Category Archives: Christmas

All I Want

christmas-tree“What’s the best gift you’ve received?” is a get-to-know-you question I’ve encountered a couple of times. I have no answer. It may say everything about me that the opposite question—my worst gift—would be easier. At my age, Christmas doesn’t bring the sort of material anticipation it once did. I’m curious to see how my family likes what I’ve chosen for them. I hope I’ve done a good job shopping.

All my shopping is over now, which may be my answer to the question that starts this post. I’m grateful. Today Chicago is sunny but especially cold. The thermometer reads 7° F (-14° C) with a wind-chill of -7° (or -22° C). Past a certain point, all temperatures are abstract, but few people seem to be braving the air. Retailers would like it warmer, I’m sure, but I’m appreciative. Perhaps my family will stay in. Both children are home from college, but their schedules and our schedules mean we haven’t spent much time together yet.

I’m a homebody, and, even if we’re all lounging about reading or roaming online, I love company. And calm. Life travels at such a pace it’s hard to focus on any face for long and landscapes blur. The people who make money on this season prefer us frenetic. They like us to feel discontent standing still.

This time of year I watch sappy Christmas movies that follow a familiar pattern: a man or woman made incomplete by a recent tragedy or loss comes in contact with someone new (supernatural or natural) and becomes complete again just in time for December 25th. They find love or family or family and love. The plots reveal a deficit in our lives. We’re damaged, and nothing will mend us but addition. At least these movie remedies aren’t material. No character is made whole by an iPad or Mercedes under a giant red bow or jewelry from Jared.

As predictable as these stories are, they’re comforting. Normally I can’t abide cliché and formula, but they’re a balm to my fretting. With no great loss to overcome, no big blank where someone should be, no desire to meet an angel or Santa or any of his relatives, you’d think me immune, but I’m not sure any of us are. We’d like to believe things could be more right, all of us. Which is another way of saying nothing is quite enough.

“It’s the thought that counts,” I’ve heard over and over, and maybe we need some emblem to take the place of warm thoughts about loved ones. Yet Christmas, as practiced by most of us, is just as much an expression of discontent, a desire that, for one day at least, we might possess all we want, including items we haven’t thought to want yet. Of course, it’s absurd. Even if we could be sated—humans seldom are—no thing will make us so or make us so for long.

Yet, though I’ve celebrated many Christmases, I don’t lose hope that tranquility might come. The paradox runs deep—I never stop yearning for that momentary release from yearning—but, in the end, it’s the possibility of comfort that possesses me this season.

Sneer at my idealism if you like. Make fun of my affection for “All I Want for Christmas,” “Snowglobe,” and “A Holiday Engagement”—I don’t feel so good about my need for sentimentality myself—but all I really want for Christmas is to stay out of the cold, to revel in my family, to stand still, to find peace.

I’m wishing you the same.

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On Being Dickensian

96h07/fion/3340/exp1576Others must know Dickens better than I do and must be better able to channel him, but I wouldn’t mind being called “Dickensian.” The term evokes, for me, a great and amassing gravitas akin to amber gathering antiquity in a golden orb and turning it crystal. Putting aside the man (because I’ve written about that before), his style entices, seduces, and embraces. It makes another sort of time and place entirely imaginary.

This time of year, I often reread A Christmas Carol and watch the words roll like loose cannon balls on the deck of a storm-beset ship. They head somewhere according to shifts of direction and pitch just the sea knows:

The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slyly down at Scrooge out of a Gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there. The cold became intense. In the main street at the corner of the court, some labourers were repairing the gas-pipes, and had lighted a great fire in a brazier, round which a party of ragged men and boys were gathered: warming their hands and winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture. The water-plug being left in solitude, its overflowing sullenly congealed, and turned to misanthropic ice.

Dicken’s prose takes its time, rolling in and out of personification—the “gruff” bell, the tower “peeping,” its “teeth chattering in its frozen head” inside clouds—and then tumbling toward some other detail of the vast scene—those laborers who are “winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture.” The vision of the narration roves, staring at each detail with equal intensity, bringing all of it into intimate focus. The “sullenly congealed” ice is “misanthropic,” caught unawares. With Dickens, everything seems caught in a beam of peculiar light, revealing itself as if never seen.

Of course I know the story of A Christmas Carol well—seemingly everyone does—and, even if they didn’t, they might know its skeleton, the tale of a lost man, the heavy-handed turn toward sentimentality as, from the dark, some barely lit candle gutters. I imagine that’s what some writers despise about Dickens, his insistence on resolution, the sort that rescues hope from deep, really too interesting, cynicism. Those writers must sense Dickens at the wheel, gripping against the wind and turning his ship too deftly aright.

Last summer, I reread A Tale of Two Cities and felt what many unsympathetic readers must, that Dickens gets his characters into trouble only to get them out. He makes few, if any, truly, truly dangerous moves and only ones that later will seem as poised on promise as disaster.

I rejoice at the end of A Christmas Carol, but I also hear desperate self-assurance in it, Dickens consoling himself as much as us:

Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms.  His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

Did Dickens hear ridicule as he wrote? Did he recognize the incredible reform and alteration in Scrooge stretching beyond the bounds of his creation? Did he sense laughter licking at him? Did he see what others might, the character’s turn is too complete, an evolution that must be anticipated to be actualized? Dickens says skeptics would “wrinkle up their eyes in grins” at Scrooge but that someone might like that as much as “the malady in other forms.” What forms? What malady? What did Dickens himself consider and experience? How did he wrinkle his own eyes, before setting them aright? Was this fabricated redemption actually “quite enough for him”?

And maybe that’s the answer to his elliptical prose. He is always approaching and retreating, trying to stay true and trying to satisfy. I love that in him, the friction under his movement—the dragging and the soaring, the hard stare and the light laugh.

When I was a ninth grader, my teacher assigned Great Expectations and I read it in a weekend, the longest book I’d devoured up until then. I remember putting it down Sunday night and regretting I’d never be able to read it again for the first time. I’ve reread Dickens—especially A Christmas Carol—many times since, but I’ve come no closer to the secret he’s keeping, whether he transcended the melancholy he hints and made more than fiction from redemption.

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Season’s Thoughts

EZ 1850Q OPENSometimes I wonder if others feel as I do, like a person standing in front of an open refrigerator full of food, confused about what to want.

I read somewhere that, when you’re truly hungry, anything will do. The rest is appetite only, desire rather than need. That must be so. A healthy person appreciates what life presents and recognizes the best choices as necessities, fulfillment, not whim or chance or craving.

But, if so, then I’m not healthy, another 21st century person restless for something new. My cravings leave me feeling spoiled, ungrateful, and crass, annoying to tolerate and so entirely lost as to be hardly worth correcting. I supply internal reminders—be thankful, be thankful, be thankful. You’re lucky, you’re lucky, you’re lucky. You need no more.

Please tell me I’m not alone. As often as I prompt myself to gratitude, I still sense some deficit, something denied, and I search and search for what “something” might be. I like to think it isn’t just self-absorption. Nothing is quite right. This refrigerator doesn’t seem mine. Its contents look like a stranger’s idea of appealing, and what I’m supposed to want doesn’t match any true longing. I want, and what I expect and hope is always just out of reach, impossible to grasp.

Maybe my complaints try your patience, but listen. I wonder if I ought to be adjusting the world instead of myself. My default position is that my problems arise from my deficits, my inability to deal with what life deals me. Yet what if the world is the trouble, if thinking I’m the trouble allows the world to persist in its pathologies, to stymie all my chances at satisfaction, and to disrupt gratitude? What if I’ve been duped to accept discontent as means to more effective marketing?

Maybe my restless desire for more isn’t wholly my doing.

It sounds ridiculous to say so, but we take so much onto ourselves now: the issue isn’t what creates stress but how we deal with it, the issue isn’t the outrageous misdistribution of wealth but our own materialistic definition of success, the issue isn’t advertising but our susceptibility to it, the issue isn’t our laments but our lamenting. The real truth may be—in all these cases—both, but what does our owning so much of the problem get us? How can we improve the world if we always feel it’s we who need improving?

Thanksgiving has passed. Christmas lies ahead. Over the next few weeks, I expect to be bombarded by all I ought to want, and I expect some of it will convince me. But I’m going to try to keep the door closed, to decide for myself when to open it.

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A Christmas Message

Burning Christmas candlesI’ve been thinking recently about necessities fulfilled without human notice—the season change, the hibernation of plants, the sleepy obedience of animals, the shifts in daylight and night and all the planet’s other restless but essential motions. Other animals do what nature requires much more than we do. We set ourselves apart and operate as if noticing were a burden.

Truthfully, we follow necessity too. The tides of sleeping and waking pull us daily. We sense the shifts of clouds overhead as they extinguish the gentle warmth sun lends a cold day. We smell cooking when the wind wheels to a new direction, and some deep hunger stirs, bigger than the promise of food. We hear a bird cry in the cold and can’t help feeling how out of place its solitary song appears, how strange we feel in empathy.

But maybe I’m speaking for myself. A few weeks ago, some beloved readers commented on the despair they hear in me, the “vague loneliness” of “some melancholia or something heavy-pressing on the soul.” I try to laugh too (in my muted, sardonic way), but I suppose they’re right. It’s in the cadence of my posts, in my quiet enthusiasms and fitful peevishness, in stoic descriptions of shadow and weak sun. I guess this time of year stretches me out, attenuates pleasures I know I ought to appreciate more.

Which makes it important to compose what I hoped to today—a Christmas message. You see, I am appreciative. My faith in humanity wavers, days seldom deliver the joy I hope, and the frictions of existence chafe me endlessly. Still, I care about you. It will sound silly—corny even—to say so, but I never greet another person without real warmth. Though I can’t always show it, meeting another mind is such consolation and relief to me. When someone is open to talk, I’m equally open, and I love to hear a student’s latest lament about an unfair question or quiz, a cabby’s story of his biggest fare, a colleague’s memory of a disappointing fourth birthday, or a stranger’s gratitude when I give him the dollar he asks. And, though I sometimes have to withdraw from the world to meet it again, I don’t really like being alone, either in my thoughts or in my affections.

I’m especially appreciative of family—extended and nuclear—that accepts me as I am and doesn’t ask me to pretend to more. They forgive me when I need it and prod me when I need it and reassure me when I need it and offer me solace when I need it. They keep me, in the absolute sense of that word—to hold, protect, preserve, and cherish. And I try to keep them as well… partly by keeping Christmas.

Christmas doesn’t mean anything to some people and everything to others, but it’s just a day. The frontier of dawn races around the planet as it always does. People wake to jobs and responsibilities, to troubles, to tiny disasters and private triumphs and loss and love. The dishes shuffle. Mouths and minds fill with words and empty again. Eyes drift over the familiar and unfamiliar, storing it all.

But, even if you regard Christmas as the sorriest excuse for materialism and an emblem of Christian myopia, indulge me at least this Christmas message. I meet you today with peace and love. I’m grateful for you. And I mean to appreciate the world more.

Merry Christmas.

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Comin’: The Calvinist Strains of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”

200px-MerryOldSantaI have an odd holiday tradition of writing a parody of a critical essay about a Christmas carol each December. Maybe it’s revenge for the five-paragraph literary essays I read all year, maybe it’s a perverse desire to fight back against a song I’ve heard 238, 243 times. Whatever it is, here it is:

Though giddy carolers yearly celebrate the jolly figure Michel Fousault once called, “that nitrous oxide huffing gelatinous mass,” some say Santa took a decidedly Puritan turn in 1934 when Eddie Cantor first sang “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” on radio. Children who never expected the avuncular cookie-cruncher to make good on his punitive threats suddenly faced a leaner, meaner John Brown-style Santa, a Santa as intimate with the fragility of salvation as Jonathan Edwards, a fiery judge, a vigilant killjoy, an Old Testament avenger. Modern listeners may accept this horrifying tale of predestination and the inevitable naughtiness of humanity as just so much accompaniment for egg nog chugging contests, but Christmas carol scholars know—Santa Claus is coming to town, and he’s bringing a bag full of damnation.

The first three words of the song set the tone—“You better not”—and so begins its long series of not-so-veiled threats. Among the forbidden actions are “crying” and “pouting,” but what this Santa really decries is any complaint. Fate is inexorable, and the song prepares children for disappointment when, fallen human nature assured by their postlapsarian existence, they fall into La Brea Tar Pit of iniquity. There is simply no point in “crying” and “pouting” for both will do no good, and, noted scholar Karl Sharfenberger’s nude dancing rendition of the tune aside, no one dares tempt a Santa whose exhaustive “List” pens the elect and the condemned in permanent ink. Famous philatelist Dennis Tooletone may believe that “Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice” implies ongoing assessment, free will, and the opportunity to elude sin, but he hasn’t done his Puritan homework and still lives with his sister in Queens. During The Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards also touted the beneficence of a God that held human souls by a spider’s web over the eternal flames of hell. That was “gonna” too, the implication that at some point or another “finding out” meant discovering which souls plunged and which kept barbequing. In 1958, during a polka contest at the annual conference of the Modern Caroling Association, Fousault uttered what are perhaps his most famous words on the song. Between panting and just before his coronary, Fousault said, “Ack, I see him comin’, I see him comin’.” Everyone there heard Fousault’s final apostrophes loud and clear. The Santa comin’ for Fousault knew who had been “bad or good” and didn’t need a lousy list. The list, like Edward’s spider web, is just for show.

Perhaps the most troubling element of this troubling paean to humanity’s fate is Santa’s vigilance. The song reports that “He sees you when you’re sleeping / He knows when you’re awake.” Santa watches even when it appears he does not need to. The kids are asleep for God’s sake! But Santa’s business is the unconscious inclinations of sinners, reading their dreams the way Coach Van Haverbeek read your thoughts during those Boys’ Health films. That Santa “knows when you’re awake,” suggests that any attempt at fakery—anyone who’s been to Camp Karankawa knows shut eyes don’t mean sleep—will be futile. Santa will know, and your effort to save yourself from dreaming of that cute girl three cabins down toward the lake will surely fail. “You better watch out!” the singer screams, but a listener is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Santa has him in a triple-bind. A person cannot watch himself while he is sleeping or while he has his eyes closed pretending to snooze or when he’s subject to the capricious visit of his all-too-vivid imagination during roll call. And, if the listeners hoped to escape Santa’s prying eyes while the fat man directs his attention elsewhere, forget it. The great eye of Sauron in the J. R. R. Tolkein classic Lord of the Rings has nothing on Santa. As the song crows, Santa checks his list twice. The list is unalterable and set since the time elves, dwarves, hobbits, and orcs roamed the earth, and still he checks his list twice. Jonathan Edwards at least promised God’s mercy though God had no reason to spare anyone. The Santa who comes to town is not so kind.

And hope has no place in the song. The lyrics state “You’d better be good for goodness sake,” and scholars like Bertram Chert demanded listeners regard those words colloquially, like “For goodness sake, this bathing cap is tight!” Chert’s sanity was already compromised at that point, of course, but he also was flat wrong. Suppose someone isn’t one of the elect destined to receive Santa’s beneficence, suppose someone had some minor slip up like cursing under his breath or working for a few months after college slaughtering lab animals, his only choice—having been marked by Santa’s anagramatical twin, Satan—is to be good for its own sake, because what other reason might you have for being good when a listener knows, deep down and in his very bones, that being good will really do no good at all. Drunk carolers have long noted that Santa is curiously absent from “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” He is the unmoved mover of Christmas fates slouching toward Bethlehem to be born like the beast of W. B. Yeats’ apocalyptic poem, “Second Coming,” and his actual whereabouts are as mysterious as his feelings about a listener’s miserable soul. Santa will not speak for himself and lets some unnamed herald deliver his fire and brimstone for him. A mortal cannot know Santa’s mind. Don’t even try.

Eddie Cantor reportedly cried as soon as he sang the last note of this keening wail of a famously misunderstood Christmas tune, or so someone’s cousin said. That’s probably false, but, in case it is not, an attentive listener might regard Santa’s coming to town as a vow akin to the Lord’s promise to burn the sinful denizens of Sodom and Gomorrah. A town is no place for virtue. Look back or don’t look back. It will not matter. Santa has decided, and, chances are, nearly everyone is on the wrong list.

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Rudolph: A Marxist Critique

14853__rudolph_l.jpg I wrote this parody paper some years ago and, with the season upon us, it seems a good time for it to return…

Toward the end of his life, just before that ugly cheek tweeking incident in New Orleans, noted literary critic, Michel Fausault* established the standard by which all “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” criticism will forever be judged. I remember the scene well, it was early October and the Christmas season had just begun. Michel cried “Ach!” his head pitched forward, his brow bunched in deep thought. “Rudolph,” he roared suddenly, as from a revelation, “Has never really been understood. It is only superficially a child’s Christmas song. It is actually a poem about . . .” and here he belched and scratched his belly, “about … scapegoating.”

Then we went back to our Parcheesi game. Fausault did not remember the remark later, but the damage was done. No one could ever sing “Rudolph” joyfully again, for he had exposed the song for what it was, the story of a reindeer misunderstood, undervalued, and manipulated by the bankrupt aesthetics of the petty bourgeois. Since the birth of Rudolph studies, scholars have been troubled by the fuzzy depiction of the mysterious central character. Rudolph’s original description in the first line as “the red-nosed reindeer” (emphasis mine) is clear enough, but it is not so much a description as a degrading label (emphasis mine). Rudolph is the only red-nosed reindeer (still mine), and while it appears later in the poem that his red-nose is his distinction (no reason for that one), it is actually his badge of shame, the attribute that marks him as different and inferior to the other reindeer.

And what about that nose? Noted Rudolphian Vlad Brown has noted that there is a noted confusion regarding that nose. It is articulated variously as “red,” “shiny,” glowing, and “bright.” Yet can any one object be red, shiny and bright and also glow? After all, anything that glows, because of the illumination inherent within the object, cannot also be shiny, which is a surface quality caused by greater illumination outside said object. Brown has suggested that this confusion is deliberate, and I agree. I would add to Brown, however, that this confusion is a shrewdly hinted attempt to universalize the reindeer, to make it into an “everydeer” of sorts, a model for all of the scapegoats victimized by society because they are different. What’s more, I believe that Fausault—had he not died in that bizarre knitting accident—would agree with me.

Now many readers are fooled by the apparent reintegration of Rudolph at the end of the poem. The poem states directly, “Then how the reindeer loved him.” But let’s examine the quality and implications of that love. It comes only after the significant psychological pain of being laughed at, called names, and not being allowed to participate in games, which, Strauss-Levi has pointed out, are the most important emblems of solidarity in modern, post-industrialized cultures. Can Rudolph be expected to recover from these slights? In such an interpretation, we would have to believe that Rudolph has the emotional depth of plum pudding, that his pain is not real pain and is instead the product of some sort of harmless snub that he can laugh-off and forget. But this point of view only cooperates with the cruelty depicted in the work itself. No one likes being laughed at—I remember softball in seventh grade gym. And who can forget Fausaut’s unfortunate encounter with Cher?

Prominent Rudolphianists have also suggested that Santa’s decision to have Rudolph lead the sleigh compensates for the alienation he faces earlier in the work. To that, I say “poppycock!” Were Fausault here, he’d say something clever in French, but that’s the best I can do. Look at the text, Reader! The word used is not “lead,” but “guide,” which clearly indicates the red-suited fat man’s reluctance to give up his position as the true driver in this sleigh. Santa only turns to Rudolph because, happily, the reindeer possesses a quality that the red-suited oppressor—and known slave-wager, labor-law violator—finds temporarily useful.

Returning to how the other reindeer “love him,” I think it’s easy to see that their “shouting out with glee” rings pretty hollow. Once Rudolph’s talent has been exploited, what’s left for him in Santa-land? He will be sent to the glue farm, to be sure. Furthermore, his new comrades, the other reindeer, are not really comrades at all. It is no accident that they say he will go “down in his-tor-y.” The adverb “down” suggests decline, decay, reduction, descent, weakening, attenuation, disappearance, and seven other nouns. Some will accuse me of over-analyzing this blatant reference to pigs like Santa who, in writing history, always denigrate or erase the accomplishments of the underclass, but they are part of the oppressor culture, and, after last Tuesday, I’ve learned to expect it of them. And I know Fausault, were he not in Davey Jones’ locker, would grunt his approval in that charming way of his.

What all this adds up to is a travesty perpetrated on an entirely different class of the tyrannized, the children of the world. It’s well known Fausault didn’t like children—though this is as good a time as any to remind you that he was never convicted. That doesn’t make the song any better, however. For years, the little shining faces of the children have sung this popular carol, unconscious of the subjugation perpetuated in those words. “Rudolph,” they sing, “With your nose so bright.” But they might just as well be singing, “Rudolph with your chains so tight, how’s it feel to be wronged tonight? Old Santa wants a headlight, now you are his easy prey, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, blighted by a cap’list sleigh.”

*Any resemblance to real or imagined noted French literary critics and philosophers is real or imagined.

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A Christmas Message

The final words of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol say Scrooge learned, “How to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

Everyone who celebrates the holiday knows how difficult that knowledge is.  I sometimes feel I’m practicing, reviewing the disappointments and triumphs of Christmases past and hoping, this year, to come closer to what often seems an impossible ideal.  The challenge isn’t finding a gift suited to each person but living through the season without living in its commercialism.  The world this time of year can become pure material, a list of activities, a list of purchases, a list of obligations.

Yet the things we’ve kept mean the most to me: the ornament that belonged to my wife’s dad when he was a boy, an advent calendar we’ve hung up since my children were small, the familiar candy dishes, the tiny crèche for the mantle, the stockings my mother made, the sloppy handprints on overlarge daycare ornaments, the Santa toy that, when you press a button on his base, collapses as if he has narcolepsy.

Merchants celebrate novelty each Christmas, but I look for familiarity.  I want to touch base and sometimes wonder if we need anything new at all, if the music and food and stories and traditions we’ve always known might be enough. I need to sustain the Christmas spirit year to year, and anything new has to support that goal. If the opening of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is true and, “Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” then, at least on one day, I’d like my family to be archetypical and share something with everyone who has discovered how to keep Christmas well.

The presents are incidental, but saying so sometimes seems naïve, idealistic.  Of course gifts mean something to The Economy.  Of course, during this season, buying assures the welfare of countless people who live by our yearnings, and I don’t mean to belittle the fiscal significance of the holiday.  I don’t mean to belittle advertisers, marketers, sales managers, or shop clerks.  I wish them Merry Christmas too.  I only want their sincerity, their assistance finding a gift or gesture to express affection, not my hip-ness or how much disposable income I can muster.  I want to keep Christmas well and need help.  Generosity is the spirit of the season, but generosity so easily slips into exploitation, extravagance, acquisitiveness, and waste.

However, though navigating this time grows trickier every year, I’m up for the challenge. I know belief is also part of keeping Christmas well.  I celebrate—as an ideal to live all year—this one day of family, companionship, good will, and love.  I believe without the three ghosts or the prize turkey.  I believe without ribbons. I believe without tags. I believe without packages, boxes, or bags.

So here is wishing everyone the peace, affection, understanding, and hope Christmas is supposed to represent.  It is hard not to be used by Christmas and use it instead, but when you get the day and season right, it is truly magical, truly the most wonderful time of the year.  That knowledge, as Scrooge discovered, is well worth possessing.

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