Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Month: April, 2013

Sleeplessness: Money

Nowadays I wake up early, around 2 or 2:30. I usually get up and pee, lurching through the dark house like the villain in a slasher movie. When I pee, my back is to the dark well of the stairs, and I always think about someone coming up behind me and killing me because I’ve seen too many slasher movies. A few friends and I were talking just the other day about how we all grew up watching one apocalyptic movie after another–The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, movies about earthquakes, about deadly insects, about nuclear winter, about computers taking over and killing us, about apes taking our place after we kill ourselves. Are we surprised now that we expect to die at any minute, at every minute? Haven’t we been preparing ourselves to expect it for a long, long time? When I stop peeing, I stumble back through the same dark, back to bed. The dog hasn’t moved. I slide back in under the covers. He lifts his head and puts it down on my calf or ankle.

This morning, unable to go back to sleep, I pick up the iPad and look at my retirement account. I’ve just received my inheritance, my half the proceeds of my mother’s estate, and I’ve spent the last couple of days thinking about what to do with it. Last year, I heard a radio show financial advisor who said: 1) Pay off anything that charges you interest–credit cards, loans, etc. 2) Set aside an emergency fund of at least six months living expenses. 3) Start a retirement account 4) Do something fun with some small part of it, if you can–a vacation, a gift you wouldn’t have bought yourself otherwise. I’ve done the first (goodbye car loan!), will set up the second, and according to this morning’s calculations, I’ll put a certain amount in my retirement account. The rest I need to split between some house repairs and some much needed updating of my wardrobe, which has been stuck in the same world for the past ten years or so.

The one thing I was reminded of today was a thing the financial advisor forgot to say, thinking perhaps that the caller would automatically know to do it: when you pay off a loan, you should keep paying that payment but into your own savings account. Duh, I said to myself, but I had already been thinking about nice it would be to have that $270 a month car payment to play with again! I was already back to the idea of getting to play with (read: be able to waste) some extra money every month. Between the car, the dog, and trips down to visit my mother, the past few years money has been pretty tight, and I have not had much money to spend outside a few things I consider psychically or professionally necessary (car trips to friends’ houses in the summer or for Christmas, flights to AWP, books, and cups of tea at cafes where I often work). It’s a very nice life, but it has had limits. And it requires me to be careful in planning out my money every month, which I have been.

But it’s not like I’ve really been let off the leash. I’m reminded of an early Campbell McGrath prose poem in his fantastic first book, Capitalism, wherein a poor family wins the lottery and uses it only to buy ATVs or Jetski’s, instead of investing in the kids’ education or changing their lives in any long term ways. I can’t have everything. I have to make choices.

I’m also reminded that the reason this money can come down to me is because my mother worked her whole goddamned life to save it. She sold two houses, she lived extremely simply and alone for decades, she cleaned other people’s houses and added up other people’s numbers and typed up other people’s letters and accounts, and put aside small amounts over decades. She schemed in her last five years all the possible ways to lessen the bites governments would take out of it, so they’d be something to leave to us, to ease our own lives. I want to honor all that attention and passion and energy she spent. It was in many ways her great creative work. I don’t want it to be for nothing.

So, I’m going to buy a new iPad, because I’ve found I like to write on one. And because it’s going to be a tool in the next few years as I learn more and more about digital composition and multi-media design. My present one I’m giving to an old friend who did me a great kindness when I had to disappear from work.

Then I’m going to think about where I’d like to go for a vacation. The last time I had some money, I figured out how to live in London cheaply for three weeks. I walked around that city I love maybe more than any city I’ve ever been to. I rode the tube. I went to museums, gardens, sat out in the sun, browsed bookstores. I stayed in student dorms and had a wonderful time. It’s tempting to repeat that, to just go and be a wanderer in an easy city. I’m also thinking, though, how much I’d like to go somewhere near the ocean and just look out into it. After all the anxiety and sadness and weight of the last two years, I think I’d like to lie down in the sand and just listen to the great breathing of the sea in which none of these thoughts made a bit of difference.


This afternoon I reread this and think “so many people would love to have this problem.” Maybe I shouldn’t even write about it. Maybe it will sound ignorant to my friends who are being crushed by various debt loads I’ve been lucky enough to avoid. The issue of money is so fraught with issues. I say this to two friends who wander into the coffeehouse where I’m writing this, and they both say no, it’s important to write about things like this. One of them lost her father early. This is a kind of money with weight, with history. It’s like a trade you didn’t want to make–your mother for this money–and now you have to deal with it, she says. To do something with it is to do something with the loss. They’re both smarter in their mid-twenties than I was certainly. And then when I ask a friend of mine at the next table what generation her iPad is, she tells me she bought it when her grandmother died. She needed to give herself something in the moment that would keep the whole world from falling down. She’s noticed that this is something she does. “If, say, the plumbing goes and I have to pay X amount of money for repairs, I will also buy myself a pair of nice shoes, because as long as I’m spending it, I might as well give myself something nice as well,” she says.



Why is it I distrust anyone who can’t ask a question? Why do some people seem to feel the need to have all the answers? Have you ever been in a coffeehouse listening to young seminarians, old philosophers, retired mobsters, each armed with a different logic? What does silence mean to them, I wonder? When did I start paying attention to the small pauses that signal someone thinking, someone being not sure enough to give an answer? Was it around the time I was five, and we went to Chicago with our neighbors the Buttses; I was talking excitedly about UFOs, which I thought were real because I’d read it in the National Inquirer, and Mrs. Butts simply said, “Who told you they were real?” I was a little know-it-all, wasn’t I? Didn’t a number of things unravel after that? Didn’t the world seem a little flatter, a lot, in fact, less exciting? Or was that simply my world exhaling? Is it true that adulthood begins when all you have are questions? Can we add Questions to Death and Taxes in the list of those things that cannot be avoided?

There are of course those other people who can only ask questions, aren’t there? It feels so passive-aggressive, doesn’t it? (You don’t think I mean the British, do you? Aren’t they often trying to be polite, inviting you into a place of possibilities, discussion?) What about Fox News for example, especially that awful morning crew? Have they ever asked a question that didn’t have a scripted answer? To them silence is the ultimate terrorist act, wherein torture is the necessary remedy, right? Right? Maybe not all Silence equals Death anymore, as we pretended it did in the 80s and 90s? Maybe silence, like asking a question, is better than some alternatives in some cases? Even a form of resistance?

When is it we learn to ask a question instead of actually just saying something or instead of just saying nothing? Liking this weather? Do the bonobos do that? Or elephants? Will someone ask Jane Goodall if chimps ask questions? They must, mustn’t they? What else do I think my own dog is doing, when just before I actually get up, he raises his head with a jingle of tags and stares at me? Don’t I know what he wants: to walk? Aren’t I being disingenuous when I ask him What’s up buddy and pat his head? Don’t I really mean I’m not ready to sacrifice my comfort?

Notes on the Pressure Cooker

When it came down to choosing what I wanted to take of my mother’s kitchenware, I took almost everything but her old pressure cooker because

a) I have no idea how to pressure cook anything;

b) The only thing I remember her cooking in it was something that she called steak but turned out to be cow tongue. I probably ate it for years, but one time when it didn’t taste like the steak she said it was, I asked her point blank what it was I was eating, and she lied and said steak. It was one of the first times I realized she could lie to me about anything. Even she was a mystery. It was one of the first times I accepted the evidence of my own senses over her assurance.

c) I hated the way the pressure valve on top, the “jiggly” valve rattled and threatened to blow. I don’t know if it could blow off, but since the water inside was super-heated, I feared it. Lapsed presbyterians, we were devoted catastrophists; I learned that the worst would probably happen.

d) I’ve come to love roasting more than cooking with water or liquid. My mother was a water sign. I am air.

g) It was too heavy. You could kill someone with it.

h) It reminded me too much of the other threat of violence we lived with all the time: my father’s drinking and explosive anger, his slow whistling away of the family’s money.

i) I already had boxes of things I was afraid would trigger memories, grief, loss. I thought I had all I needed for the rest of my life.

j) Little did I know. When I looked up pressure cooker a moment ago to find out what the frightening little valve on top was actually called, the second result for pressure cooker was pressure cooker bomb.

From a Department of Homeland Security bulletin in 2004: Pressure-cooker bombs are made with readily available materials and can be as simple or as complex as the builder decides. These types of devices can be initiated using simple electronic components including, but not limited to, digital watches, garage-door openers, cell phones or pagers. As a common cooking utensil, the pressure cooker is often overlooked when searching vehicles, residences or merchandise crossing the U.S. borders. They are cheap to make by any extremist group. White supremacist groups refer to them as hellhounds.

k) Not everything can be saved, I said to myself, boxing up all the things my mother used to use. Let yourself leave something alone. Don’t make the past with all its sadnesses, its enormous grievances against us, everything. Leave room for the future, I said, which is where love wants you to live, if it really is love.


My method for writing these blogs after last month’s abecedarium is to keep writing blogs in an alphabetical method. Every so often I may take on a month, and try to write a short essay a day, but in general what I decided was that each essay has to move forward alphabetically from the last. Thus, because the last entry was Hair Dryer, the next entry has to start with I or higher in the alphabet. It’s just a method I made for myself to keep under control the sheer number of subjects I could write about. I like methods at certain points of my writing life. It helped me to have a strict structure last month; my mother was dying and I couldn’t really fall apart or stop teaching or just sleep all day the way I wanted.

Now that it’s nearly May and the bulk of my responsibilities are gone, I might do those things. People keep coming up to me and asking how I’m doing, and I’m quick to say fine, although I keep getting the feeling that people expect or want me to break down in front of them so their expectations for how I should be (based perhaps on how they expect themselves to be) will be satisfied. It’s an odd game. They are good friends and empathetic colleagues and I don’t at all doubt their real concern for me, but I find it weird how, once they’ve asked how I am and I say fine, we hover in a kind of “now what?” space. I think they’re waiting for me to burst into tears or at least confess that I am not fine, I’ve lost my mother, and I want to sleep all day. I don’t worry exactly about it but I do feel myself inspecting my posture, voice, facial muscles to make sure I’m transmitting the right signs: I’m sad but not about to fall apart. Today a neighbor of mine, having just found out that my mother died, said how sorry she was, and then said,

Losing your mother is the worst thing in the world. Your whole life falls apart.

Thanks, I said. Then the weird silence. I half expected to see my house crumble to dust behind me. Luckily it’s allergy season here in Pittsburgh, so my eyes are always watering. Otherwise I would’ve felt a little foolish standing there in my new coat, with my black bag on my shoulder, jauntily going off to the café to work. Without the tears, I might have looked a little heartless, I’m thinking.

Sometimes I assure people that I know it’ll hit me when I least expect it. I’ve gotten particularly irritated by people telling me that. Yes, yes, it will. Just like love, luck, good politics, and an audit, I think. I know they mean well, but really nothing is more disheartening to someone in mourning than being told that he’ll fall apart at a random moment in the future. But I get it, they mean well.

I wish there were a better method of consolation. Maybe there could be a series of pins or banners or armbands, colored-coded like those old gay bandanas that telegraphed what the cruiser wanted. If it was a red bandanna in the right back pocket, that was one signal; if it was a yellow one in left back that was another. I never, frankly, mastered that semaphore, but I always admired it.

I need an armband beyond the old black one, maybe one that signals how much I am consoled by food. So far my favorite consolation has been a small chocolate cake made by a former student, with a card that read “For your mother, who let you eat chocolate cake for breakfast.” I ate that fantastic cake for breakfast for the next three days, and after dinner too for a few nights. Thank you Nour. The cards of course have been lovely, kind. The hugs from friends who have gone through the death of a parent and know how weird it is, how odd it is, how outside all expectation it is, are invitations to a solemn group.

How am I has always been a question for me. It’s the whole reason I’m a writer: I’ve never had a stable sense of who I am, what I am, or how I am. I write in order to have that “momentary stay against confusion,” Frost says in “The Figure A Poem Makes.” I need a method in order to slow down the inordinate possibilities of how I’m doing. I invent myself letter by letter every day.

Hair Dryer

A few nights ago, I had a dream in which I saw a thing–one of those old bubble-headed hairdryers–and thought to myself

That is so funny. I’ll have to tell mom, she’ll get a kick out of that.

And then I thought, in the dream itself, oh, she’s dead now.

So now it’s something the unconscious knows.

Tonight a dream of packing up a house to move. Whose house is it? I don’t know, I just keep packing up blankets mostly, folding flat and fitted sheets the way she taught me to fold from her years as a house cleaner. First of our house, then of others’. In tonight’s dream, there were two cats, one red and one black and gray, neither of them particularly friendly, both of which I had to do something with.

I looked at her in the dream and she didn’t know either what to do. And then I knew it’s her house I’m packing up.

Knowing is a problem now. Always, of course, but mostly we forget that. Mom’s best friend’s daughter wrote me the other day:

“I think there is something about friendships with people who knew you well when you were a child. There is no pretense needed perhaps. They went through a great deal together. Then your mom took on Aunt Mar when my dad put her out. She was so good to Mar. We traveled to the beach a couple of times with carloads of teenage girls; your mom was a hoot, even mooned them in the car! She also helped my dad when he discovered he thought of a gay man as his adopted son. Ken is like my brother, godfather to Vicky’s oldest and another admirer of your mom’s. She touched people in many ways. So glad we had the privilege of knowing her.”

Things I did and didn’t know. A mother I had and didn’t have. A woman even my mother might not have remembered, the way other people sometimes remember your life better than you do, it seems. The way your students remember back to you things you said in a class that really struck them, although you don’t remember saying it at all. What did I say yesterday to a whole roomful of students?

I’ve been working most of my life on small things, the ordinary things, on the belief that everything is mysterious, interwoven with everything else. Who would you be without the rain, Thich Nhat Hahn writes, without the sunlight, the men who pick up your garbage, the workers who make your bread, the workers who framed your windows in a factory maybe in Indiana, who themselves were fed by others and sunlight, and on and on. Who would have guessed that it was seeing the cities of ants broken by men that woke the Buddha? And then the compassionate young woman who offered the simple bowl of rice that tasted so good after his deprivations?

The little things you can grasp and the unimaginable life they form. You say or do something in a moment when you forget yourself, forget propriety or dignity, and it’s how people remember you forever.

Folding strangers’ sheets in Alabama. Those strange old hair dryers we used to sit under reading magazines. Who knows what it will be? Not even you. Sometimes you have to go back to sleep to see anything at all.

False Dawn

At 4 am the birds start up. There’s only one at first, chirping chirping chirping over and over again. By 4:30 others have begun to join in, and the songs get more complicated, overlapping, duelling. Well, we call it singing, but that’s what foreigner invaders always call the language of the natives. There’s a brief outburst of incredibly tangled and fiery trilling and caroling, what sound like challenges and answers, then at 4:45 the single bird is back, chirping chirping chirping. A google search of morning birds makes me think it’s like a mockingbird out there. A bird my mother loved. At one of the answer sites, there’s this comment too:

“Birds sing at that time because of what is called “false dawn” where the light from the sun just barely touches the atmosphere and there is a slight haze to the morning sky that is almost unnoticable to the naked eye…”

I went to bed at about 7:30 pm last night and then woke up around 3 am to some incredibly thoughtless loud-talking twenty-somethings walking down the street. I’ve been listening to the world ever since. Yesterday I got surprised by a bit of grief, I think. I’d come in early for a meeting, and then at the end of that needed to call a man at my mother’s bank in Dallas to give him some information so he could transfer money from her old account into my present one. Everything was fine, of course. I happily rattled off my information. I did notice that he used the words “proceeds” of her estate; I wrote it down on a post-it note I had. It sent a weird shiver up my spine. As if I’d sold her somehow. That wasn’t what he meant at all, of course.

I hung up the phone and went into the second meeting, but already I could tell something was off. I was tired suddenly. Bone-tired. Lie down on the office floor right there and then and go to sleep tired. There wasn’t enough coffee in the world tired. But I went into the meeting, took my place in the back, didn’t ask any questions, fiddled with my phone, barely listened. After the meeting, a few friends came up and said how sorry to hear about my mother. A couple of very nice condolence cards were in my mailbox.

Everybody who’s gone through this said that there will be surprises. Because last week had been so easy in many ways, I thought maybe the rest would be easier than those friends’ times had been. My mother had completely worked out her finances in the past year. She’d given away most everything she didn’t need over the last five years. The sale of the condo she lived in was going through already. It had been warm and green down there in Dallas. It was almost as if I were on a vacation. Or that she was. That particular feeling–that the dead person was only on vacation–is common I’ve read. It’s the way that the mind has already dealt with the loss of that person, I suppose. Which might also account for our versions of Heaven sounding so much like an eternal Club Med.

But that word “proceeds” poked a whole in that illusion, that false dawn. The day before I was so glad to be back to work again, back in my own office, my old schedule, my pens and computer and shelves of books. Life was going on just fine, thanks. For those who asked, I praised my mother’s perspicacity, her determination to set everything order for us so we wouldn’t have the awful work some children have after their parents died. Was I trying too hard? Maybe I was smiling a little too much. Smiling and joking are my first defenses. Sleeping is my second level of reaction, and it is a very powerful one to get around. Tea and coffee seem to make me only sleepier. I was telling my friend Jenny that when I made a quick trip to the supermarket the other day, I ended up buying milk, cheese, butter, cottage cheese. Why all that dairy, I asked out loud, before I caught it and said, “Oh. Mother’s milk.”

It’s a quarter to six now. I have to get up around seven, get the day started. Two weeks of classes to go, I say. Only three classes each. It feels like I’m trudging through the snow to do anything, even while spring has come, the students suddenly in shorts, their white limbs gleaming, tree branches growing shaggy with leaf-buds, the birds beginning to mark out territories we will never notice, all around our houses. Should I get up and eat a bowl of cottage cheese? Should I just roll over and try to grab some last sleep?

Do what you want, she would have said. Take the money and live.

Dirt, Dust, Dog hair

After a week of living and sleeping in clean condos, first my brother’s temporary one, then my mother’s where I began to sleep after she’d died and we’d begun the process of boxing things up, I was disgusted by the amount of dirt, dust, and dog hair I came home to, the amount of sheer crud I’ve let build up around me. My car at the airport fairly stunk of dog when I got to it. It had had a week to stew out there in section 13B where I parked it last Friday. When I got home, I was startled by the sound of grit underfoot in the front hall. The blankets on the couch in the living room were askew, dog toys and bones everywhere. The dining room table where I work when I’m home was cluttered with all sorts of documents, some junk mail, some bills, some old folders with revisions of current manuscripts in them, a wooden platter from Vietnam in the middle holding four small bowls of different spices which had long gone silent.

I need to clean everything, in other words. And I’m overwhelmed already. So of course I’ve run to the coffeehouse where it’s not my job to clean anything, just drink my favorite mahogany-brown tea out of an enormous white cup. Just go and write a thousand words.

There is a part of my brain that says “you’re a writer, not a housecleaner,” with a kind of seriousness that is hard to resist most days. Writing is something I can do, I know. Cleaning the house at this stage seems impossible. Do we have a word for cleaner’s block like we do for writer’s block? I don’t believe in the latter, so I guess I shouldn’t really believe in the former. If a student comes to me complaining of Writer’s Block, I usually give him or her an exercise right then and there, a very specific kind of poem to write, a very specific scene to describe, a jumble of words to make a love poem out of. “See,” I say probably too smugly than I should, “You just need to lower your threshold.”

The mother-voice-in-my-head says–as my mother has always said–when I’ve complained about this, that I should do something similar with my cleaning block: start somewhere very specific. Start small. Do one room at a time, she used to say. Part of the problem is indeed that I want to clean the whole house at once. It’s funny that the thing that I love about writing and hate about cleaning the house is that it never stops, there’s always more. There are periods of temporary satisfaction but they don’t last long. So why do I love writing and not love cleaning?

One thing that’s different is how I “do” them. I used to write only when I was “inspired,” which meant only when something pressed very insistently on my consciousness, when something wanted out. I thought that was how artists worked, how being an artist was supposed to work. But around midlife, I began to write much more consciously, first once a week every week for years, and then (and now) every day for what’s now almost two years. In the first case, it was for a physical group of writer-friends and strangers who were supportive but also put just enough pressure on me to bring out my artist-self. In the second case, it was for a changing distribution list of other writers. My point about all this, however, is that I’ve learned to trust spontaneity now, to finally (as a therapist suggested I should long ago) trust myself in a clutch.

What I noticed about my brother this week and what my mother had always told me is that it’s constant maintenance that makes a clean house. Not a militant, angry maintenance, but an alert attention to things. They’re always picking up things, straightening things, putting things away. Instead of piling dirty dishes around the sink, they do those dishes and put them away right then. Instead of building a hill of paper, they throw things away or file them or shred them. I wait until the amount of dirt makes a sound underfoot. I wait until the sink is full of dishes. Or until someone comes over.

And here is the problem in a nutshell: I work better when I have an audience. In writing, that’s not so hard to do—join a writing group, create an intention group, find people to report and/or perform for regularly. For house-cleaning, what do you do? Make a book club maybe? Start a coffee clatch? Begin a self-help group? (I have been flirting with the idea of private writing tutorials…) Or just invite friends over more? These last two years in which I’ve been more-or-less feeling the stress of my mother’s illness and of my own precarious financial situation, it’s just been me and the dog keeping track of the place. And the dog actually prefers a little dirt in his carpet. (Now that I reread the above, I also have to admit that I’ve always had this problem; I’m just using my mother’s illness to deflect responsibility, which is perhaps the most useful and corrosive thing about the experience.)

So, I’m thinking about implementing some kind of visitor program for a while, to see if I can begin to retrain myself to think about cleaning (doing a little bit every day) as I’ve begun thinking about writing (write a draft of something every day). If I get used to seeing my own house through other people’s eyes, I’m wondering if my own ability to see and change the messiness of my ways might improve.

Are you all invited to come over to my house? No. But it might be a good start for me to personally invite people once a week. (“When do you have free time?” the nervous-writer-in-my-head has already begun to sputter.) In the meantime, I’ve begun asking around for recommendations for a house cleaner who might do the heavy lifting of grime. Maybe I should follow her around (all the recommendations are women), paying her the way I’d pay any therapist, any occupational therapist.


Today I’m boxing up things I want to take from my mother’s house. It doesn’t amount to much on one hand (because it’s not her), and it seems like too much on the other (it’s ten boxes and two trunks). Much of it is kitchenware—baking pans, knives, utensils, special little things like the ceramic green bell pepper she used to keep her tea bags in. “It’s in those little daily things I remember her best,” my brother said Monday when we began the process. Each thing got handled, allowed to release a memory or two, and then got packed. It was achingly archaeological. I was taking an enormous dig, the remains of a once-proud civilization home, home to examine and dream about.

That my brother was going to move this summer anyway is a happy coincidence. In the end, he’d been living in a rented condo in the same complex as our mother to make care for her easier on everyone, but his plan has been to move out of state. He was tired of his job, boxed in by the pettiness of the business world, which paid well but gave him no deep nourishment. Originally we thought Mom would make the move with him, but as she got more and more sick, that became impossible. We armed ourselves with contingency plans; I’d come down and stay with our mother for the summer until we could figure out something else. But then our mother, the master planner, died at exactly the right time to make my brother’s move easy and my life simpler. She was perhaps more in control of things than we thought. Much of what we’ve had to do was simply sign our names on blank spaces on documents she’d set up long ago, and viola! here was the condo and the money she’d managed to save. But of course there are still the smaller things that needed to personally be arranged.

We’ve been eating out a lot these last couple of days, making hard jokes that an outsider might sound cruel. Thai food one night, Indian another, Italian, Vietnamese, all the places my mother would have loved. Even bought an Italian Cream Cake from the local supermarket to eat for breakfast as if we were pampered children whose parents were simply away. Steve’s been handling all the business dealings, for which I am enormously thankful. I sit and sift through things like an anthropologist, weeping occasionally about our lost mother, all of which he’d rather avoid. He’s had to deal directly with the loss everyday for the last two years, since her diagnosis. He looks forward to a new life near water and whatever new work he’ll choose.

Right now, I have the BBC on TV, a station my mother loved. None of us believe in heaven, but if there is one for her, it will probably be British. It’s a comforting thought for me while I wrap her hundred little things in a hundred little hand towels and tea towels and oven mitts. “Thank you,” I say to each thing that made her life easier in some way. I take a number of them into my service now, as if I were a king who will shelter these objects in exile. Who knows if I’ll ever make muffins? Who knows what I’ll do with these pieces of my inheritance? Some things I’ll give away to friends who embody something of my mother—kindness, practicality, strength, a deep morality, a wicked humor. Some things I’ll figure out a way to keep around, shifting my own life to make room for hers as I take her in at last.


My mother posing for her photo at a Denny’s in 2011.

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