?

K: Didn't you once say the most evil organization on the planet was the New England Patriots?
D: I did.

K: Is that no longer true?
D: It remains factual, but our priorities are under a necessary shift. We have some business to take care of, but I promise we’ll one day get back to when bringing down the Patriots again needs emphasizing. 

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Sunday, November 22, 2015

RRS: The true story of the Pilgrim turkey rapist


I’m eager to watch the Ric Burns documentary, “The Pilgrims,” on PBS Thursday evening. They say it’s a dark take on the first Thanksgiving that includes famine, intolerance, beheadings — nothing at all like the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving being shown at the same time on ABC.
I’ll watch the dark version in the hopes it’ll relate the tale of the Pilgrim turkey rapist.
I wrote about America’s first true animal love in 2012.

I always turn to history, our most reliable teacher, any time I become convinced modern man has cornered the market on folly and wickedness.

That’s how I found myself immersed in Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2006 book, “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community & War.”

I read everything he writes. He’s one of our very best historians, if not the very best. And like another national treasure, David McCullough, Philbrick hails from Pittsburgh, a place where people are renown for working hard and playing hard.

So I like to imagine Philbrick and McCullough spending a full day unraveling historic minutia and then marching into the friendly neighborhood tavern to share the juicy bits with the regulars, sort of like me only with acclaim, purpose and actual income.

Philbrick must be a veritable cornucopia of interesting facts.

For instance, I for years believed the kindergarten version of the Pilgrim story, that they fled England because of narrow-minded religious persecution and came to America where they made nice with the Indians before beginning to practice their own brand of narrow-minded religious persecution.

“Mayflower” teaches there was so much more to it. In fact, the Pilgrims had the good grace to wait three full years before beheading a once-friendly Indian, effectively ending the cultural share of those early Thanksgivings.

I make no hypocritical judgements. The Pilgrims must have by then been feeling about the Indians the way most of us feel about in-laws.

I figured this brutal beheading and subsequent killing spree would be my take-away fact from the book, the one I’d use to spoil my daughters’ fairytales about the Thanksgiving holiday. It was the same way when I told them there is no Santa Claus, which I did out of spite a few years ago when they agreed with their mother I was weird for liking Bob Dylan.

That was before I got to page 186.

Now’s the time for those of you with prim sensitivities to get back to your Sudoku puzzles.

Because this is very disturbing. I’ll leave it to Philbrick.

“In 1642, seventeen-year-old Thomas Granger was convicted of having sexual relations with ‘a mare, a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves and a turkey.’ Taking their lead from Leviticus, Governor Bradford and his fellow magistrates executed Granger on September 8, 1642, but not before the boy was forced to witness the killing of his animal paramours, which were all buried in a pit.”

That is now what I call a brain barnacle, something no amount of alcohol or power spraying will ever succeed in scrubbing from my memory.

I mean, just wow.

Makes you dizzy, doesn’t it?

Filled with this information, I rushed downstairs to the bar to enliven the Happy Hour.

The inebriates were stunned, a rare case of the gassed being aghast.

We talked motives, facts and consequences. One sudsy sage was convinced he could have earned Granger an acquittal on the grounds that gentle farm animals were the only logical recourse for an adolescent boy in the throes of Pilgrim puberty.

“I mean, have you seen Pilgrim women?”

We wondered if Granger could be considered a founding father. Not of America, certainly.

Of PETA.

I argued that the Pilgrims, not Obama, were the ones who brought Sharia law to our shores when they slew all the animals Granger was said to have raped.

Talk about blaming the victim.

And of course, this being a story about the Pilgrims, we talked turkey.

I mean, how on earth does a man look at a turkey and think it a suitable target for sexual satisfaction? The logistics defy reason.

Yes, I understand turkeys have anatomical breasts, but even our chemically souped-up ones don’t have what you call real hooters.

The mind boggles.

From his profile drawn from the other victims, you’d think Granger would have been more of an ass man. But if that’s the case, then why wasn’t a donkey among the victims?

The inclusion of a turkey as a victim leads me to believe the charges against the boy may have been fraudulent, that the prosecutor bore him some unimaginable grudge and was intent on infuriating the jurors. And presumably nothing ruffles Pilgrim feathers more than an accusation of deviant feather ruffling.

I don’t know what the rest of the book holds. I may never know. I just keep reading that one paragraph on page 186 over and over.

Maybe more wickedness will ensue. Maybe I’ll learn that the perniciousness of people we were raised to think of as quaint and wholesome surpasses even that of our depraved society. 

I guess all I’ll ever really know is that Pilgrims really, really love their turkeys.


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