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One of the best and worst things I heard on this second and last day of the conference was also one of the last things anyone said. Lee Schulman, commenting on recent research on teacher education, said “No one understands adequately that of all the forms of professional work, teaching is the most difficult.”

Can I get a hallelujah?

I needed someone outside of myself who neither works nor lives with me to say that.  An objective researcher  helps to confirm the feelings of exhaustion and frustration I often feel at the end of the day.  So, it’s not just me. This is good news and probably the best news I heard at the conference. It is easy to think at the end of the day that my failures in teaching are my fault.  Or, alternatively — and this is not helpful either — it’s easy to think it is the students’  fault. In the end, it is neither. Building a collaborative approach to teaching with the students is one way I hope to overcome what could be the inevitable burn-out that teachers experience.

The sessions continued the themes of the first day, but now the ideas seem to hold together more if only because we are hearing certain words repeated over and over again in tandem:  compassion, social and emotional learning, neuroplasticity. It is various forms and combinations of those three words which, for me, hold the essence of this conference.  The question became for me how do I cultivate feelings of compassion in my students so that they can use this skill — which it is, a skill rather than merely an inherent personality trait — to help themselves and others.  The scientists and educators worked together to create a dialogue in which they can communicate about the same ideas with different languages and still comprehend each other.  So, from the researchers we learn that students who can hold constant attention will learn more. That was obvious, but a student who can also regulate his or her emotions will also learn better.  That was not so obvious. Emotional regulation was one of the more useful concepts offered by the panelists.   If a person can regulate their emotions — regulate, not repress — it means he or she can deal skillfully with negative emotions and thereby create space for learning.

Dr. Nancy Eisenberg gave one of the best overviews of this emotional self-regulation in regards to sympathy and empathy. In her example, she described a girl named Isabella who watches a boy be rejected by other boys.  In watching this situation, she feels the same emotion as the rejected boy.   This empathy may lead her to feel concern: sympathy.  Sympathy overlaps compassion because it includes motivation to make the boy feel better.  Empathy, however, does not always lead to concern.  (This is when I felt myself strain forward in my seat.)  If Isabella has been rejected once herself, Dr. Einsenberg continued, then when she feels the boy’s rejection she begins to remember her own experiences of rejection and becomes focused on her anxiety.  This becomes personal distress.    Thus, a person becomes more focused on making themselves feel better rather the other person.  With sympathy, focus is on the other; with personal distress, focus is on one’s self and alleviating the uncomfortable feeling.  Choygam Trungpa calls this idiot compassion, and The Ven. Samu Sunim calls it grandmother zen. And I do it all the time.

As she spoke these words, I recognized myself.  I recognized that when I often want to “help”others it is because their discomfort makes me uncomfortable and I want to feel comfortable again.  This also explains why could be so pushy with advice and angry when people don’t take it. I need people to improve their lives, because it makes life easier for me.  This, I realize, is decidedly not compassionate.

And His Holiness elaborated upon the levels of compassion recognized from the “buddhist view.”  There are two levels of compassion, he offered. The first is biological compassion — we feel compassion towards others, but if they reject it or are not “nice” to us, we cannot offer it.  As an example, an audience member had asked in questions sent to the panelists in writing, “How do I show compassion to students who call me vicious names?”    This kind of compassion which is influenced by the others’ behavior is an example biological compassion.  In contrast, there is “trained compassion” which is cultivated and not contingent on others’ acts, and this is the one we want to strengthen.  His Holiness also added that we need a more “solid compassion irrespective of others,” and we don’t need religion.  “It can be done through secularism.”  At this moment, he interceded to stress another point:  the purpose of the conference is not to have science be influenced by buddhism.  “This is wrong,” he said.   “We’re not here to prove next life — it is buddhist business. We never try to prove there is a god or heavens. This is none of our business.  These are not universals.  That is religion.  What we are discussing  is the potential to develop inner peace. We must remain strictly in the demarcation of secularism.”  This was followed by a round of applause.  An important point given that the audience members were mostly educators, scientists, policy-makers, and foundation directors and donors.   He’s a shrewd one that Dalai Lama.

And even as I write all this, I realize I am creating a false impression. That these ideas as I summarize them were readily accessible at the conference. I had to concentrate hard for two days, and I have compressed my notes into a picture of a narrative with unity and coherence that, had you been there, you might not have felt yourself. In the end, this  writing is a brief summary of what I could take away from a conference that at times left me fatigued from the effort to concentrate.  The terminology could overwhelm me and I worked at understanding the definitions and the implications.   In the end, I am left with questions. What does this mean for me? What would change in my teaching or life?  What is compassionate action in a college classroom?

But, despite the unanswered questions, I came away with one really great story/joke told by Dr. Takao Hensch, a biologist.  “There is an organism,”  he said, “called a sea-squirt.” It is a tube-like organism at the bottom of the ocean, and it goes through a larval stage when it explores its surroundings until it finds a rock on which it can settle and it sticks itself there.  At which point, he said, it ingests its own brain.  “Sometimes I worry this is what happens when we grant tenure at universities.”

Big laughs from the audience.

And finally, there was one other good story from educator Linda Lantieri who asked if His Holiness had remembered a story from Gandhi’s Autobiography.  In this story, she said, a mother comes to Gandhi to ask him if he can tell her son to stop eating sugar.  Gandhi told the mother to bring the child back in two weeks.  The mother returns in two weeks and Gandhi just gives him a lecture about eating sugar.   The mother then asks, “Why did you want me to wait two weeks?”  And Ghandi replied, “Because two weeks ago when you asked I was still eating sugar.”  Thus, we learned that the only real way to teach compassion is to embody it ourselves.

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One of my all time favorite gigs was the Temple gig when we followed a puppet show. And I’m thrilled that we will be playing there again on Saturday, December 13.  SPIL is in the short Peace Concert included in the Temple’s Annual HolidayAuction evening.

The doors open at 4:30 PM and I think we’ll be playing around 5 PM. Tickets are $10.00, which includes the auction, vegetarian food, and the concert.

If you’re in town, the auction will be a great place for bargains on art, services, and event tickets.

For more on the evening, go to the temple website:  http://zenbuddhisttemplechicago.org/auction/index.html

I have been riding my bike through the streets of Chicago since the early 1990s.  So, I guess it was bound to happen.  Eventually, some day, somewhere, I was going to get hit by a car.   Friday, the car that I knew had my name on its grill, finally found me less than 2 blocks from my house.

Of course, I was in a hurry.  I was supposed to be someplace ten minutes ago and I had been dawdling at home: playing with the rabbit, talking to the cats, wiping a counter.  When it was time to go, I didn’t even notice that it was time to go, and when it was well past the time to go, I grabbed my bike helmet (thank the universe I wear one) and hopped on my bike, very aware now that I was late.

So, the preoccupation with not being where I was supposed to be no doubt kept me from making smart choices when I hit the intersection.  I usually go straight through to the other side of the street and then enter the crosswalk and take a left — you know, like I wasn’t a bicyclist but a pedestrian (it’s cheating, I know, and now I won’t do it anymore, I promise).  But, that day, the street was empty of cars on my side and I thought, “heck, let’s be a car and just take a left in the middle of the intersection.”  So, I stuck my left arm out to signal and gestured to the car facing me that I was turning left.  She was turning left too and waved me forward.

Now, here’s where the problem comes on.  Because I had initially planned to go straight through the intersection and not turn left, I was on the far right edge of the lane.  I was not on the left side of the lane, but the right.  If you’re driving a car that’s three feet wide (okay, I don’t know how wide a car really is, but let’s just say ‘wide enough’), it’s not a big deal because every one can still see you. On a bike, however, you’re pretty invisible even when you’re visible, so as I took that left I was actually crossing across the width of her car and making a left at the same time.  Is it any surprise then, the on-coming car which was coming around the other car that was turning left, didn’t see me?  For him, it must have seemed like I came out of nowhere.

For me, it went like this:

Grunt. Pedal harder. Turn left and then speed up.  Oh shiiiiittttttttttttt.  It’s a car. “UGH!!” [said outloud].  Speed up speed up speed up get out the way get out of the way. Shiiiiiittttttttt!  

My body braced for the impact on  my right side.  My right leg and arm expected to be slammed by a couple tons of car. But, in the eons of years that it took for me to speed up the car also managed to brake and when impact occurred, the car hit my back tire and pushed my bike out from under me sideways.  I managed to stay on  my feet anyway and was still moving.

Traffic came to a stop. But my brain said: keep going don’t stop keep going keep going.

So I did.  I was still on my bike. I just pulled it underneath me more and kept pedaling. The car pulled over and I heard a man get out and shout, “Hey! Are you all right?”

What? Who?   My brain said.

“Hey! You forgot your bag!”  The man shouted.

That’s when I turned around.  Oh yeah, my stuff.  In the impact, the car had pulled off my pannier bag which hangs on the back tire.

The part of my brain that said, “keep going,” slowed down and I and My Brain recognized that I needed to get that pannier bag because it had my bag and wallet in it.  That’s when I got off my bike and slowly, as if nothing had happened, I walked back to the corner.

When I got to bag which was in the middle of the intersection, the man, who looked pretty worried, said, “Are you okay? I didn’t know you were taking that left.”

“That’s okay. I’m fine.  Next time just look for bikes.”

“Sorry — about that.”

“‘Z’okay.” I muttered and got back on my bike.

It was only about 5 hours later when I realized that I had wanted to say that it wasn’t all his fault. That I screwed up too and that I hoped it didn’t wreck his day to think that he could have hurt someone.  He looked upset about it, but I kept going. That part of my brain that said “keep going” was in command and I didn’t find the space in that moment to say, “Hey! Don’t worry about it! Nobody died! Have a great day!”

I think of this now because there was a Dharma Talk today at the Temple about the Infinite that happens in a moment.  “Imagine,” he said, “your breath. There’s a moment at the end of your exhale, right before your inhale, when you’re not exhaling and you’re not inhaling and you’re not rushing to inhale. That moment is infinite.”

I don’t understand all the Dharma Talks, but I got that one.  In that second when I saw that car grille and felt my right side tense to expect impact, it felt like a year or two.  That second was long enough for me to see what’s happening, consider my options, and act.  But despite how quickly my (and the driver’s) brain and body worked to avert a disaster, I still wish I had done more with the time after, those 2-5 minutes afterwards when I could have said, “Hey, it’s okay. We’re all okay.”

But, I missed that moment.  I hope in another future moment, I will see that infinite space and utilize it to say to someone else, “Hey, it’s okay.” Well, I’ve said it here, and maybe, if the guy driving the green SUV ever happens to find this post, then, hopefully, he’ll know it.

I had lunch with a friend the other day whom I had not seen since June. This may not seem like a long time, but in the early 1990s Renate and I sat next to each other Monday to Friday from 9 am to 5 pm. We also ate lunch together every day, and on some Friday nights we would also have dinner. For two years eighteen years ago I saw Renate more than I see my own husband now.

We had about an hour before she had to go to work. In these situations, trying to catch up on months of living in one hour, I often fall back into a default position in which I don’t say much at all about life for me. It would be too much to describe even if we had seven hours together and not just one. In the end, it seemed equally short for Renate, who said, as she was walking to her car later, “I didn’t even tell you half of what I wanted.”

Neither did I.

Time is an illusion. Meaning, a life can change completely in one second or it could not change at all in 80 years. So, what could I tell Renate about my life in the last 7 months? I could say I live lifetimes in a day. And perhaps I could describe the quality of each lifetime. Or, I could just sit and listen and have her tell me about the lifetimes she is living in one day.

I recently attended my first day-long buddhist retreat at the temple. From 3:00 PM to 10:00 PM I sat in meditation with others in the Retreat Center of the temple. We sat in silence in various positions in shifts of 30 minutes each with fifteen minute breaks. These cycles were interspersed with chanting and walking meditation. It is impossible to say what happens in a day like this, just as it seemed impossible to say to Renate what happens in seven months of my life when each day is a lifetime. Even in the days since the retreat, it is hard to say what happened and how it worked (or did not) for me. Nothing happened. And yet, everything is different.

In order to feel less isolated in this experience, I began reading Japanese Zen poets in a book which Brian gave me for Valentine’s Day. My favorite poet is Ikkyu Sojun (1394-1481) and it was one of his poems that came to me most during the retreat.

Six years of piercing cold and hunger!

Shakyamuni’s way demands austerity.

Anyone who thinks buddhahood is easy

is just a rice bag in a monk’s robe.

I like Sojun because he’s cranky and honest. Buddhahood can be be bitch.

I have always liked haiku for its simplicity, but now I understand better why nature and its small elements are so engaging to haiku poets. When one sits still for hours at a time, the world dissolves and condenses until one notices only the frog or the fly or the drop of dew:

Settling, white dew

does not discriminate

each drop its home.

(Soin 1604-1692)

As I sat across from Renate with a plate of eggs and toast and listened as she asked me questions about myself and Brian, this other haiku appeared in my head in place of words.

If pressed to compare

this brief life, I might declare:

It’s like the boat

that crossed this morning’s harbor,

leaving no mark on the world.

(The Priest Mansei, ca. 730)

Haiku has been pacing back and forth across my brain like monks who wander silently back and forth through the temple. In this odd too-real dream state, I have often lost the words to describe what I see or feel now. My own thoughts have been gathering themselves in groups of short lines as if to show me how simple it really could be if I would stop over thinking it.

For the first time in years, I wrote a haiku. Three lines that came to me as I left the temple — less ecological and more decidedly modern than the ancient monks I read, but it seemed at the time (and now) everything I wanted to say about my day at the temple (and after).

Climbing the temple stairs

the sound of velcro

in my knees.

winter street 2It was pretty the first time. It was a pretty the first time when eight inches of snow fell in December the week before Christmas. The temperature was mild; the snow, white and fluffy. It was pretty that first time, but now, two months later after weeks of alternating sub-zero and rain, it’s not pretty any more. One weatherman and newscaster described it like this:

Weatherman: It sure has been a long winter.

Anchorman: Yeah, and I’m starting to get whiney.

I bid farewell to whiney last week. I departed from whiney, made a left at irritated and annoyed, and took the next exit straight to SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER: Population: 10 million. This is the part of winter when we start to remember summer as if it’s a deceased relative: someone long gone, you think fondly of. Remember when Summer days would end at 8:30 at night? Remember how Summer would be really warm and you could plan to spend your whole day outside? Remember how we would eat at outside at that cute little restaurant and have bruschetta and wine? Summer is a memory — a vague, distant, longed-for memory.

I tried to walk to a cafe this afternoon just to get out of the house. Big mistake. It’s rained for two days, and the snow lay atop deep trenches of icy water. I would put my foot on what I thought was solid snow only to have it drop another eight inches into cold water. It was a drag. My backpack felt heavy and cold. I was unhappy and annoyed, but I walked on until I found a cafe. A local favorite, I assumed it would be empty because of the weather. But alas, wireless is free there, and there was not an empty chair in sight. I walked more blocks to the next one and on my walk in slush and snow and ice I counted my breaths. Seemed like the sensible thing to do at the time. And we had learned it yesterday.

snow footprintsWalking meditation is like sitting meditation except, well, you’re walking. Each exhale is a step and each step is counted. So: exhale, place a foot, ONE. Inhale, lift foot, place foot, exhale, TWO. Needless to say, no one’s power walking like this. And the hands are held at the solar plexus, the right hand cradled by the left. I walked eight blocks like this. Sometimes counting, sometimes not. And I walked in complete isolation and anonymity. What would have been noticeable walking behavior in the summer is not noticed in the winter as other pedestrians pass by, heads down against the wind. It was like I was alone out there, just walking.

It took twice as long to get to the cafe, and when I arrived, it was empty. Unlike the other cafe, the wireless is free but sometimes difficult to log into, and I couldn’t connect. I stayed anyway. The lack of internet access probably did me more good. No time-sucking e-bay browsing for me. But I didn’t work as much as planned. Instead, I watched the determined snow fall and fall. I watched it blow horizontally against buses and cars. I listened to the frequent hi-pitched whirr of car engines trying to extricate themselves from the snow. I waited. And watched. Somewhere under all this, I thought, summer is still alive. Not deceased. I think one of the features of Midwestern personalities is a quite determination (which isn’t to say other regions aren’t determined, but I didn’t feel this quality in say, Louisiana). We have to wait things out here. Winter ends when it ends. Summer comes when it comes. Learning to adjust to the Midwest winter in all its extremes has been a challenge for me. Life improved when I began to accept winter, but here I am in the middle of this long season, feeling not so grateful, and a little, dare I say, hopeless. When summer does arrive, because of the long winter it will feel like all of Chicago had taken some sort of magic happy pill. The first fifty-degree day, no, even a mid-forty degree day, we will all jump onto our bikes or walk outside as if summer was some magic gift. Can you believe it? We will all say. Fifty degrees! I’ll see joggers in shorts. Women with babies power walking in capris. Outdoor cafes could open. It will be glorious and strange. And this day, today, waiting for the snow to end will be a dim memory. A memory as dim as the one I am having right now about summer.

 

flowers and candle 2

Learning to count my breaths is the least of my problems. Today, I had a full scale delusion. It’s been snowing all day, and it’s been a surprise. Weather reports said “snow,” but what we got was a constant, start 9 am in the morning and keeping going kind of snow. I left the house at one in the afternoon to do errands and every time I came back to the car I had another inch of snow on my car. The constant snow created driving hazards all over the city and I was driving southbound on N. Lincoln Ave, trying to find a parking space, when I noticed a cyclist coming across the intersection in the crosswalk with the pedestrians. This is when we cyclists cheat a bit. Sometimes we like to think we’re cars, and other times, voila, we’re a pedestrian, riding along in pack of walkers like we’re not on wheels. It’s unfair, and probably not safe, but I’ve done it and I noticed this biker was doing it now. What this meant for me, however, as I sat in a snowy intersection trying to turn right while cars sped past was that I was not prepared for him to switch from pedestrian mode to biker mode without warning. In the decreased visibility I assumed he would stop at the corner with the other pedestrians and wait for the next walk sign before he continued into the next cross walk. Instead, he bore right and tried to make it across before the lights changed. I was in his way and he was forced to stop. Before I knew it, I was turning right, and I heard three loud thumps on the side of my car. So loud, they sounded like a hit something. I turned to look and I saw the cyclist pulling behind my car and shaking his head angrily. That’s when I realized I hadn’t hit anything, he had pounded his fist on my car, thinking I had cut him off, the cyclist-cum-pedestrian.

And this is when it gets weird. I thought I saw myself do this: I stop the car, open my door, catch up with the cyclist as he pulls into the intersection, and grab him by the neck with my mitten-covered hand. I pull him backwards off his bike and slam him down so that his head hits the pavement and then I put my knee on his throat. I hear cars honking, his hands clutch at my leg while I feel his windpipe collapse beneath the weight of my knee.

This was so real and vivid that I was surprised to discovered that not only was I not assaulting a cyclist, but I was in my car, parked at a meter, counting my breaths. Exhale. One. Exhale. Two. Exhale. Three. My mind was so delirious with anger and the attempt to control anger, that I didn’t recognize the sound of my own cellphone. Out of habit, I searched for it frantically.

“Hello?”
“Hi! It’s Alicia! What are you doing?”
“I’m parked in my car trying to count my breaths, because I thought I murdered a cyclist.”

If I was talking to some average person, my response would solicit an “Oh, well, I’ll let you get back to that,” but, thankfully, Alicia’s not average: she’s a psychic. I describe briefly my vision of attempted murder, and instead of suggesting I seek professional help, Alicia (God bless her) laughs heartily and says: “That’s so great!”

Ah, psychics.

We decide to go to lunch.

Later, I describe how instantaneous and explosive my anger was when the cyclist pounded on my car. “The weird thing is that I usually feel huge solidarity with cyclists because I am one, too. So, I couldn’t believe that I wanted to assault this guy. I realized that on more than one occasion I wanted to do exactly what that cyclist did. I wanted to pound on the window of some guy who I thought cut me off. But, when it happened to me, as a driver, I thought I saw myself kill a cyclist for doing the very thing I would have done.”

And that’s when I got it. Oh, I realized, this is buddhism.

Soon after I started the meditation class, I taped to my refrigerator a list of the Six Right Livelihoods which I tore out of a brochure that I got at the temple. I did this not so much as an act of devotion, but more in the spirit of writing the answers to an upcoming quiz in the inside of your cuff. I wanted to know the answer in case the teacher asked the question. And I don’t read it often. I glance at it briefly as I drink orange juice or put butter back. Despite this, I noticed under “Cultivate Compassionate and Loving Kindness” it read: Consider others’ perspectives deeply.

If I hadn’t stopped and caught my breath. I would have spent the rest of day seeing myself drag that cyclist to the ground and pummeling him. My breath, and counting it, gave me a momentary pause in the thoughts that were angry. I didn’t decide he was “right” to pound on my car, and I didn’t decide that it was my “fault”. Neither did I stay in my anger, certain that I had suffered an injustice, nor did I suppress it and try to convince myself I wasn’t pissed off. Rather, in the pause of my breaths, I realized that I have done what he has done and in a deeper way, a way that I can’t really describe, I understood that I am him. Buddhism talks about meditating to achieve oneness — to become conscious that we are all one — and I was surprised to learn that I understand a small part of what that means for me. Not anybody else, just me.

The irony is that even though I found that insight, I still can’t count my breaths pass the number five without getting lost in some other thought, which, I suppose, in a Zen-parable sort of way, is me discovering success in failure.

Meanwhile, it snowed and snowed and snowed. It’s cold now too, with temperatures falling into the subzero range. My bike is in the basement out of the snow and wind. I have hit my limits on winter cycling. Even I don’t brave five-below-zero weather (and that’s fahrenheit, not celsius) to ride. When spring comes I suppose I will change my ways and not flaunt the laws that say “me on my bike equals a car.” Ah, the challenges of enlightenment. So it makes me glad that I won’t have to ride for another two months.

Never thought I would say this: “But thank god for subzero weather.”

I have had many Zen masters, all of them cats.

– Eckhart Tolle

I began my first buddhist meditation class this week at a Zen Buddhist Temple four blocks from house, down the street from the Whole Foods where I buy organic buffalo meat. The fact that I still eat meat should tell you that I’m still new to the buddhism game.

If you know know me personally, then you are probably wondering why I’m taking a buddhist meditation class. “Don’t you meditate a zillion hours a day already?” a friend asked.

“Yes. But I don’t think it’s working.”

“How do you know if it’s working?”

“If I knew that I wouldn’t be taking another meditation class.”

One of our exercises involves just counting our breath. Sounds easy, right? Try it. Really. Try it. I’ll wait. Exhale, then think, “one.” Inhale. Exhale, then count “two,” and continue.

Okay, now…did you get to number four without thinking of something else? Yep, and that’s why it’s an exercise. It can be really hard to do.

On an average day, meditation for me looks something like this:

Exhale. One. Exhale. Two. Exhale. Three. Shit, it’s cold in here. What it is, like 20 degrees in here? Yahoo weather said it was supposed to be 34 degrees today but it feels a lot colder than that. Remember that winter in Ohio when you were renting a room over the hardware store and you only had a gas stove in the corner for heat? And remember how four rooms shared like eight amps of power or something really miniscule and whenever Weird Roger turned on his hot plate it would blow the whole circuit and shut off your space heater. And remember how agitated he would get and how you could hear him coming down the hallway to ask you if your hot plate was on and you would tell him ‘yes’ because you didn’t want him to know you had a space heater because he was terrified it would start a fire. Mom’s house burned down in fire a Philippines when she was a little girl and she was terrified of fire too. She would check the stove three times before we left for church on Sundays. And remember that time you came home to their house in Florida and discovered that she had left the stove on while she was gone and then you got terrified? The space heater isn’t too close to the rug, is it? I should check. Nope. Far enough away to not start a fire but close enough so I can feel it. Then why am I so cold? Oh shit…what number am I on? Damn. Now I have to start over… Exhale. One. Exhale. Two. I can’t figure out if I’m sitting in lotus correctly and I don’t know if my hands are in the right position. I was sitting in back during class and couldn’t see her hands. Should I have my hands at my stomach, cupped, or am I supposed to do the mudra thing? Damn..lost count again. One. Shit, no, exhale, then say ‘one’…

And it goes on like that for like you know, forever, or technically, five minutes, whichever comes first.

In my best buddhist-style parable form, I have dubbed this the “Taming the Tiger” exercise that I intend to whip out on beginner novice monks when I become a guru. I could be a guru. Okay, no, I couldn’t, but I could meet a guru some day and tell it to him or her.

In any case, whenver I think of taming the tiger, I think of Ben, so here he is: Ben the Tiger.

zen cat
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