Guaranteed reading with intelligence

Guaranteed reading with intelligence
Guaranteed reading with intelligence

Friday, 24 May 2013

Summer Melody by Toddie Downs

5 out of 5 stars

Dancing alone?

Toddie Downs is an interesting new author and her first novel, Summer Melody, is an enjoyable and promising start to what will hopefully be a long, successful career.  Downs weaves her story with skill, taking the plot to diverse places, but, at the same time, tying things together neatly.

Jane (14 years), her cousin Meg (18 years) and Bonnie (Jane’s mother) all live in, or near, the small Connecticut town of Daedalus Falls.  In one long summer all three women will face challenges to their previously predictable lives:  Jane will tackle the problems of a first job, Meg will confront the possibility of a permanent relationship with a man, and Bonnie will be forced to confront unresolved, past difficulties with her family.  How will the sometimes traumatic events of this summer end?

Summer Melody is very much about women and almost all the characters in it are of that sex.  Downs depicts women of the past four generations.  We meet Elizabeth, Bonnie’s mother, who is a woman of the traditional, patriarchal 1950’s, now very old.  Vivian, Meg’s mother, is a child of the 60’s counterculture.  Bonnie is of the retro-conservative Generation X.  Jane and Meg are born in the period of Generation Y, with its emphasis on personal freedoms and achievements.  These generational descriptions can help us to understand Summer Melody, however, Downs has very much tried to create people and her characters are thus complex, ambiguous and sometimes contrary to the observe trends of their period.  Elizabeth, for example, very much bucks the heavy social constraints of her time, yet she has somehow come to be the typical American matriarch, so prominent in 1950’s culture, who dominates the family arena (as opposed to the male work arena).  As the novel progresses we learn more and more of her history and the complexity of her personality and her circumstances.  This is a very likable book and the characters in it are immediately pleasant and agreeable to the reader, if not perfectly so.  We care about these characters and are willing to stick with them through their trials and despite their imperfections. Once again taking Elizabeth as an example we see that we admire her feistiness and honesty, although she is often gruff.  In a similar way Jane is petulant, but deep thinking, Meg lacks commitment but is very friendly and Bonnie is overly conventional but caring.  In ‘real’ life nobody is perfect and we like our friends, but also see their faults.

Summer Melody is very much a social realism novel, though it has moments of humor to lighten the mood.  Much of this humor comes as snappy character descriptions and mood references to book, TV and movie titles.  For example in the beginning of Chapter 3 we read:

“Meg wandered around the display, assisting the mannequins in tying the aprons around their waists.  The store was beginning to resemble a scene from The Stepford Wives.”

Of course this friendly little shop is far from the shady world of that satirical thriller.  As a point of criticism, however, it should be noted that in Chapter 17 the snappy comments are misplaced.  At a point of crisis we read:

“She just wanted to fall under a sleeping spell and let tiny dwarves care for her until this was over.”

The lightness of the “tiny dwarves” clashes with the very serious mood.

The novel is written in alternating chapters: first from Jane’s point of view, them Bonnie’s, then Meg’s.  This adds considerable variety and depth to the text as we see events from different people’s perspective: we are not limited to one version of the truth.  This postmodern departure from the traditional main character, or omniscient narrator, is very welcome.  As a result different readers may come to different conclusions about the ‘truth’ of this novel.  Once again this complexity and ambiguity makes the novel more ‘real’.

In fairly standard plot structure, though, the book slowly rises to crisis at mid-point, lulls, then peaks again, ending in resolution with all the plot lines coming to closure.  There are some very real ‘Oh-my-God’ moments in this book, and a few cliff-hanger chapter endings.  This of course keeps the reader’s interest.

As the title of the novel suggests, music is an important symbol in the text.  As different characters encounter melody they find it soothing and uplifting.  We are given an idea of the rhythm of life, of joining with the flow.  The town of Daedalus Falls is very “twee,” a cut-out-town from a painting depicting past life on another continent.  We are given an image of traditional convention and past rules.  Nature imagery occasionally appears as a calm alternative to our hectic lives, however, even there trouble can lurk.

Downs has taken the main theme of personal isolation verses relationship.  At the very beginning of the book Janes meets an autistic boy, Charley, who passively sits, playing with his toys, while bullies throw stones at him.  A little later Jane musses:

“She wondered if Sam sat alone in the cafeteria in his Pittsburgh school.  Maybe Charley didn’t have it so bad after all.  Maybe the key to being different was not knowing or caring you were different.”

In our over-stimulated, numbed 21st century life maybe we are all a bit like Charley, but is this really how we should live?  Surely part of happiness involves reaching out?  This is, indeed, exactly what positive psychology teaches us.  (Martin E.P. Seligman.  Authentic Happiness: Random House Australia, 2002, p. 42-43, 56)  In the novel Jane is a loner, Meg is constantly breaking up with her boyfriends, Bonnie is divorced, Vivian, Meg’s mother, is divorced plus estranged from Elizabeth plus partially estranged from Meg, and finally Brady, Meg’s current boyfriend, has partially broken with his mother.  The characters sometimes admit that they have no feelings towards those who could be close.  Both Jane and Meg, for example, don’t really connect at all with Elizabeth.  This is denial in order to avoid being hurt.

 Religion is a further sub-theme of the book.  In religion we think of ethics (how to act correctly in relationship with others) and compassion (right attitude towards others).  If we are to choose to come out of isolation how should things really be, and, more importantly, how should we make them?  At points of crisis in the novel people pray (even though they are not Christian).  There is an important, symbolic Madonna and child scene.  Vivian is very much a Christian, though we do not always agree with her pat responses to life.  The question of mercy also is important in the book.  What is it to truly be merciful?  Bonnie, at one point admits to having a kind of free “Unitarian” philosophy.  She is ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious’ and, indeed, this sums up a great deal of the book.  To Downs’ credit these questions about life are recognised as complex and difficult, with no easy answers.  The idea that relationship is central to Christianity, the U.S.’s dominant religion, was popularized by Bruce Larson’s book No Longer Strangers: An Introduction To Relational Theology (Word Books, 1973).  This book came out of the Jesus People and the Jesus Revolution of the late 1960’s/early 1970’s.  Interestingly this is when Vivian discovered her faith and is the point which she seems, at least partly, to lack.  To sum up, Downs hints that religion, or at least spirituality, is a source of interpersonal unity.  This is certainly positive psychology’s notion.  (Martin E.P. Seligman, p. 59-60)

As we have noted this is very much a book about women and Feminists will find Summer Melody quite an interesting read.  In many ways this book documents “Second Wave Feminism” (Cathia Jenainati.  Introducing Feminism: Icon Books, 2010, p. 85-86), although it is certainly not a history book, so to speak.  Elizabeth came to maturity in the era which Betty Friedan later called “the feminine mystique” (Jenainati , p. 76, 90-94), in which the traditional view of femininity (cooking, children, frilly dresses and empty headedness) were very much in style.     Headstrong and determined, she is a pioneer feminist in a pre-feminist world.  In such a world what does it take to do what a woman really wants, and what are the costs of trying?  In her younger days, Vivian, disobedient to her mother and absolutely determined to be the complete person she is, was the typical 1960’s Woman’s  Liberationist.  (Jenainati, p. 87-89)  We wonder how and why she became the conservative, praying for the lost, ‘born again’ Christian that she is?  Bonnie is a single mother working successfully in a doctor’s office, but at the same time is a caring mother equally centered in the family.  She is the type of person Betty Friedan proposed a woman should be.  (Jenainati, p. 92-94)  Friedan’s ideas were popularized and followed generally in the 70s and 80s.  Bonnie, however, is in many ways too conventional.  She wants to do the ‘right thing’, but this often leads her to do what society says rather than what is necessarily the ‘best’ option.  Should she really be running around looking after her mother if she really doesn’t like her, and especially when it is running her ragged?  Meg is a young woman intrigued by the idea of romance but unable to find a man who, at least in her mind, does not take her for granted.  She is the type of woman Tania Modleski identified in her book Loving With A Vengeance (1982).  Leaving her imperfect boyfriends may be an act of rebellion, but is Meg’s judgements of the men she knows really accurate?  Jane, though certainly not yet a completely grown woman, is determined to be the kind of female she is.  At 14 as a hang-over Tom Boy she rejects ‘girly’ dresses, buying boys shirts and pants.  The post-modernist (deconstructive feminist) theorist Judith Butler argued that cross-dressing is “an activity which challenges the neat distinction of sex and gender which heterosexual discourse has initiated.”  She says that, “Cross-dressing provides the individual with a wider concept of gender identity which does not normalize male/female dualism.”  (Jenainati, p. 163)  But does following her very individual course mean that Jane necessarily has to be the social isolate that she is?  As we can see Summer Melody has things to say that has much to do with later feminism, however, nothing is taken unassessed and unquestioned.  We all take a philosophic stance towards life, whether or not we see ourselves as philosophers, but taking a line, whatever it may be, always has both its pros and cons, its extremes and its difficulties.  Despite all that I have just written I certainly want to stress that this is not a ‘heavy’ book in any way.  Downs manages the difficult feat of being very entertaining while at the same time giving information and insight.  We in no way feel we have been lectured.

By contrast to the Feminist perspective, except for Jane, who is not really transvestite as far as we know, LGBTIQ characters are completely absent from the novel.  This is a noted oversight as lesbianism has been both the accusation of patriarchal traditionalism against Feminism, and indeed any woman who does not fit in, and the vaunted, pet theory of radical, left Feminism.  In today’s world we know quite well that is virtually impossible to live life without knowing LGBTIQ people, though they may be closeted.  Where are these people in Down’s novel we ask?  She is in other respects so realistic.

People of African descent do get a mention, though they are minor characters.  Carla, Meg’s employer, is African/Jamaican/American.  She is the successful owner and manager of “Yesteryear’s Vintage Clothes,” and is likable, supportive, understanding and a true friend.  No negative images there, but we could wonder if Downs has erred in making Carla too perfect.  Rodney, the “colored” old people’s home attendant, endures Elizabeth’s bigotry.  He is understanding and rises above others' abuse, but is not above a touch of ironic humor.  Like Feminism, the issue of the African/American minority is handled in a questioning, balanced way.  Because of his naively liberal beliefs, Brady, Meg’s boyfriend, very much suffers at the hands of a gang of lower-classed, “colored” youths.  Brady then wants to move to the very white Daedalus Falls because it is “safe.”

Other cultural minorities are absent, which once again is a bit of an oversight as for long periods the U.S. has had a positive immigration program.  We also ask what of the indigenous U.S. nations?

The old, as an oppressed minority, is briefly touched upon.  As Rodney and Bonnie talk about her in her presence Elizabeth comments, “I’m right here.”

This leads us to consider the novel from the broader perspective of society in general.  The notion that money is power very much occurs in the lives of Elizabeth and Mona.  Equally the issue of conformity is strong in the lives of Bonnie and Vivian.  This conformity enshrines upper and middle class power, but also holds real people in a narrow cell.  All this of course is just what the Marxist critique proposes about the U.S.  Marxist Feminism proposes that economic equality of the sexes and freedom for women is necessary for females to truly develop their own potential and power.  (Jenainati, p. 98-99)  Summer Melody is a Middle class and Upper class novel: Lower class women are completely absent.  Marxist Feminists criticized the Woman’s Liberation Movement because it only pursued goals relevant to those classes (Jenainati, p., 100, 114-16) and they would possibly frown at Downs for her oversight.  In her defence, however, it certainly should be noted that this book is specifically about people connected to Daedalus Falls, a decidedly white, moneyed traditional place.  People from there would certainly tend not to mix with the Lower class, or even notice them.  Interestingly the place where Bonnie and Vivian grew up, “MacArthur Country”, on the Ohio/Kentucky border, is conventional, slow and inefficient, but on the other hand very friendly.  Once again things have their pros and cons, though they are especially relevant to the issue of isolation verses relationship.

From the perspective of psychology Summer Melody is a quite successful book.  By far the most important insight which the novel gives is that relationships are complex.  As children we tend to divide the world into ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’ and unfortunately for a lot of us this inclination can hang on into adulthood, although not so simplistically.  We all do and say things we regret.  Even our ‘best friend’ will at times disappoint us.  The real question is how do we respond to these difficulties and what will be the impact on other people.  The plot line about Brady is psychologically correct and insightful.  Although it is never explicitly stated he clearly suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Downs certainly seems to have done her research here.  Beyond that special case the issue of general stress is handled well.  We see that people tend to deny stress and that this can have quite bad results as time goes on.  Most importantly on this point we all need to talk about our difficulties in a positive nurturing friendship (Judith Orloff.  Positive Energy: 10 Extraordinary Perceptions For Transforming Fatigue, Stress, and Fear Into Vibrance, Strength, And Love: Three Rives Press, Ch. 8) and that is exactly what these women do: support one another.  Also physical touch, as simple as a hand on the shoulder, or a more adventurous hug, gives us real support in times of stress.  (Orloff, p. 7-8 & Ch. 5)  Of course problems develop when we don’t talk, in order to resolve our issues, directly with those people we have difficulties with.  Once again Downs is well researched and psychologically correct on these points.  Of course this is not a textbook on stress.  It is an entertaining story about people.

Summer Melody is an enjoyable, insightful and balance novel about women.  Readers are left with the feeling that they have come across something close to life.  If you are a man with an open mind this book can, in a pleasurable way, help you to better understand what it is to be a woman.  If you are a woman you will immediately feel kinship to these characters and you will also be gently guided to think deeper about your experience as a female.  Despite all I have said about Feminism, Marxism and social history this book is first and foremost pure pleasurable reading.  This is not a musty, scholarly tome in any way.  It is well worth a 5 out of 5 star rating.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Revolution Of The Mind by Terry Clark

4 out 0f 5 stars

Clear Thinking In Your Goals And Social Connections 

Revolution Of the Mind: Caught Between Heaven And Hell is a personal development book aimed at helping the reader to get his life in order so that he or she is a success, particularly in the areas of work and relationships.  The book has some self-help aspects, that is, practical suggestions to improve your life; however, it is mainly concerned with providing a logical, coherent philosophy as a foundation from which individual decisions can easily be made.  Terry Clark takes the Bible and Christianity as his source of ideology.  This may at first discourage readers; however, Clark’s ideas usually are what are called ‘common sense’ and have a much wider application than the Christian Church.  This book is in agreement with the notions of various traditional wisdoms, including Taoism and Buddhism, Western philosophy and, most importantly, modern psychology.  The book will appeal to a wide variety of readers, ranging from those who are unhappy with their life, to those interested in New Age belief, and again to skilled practitioners such as counsellors and even academics.

Put over-simplistically Clark argues that actions arise from thoughts and feelings.  These mental activities need to be carried out in the light of truth, rather than ignorance.  Wisdom in applying truth to the particulars of your life is needed.  The words we speak are essential in defining us and connecting us to others, and need to be chosen carefully.  Actions create the world we live in.  Patience is required to see personal change through.  Faith (the use of the imagination to produce results) is essential in personal change.  Goals and relationships need to be established in the context of love. The whole process of personal change needs to be managed carefully in order to maximize energy, otherwise the benefits are lost.  The book of course contains much more than this.

Clark often uses the term “spiritual.”  For those who are not religiously inclined it is important to note exactly what Clark means by this term.  The “spiritual” things talked about are all aspects of the human mind: generally “thoughts” and “feelings”, and more specifically cognitive actions such as “faith” (holding firmly to an idea), “love” and “patience”.  Looking a little deeper we see that Clark’s model of consciousness is very similar to that of the philosopher Rene Descartes.  Descartes believed “that conscious minds exist on a separate, non-physical level.”  He “was a dualist. He thought that there are separate but interacting realms, the mental and the material.”  The mental realm had “none of the spatial characteristics of matter – namely, size, shape and motion.” (David Papineau.  Introducing Consciousness: Icon Books, 2010, p. 26-28)  Clark, at the beginning of his text, says that thought and feeling, which are for him “spiritual”, are “intangible” and “supernatural”; that is, not of the material world.  If the reader does not agree with this idea it is easy to simply replace the word ‘spiritual’ with the word ‘psychological’.  Clark’s text will not at all suffer from this ideological shift.

Going deeper it should be pointed out that the various traditional wisdoms have a certain commonality.  For example, Martin Aronson (ed.) in his Jesus And Lao Tzu: The Parallel Sayings (Seastone, 2000, p.80-81) compares Jesus’ saying:

“Be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  Matthew 5 : 45”

to Lao Tzu’s:

“Heaven and earth join

And sweet rain falls

Beyond the command of people

Yet evenly upon all.  Tao Te Ching 32”

Similarly, Marcus Borg (ed.) in Jesus And Buddha: The Parallel Sayings (Ulysses Press, p. 14-15) compares Jesus’ saying:

“Do to others as you would have them do to you.  Luke 6 : 31”

to Buddha’s:

“Consider others as yourself.  Dhammapada 10 . 1”

Clark uses both of these Bible texts as part of his argument.  Many other overlaps of particular texts could of course be quoted.

More broadly, in terms of scriptural principles Clark writes: “It is easy to use time wisely when you know what is going to happen next.”  This is very similar to the Buddhist idea of the general path to enlightenment.  (Chogyam Trungpa.  The Truth Of Suffering And The Path Of Liberation: Shambhala, 2009, p. 97 – 99)  Of course neither ideology is saying that an exact course in life can be set.

In another place Clark writes:

“Everything that you do and think is of great importance because what you do in life will echo through eternity, forever unchanging and shaping the future.”

This is of course basically the same as the Buddhist idea of Karma.  (Chogyam Trungpa, p. 48-59)

My point in making these comparisons of wisdom traditions is that Revolution Of The Mind need not be limited solely to a Christian audience.

Much of Revolution Of The Mind is naturalist philosophy, with repeated comparisons made between the life cycle of the orchid and human life.  Similarly, much is made of the metaphor of reaping and harvesting.  This same technique is made in Taoist philosophy.  For example in Wen – tzu we read:

“An orchid does not lose its fragrance just because no one smells it, a boat does not sink just because no one rides in it, and an exemplary person does not stop practicing the Way just because no one is aware of it: that is how they are by nature.” (Thomas Cleary, tr., Shambhala, 1992, p.80)

Once again my point is that Clark’s book should appeal to an audience wider than just Christians.

This traditional wisdom approach to life could be dismissed by those of a hard headed scientific approach.  It should be noted, however, that Clark’s whole argument is very much in agreement with cognitive psychology, which is the most researched and statistically most effective method for initiating personal change.  A basic notion which cognitive psychology shares with ‘folk psychology’ is that it “explains actions by referring to mental process”.  We say a person “thought” something, that is, “we are saying that … [they] … had a certain belief”.   We are also saying that people “want” something, that is, “we are saying that … [they] … had a certain desire.” (Dylan Evans. Introducing Psychology: Icon Books, 2010, p. 4-5)  Clark’s whole book is based on the idea that we should change our beliefs and desires, that is our thoughts, in order to achieve happiness and success.  Clark writes:

“Thoughts and feelings generate momentum that creates action.’

“Actions are important because actions activate a change in our reality.”

More specifically Clark argues that a change in thoughts results in a change in our personal system which in turn will “give birth to a new reality and the new reality will change the life of everyone who comes into contact with the paradigm shift.”

Further Clark argues:

“It is hard to rationalize with someone who has fear because fear is not rational.”

This type of statement about feelings is a basic notion of the particular cognitive psychology school of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. (Albert Ellis & Arthur Lange. How To Keep People From Pushing Your Buttons: Citadel, c1994, p. 18-20)

Clearly Clark is not talking complete religious nonsense.

Of course Clark does have his original contributions to cognitive psychology.  He writes:

“An immature person will take credit for Dreams that blossom and Relationships that grow and blame other for Nightmares that destroy and Relationships that wither away.”

Martin E.P. Seligman in the seminal book Learned Optimism (Random House, 1992, p. 5, 49-52) argues that, while personal responsibility is very important, an exception should be made in the case of depressed people, as they are OVERLY self-critical.  People who do exactly what Clark is arguing against are more happy and therefore depressed people should do it.  This is a rather large ‘exception’ as:

“It is estimated that by 2020, depression will be the second greatest contributor to the global disease burden.’  (Paul Huljich. Stress Pandemic: Mwella, c20012, p. 6, quoting World Health Organization. Suicide Prevention (SUPRE).  Retrieved: July 15, 2011)

Clark’s point is that the danger is that “immature” people will be created, and of course this will result in unhappiness at some future point, despite any immediate happiness.  In arguing in this way he is in agreement with existentialist psychology.  Rollo May in Freedom And Destiny (W.W. Norton, c1981, p,96-101) argues that, at least in the 1970’s, the U.S. suffered from too much emphasis on freedom and not enough application of responsibility.

More broadly Clark is often in agreement with general psychology, especially in the practical field of counselling.  While speaking about the necessity of being careful in choosing relationships, for example, Clark writes about liars:

“Just like the dove when we spot a manipulator we should fly as far away from them as possible.  There is no sense in trying to reason with a manipulator, we must remember they are the masters of deception.”

Martha Stout in her book The Sociopath Next Door (Broadway Books, 2005, p 39-49) makes clear that sociopaths are THE master liars and manipulators.  Her expert advice, as both a successful academic and counsellor with a thriving practice, is exactly the same as Clark’s:

“The best way to protect yourself from a sociopath is to avoid him, to refuse any kind of contact or communication.” (p. 160)

As we have already noted Revolution Of The Mind is chiefly about ideology, and so Clark tries to outline the ‘best’ way of thinking.  It is therefore no surprise that, beyond psychology, the book can also be read in terms of its philosophic implications.  Of course this is not a boring, weighty philosophic tome, but the influence of that discipline can be found if you care to look.   A Seed Of Faith is one chapter with very clear philosophic connotations.  Here Clark connects faith and the imagination.  Clark writes:

“Faith begins in our imagination with a tiny thought and it is through our imagination that faith seeks to travel from the supernatural to the natural world.”

And elsewhere:

“The human mind is a very complex organism from which all our God like ability comes from.  It is in the human mind where we will find the power and explosive imagination and despite the vastness of the imagination, the human mind has the ability to hold our consciousness, reasoning and logic.  The mind is far greater than any of the world’s greatest wonders.”

Clark argues that through our imagination we have the ability to change our words and actions, and thus change our outer reality.   Clark here is expressing a view similar to the Romantic philosophers, particularly Friedrich von Schelling.  Schelling believed that:

“… man could only understand his place in the universe through an imaginative involvement with it… Man is able to parallel the action of God in his own creative insights.  Man shares with nature the urge to create, to be self-aware.  Creativity in man is faithful to the act of creation in the divine spirit.”  (Duncan Heath.  Introducing Romanticism: Icon Books, 2010, p.67)

The similarities are I think obvious.  As I have said, I don’t mean to imply that Clark’s book is heavily philosophic, but the material is there if you want to go searching.  The reader can certainly enjoy Revolution Of The Mind without any knowledge of philosophy.

One point of criticism is that, despite Clark’s common sense approach, he at times takes an absolute view of things.  This can be most clearly seen in the chapter A Seed Of Love.  Here we read statements like:

“Love has never lost a battle and love is perfect and blameless.  We can do all things through love that strengthens us and gives us courage to overcome obstacles.”

Many would say that, while love is a very powerful motivating force, and a strong catalyst of action, it is not “perfect” and it certainly can lose battles.  Interestingly later in the chapter Clark qualifies his own statements by noting that some relationships are at best non-productive and at their worst downright destructive.  These relationships, according to Clark, should be actively avoided as they are a waste of energy or even devastating.  Clearly, despite Clark’s earlier absolute statements, there are pragmatic limits to what love can do.

Revolution Of The Mind has a number of useful teaching aids.  There are numerous colour pictures with significant captions to help the reader remember the main points. These illustrations are particularly beautiful.  There are three different web resources: Clark’s webpage, a Facebook page and a Twitter link.  All three Web resources contain extra teaching material.  As a kind of metaphoric learning activity the reader is also asked to purchase and tend a phalaenopsis orchid. The reader then keeps a journal of the things he or she learns while carrying out the orchid activity.  Finally, at the end of the book there is the section “The Connection Scriptures” where all the quoted Biblical verses are listed for easy reference.

Terry Clark’s Revolution Of The Mind is in the most part a very common sense, practical book.  In general Clark is quite successful in achieving his aim of providing the readers with a system of thought which can help them flourish in life.  Although the book uses the Bible as its reference point, a wide a variety of people can profit from reading it.  It only takes a few minor adjustments for non-Christian readers to benefit.  Revolution Of The Mind is well worth the price and I am happy to award it 4 out of 5 stars.

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