Fall Sneaks In

My woeful neglect of the blog comes with good cause. Some of the things I missed recording on these pages include the recent departure of our oldest for college and the recent sudden loss of our tiniest family member, Ludwig the daschund. I justify this significant failing on my part by reminding myself that I am in the midst of the first stages of dissertation writing as well as a rather significant battle with the powers that be over education issues in our state. While I can’t go in to detail about the latter distractor, let’s suffice it to say that it takes a great deal of time on top of my usual work responsibilities.

I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, though, to share some of what I saw today when I pulled up after spending the morning and most of the afternoon in the university library. Summer hit hard in Suburbia again this year. Humid, hot, long. But, suddenly, it’s clearly fall. While in full procrastination mode earlier this month, I did some yard clean up and fall planting. Now, my established landscape plants are joining in the fun and putting on a show as well.

Here’s the planter outside our garage. The grass and sweet potato vine survived the heat and just needed a little freshening up with the addition of mums.

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My front flower bed landscaping comes entirely by way of school fundraisers. Pictured: pansies purchased to support the middle school cross country team our youngest competes with. Not pictured and still deep underground: tulips purchased from local elementary fundraiser.

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The scene below forced me to write this post. Look at the combination of crimson barberry at bottom and the crepe myrtle trees still blooming but also changing color.

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Here’s a close up for good measure.

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For years I spent a lot of time and energy creating a fall porch scene complete with hay bales and corn stalks. Then I got tired and started a doctoral program. Now, we have the pumpkin topiary and a wreath. I like it just as much or have convinced myself that I do. Either way, I’m happy.

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This year, the seasons changed literally overnight. I failed to realize the last time I lazed around at the pool some time in late September that I likely wouldn’t do so again until May. What can I say? Denial is obviously my friend. But, the back yard landscape appears unwilling to give up on that idea of endless summer. Several of our plants are experiencing a second wind now that the heat passed us by.

Lantana, cannas, and ivy–going stronger than ever.

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Pansies defying the heat by coming back after a rather severe pruning of dried out segments.

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Other plants didn’t fare nearly as well. I had to give up on my succulent garden that previously occupied this table top. Mums, kale, and ornamental peppers should hang in there until December if my luck holds.

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All of the little things above make me happy. I love seeing the changing colors of my world from day to day, and I love feeling a hint of chill on the wind. Even more, I love that DD1 arrived home for fall break yesterday–her first visit since leaving for school. I’m off to spend some quality time with her as well as to record another important moment in time–DD2′s homecoming festivities.

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Cool Recipe Tool

Wow–two posts in one month.  Continuing both a posting theme and the recipe theme, I must share with you a new recipe organizer I’ve found.  While I have a lot of the recipes I make most frequently posted here on my blog.  I also have an extensive collection of cookbooks, recipe cards, and stacks of printed recipes from online sources.  I’m always rifling through stacks of things trying to find what I want.

Adventure Guy also likes to cook, and he wanted a way to organize the recipes he tears out of magazines or finds online.  He even had enough nerve to suggest that the recipe binder I received when we got married, which has now lost both its front and back covers, needed to be honorably retired. 

We’d been discussing this challenge for a while when one of our friends recommended Pepperplate.com.  Pepperplate allows for importing recipes from many online sites or for manual uploading.  You can categorize them, upload photos, and share your recipes with friends via email or social media sites.

Even better, the program allows for scaling recipes automatically, building menus, creating shopping lists, and creating a meal schedule.  The online info also interfaces with an app for convenient grocery shopping. 

So far, I’ve just created a basic recipe file of my most-cooked items.  I’ll add a few more as I go along, but it’s great to have everything in one place!

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A Recipe Worth Coming Out Of Hiding To Share

Okay, so I wrote the post right below this one back in December–when I also had a “blog more often” sort of New Year’s resolution in mind.  It’s a good thing I don’t actually make New Year’s resolutions, or I’d be quite a failure this year.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this blog back when I wrote on a regular basis included having a repository for my favorite recipes.  If I’d misplaced one along the way–which, of course, rarely happens in my highly-organized kitchen–I could easily look it up in a post I’d shared earlier.

Like blogging, though, cooking seems to have gotten lost in the midst of all of the “life in general” stuff that’s going on around here. A heightened political climate that requires much more of my work time to be spent dealing with state-imposed “outside” issues while still trying to fit in all of my usual responsibilities in the school district means I’m working longer hours and feeling more stressed when I’m not working.  Throw in the final stages of my doctoral process, and logging in to write about it all seems more than a little overwhelming.  Did I mention I just moved my oldest to college a week ago?  No, because I’m not talking about that yet.

But, I have a bit of a break between courses, and school got off to a relatively smooth start last week.  Those two things combined left me feeling it was time to reach out a bit and spend a little more time socializing and a little less time working or lying about reading–a hobby I’ll always keep up regardless of the time factor involved.

One of the new teachers in All-American Public Schools happens to be the very first exchange teacher who came to our district from China.  Back then, I worked at the high school, and our family hosted this teacher for several weeks.  Soccer Boy had just turned 5, and so had Mr. N’s son—a son he’d left at home to come to the U. S. for a semester.  Mr. N really bonded with Soccer Boy, and we’ve kept up over the years.  He was able to come to the U. S. to earn his master’s degree and brought his son to visit us last year.  Now, the family is moving here and trying to settle in to American life.

I can only imagine what it would be like to attend a large American middle school without really knowing anyone.  Since Soccer Boy has plenty of friends to go around, we had several of them over and invited the N. family to join us for swimming and BBQ.  Sunday afternoon turned out just perfect for the event, with clear skies and mild temperatures.  We sat outside, and didn’t melt–quite a novel event around these parts lately.

But, the hit of the afternoon in my opinion came at the end. I’ve been searching for the perfect peach ice cream recipe for years.  I don’t like the ones that are essentially vanilla ice cream with some peaches stirred in.  I want real, peachy flavor.  I am thrilled to report I’ve finally found a recipe that delivered that and more.  I literally licked the container a few minutes ago to get the last little bit.  Yes, it’s that good.  I combined and changed enough details in a couple of online recipes to essentially make this one my own, so here it is.

Peach Ice Cream

6 ripe peaches, peeled, pitted, and diced

2 tsp. fresh lemon juice

1 c. sugar, divided

2 c. heavy cream, divided

1 c. Half and half

6 egg yolks

Pinch of salt

1/4 c. Honey

1/8 tsp. almond extract

Peel, pit, and dice peaches. Fresh peaches can be frozen at this point and thawed prior to making ice cream. Reserve 1/2 c. peaches for later use. Place remaining peaches in saucepan with lemon juice and 1/2 c. sugar. Bring to a boil over medium heat. After approximately 8 minutes, mash softened peaches with a potato masher and continue cooking approximately 10 more minutes. Remove from stove and cool.

Place 1 cup heavy cream in clean sauce pan. Pour remaining cup of cream in the ice cream maker container and keep cold. Add half and half to the cream in the sauce pan and heat until warm. Whisk egg yolks and  remaining 1/2 cup of sugar in bowl until smooth.  Stir in salt. Temper this mixture with approximately 1/3 cup of the hot milk mixture. Slowly add the egg mixture to the remaining milk mixture. Stir constantly until mixture thickens forms a custard. Strain custard into cold, heavy cream in the ice cream maker container. Add honey and almond extract.

Process cooled peach mixture in food processor until smooth. Add peach purée to ice cream maker and stir to combine. Freeze as directed. When ice cream maker stops, stir in reserved peach pieces. Transfer to a large freezer container and freeze for two to three hours before serving.

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Christmas Ramblings

So, I just created a Pandora station called Barenaked Ladies Holiday.  It should be interesting to see what it pairs with that.  So far, so good.  Sister Hazel, a group I’ve never heard of before is playing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” as I type. 

I do indeed hope to have a merry little Christmas.  As of last night (or actually a little after midnight this morning), I am officially finished with decorating and gift buying.  Or I like to tell myself that.  In actuality, I have to pick up a few stocking stuffers and buy a gift card for Adventure Guy on behalf of my mother.  But, the Christmas tree is purchased and decorated, and there are wrapped gifts underneath it.  I even took pity on Adventure Guy and wrapped the gifts that he still needs to ship to his father and grandmother. 

Friday brought the official start of winter holidays for the kids, making it even harder for me to get excited about my early wakeup call for work tomorrow.  Fortunately, I only have to get through two more days before I take some vacation time myself.  Our offices at All American Public Schools will be closed Friday and all of the following week, so I will have a lovely, long break in trade for only three days of vacation.  Such a deal!

I plan to use that time very wisely by making some Christmas treats, preparing for our traditional Christmas Eve fondue dinner, and hopefully spending quality time in front of the fireplace with a good book. Speaking of books, I just finished reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close after the previews for the upcoming movie intrigued me.  I think I’ll have to recommend it to my book club so that we can discuss it.  I found it an interesting read…not sure I could classify it as enjoyable, though.  I will definitely see the movie.

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Don’t Let The Door Hit You…

What?  Posting two days in a row?  I know.  It’s shocking for this site.  For my two readers who are left (well, hopefully that’s a bit of an exaggeration), I thought I’d make a valiant attempt to get things up and running again here.  I know I alluded to this in my last post on Christmas decorations, but this semester literally proved to be more challenging than any I can remember in my career.  I’ve taken on several new work projects that–while not outside my general realm of responsibility–are not typical assignments.  Then, I got pulled in to a little thing called Qualitative Research Methods that, if I’m honest, I’ll admit that I loved (because I’m that kind of geeky academic person).  But, it took an incredible amount of time, attention, and though to complete the accompanying work–more so than any other class I’ve taken so far for my doctorate, and I’m nearing the end of my coursework. 

Add all that in with preparation for Christmas, and I’ve fielded more than my share of stress lately.  So much so that I think it’s finally caught up to me.  I spent last night feeling feverish and today woke up with a lovely cold.  I had to go in to the office to wrap one thing up around noon, but I slept as long as possible before then and headed right back home afterwards.  I am currently cuddled up with the miniature daschund and feeling thankful that I started a pot of Italian Minestrone Soup in the crockpot for dinner. 

My goal is to leave my bed as little as possible until tomorrow when my schedule says I have to be at work no matter what. I will not miss this semster when it ends on Friday.  Not one little bit.

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Christmas All Over The House

After a long, long semester at both work and in my graduate program, I finally had time to decorate the house this weekend.  Here are the results. Pictures of Christmas tree to follow once it’s purchased and decorated!

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Those Bright Blue Skies Redux

I wrote the post below back in 2007.  Today’s crisp weather and beautiful skies remind me again of the gorgeous backdrop over which the horror of September 11, 2001 played out.  In 2001 I avoided coverage of the event while at home to shield my kids from those images.  Now, I realize that they have no memory of the attack and no memory of a world where people flying jetliners in to buildings was inconceivable.  I wish I could have shielded them from that second experience as well, but I remain ever thankful that they’ve spent the last ten years with their dad and not as children of “September 10.”

This morning the first hints of fall wafted into Suburbia on a cool breeze that hasn’t shown it’s face around here for months.  And after several days of gray skies and intermittent showers, today brought an absolutely gorgeous bright blue sky complete with a few perfect, wispy white clouds.

In the usual morning hurry, I almost forgot that today was September 11th.  Those bright blue skies should have immediately reminded me.  It was a beautiful autumn day in New York on September 11, 2001, when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center.  Those horrific scenes are etched into my mind, all backed by bright, clear blue skies.

My friend over at The Testosterone Zone asked readers to respond to her post asking where we were on that day and how the events had affected our lives.  If anything, I believe that the events of 9/11 have made me more likely to appreciate the people in my life and to not focus as much on the little things that can make day to day life stressful.  And the reason for that impact actually began on September 10, 2001.

That’s the date that, early in the morning,  Adventure Guy boarded a plane in Boston and flew to San Francisco.  At the time he was working for a telecom company that had its headquarters outside of Boston and its research labs in the Oakland area.  He travelled most of the week and was in so many different places, I often didn’t know his exact location from day to day.  He was always available by cell phone, so the details didn’t seem so important. 

But one detail I will remain ever thankful for is the fact that late on the evening of September 10, Adventure Guy called to tell me that he had made it in safely to San Francisco.  Otherwise, I would have been absolutely panic-stricken when I realized what was happening the next morning, when the news came out that the terrorists were clearly targeting cross-country flights for the hijackings. 

That morning, I was in the office preparing to go to a local conference.  I stepped into the hall on my way out, and our custodian told me that a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center.  I didn’t initially think of it as an attack, but rather thought it was an accident, perhaps a small plane that was offtrack in the New York airspace.  I went next door to the Guidance Office where there was a television and watched the developing events in horror.  We were watching as the second plane hit. 

I’ll admit that I was so glued to the television and so secure in the fact that Adventure Guy was already in California, that I didn’t think to call him.  His vivid memory of that day involves being extremely annoyed at his phone ringing at a little after 6:00 a.m. only to answer it and be told by a good friend, “Thank God you’re alive.” 

And every day since then, I’ve tried to remember just how easily our little family here in Suburbia could have lost him.  24 hours made all the difference for us.  And each time I read the tributes and the remembrances for those lost that day, I think of their wives and husbands, parents and children who weren’t so lucky.  And I am always thankful, truly thankful, not see Adventure Guy there among them.

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The Good

For the past month, I’ve taken off on a bit of a long-delayed summer reading jag. First, a graduate school commitment that required spending all but two weekends during June and July sitting in classrooms curtailed my ability to read for pleasure.  Oh, I did plenty of reading, but none that I’ll discuss in any detail here.  Next came the absolutely heady feeling of actually finishing those classes.  Even better, I’ve only scheduled three hours rather than six for the fall semester thanks to having taken a few courses before officially beginning my Ed.D. program.  The rest of my cohort will take a course I’ve already completed, which timed out nicely in giving me a little breathing room at the start of the school year.  Top all of that off with discovering the Overdrive app–which allows for downloading digital copies of books from my local library–and I needed no excuse for spending most of my free time adding to the “Read” column of my Goodreads page

I’d like to say all that time was well-spent.  As usual, though, a few books rose to the top while a few others sunk to the bottom (fortunately, not literally, considering much of this reading occurred poolside). 

Those that rose high:

No, I’m not schizophrenic.  I like to think of it as “eclectic.”  I will admit I tend to gravitate to mysteries/crime fiction when I’m seeking distraction and a bit of an escape via print.  The House at Seas End and The Hypnotist fall into that category nicely.  I found Elly Griffith’s Ruth Galloway series earlier this year, and read the first two books back to back before bemoaning the fact that I’d have to wait for the publication of the third installment.  These books remind me somewhat of Elizabeth George’s early work–back before I had to break up with her for killing off one of my favorite characters unnecessarily.  It’s probably the English setting and the relationship between the female protagonist and a male detective that leads to the comparisons.  In this case, Ruth Galloway is a forensic archaeologist rather than a police officer, but she still gets involved in lots of crime solving with a bit of romance thrown in for good measure.  The Hypnotist also can’t avoid comparison to other well-known books–in this case the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series.  Like those books, The Hypnotist comes to American audiences via translation from the original Swedish.  Those cold winters must lead to lots of opportunity for thinking up crime novel plots.  Dark, twisted, crime novel plots.  I did find this book disturbing in places, but I couldn’t put it down once I started.  Evidently, the authors (a husband/wife team writing under a pen name Lars Kepler) plan a series with their lead character, Detective Joona Linna.  I’ll be reading more.

I did attempt to branch out a bit in my selections, and the next two books on my recommendation list reflect that.  Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple fits in to another favorite genre of mine–the memoir.  In this case, Roose shares his experiences during the semester he transferred from Brown University to Liberty, the university founded in Lynchburg, Virginia, by Jerry Falwell.  Roose previously interned with one of my favorite writers, A. J. Jacobs, as Jacobs wrote The Year of Living Biblically.  The idea of getting to know young people of the religious right from the inside came to Roose after he visited Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church during his work with Jacobs.   I enjoyed the book both for the peek inside a very different kind of college experience and for Roose’s perspective as someone to whom the beliefs of this segment of our population were completely foreign.  Roose reports that before enrolling at Liberty, he didn’t know anyone who identified himself as a born-again Christian.  Having grown up in the middle of the Bible Belt, it’s hard for me to even imagine not being immersed in a fairly fundamentalist religious climate.  What’s impressive about Roose’s account is that he manages to take in his experiences and tell his story without sounding condescending or painting a one-dimensional picture of his fellow students.

The last book, Sisterhood Everlasting, likely got a four-star rating on its nostalgia factor alone.  I picked up Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants after my middle-school-aged daughter raved about it.  I wanted to find out what had her so intrigued at that juncture between childhood and the teen years.  The books captured so well all the angst that inevitably comes with growing up.  I loved them, and I loved talking to DD1 about them.  The most recent entry in the series comes after a hiatus and catches up with the four main characters as they struggle with life after college and dealing with adulthood.  It’s definitely worth the read if you’ve enjoyed the previous Sisterhood books.

Tune in later this week for the rest of the story…I’ll be reviewing the (not so) bad and the ugly entires on my summer reading list as well.

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If I Could Hold Back Time

As the hours between three and six this afternoon ticked by, I felt more than a little empty.  For the first time since 1998, I did not attend an elementary school “Meet the Teacher” event on this Tuesday before the start of school.  With Soccer Boy’s official start of 7th-grade on Thursday, I will be the mother of three secondary school students!

Years ago, my mother made an annual pilgrimage to Suburbia just to help me with the start-of-school chaos.  The day camp program my kids attended took off the week before school started to do the changeover between summer programs and before/after school programs.  Add in the need to complete the registration process and haul school supplies to classrooms across multiple campuses while towing three children along, and I wasn’t too proud to call in reinforcements.  My mom, a former elementary school teacher, thought catching a glimpse of her precious grandchildren’s classrooms provided plenty of incentive for braving the August heat each year. 

If I could tell 2003 LSM–the one standing in line sweating through a perfectly good outfit–that she’d eventually find herself nostalgic about these events, I’m pretty sure she’d laugh out loud, likely with at least a little tinge of hysteria.

Fortunately, All-American Public Schools spreads the registration/back-to-school events for middle school and high school across a number of days.  DD1 took herself and a pile of signed documents (along, unfortunately, with an equal number of signed checks for various and sundry purchases and fees) to pick up her SENIOR year schedule last Wednesday.  Adventure Guy took Soccer Boy to the middle school that afternoon, where they arranged for his first school ID and delivered his supplies to his locker.  I checked in for duty on Friday since DD2 appeared less than thrilled about my suggestion that she take care of her registration without me.

DD2 likes to remind me that 9th-grade counts as high school.  However, I spent last year in full denial of this detail, since freshmen in our district attend a separate “freshman academy.” This year, there’s no way around the fact that I have two children in high school.  Two in high school, and one in middle school.  Where did the time go?  I think I’d be willing to sweat through a few more Meet The Teacher Days if doing so meant slowing things down just a little. 

Every year as my siblings and I started school, my mother told us she didn’t plan to let us move on to the new grade.  I wonder if I can make that technique  work any better for me than it did for her?

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A Season For Wonder

The brutal heat of the last month broke this week in impressive fashion. Amid streaks of lightening and claps of thunder, the rain poured down and dropped the temperatures overnight from the zone of, “Oh, it’s 102 degrees; there must be a cool front” to “Fall might just come after all since my car thermometer reads in the double digits.”

As I type this from my porch, I feel like a refugee just returned home. I spent lots of enjoyable hours outside prior to the record-setting heatwave, reading or writing from the back porch, sitting by the pool. But instant sweat-inducing humidity coupled with pool temperatures reaching 95 degrees made the great outdoors pretty inhospitable for most of the summer.

But it’s not just the weather that made this summer one I likely won’t look back on too fondly. Professionally, the last year is one I hope to forget over the course of a long career. I can’t recall a more antagonistic climate for public education during my twenty years in the field. The combination of a takeover of our state legislature by the conservative faction, the loss of federal stimulus funding, and the reduced allocations for public schools from other sources meant not only struggling to reduce expenditures while maintaining educational standards but aiming to do so while under pressure to meet the unrealistic goals set by No Child Left Behind.

Unlike some in public education, I fully support the move toward making schools accountable for the learning of all students–even those who bring with them the challenges inherent in an impoverished upbringing. What I can never support is the labeling of schools as “failing” if students of poverty, students who have special needs, and students who are learning the English language do not meet the same standards as those without these challenges in exactly the same amount of time.

Some relevant examples from my recent experience analyzing my district’s test scores illustrate the point well. One of our elementary schools will join the dreaded “Needs Improvement List,” complete with the requirements to create a school-wide improvement plan and offer the opportunity for students to transfer to another site in order to escape this “failing” school. Why? Because this school is both large enough to have 30 students in the “subgroup” of English Language Learners, making it “reportable,” and it was unsuccessful in bringing these students up to grade-level in reading after between one and two years here in the United States. Just imagine moving to another country speaking little or none of the native language and taking a test a little over a year later–the same test that is given to students who have lived in your new country their entire lives. You fail? Well, your school must not be doing a good job. And, not only must you have the opportunity to go to a school that might do a better job, but all of the other students must be allowed to do so as well. This requirement exists even though the school has overall test scores that rank it in the top 10 percent in the state and the scores of the English Language Learners are actually higher than the state average as well.

We also have schools in jeopardy of joining the school described above if they do not make “Adequate Yearly Progress” this school year. Why? This time, it’s due to another “subgroup,” students with special needs. The twist here, however, isn’t quite the same. A complex flowchart allows IEP teams to determine whether a student should take the same state-mandated test as students not on an IEP or a “modified” version that better reflects modifications received during instruction. Schools and IEP teams receive instructions to use modified tests for all students who qualify using this process. This sounds good. Students are tested fairly and judged based on their individual needs. Schools receive feedback on how well their special education programs work. What could go wrong?

Bureaucracy, that’s what. To stave off schools over-qualifying students for modifications, only 2 percent of the student population may have their modified tests count “as is.” For the rest, any “satisfactory” scores above the 2 percent cap move back to “limited knowledge,” a nicer word for “failing.” The problem? Our district has approximately 16 percent of our students identified as having special needs. Many more than 2 percent of these students receive modified instruction or assessment. Why should the schools be penalized for allowing these students modifications? And, how do we explain to the public that our students passed their tests, but then they didn’t because of a loophole and some obscure method of calculating school performance.

Is it any wonder that the Secretary of Education gave up this week and declared he wouldn’t wait any longer for a Congressional fix to this mess? Is it any wonder I don’t hold out a huge amount of hope that what comes next will be better?

But wonder is exactly what I want. I want kids to wonder about how things work. I want kids to wonder what they might do if faced with the same situation as their favorite literary character. I want kids to wonder how it felt to live in a time when people crossed oceans and continents without benefit of airplanes, GPS, and instant Internet access.

It’s that kind of wonder that not only increases learning but creates the kind of people who lead lives future generations will wonder at. I’ve never known wondering which bubble to fill in to do the same.

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