Monday, October 31, 2011

You Can Create an Exceptional Life by Louise Hay and Cheryl Richardson

I read this book in two ways.  The first, I tried to be objective, reading this book as if I were a fan of either Louise Hay or Cheryl Richardson or even both.  I wanted to write a review that someone who genuinely likes their teaching would read without taking offense. 

However, I also couldn’t help reading it from a subjective perspective, one that is frustrated with easy faith, even to the point of being angry by how hurtful these teachings can be. 

And so I offer both an objective and distanced review of this book and a subjective one in which I pretty much say what I really feel.

The Objective Review

You Can Create anExceptional Life by Louise Hay and Cheryl Richardson is a very short book in which these two teachers discuss the principles that both have taught for years—how our thoughts affect our reality.  When I read the description, I thought the book would be written as a dialogue, an engaging interaction between the two.  (Not unlike Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth.)  This is not the case.  Instead, it is written from Richardson’s perspective and she shares with the reader what Hay says to her during several scheduled meetings. 

It’s a good idea but the book fell flat for me. 

For one thing, Richardson’s narrative voice is not fully-fleshed.  There is a detached tone that never engaged me and, although she told me about her enthusiasm or curiosity, her voice never allowed me to feel what she was feeling.   Even when she tells the reader that she is feeling deeply sad, enough so to cry, I personally never felt drawn to sympathy.  Basically, she broke one of the number one rules of creative writing:  don’t tell, show; the entire book reads more like a pragmatic and prolonged interview one would find in a magazine than a book both inspired and inspiring.

One could argue, of course, that this is a nonfiction book and does not lend itself to creative writing the way a novel does.  However, I can’t help thinking that there have been nonfiction books about a dialogue between two people that are, if nothing else, emotionally driven.  (Tuesdays with Morrie immediately comes to mind although there have been others.) 

Perhaps because I expected more, my disappointment colored my appreciation.  I even set the book aside for a couple of days so I could approach it with acceptance.  So what if it was not what I expected and did not live up to my hopes.  Does this mean it isn’t a good book, even a great book?  A few days later I was prepared to find out. 

What I found is that most of the ideas shared in this book are pretty much a rehashing of what both teachers have said before in previously published books.  In other words, these are the same lessons/ideas/truths in a slightly different package.  There’s nothing especially wrong with that.  Many spiritual teachers return to the same things because this is their message, the truth they have found that works for them.  (Anyone who has read more than one book by Thich Nhat Hanh knows that he often returns to the same mindfulness practices time and again.)

While I may not understand why this book costs so much given how little it has to offer (both in new teaching and in length), I won’t say that this book is not a good one. Anyone familiar with the teachings of these two women will not be disappointed nor surprised.  And true admirers and followers may not even think that the price is a bit high.  So I guess my feelings are qualified.  If you like what Hay and Richardson have to teach and you want more of the same then you’ll probably enjoy this book.  It’s not going to challenge your expectations (unless you go into it thinking it will read more like a true dialogue which, if you’ve read this review, you won’t do).  If you don’t appreciate their teachings or even agree with them then you probably shouldn’t buy this book, let alone read it.  Of course, someone who doesn’t probably wouldn’t read this book anyway.  Right? 

Subjective Review

Wrong.

Clearly I read this book and believe you me, I am not who appreciates these teachings. 

There is an example of post hoc ergo propter hoc that pretty much summarizes how ridiculous I find most of these “law” of attraction teachings.  In the book, Richardson describes being in a supermarket looking at orchids and thinking about how nice it would be to bring one home.*see footnote  While standing there, she becomes distracted and does not buy herself an orchid.  The next day, however, she comes home from being out and what does she find but a flower delivery on her doorstep. 

Now I don’t know about where you shop, but when I see orchids in a supermarket it typically heralds my seeing orchids everywhere.  You can hardly turn around without seeing orchids on display.  Even big box stores will have orchids available for purchase.  So forgive me if I find it unremarkable that Richardson sees an orchid and someone she knows (implying that the person is aware she likes flowers) buys her a flower that is not only in season but ubiquitous. 

To be honest, I would have found this story better evidence if, let’s say, Richardson stood over an orchid and thought about how much she loves lilacs, how pleasant it would be to have some lilacs and then someone managed to send her lilacs.  This would have been remarkable because orchids and lilacs are not in season at the same time so for a friend to send her an out of season flower, one that is hard to find, is certainly noteworthy. 

But really, how unremarkable and, unless you are determined to believe that this is not a coincidence, even an obvious one, you probably recognize why I mention the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc in this context. 

(Those interested in other arguments might consider researching spurious relationship and magical thinking as well.  The former is another logical argument problem and the latter is a long recognized psychological belief that is illogical and often results in superstitious beliefs.)

Unfortunately, few and far between are those who are familiar with logic and rational argument and thought.  This, however, doesn’t bother Richardson who says, “While science may ignore anecdotal evidence from people who experience the healing or creative power of thought, the stories are important” (31).  She believes and trusts her readers to do so, not bothering to offer more than her own experience as proof for the universal truth of her belief.   

Here is a longer quote, one where she reiterates how unnecessary science truly is:
It’s easy to get caught up in a debate about how this principle works, whether or not it works, or the validity of thoughts creating reality.  But debating these ideas is like expending precious energy arguing about how a radio works rather than simply turning on the station to enjoy your favorite program, or questioning the legitimacy of the Internet instead of using it to communicate or gain information.  At this point in time, using spiritual rather than intellectual tools requires faith and an open mind.  Spiritual tools make life easier and more rewarding.  (40)
Obviously, this quote is so pathetic as to be laughable because science can clearly explain how a radio works and my experience of turning one on and hearing my favorite program has nothing to do with my faith, my believes, or my thoughts.  And whatever Richardson may or may not herself believe, science can also explain the internet. 

Being dismissive of “intellectual tools” is not unique to Richardson, Hay, or anyone else teaching on the “law” of attraction.  The fact is, intellectual tools are rarely called upon where faith is concerned.  Many religious teachers and leaders, when confronted with scientific evidence, are disinclined to listen. 

But notice how casually she implies that if you do not agree with her experience, if you too do not believe, then you are not open minded.  Ironic that someone can be so closed-minded towards scientific evidence (*cough*magical thinking*cough*) should suggest that it is because she is so very open minded that she does not need science.  Is this even logical?

Nothing in that paragraph is logical and it smacks of manipulation. 

This is not to suggest that I don’t see a germ of merit in some of what Hay, Richardson, and their ilk teach.  Science has shown that our past experiences can affect our physical well-being in the present.  Traumatic experiences in childhood and possibly high levels of stress occurring over a long period of time can manifest as cancer.  Our emotions have a causal effect, releasing hormones or compromising the immune system. 

(And for some scientific and not merely experiential evidence I offer the following:

So I do believe that using affirmations can help.  Do affirmations affect the world in which we live?  To the extent that a positive person tends to have a more optimistic outlook on things, is more inclined to look for the silver lining than sink into utter despair, yes I see how our thoughts “create” our reality.  Science (and experience) has, however, proven that if you ask different people to describe the same thing, say a crime scene or a painting, you will receive different descriptions, some even contradicting one another.  Our perceptions create our reality but they do not define another person’s reality.

My perspective does not define Richardson’s reality no more than her experiences determine what I should or should not believe myself.  If her faith goes so far as to suggest that what she thinks can influence another person’s actions, inspiring them to give her flowers or be more kind where there was previously conflict, so be it.  And if I think and believe that such things are foolish and insulting to my intelligence, then so be it.  Obviously I believe that what I think doesn’t affect my world to such a degree that she, or any of the other teachers who believe these things, will suddenly change her way of thinking.  If my thoughts could, these stupid books wouldn’t be published, read, let alone believed.

* Oddly enough, I recently read a different person’s story that goes very much along the same lines. She is in a store admiring orchids when another shopper asks her a question.  In the time it takes to help this other shopper, she has forgotten about the orchids and continues on with her own shopping.  Moments later the interrupting shopper comes up and gives her some orchids.  The teacher said that this was a result of her own desire, that the “law” of attraction worked and her desire for an orchid, which she says she had completely forgotten was fulfilled through this surprising stranger.  Visualize me rolling my eyes as I type this because even when I read it my thought was 1) the stranger saw her looking at the orchids and 2) there are actually generous people in the world who do things like buy someone flowers as a way of saying thank you.  Yes, even strangers will do nice things for others.  The action (post hoc) did not have any relationship with the teacher’s action (propter hoc).

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone


Harry Potter and theSorcerer’s Stone by J K Rowling is one of my rereads.  Well, technically it’s a rerereread . . . not even sure how many times I’ve read it.  You see, once upon a time Rob bought me the fourth book in the series and I had to read the first three books before I would read the fourth.  Which I did. 

At the time, I thought HP1 was a good book but I didn’t really get the hype.  I even had to admit to myself that I’d have never read the other books (there were only four at the time) had I not been given the fourth one.  But I had been and so I read the next book and the next. By the third book I was hooked and as voracious a Harry Potter fan as the next person.  If not fanatic, I was eager for each new book.

When HP5 was released, I reread the first four books.  When the first movie came out, I reread the first book.  Before the seventh book came out, I reread the first six books.  And I think I reread the first book at least once or twice more.

So yeah . . . rerere . . . many times read.  Which brings me to my rereading the entire series in anticipation of my finally seeing the last two movies on dvd, even if it means borrowing them from the library. 

This time, my opinion about the first book has changed slightly.  I didn’t expect it to do so but now that I have read all of the books, there are things I know that I didn’t know before and I can better appreciate the nuances that I had too casually overlooked before.  I know that Rowling has claimed the inspiration for the entire series of novels came to her and she knew not only where it would begin but where it would be going.  But when Sirius Black is mentioned in the first chapter and a bezoar is referenced on page 137 is remarkable enough.  But there are so many more allusions that, with a closer reading are too easily overlooked the first time on reads the novels.  Everything from Harry feeling that Snape can read his mind (221) to the introduction of Firenze (260) to Harry Potter not being afraid of spiders because there were so many sharing the cabinet under the stairs with him (oops, forgot to mark the page) . . .

And this is why I began falling in love with the first book for the first time.  I don’t know how Rowling did it, infused the first book with so many bits and pieces of details that would take on greater importance in future novels.  Truly remarkable and commendable.  Yes, the novel embraces all of the traditional fantasy archetypes.  Harry, the orphan, is called to the quest and must face his inner demons as he tries to fulfill his destiny. 

One could try to analyze the ins and outs of why this series is so successful.  It’s hard not to think that it has something to do with Rowling’s back story—a mother on “the dole” has her manuscript rejected more than a few times before it is finally accepted and becomes a massive best-seller of unpredictable proportions.  But I can’t help thinking it has to do with the three main characters  because most young readers are likely to recognize themselves in either Harry or Hermione or Ron.  The outsider.  The book-loving nerd.  The poor kid who makes good.  One comes from an unloving home while two come from loving homes.  Two are only children while one comes from a larger family. 

All of the bases are covered because, on a superficial level, none of them is perfect and gradually grow into something greater. 

But the internal flaws of each character, besides making them better characters (not two-dimensional), makes each more relatable.  The insecurities, the need to belong, the feelings of isolation, all come together.  What child doesn’t imagine being something greater?  Or doesn’t feel like an outsider at some point?  Or isn’t embarrassed by their own inadequacies?  Or even their own strengths? 

All three of the main characters, and especially Harry himself, are unique and destined for greatness.  Only, they don’t know it.  Not even Harry himself fully believes he can do what he has been called to do.

Do any of us really believe we can? 

So here I am rerereading the series.  For some of the books, I’ll only be reading a second time but for most it will be more than the two times and I’m bound to see more than I have already.  I’m even eager to read them all from book one through book seven. 

I guess I’m gearing myself up for next year . . .    

Monday, October 24, 2011

How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell


How To Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell is a cute middle grades book that is, in my opinion, geared towards boys although I’m sure girls would like it too.  Rob and I watched the movie the other day and I wanted to read the book because the book is always better.

Unless of course, the book is different.  I mean so very different as to be almost a completely different story.  Yes ,there are Vikings in both and the protagonist, Hiccup, is the chief’s son but not really the strong, violent type.  In fact, he’s more a nerd, learning all he can about dragons because learning about them is easier than actually dealing with them.  There is an initiation that will prepare the young Vikings for their futures as warriors and . . . that’s it.  Oh, and there are dragons in both the book and the movie.

On page 172 I found a rather glaring error which I will tuck behind a spoiler tag at the end of this review.  That was a minor issue.  My other issue I had with this novel is that there are no female characters, unless you count Hiccup’s mother who is more mentioned than actually relevant.   She certainly adds nothing to the plot.  There are some boy humor gags that include gross things like dragon snot, which is why I say this book is clearly aimed at boy readers.

But none of these things were really enough to make me dislike the book.  It’s cute.  I love the intentionally amateurish illustrations and the footnotes that refer to other books, books that are real within the world of the book. There is a lot I found charming if not altogether enchanting.  While  I may not have been blown away by the book, I liked it and wouldn’t discourage a child from reading it.  I may even get around to reading the rest of the books in the series, although I probably won’t go out of my way to do so.  Cute is good enough and I’d be disappointed if the rest of the books focused more on being gross although I’d be thrilled if a strong female character could be introduced. 


And for those who have read the book and seen the movie . . .

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Mary Boleyn by Alison Weir


Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings by Alison Weir is the biography of a woman whose life has been modified, Typically, when told at all, the false is presented side-by-side or even confused with fact.

Was Mary Boleyn the mistress of both Francis I, King of France, and Henry VIII, King of England?  Of this, there is little doubt, which Weir painstakingly reveals supported by quoting extensively from primary sources.  She does not filter out the contradictory stories, instead choosing to contextualize them in their time, often giving well-reasoned and clear evidence for why one writer may have been prejudiced against Mary Boleyn or even with her entire family.

Let's face it--the Boleyn family had many enemies and those who opposed the elevation of this family were vocal.  And truth could easily be skewed to suggest that if Mary had slept with two men, why not more?  Her reputation having preceded her, it takes little effort or imagination to add a few names to the list, especially when witnesses to the facts are long dead.  Let us not forget, after all, her sister, Anne Boleyn, had allegedly slept with her own brother, George, a fact that even their father would not deny, in court, which must obviously prove the veracity of it all.

Of course, nobody believes these lies any longer but there are so many other falsehoods that surround the Boleyn clan even Weir confesses that, in a previous book, she herself was mistaken.  When an historian's later research refutes earlier claims, the choice is to bury the new evidence or hold the truth to the forefront, even when it undercuts your previous research and published statements.  I think it is great that she was candid enough to say that her earlier research did not reveal the whole truth and that she is just as guilty of getting some of the details about Mary's life wrong.

Her numerous quotes from primary sources are well cited, but where her writing shines is in her ability to make history read almost like a novel.  If she is redundant, and she is, one can only assume it is because she doesn't think her readers will want to read more than a chapter or two a day.  But this book is so hard to put down that I found myself reading three and four chapters at a time.  When one factors in that I have read many books about the Tudors, about the Boleyn era in particular, this becomes all the more remarkable.  I know how this story ends and yet I simply did not want to stop reading.  I appreciated, especially, the appendix in which Weir briefly follows the stories of some of Mary's descendants, how they flourished under the reign of Elizabeth I and even going so far as to list some more contemporary branches of a family tree few realize still flourishes.

Most intriguing of all, for me, was seeing how Weir worked her way through centuries of writing, comparing and contrasting different versions of Mary Boleyn's story and arguing for one possible truth.  Weir never gives in to easy speculation and, where there can be no definitive answer, she offers no speculation nor bias in favor of one side of the argument or the other. Was Mary Boleyn's son really Henry VII's son?  Was her daughter really his daughter?  Or were both children bastards of the king or natural children of her husband?  Where history is vague, Weir is vague, all the while, taking the trouble to present possible evidence that could lean in one direction over another.  Nonetheless, she never declares anything that isn't verified, let alone verifiable, as truth.  She is comfortable letting some remnants of history to remain a mystery rather than argue for factual what will later prove a falsity.

And isn't that a nice change of pace where the Boleyn family is concerned, a person who is willing to present a balanced viewpoint and not surrender to salacious speculation?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Persuasion by Jane Austen


Persuasion by Jane Austen is perhaps my second favorite Austen novel, following Pride and Prejudice which still holds a solid first place.  I’ve read it before, as I have all of Austen’s novels but this one I had forgotten altogether and wasn’t sure what to expect.

The novel begins with Anne Elliot approaching the age when young women are no longer considered marriageable.  Eight years ago, she had been persuaded (hence, the title) to turn down the proposal of a man she loved because her family did not feel he was worthy of her.  Most of her family seem unconcerned about Anne’s prospects and are too self-absorbed to fret over the inevitability of her being an old maid. Except for a cousin, a woman who was especially vehement in talking Anne out of accepting this previous proposal, Anne is ignored except in how she can best serve the needs, mostly narcissistic and imagined, of her immediate family.

Given that this is an Austen novel, let’s forego the discussion of the inevitable happy ending.  Instead, I want to share how amusing I find it that so many contemporary women wish they could return to the simpler days of Austen’s time.

Really?

Anne is all of 27 when the novel starts and she’s already past her prime.  In fact, her family has doubts that she will ever marry at all, let alone marry well.  And seriously, this is all she could do.  Because of her class, she cannot work, even as a governess.  Instead, she must marry or end up living with a married relative.  Perhaps, she could live with her older cousin but she certainly couldn’t live alone.  Such a thing would be unheard of.

And the only reason she was warned off accepting this one man’s proposal of marriage boiled down to his having “no fortune.”  He joins the navy, as many young men with no fortune did at this time, and makes his fortune.  The conflict (what little there is in a romance novel) arises from the fact that, because Anne has already spurned his affections, propriety would suggest he would not propose again.  Even in spite of the fact that Anne’s father has foolishly squandered the family’s fortune and they themselves have fallen on hard times.

It reminds me very much of the propriety and pride of the Old South after the Civil War, where the now impoverished aristocrats still held court and swore that the “South would rise again.”

What makes Austen’s worldview so appealing is that the protagonist marries for love, never for the typically socially mandated reasons.  The truth is, however, women were no less shuttled about as so much chattel, often suffering only slightly less as a wife than they would as an old maid.

There is nothing charming or simple about this and we should not look back at a time when women were rarely educated as something ideal.  Nor should we forget to appreciate how much things have improved because we are less often defined and/or determined by our class than we are by our choices.  Yes, there are still (and likely always will be) class differentiation and those with the most wealth will inevitably have the most power.  But we also live in a time when someone who comes from a poor background can work up to so much more and when women are not restricted in their daily associations to only those that are of equal or appropriate social standings.

After all, how many of us on the internet would interact at all if we were so conservatively and rigidly restricted by our race/gender/class/education/etc.? 

So while I obviously enjoy reading Jane Austen I always find myself grateful that things have changed and can’t help but think that those who yearn for “the good old days” are out of their minds.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard


The Writing Life by Annie Dillard is a poetic look at what is means to be a writer; albeit, the process explored is Dillard’s own and unique.  However, her experiences of self-doubt, of frustration, even of fear, are familiar to anyone who has read a book about the writing process by any other writer.  Or all the more familiar to anyone who has actually tried to write.

To be clear, this is not a practical guide.  You won’t find pithy exercises telling you to set a timer, pick up a pen, and write.  Nor will you find lengthy quotations from the canon or elsewhere. Instead, what you have is Dillard, sharing in a prose that is often so elevated it almost reads like poetry. 

Now, it wasn’t too long ago that I gave a lukewarm review to her book Holy the Firm and I stand by that review.  I don’t think I appreciated it although I truly tried.  So imagine my delight when Dillard shares some doubts about a book she’d written, a book that is obviously that book, and how only a Yale professor critiqued it well.  I admit, I am not at the standard of a Yale professor and if all of the other criticisms she received for that book missed the mark I somehow feel better.  But that she conceded she may have been too obscure if only one critic appreciated what she was trying to do allows me to feel vindicated.

If I didn’t get that other book, at least she gets why.  I think.  (I also think I’ll end up rereading it someday because I could see that there were allusions to Julian of Norwich and the story of the moth reminded me of Don Marquis and maybe, just maybe, if I read it again I’ll have an epiphany that puts me on par with that Yale professor.)

But this review is not about that book. 

There are times, even whole chapters, when Dillard seems to be writing about something else, anything but writing.  However, the author uses metaphor the way a surgeon uses a knife, with a precision so intense that later only a sliver of scar remains to indicate something was cut at all.  She uses her metaphors to get beneath the surface and, where other writers stop after they’ve shared their doubts and fears about their own writing or writing process, she is telling a story about chopping wood or about a mysterious chess game or a pilot.  Only the attentive reader—or the writer who maybe has traveled, if not the same, a similar writing road as Dillard—will realize that every word of this book is about writing.  Every story is a metaphor for some aspect of what it means to sit down and shut up and just write.

No Dillard doesn’t make it sound easy.  It’s not.  But her prose is dazzling and I’m glad I didn’t let one bad reading experience keep me from checking her out just one more time.  Now I know there will be other times.  And maybe time to reread that one book when I’m either more sophisticated or more innocent.  I’ve a feeling one or the other will help me make sense where I could make none before.

Monday, October 10, 2011

More Charlotte Mason Education by Catherine Levison


More Charlotte Mason Education:  A Home Schooling How to Manual by Catherine Levison is a continuation of the author’s previous book on all things Charlotte Mason, with which I was, as you may recall, not particularly overwhelmed.  I felt after reading that book that a reader would do better just reading Mason’s writings and working from there, perhaps turning (unnecessarily, in my opinion, to writers like Levison for a little help).

Apparently, Levison agrees for, towards the end of this second book, she says “I needed a very powerful reason to write a second book because I still feel strongly that reading Charlotte Mason’s books would be the most beneficial use of your time” (165).

Needless to say, this begs the question:  So why write a second book?  Frankly, if a homeschooling parent is too lazy or intimidated to read Charlotte Mason, maybe that parent should reconsider either using the method at all or homeschooling altogether.  Then again, and I am not alone in feeling this way for there are other reviews that rip her writing skills apart.  Judging by Levison’s grammar and punctuation, one wonders that she wanted to homeschool.  To be honest, I had hoped that in the time it took for her to publish a second book she would have studied enough grammar with her children/students she would have learned some of the basic grammar rules she butchers in the first book. 

Alas, she does not.  On page 97 I found this horrible monstrosity:  The students studied three countries for history, (English, French, and Roman).  Obviously, kudos for using the Oxford comma; however, what purpose does the comma after “history” serve?  None.  Either it should not have been used at all or, better yet, replace the comma with a colon and remove the parentheses altogether.  But then there is the author’s perverse decision to use adjectives rather than nouns in the listed items.  As with many dependent phrases and clauses, a simple sentence restructure will reveal how impossible her choice is: For history, the students studied three countries:  England, France, and Rome.

Let me assure the reader that I have never seen a geo-political map that had English listed as a country. 

As with the previous book, there are editing mistakes which I choose to lay at the doorstep of the publisher and not the author.  Probably this is because I really cannot bear the thought that the author was too lazy or uneducated to know the difference.

But forgetting all of these issues, is there enough content in this book to justify a follow-up to the first book?  In my opinion, no.  I want to reiterate that any homeschooling parent truly dedicated to using the Charlotte Mason should just read Mason’s own books.  After all, that is what Levison encourages her readers to do, although conveniently towards the end of her second book. 

I do want to interject a defense of the author, at this point, because I’ve clearly vilified her.  I honestly believe her children received an adequate education, no better nor worse than a child might receive in a public school setting.  Perhaps more conservative than I would have chosen for my own children but she, herself, encourages her readers to make choices that work for them.  It is unfortunate that she seems to feel her strength lies in the language arts because her published writing does not serve as an adequate testament to her mastery of the fundamentals.  It is more unfortunate others may judge the quality of a homeschool education by some of the resources I have seen and read myself. 

Follow the author’s and my advice:  read Charlotte Mason.  If you still don’t know how to make Mason applicable in your home, then maybe read A Charlotte Mason Education but if you are still confused don’t bother reading this unnecessary companion book.  Odds are there’s something better, something published more recently, that will meet your needs better than both of  these books combined.

Here is a list of books by Charlotte Mason.  Bear in mind, Mason was writing in a different era to a different audience and her philosophy is deeply rooted in her own time and place.  A modern-day parent should want to modify her suggestions to better meet the needs of the child/student while also embracing a more relevant content to fully prepare this generation of learners for the future.
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