Hitting the Road Instead of the Books (p5)

18 07 2018

It was over an hour since we left the Twine Ball. An enormous smile still graced my lips, as the sun warmed my bare arm cantilevered out the driver’s side window. The pinnacle of our trip had just happened, and we were riding the high from Darwin, Minnesota, heading north to see the World’s Largest Prairie Chicken. Life was good.


That’s when it hit me. The corners of my mouth dropped abruptly as I realized what we had done. “Oh my goodness…” I turned to my copilot, “We FORGOT ABOUT GWENDOLYN!” Jamie turned his head to glance at the back of the bus, where her white head peaked over the bench seat. Her two little black eyes stared blankly back at us.


Indeed, in all the excitement, clamoring to rush out and see the World’s Largest Ball of Twine, we completely forgot to get Gwendolyn out of the car for her own photo with the Ball. We were the worst lawn-ornament-kidnappers ever. We were just a week into our road trip, and had already established a pattern of taking anonymous photos of our kidnapped goose to be mailed back to her family in Michigan, and clearly the Ball of Twine was going to be the highlight. “Should we turn around?” we debated. No, we had ground to cover, and a Twine Ball postcard from Gwendolyn would just have to be enough.


Our day wasn’t over yet, and we were determined to make it up to Gwen at out next stop: Rothsay, MN. We had another hour and a half to go before our arrival at the World’s Largest Prairie Chicken. Unlike the Twine Ball, this next mecca was not a real live article of wonder, but more of an homage to the prairie chicken. In 1975, Rothsay was designated “Prairie Chicken Capital of Minnesota.” This statue of a booming prairie chicken was designed and built by Art Fosse and his community. The 9,000 pound chicken towers at 13 feet tall and 18 feet long. It was placed on this site to honor the actual prairie chickens that are historically native to this area. We thought that this might even be more meaningful to Gwendolyn, given her own heritage as a ceramic goose. Hopefully she would forgive our earlier mistake once she saw what we had in store for her!


Though still sunny, the wind cut across the prairies, buffeting Sam from side to side. Driving a 1969 VW Bus is a bit like driving a brick wall in terms of aerodynamics. I was grateful for our stop to take a break from driving, and we pulled up, the only vehicle around. Jamie and I walked up to read the plaque, with Gwendolyn waiting patiently for her turn. Honestly, the statue was pretty ugly, but it wasn’t my opinion that mattered. We were here for Gwen. I set up my camera with the timer, and we ran up for our photo op.


Then it was Gwen’s turn. She had to be in the photo by herself, so that her family wouldn’t know the identity of her kidnappers. I set her up on the concrete ledge, right below the massive chicken, and ran back 15 feet. I crouched down in order to take her photo and get the entirety of the statue in my field of view. I snapped her portrait, so proud of her ability to commune with her distant relative. Just as I stood up to walk back over to her, a big gust of wind blew across the field.


Like it was in slow motion, Jamie and I both watched in horror as Gwendolyn’s concrete feet tipped up, and we ran, screaming, “NOOOOO!” but we were too late. Before we could reach her in time, we heard the loud CRACK as her head hit the concrete, shattering. I felt like bursting into tears.


We began picking up the pieces of our new friend, as her one beady eye stared coldly back at me, still attached to her beak and about a third of her head. The back of her skull was crushed into smithereens, as it took the brunt of the force. Her neck, surprisingly broke into rather large slivers, and I could begin to see how the puzzle once was a goose. We grabbed a bag from the bus and poured her pieces into it, carrying the bag and the headless body back to the bus to regroup.


I was not willing to give up on her. Gwendolyn, I vowed, would be resuscitated. We loaded up, buckled our seatbelts, and continued our journey. We had just enough time to reach our campsite before dark, with one added stop along the way.


In 1998 it was still challenging in rural Minnesota to find a place to get your film developed in just an hour, which was critical given our pace of travel. Wal-Mart was our regular spot, which allowed us to find medical supplies for Gwen’s recovery. As the film clerk developed the eerily fateful photo taken just hours earlier, Jamie and I scoured the store, brainstorming about what we could use to mend our friend. We ended up buying superglue, plater of paris, grey spray paint, and a scrap of green fabric.


That night, as we settled into our campground, it was triage time. I got to work gluing the big pieces back together, assessing which fragments were too small to be of use. Jamie stuffed her hollow neck with plastic bags to create a core, over which he applied the plaster to fill in between the super glued pieces. With a screwdriver, he carefully scored the smooth plaster surface in an attempt to blend in with her feathered pattern elsewhere on her body. Finally, as her new neck began to firm, we rubbed grey paint across her bionic feathers, to match her original mottled coloring.


Her scars were evident to us, and obviously she herself was traumatized. The next morning, I fashioned a tiny kerchief from the scrap of fabric, to enable her to heal in privacy. Gwen looked almost as good as new. We asked her if she wanted to continue with us on this perilous journey, and she bravely concurred. Onward, to the West!!


“Heat Wave”

3 07 2018

a cool breeze lifts the heat from my stomach

one droplet of sweat at a time.

My torso lies still against this orange patterned towel,

A damp, half inch layer between my skin and the grass.

My toes hang off, blades of grass tickling

The overheated surface of my skin.

The sun shoots across my pupils, quickly,

As I shift my weight to rest my tired arms.

The book in my hands, servings as an umbrella,

Gives a little shade to my warm, lazy smile.

Turning onto my naked side, I peer out

To see my beautiful beach mate resting too.

Her curves glisten in the unrelenting heat,

Sweat dancing across colorful tattoos.

She senses my gaze and opens her eyes with a smile.

Despite the heavy heat, a chill runs down my spine

As I relish in her refreshing love.

It’s the most amazing way I could ever imagine

To suffer from a record heat wave at a Michigan lake.




Hitting the Road Instead of the Books (p4)

26 06 2018

(Read Part 1, Part 2, & Part 3)

The first week of our big road trip was filled with familiar landscape, down paved roads lined with oak and maple trees, just barely starting to transition from green to yellow and orange. The air was crisp in the mornings, but the sunshine streamed in that giant bay window in the afternoons as I drove westward.

A virtual ‘orange-a-topia’ awaits us

We began to develop a comfortable routine, with some small adjustments to our daily packing. We didn’t spend more than a night in any town, and most nights were spent planning the next day’s route over a dimly lit road map, with our 3-inch-thick printed USA campground directory. We had fun sharing our quaint Midwestern novelties with Gwendolyn the goose, but were most excited to gain distance from Michigan, to start reaching less familiar territory.


darwin_mnThe night we reached the border to Minnesota, we were giddy with excitement. Tomorrow, we could hardly believe it, we would finally get to experience the Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota in person! We didn’t know how much of Weird Al’s song would ring true, and what was simply written in satire. Would there BE a souvenir miniature ball of twine?? Surely, at the very least, we would be able to give them our money to receive postcards and a bumper sticker, which would be added to the growing collage of stickers covering the windows of the bus.

worlds largest ball of twine starter kit souvenir darwin mn

The next morning, we rose with the sun, ate a cold bowl of cereal followed by a hot shower, and packed up the bus for Darwin, Minnesota. I buckled my seat belt, stepped on the metal pedal to the right to prime the carb, and fired up the engine. “Today’s the day, Gwen!” I hollered over my shoulder to our beloved travel companion. She rode in the back of the bus, gently perched atop a pillow like the royalty that she was. She smiled back at me from the rearview mirror, and off we went!


Jamie gripped the curled and tattered edges of the atlas to keep the wind from turning the pages, as he navigated us down two-line country roads. Darwin is not exactly a thriving metropolis, and getting there definitely required the scenic route. We didn’t have an actual address for the Ball of Twine, and were simply driving towards the tiny black dot on the map, hoping we’d be able to figure it out without too much difficulty.


The sun was shining strong, casting heavy shadows straight down when we turned onto County Rd. 14 at noon. We had been listening to our Weird Al cassette tape on repeat for an hour straight, joyfully singing at the top of our lungs, the song that brought us to this day. There, in the middle of the tiny town square, stood the wooden pagoda, just as it had been described. 21,140 pounds of string (according to Weird Al), sheltered in a plexiglass-sided shrine, with all the glory of a miraculous piece of toast with a Jesus profile burnt into it. I pulled over to the side of the road, parked the bus, and out we leapt.


I pulled out my camera, double checked that I had film in it, and began to document this glorious culmination of years of planning. There was a large sign next to the pagoda that substantiated the facts shared in the song, along with additional historical information, all of which is still permanently burned into my brain to this very day. Francis A. Johnson was a farmer who got a bit carried away with his excess baling twine, developing a ball that eventually required a tractor to rotate it with each new addition of twine, in order to create this perfect sphere. For 29 years, he worked on his art. He originally housed it at the farm, until the Ball’s infamy prompted a relocation to the town’s center, so that all 276 residents could enjoy its majestic glory.


Just 7 years earlier, I could have actually reached out and touched the Ball with my own flesh, to truly commune with the Twine, but, alas, the high security required in the 1990s led to the protective layer of plexiglass. It was disappointing, but I respected that this was for the good of the Ball.


Grinning like a giddy child, I circumnavigated the pagoda, to ensure that I captured every fathomable vantage point, before walking across the street to the nearby visitors bureau. Inside, I was greeted by a cramped little welcome center, replete with all the terrible tschotchkes I had hoped for. I bought the blue button, 10 postcards, a mini ball of twine, and, of course, 2 large, rectangular bumper sticker to affix to my bus, Sam.


With tears of joy, we sat outside in the grass to enjoy our peanut butter sandwiches while staring at the Ball of Twine. When we finished our al fresco lunch, we waved farewell to Darwin, and headed north. Just in case you are still planning your summer vacation, the town’s “Twine Ball Days” festival is in August!


Next up? World’s Largest Prairie Chicken!


Father’s Day

18 06 2018

I posted earlier on social media about my best wishes to all the great fathers out there today. This day, the day before my birthday, is the almost 38th anniversary of the day that I entered into this crazy world as the best Father’s Day present ever given to a man by his beloved wife. The first daughter, after two sons. The period to end their nuclear quest for a quintessential American family. After this day, they had satisfied the quota for kids, and they were done.


On this day, I mourn the loss of my father. Not the physical man- who, as far as I know, still exists in some shell of his former self- but the man who was the father I knew. That man disappeared long before he abandoned myself, my two adult brothers, and his ex-wife.

fathers day

After escaping a scorching afternoon with a heat index above 100F, I relaxed with my wife and our pets to watch some feel-good movie in our home. I forgot for a few hours that today was anything different from any other Sunday. And then I checked my phone. Friends and family posted the most beautiful comments about how much my dad was missing out by choosing to forget that we ever existed. Their words, so well-intentioned, caused unexpected waves of emotion to well up inside my eyes, like high tide in my soul, foaming over my eyelashes like tiny hermit crabs scrambling, wide-eyed, for safety.


“That was cold-blooded,” she said, referring to the stark end of the movie we had just finished. I was already on the other side of the wall, and although I heard her clearly, my mind was fogged by the flood of emotions overwhelming my brain. “Cold?” I thought, like the man who packed up his third wife, two new children, precious paraphernalia from his glory days, and fled the state with enough money to start over someplace where nobody would judge him. Where we would never find him.


Today, I hope that the man who shared his DNA with me was able to find some joy. I hope that, despite his sadly sore ego, he could find the strength to convincingly tell his tiny daughters that he loved their Father’s Day presents. I hope that his young, Malaysian wife’s eyes shone at him without despair or resentment, even though the rich American life she bought into still has not come to fruition. I hope that he feels truly like the “World’s Best Dad,” even though his first three children have no idea where their father is today. In my father’s eyes, he has a clean slate. Tomorrow I turn 38.


My father is now 73 or 74, with two children in elementary school. I do not know my half-sisters. I mourn for their inevitable loss, because I have already lost my father as a young adult, but they will likely suffer this loss as children. This father’s day, I wish for all to never know the loss of a father, for as long as possible.


13 06 2018

About six years ago, a dear friend of mine moved to Sweden. It was quite a departure from her life in San Antonio, Texas, where she had moved after we graduated Architecture school together in Austin. In fact, winter in Austin was just slightly cooler than summer in Stockholm, where she now calls home.


For years, I had been meaning to prioritize heading there to see her and her husband, Carl. It just kept being pushed to the back burner for more adventurous trips that aligned better with our travel matrix. You see, as an avid traveler, with a modest budget, I can only make it so many places in a given year. Usually I try to travel to places that are higher on my list, which is a pretty simple assessment.


Top Travel Priorities =

  1. Places at risk of disappearing due to climate change (already checked off the Maldives, Glacier National Park, and the Everglades)
  2. Places that require very long travel times (Asia, Australia, very remote islands, etc.), which are easier to handle while my body is young, and will be more painful if I wait until I’m older to explore.
  3. Once-in-a-lifetime events and cheap deals that are too good to pass up. (Solar Eclipse in Paducah, KY is a local example, or visiting a friend in the Peace Corp in Ouagadougou, which I regret missing out on)


So, when I heard an interview last fall on NPR about silly-cheap flights to the Nordic regions, I had to explore. Apparently, Norwegian Air was offering round trip flights for as little as a few hundred bucks, which was less than half of my first European travel back in 2001! Online I went to explore the possibility.


At first, it seemed too good to be true! $400 to fly to see Raina and Carl? Totally worth it! As I worked my way through the airline’s website, however, I was nickeled and dimed to death, with add-ons for so many ridiculous things that mainstream airlines like Delta or American Airlines don’t pester customers with. Eventually, I made it to the final page, with the “no-turning-back” button staring me down. As I prepared to click to book the flight, I was accostsed with yet another pop up. “Want to pay with credit card?” It taunted, “That’ll  just be another $33 fee!” This was the last straw.

I opened another tab and did a quick search. Turkish Airlines, which we had flown last year to Sri Lanka, was all-inclusive, and just about $500. It was worth it to know I had an assigned seat, room for my luggage, and even free drinks on the flight! Plus- BONUS- I had enough reward points from my credit card hobby to buy both our tickets without spending a dime!!


Thus, our trip was booked! Free flight, free accommodations (thanks to Raina and Carl for putting us up in their office/spare room!), so we just had to pay for meals, entertainment, and local transportation. My wife and I were very much looking forward to a different kind of vacation, with the ease and comfort of knowing locals, and a cultural experience more like our own than different.


What I discovered, was a bit surprising. This is very much my personal experience, which reflects my own travel history moreso than Sweden’s generous offerings.arctic circle


Sweden is north.


Really far north. Like, “further-up-than-most-of-the-country-of-Canada” north. Which means the sun plays tricks with your body, by doing things like making the sky light at 3am (or 10am, depending on the time of year). While it technically rose at 4:30am, the sky begins to glow for hours before and after the official existence of the sun in the sky. This seemed like no biggie, but after tacking up extra curtains, wearing an eyemask (thank you for the freebie, Turkish Airline!), and covering my head with a pillow, the sun was no match for my body’s incessant alignment to the cycles of the sun. I slept well every second or third day, which made it tougher to fully enjoy our daily excursions.

Sweden is soooo easy.

Never in a million years did I expect this to come out of my mouth, but our vacation was almost TOO easy for me. I didn’t realize how much I enjoy the challenge of learning a new language, adapting to other countries’ cultures, and the challenges of figuring out how things work. This is definitely a sensation that has evolved over years of traveling to less and less developed parts of the world. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a lazy day where I can relax, order a beverage in my native tongue, and not have a care in the world. But I also (apparently) really enjoy the challenges of foreign travel. Maybe it just makes for better stories.

There’s no language barrier.

In Stockholm, as in many large European cities, everybody speaks English. Here, it’s partly because they have free college education as citizens. Even when we tried speaking Swedish, people responded to us in English, which, as a language lover, was sometimes disappointing. Clearly, I’m privileged as a native English speaker, but it was also beautiful to see so many other visitors from countries all over the world speaking in their native language, and then switching to English (instead of Swedish) to order a meal.


Cars not required.

Our friends and hosts, Raina and Carl, do not own a car. They live and work in a place where they can either walk, bike, or take the metro every single day. Even when we wanted to escape to the country, we could do so by simply taking one of many ferries out through the archipelago to a remote island, knowing that there was a regular schedule to allow us to return home at regular intervals. Never once did I feel ‘stuck’ without a car, because their transportation system is so interconnected, frequent, and redundant, that at almost any point we had multiple options of how we wanted to get home.

Stockholm was inviting.

This city is extremely clean, feels very safe, and most importantly, it has good urban design.


As an Architect, I relish in discovering the dichotomy of ancient ruins, historically preserved buildings, and modern infill. Yet, unlike other major European cities I’ve been to, Stockholm feels much more preserved. It’s not that there is no modern design, but that the scale is kept in check with historic neighbors. There is not a ‘downtown’ filled with skyscrapers, in fact,  there are seldom any buildings taller than the predominant 5-8 stories. Instead, new construction is respectful, and typically built no higher than the tallest neighbor, which is often a church steeple from 400 years ago. The city has maintained a human scale, where you feel like you still matter. This makes it feel like a much smaller city than Indianapolis, despite having 50% more residents.


The density of the built environment n Stockholm is much more consistent, versus the skyscraper cluster that transitions into single family homes in less than a mile of downtown Indy. Single family homes are rare in Stockholm, and our friends owned a flat in a 4 or 5 story apartment building with a beautiful courtyard filled with bicycle parking.

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People MOVE here.

I’m not talking about immigration, although they DO have an unbelievable program that paid for Raina to take a year of intensive language courses specific to her field of expertise so that she could be a fully productive member of their society.


No, I’m taking about how people get around. I mentioned the mass transit, and referenced the bikes, but it really is amazing to see just how little cars are used here. It took me a few days to put my finger on it, but when I did, it was truly eye opening. After spending endless hours walking the cobblestone streets of the chain of islands that make up Stockholm, we sat at an outdoor cafe, joined by others willing to brave the chilly 61F temps to celebrate winter’s passing.


31403986_2000446300037984_1177753822146862086_nWith a glass of wine in hand, we sat and watched the boats pass by, the regular trains over bridges, and the abundance of pedestrians. I started watching more closely to observe the footwear of those who clearly were walking to or from work. What I noticed was starkly contrasting to what I would see back home. Unlike the business professionals in Indy, the very stylish Swedes made one small concession. They wore comfortable shoes. Think about this. Not a single woman walked past us wearing high heels. They were just too impractical! Instead, women wore sneakers- all of them! They might have fancier shoes at work to change into, but nobody was judged for wearing logical shoes on their walk to work. And you can see the difference in how fit everyone is!


There’s room to breathe.

One of the very unique aspects of Stockholm is that is is made up of a series of islands. Each island is connected via numerous bridges and tunnels, and many waterfronts are also lined with public parks and trails for biking and walking. While many of these parks are narrow strips of green, the interstitial space between the islands effectively functions like additional park space. No matter how dense the buildings are, you are seldom more than a 15 minute walk to a waterfront, which functions as a ‘release’ from the density. It gives your mind and body space to breathe, and enough visual distance for beautiful vistas that encourage you to slow down and enjoy the view.

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People Matter.

Hands down, the most fascinating thing to me about our experience in Sweden was the culture.  It left me so impressed, I can imagine why people want to live here, despite the dayless winters and nightless summers.


Taxes are high, and they have the social support system to prove it. For example, I saw more men pushing baby strollers on any given day than I have seen in the US in any given year. Swedes get 14 months paid leave when they have a baby! They also value work-life balance. When you work overtime, it gets banked as extra vacation time, on top of the 4 weeks of standard vacation folks already get. And your boss expects you to actually take all that vacation time!


Lastly, I have one word for you. FICA (pronounced “Fee-kuh”). Fica is a national concept that every employee, EVERYWHERE, takes a mid-morning break, where it’s practically mandatory for you to leave your desk, grab a coffee, and socialize with your coworkers for 15-25 minutes. Then, in mid-afternoon, you do it again. We actually went to Raina’s architecture firm to witness a Fica, and it was surreal. They even play ping-pong like socialists. Everyone grabbed a paddle, walks in a circle around the table, and takes one turn to hit the ball before continuing forward to make room for the next player. It felt like I was in a commune (but in a good way, and much cleaner). I’ve now taken it upon myself (as a person who eats lunch at my desk while working) to embrace this concept of Fica and bring it back to Indianapolis.

All-in-all, we had a very enjoyable experience. I didn’t even get into the specific sites and attractions Sweden offers, but that’s what your ‘big box’ travel sites are for! If you’re looking for a nice entry to oversees travel, I highly recommend it. Or if you just want an easy place to wander, you’ll never feel lost in Sweden. Say “Hi!” to Raina and Carl for us!

Hitting the Road Instead of the Books (p3)

11 06 2018

(See Part 1 & Part 2)

The early days of the big road trip required a bit of adjusting, as I learned how to live (not just camp out for a couple of days) inside my Volkswagen Bus with another human being. We spent a lot of time strategizing how to maximize our storage in ever nook and cranny, while leaving enough space to not feel claustrophobic. The original Westfalia conversion was designed with some smart features, like a dining table that folds down flat against the wall, a narrow closet and pantry along the opposite wall, and a cargo net above the mattress for pillows and blankets. Most importantly, the rear bench seat folds out into the bed, and is surprisingly comfortable and functional!

At night, when I parked the bus in the campsite, we developed a fairly quick process to migrate stuff from the back of the bus to the driver’s seat, to make room for preparing dinner. I was a lousy cook, but thankfully Jamie was far more experienced than I. Still, given our limited space for food storage, and few kitchen tools- a single burner, one pot, and one pan- our repertoire was pretty limited. We ate a lot of boxed mac n’ cheese. A LOT. I’m surprised my skin didn’t turn orange, given the high quality of ingredients we were consuming.


One night, we pulled into a campground on a chilly evening just as dusk settled. Jamie stepped out to the picnic table and got to work boiling water for another riveting round of mac n’ cheese while I rearranged the bus for sleeping. When I poked my head out to check on dinner, I was greeted by an unexpected stranger!

A rustling the dark preceded a flash of orange, as he lept onto the picnic table to greet us. This incredibly friendly orange cat began brushing his giant head against my outstretched hand,  and quickly warmed his way into our hearts. As the frost began to settle, we worried about this cat being left out in the cold. I debated letting him sleep in the bus with us, but was concerned about fleas. Our bleeding hearts got the best of us, so we decided on a compromise. I opened up the door and called out, “Here kitty, kitty!” He bounded onto the wooden table like he already knew what I was about to do. As I set down the bowl of leftover mac and cheese, our new friend wasted no time lapping up his hard earned treat.

(Note: In order to protect their identity, images of the cat and the KOA are portrayed by actors)

Good deed done for the day, I snuggled into my puffy Kmart sleeping bag, grateful for a warm meal in my belly and residual heat from the engine compartment below our feet. I dozed off into dreaming about what great adventures lie ahead.



I woke from my slumber, confused and sleepy.

[Tap.. tap… tap] A tinny sound appeared to move over my head.

Now I knew I wasn’t dreaming. Wide awake, I wrestled my arms from my sleeping bag to poke Jamie from his sleep. “Did you hear that??” I whispered.

“Hrmm?” he came to.

“There was a sound outside. I think something is on top of the bus!” I whispered more urgently. My heart was bounding. Here we are, in a strange state, in a strange campground, with just a handful of other campers. What kind of Fargo nightmare was out there?!?

We both paused and listened intensely. I heard another loud thump, but this time it sounded heavier, more like wood. I sat up and lifted the curtain up 2 inches, and peaked out the side window. There, on the picnic table, stood our little friend. He sat there, staring at me. “I think he wants more food!” I hissed. Then he leaped up onto the roof of the bus, pacing from front to back.


I’m not sure how long that cat was up there, but he was pretty persistent. I think he worked for the mafia. Eventually, sometime before sunrise, he gave up and left us alone. I definitely did not sleep well that night, and I decided that maybe feeding feral animals outside our vehicle was not the smartest idea. This trip was already fulfilling its destiny by teaching me valuable life lessons!




June on a Trampoline

3 06 2018

Dappled June days

Sprinkle across my page,

As would-be trees blow past,

Dancing with thin leaves and debris.

Lazing at the intersection of two fronts,

I enjoy the warmth of the sun

With the cool of the breeze,

A pleasure that brings me to supine.

I could lay here for hours

Watching shadows dance with anonymity.

A cabaret of nature at her finest,

Sultry, twisted, and alluring.

The “swish-swish” of the leaves blowing above

While I lay suspended in mid-air.

My every movement echoes on fabric

Like waves across a taut lake.

I float as if one of those seed pods,

Breeze encircling my golden body,

Feeling rife with potentials of spring,

And truly part of the season.




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