Demoted.

Well. I should have known. The chicken yard is an eerily reasonable facsimile of real life, a messy microcosm of worst selves laid bare for all to see.

There we were, peaceable kingdom and all, enjoying the last thin rays of the setting September sun, the littles and the bigs alike soaking in the latest of summer sunbaths.

The crows were sitting sentinel in the oaks above, reminding me with the occasional raucous caw that I had not yet tossed them their afternoon ration of peanuts. Ground birds flitted through the bushes – I think we just had a flock of titmice arrive, wearing their pointed little caps and playing hide and seek in the oak trees.

I set my book down just to enjoy the symphony of cawing, clucking and peeping. Did you know that birdsong really is good for the soul? In a 2019 article, The Guardian reported that scientists at the University of Surrey discovered that, “of all the natural sounds, bird songs and calls were those most often cited as helping people recover from stress, and allowing them to restore and refocus their attention.”

I believe it. It was a moment of perfect contentment.

Best of all, the two littles continually browse the chicken yard, delighting in every discovery. They trill, they coo, they seem to say “Isn’t this world just amazing?”

Happiness is that thing measured only in moments. While hardship sticks its foot in the door for long stubborn seasons and we can find ourselves treading the waves of grief for all endless time, happiness is that pixie that slips in with a grin and then away with it, leaving us just that shadow of awareness that we were, ever so briefly and completely content.

And so. Just a few hours later I came outside to button down the coop for the night. It was already dark – that thief known as autumn is not fooling around here, it’s stealing light from us every morning and night. I couldn’t see what was happening in the coop but I heard a what sounded like a problem. A scuffle. A turf war. And then a huge thud! It might have been Satan falling like lightning from heaven.

And indeed, sin entered the world. All had been so perfect in our little garden, but that hen Ginger must have taken a bite of an apple. For three blissful nights she let Beauty and Peggy share her roost but on the fourth night, Ginger turned into a mean girl and pecked them until they plunged down to the counter top, where they’ve cowered every night since.

Space on the roost isn’t just about status. Chickens instinctively seek the highest perch as protection against predators. And, being perfect little Darwinians, they work that into the pecking order equation. For the moment, the two littles are warily cooling their heels every night under Ginger’s foreboding glare.

Why ya gotta be like that, Ginger? Ah, human – or rather – chicken nature. Wild kingdom. Survival of the meanest.

Ginger’s big surprise may come when the day arrives that these two littles are suddenly as big as she is. And who knows what happens then?

In the meantime, I just have to break it to them that while the meek may inherit the earth, they probably aren’t gonna rule the roost.

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Feathers, unruffled.

So. Much. Chicken drama!

There have been a lot of ruffled feathers – especially mine – as Willa hit the two month mark on being broody with no end in sight. Not to mention the continued ferrying of the two chick-lets, at seven weeks old, from daytime jaunts in the chicken pen to their cramped night-time quarters in their tiny cardboard shanty.

Something had to give. The moment of decision came when I was lifting that screaming broody banshee Willa off the nest and she whipped her head around like something out of The Exorcist film and proceeded, with an evil beady eye, to spy my finger and bite me. She drew blood this time.

At which point, I drew the line. No more coddling for that crazy chick. She went straight to the penalty box:

She clucked up a storm in the cage for two days. I expected it to take a week to break this fierce broody but lo and behold, on day three, she emerged from her trance, re-joined the flock and has gone nowhere near the nest since! The band is back together!

But what to do about those littles?

The recommended age at which to introduce pullets to a flock is 12-16 weeks. But it was clear that neither these girls nor their unwieldy cardboard box could wait that long.

It was Peggy who made the decision, however inadvertently. She’s a skittish one and was eluding me as I tried to catch her to put her away for the night. At one point she panicked and darted into the coop, and I realized there’s no time like the present. I unceremoniously dropped the door behind her, slipped Beauty in the other entrance and, sensing a distinct lack of glamour in this whole animal husbandry thing, rather cavalierly told them “Good luck!”

I’ve read that eight weeks is the very earliest you can consider mixing chicks with a flock. And that was suggested only begrudgingly and with a palpable frown of disapproval. I am not recommending it. I’m just saying that it happened to be Beauty and Peggy’s eight-week birthday and Peggy made a fateful decision when she dashed into the coop.

Also – and this is important – the littles had spent a few weeks on display behind a see-through fence, being sized up by the flock and several days of supervised mingling with them in the pen. Here are Bella and Beauty having a moment:

So I wasn’t exactly throwing them under the bus. There has been plenty of face time and no overtly menacing behavior from the hens toward the littles. Maybe some eye-rolling and “looks like another fine mess you’ve gotten us into” looks from Bella and Ginger, but I did not see murder on anyone’s agenda.

I checked in on the coop several times that night. The big girls didn’t exactly throw the littles a hen party but neither did they attack them. Beauty and Peggy nestled together on the edge of the counter where, if necessary they could make a quick getaway should things go awry.

By the third night, Peggy was feeling confident enough to try to share Ginger’s roost bar:

Ginger very quickly made it very clear that that wasn’t going to happen. One very businesslike peck and Peggy got the message. “Stay in your own lane, you little pipsqueak.”

Well, all things in their own time, I thought. But those littles turned out to have some big ideas.

While we were away for a few days, we got a report from our friend, Christi, who was watching over the critters, that Beauty and Peggy managed to take over some real estate on that roost with Ginger. And, indeed they have…Christi sent us this photo of the new sleeping arrangements:

And thus, feathers have been smoothed. Crazy Willa has been tamed. The littles are ruling their roost. I might even be feeling a little uptick in the barnyard glamour quotient. All’s well, we’re birds of a feather again.

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She’s truly in the One Percent!

The little girl born on September 5, 1922 in Waltham, Minnesota, could not possibly have imagine how time would stretch out before her and that a full century later her entire family would gather in Santa Barbara, CA to celebrate Phyllis’ 100th birthday.

Daughter-in-law Jean created a timeline of Phyllis’ life and chronicled the panoply of historical, medical and technological changes that have occurred in her hundred years, not the least of which is that she has observed the terms of eighteen different U.S. presidents!

Fewer than one percent of Americans live to be 100, which puts Phyllis in a very elite category. I suspect that many, many fewer reach 100 and still manage to defeat all comers at bridge and Rummikub. Her capacious memory is a thing of legend, as is her talent for the unexpected riposte. As party guests extolled her virtues at the party last weekend, she loudly remarked “What is this – my memorial?”

She has lived long enough to learn the value of a sense of humor. As she shared with the family, her childhood was less than perfect. As a young woman, she met her future husband, Lyle, and they began their married life amidst World War II. Their fortunes varied, as did their places of residence, criss-crossing between Minnesota and California a few times as they raised their three children.

Steven, Mark and Gail reliably provided a never ending succession of parenting challenges, which Phyllis met with what they universally recall as mild exasperation tempered with loving resolve and endless dozens of homemade sweet rolls.

Losing Lyle in 1995 and embarking upon widowhood required all the courage Phyllis could muster, but she carried on with grace and made a new home and life here in Santa Barbara. The bittersweet side of a long, full life is coping with all the losses along the way. While Phyllis has had to say goodbye to many dear friends through the years, she continues to draw new ones to her with her equanimity and optimism.

She insisted on two requirements for her 100th birthday party. First, a coconut cake:

And second, musical performances by her children and grandchildren.

Which is how we ended up with a death metal rendition of Happy Birthday from Taylor:

Cousin Nick serenaded her on the cello:

And Mark, Daniel and Gail will be taking it on the road any day now with their newly formed trio:

And, of course, the real icing on top of the cake for Phyllis was being surrounded by her five “greats”:

It was most certainly an event to remember. When asked earlier in the week what her secret is to such a long life, she replied “Prayer. And wine.”

With that wisdom in hand, onward we go to the 101st!

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100 reasons to celebrate.

It’s time to party!

Today we will gather to féte Phyllis on the 100th anniversary of her birth. Yes, it all started for her in 1922 and you can spend today boggling your mind with all she has seen and experienced to reach her centenarian status.

Of course, one party is not enough for so momentous an achievement. On Thursday, Gail orchestrated a lovely gathering of Phyllis’ nearest and dearest contemporaries. Hopefully I will have some of the group photos to share by next week.

I think the sash says it all: “100 and fabulous!”

Today the ENTIRE family will gather, something that may never have happened before or probably again, giving that fourteen of the twenty-two are trying to be gracious about sardine sleeping under our roof. Turns out five bedrooms is not enough!

At least we have a capable crew making breakfast this morning for the crowd:

I took a sunrise walk this morning and pondered what it must be like to reach a hundredth birthday, with all the accumulated experience and wisdom that entails. Wow!

My own family history suggests that I won’t ever see triple digits, but as I looked up at the morning sky it occurred to me that whether any of us live a hundred years, there are probably at least a hundred reasons to celebrate in each of the days we are given.

So let’s party!

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The price of eggs.

“Oh, you have chickens! How nice not to have to buy eggs!”

Well. Yes. And no.

The full disclosure is that we’ve gotten exactly one egg in the last two weeks. I’m thinking of putting it in a museum.

Those eggs you get in the store? They come from factory farms where hens toil under 24/7 flourescent lights to stimulate laying. As the birds age and production declines – after just one or two seasons – they are “replaced”. I don’t advise looking too deeply into what defines “replacement”. But it’s a business model that keeps eggs on the grocery store shelves – at a pretty price these days. $6.99 a dozen at Gelson’s for “pastured” chickens, which technically means they are permitted to walk around outside.

Our own flock is indulged with hours of supervised outdoor playtime every day. They hunt bugs and worms and are showered with treats and they go to sleep in a spacious coop that is mercifully dark except for the nights they peek out the window from their roosts and see a rising full moon.

All that, and one egg in two weeks.

Here’s the problem.

We have Willa, the apparently permanent broody. She went broody in early July, was not smart enough to adopt the chicks we brought home for her, but continues to scream her piercing broody scream whenever we approach. Broody hens do not lay eggs. Just give it up already, Willa and get back to work!

We have Ginger, who is now a ripe eight years old and somehow still manages to surprise us with an egg, oh, every two or three months…

We have Ava, who is six and a half years old, and does still comes up with the very occasional egg,

as does her hatch-mate Bella. Had their fates been different, they would have been “replaced” long ago.

Bella is the smartest chicken we’ve ever had. She’s too old and heavy to fly up to the nesting counter so she “tells” me when she wants to lay an egg and I carry her over to her preferred spot. The first few times it happened I assumed it was a coincidence, but it has become a routine. Bella might be my favorite hen ever!

And we have Edith, whose photo I won’t bother to show because she has been busily molting for the past several weeks, and she is not looking very pretty. Oh, and molting hens don’t lay eggs.

Lots of excuses for not laying eggs around here…

Which brings us to the chicklets. As you’ll recall, we brought them home six weeks ago for Willa, who pondered them warily for a brief moment and then decided that rather than being a mother she would much prefer to peck them to death.

So instead of the hoped-for madonna and child scenario, we currently have two scarily large juvenile birds in a cardboard box on the bathroom counter.

Peggy and Beauty are still too small to join the flock but too big to spend all day in what is basically a glorified shoebox, so the CE sectioned off an area of the chicken pen where they spend the day and can see and be seen by the flock, which is step one toward their eventual acceptance.

So back to the cost of eggs.

There was, of course, the original cost of coop construction, a labor of love but also somewhere in the four figure neighborhood, I suspect. Speaking of labor, if we were to get paid for animal husbandry chores at say, the princely sum of $15 (current minimum wage) we’d rake in $300 or so a week. There’s chicken feed, which is not as cheap as the colloquial “that’s chicken feed” would suggest – anywhere between $25 and $40 a bag these days. There’s the pine shavings, the corn scratch, the sunflower seed treats, etc. etc. etc.

Makes that egg up above look a bit costly, doesn’t it.

Oh, but there’s more. We now have to add in the hospital bill, occasioned by the CE’s herculean efforts on behalf of the chicks.

Seemed like a good idea at the time, I guess:

“Hey, I think I’ll just heave this 50 lb. doghouse over the fence so I can clean it up for the chicks to play in”, he said.

Cost of the upcoming hernia surgery? Um, priceless?

Oh well, at least we’ll eventually get some eggs…

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Family Album: a last slice of summer.

We truly loved Santa Fe but all the while we were there I felt a palpable tug, the pull of the Pacific. How lucky that we headed next to Newport Beach, where we settled in at the Balboa Bay Club and awoke the next morning to our choice of yachts:

Oh, but the best view was just across the way. Tina took us on a tour of her remodel:

And when it’s done it will match perfectly with her zillion dollar view:

Another highlight of the day was the traditional visit to that OC icon, Roger’s Gardens. It’s an absolute must-see. Also, though, an absolute must-bring-a-very-stuffed-wallet kind of place. Pricey. Gorgeous.

Angie, James and Randy popped down from LA so it was almost a reunion. Good practice for the real one coming up in a few weeks!

After dinner, a waterside nightcap by the fire pit. Doesn’t get more SoCal than that!

Next day, Tina and Ace treated us to a walk at Corona del Mar’s Inspiration Point. Yes, I hear that people are leaving California in droves (and for good reason!) but for as long as we can hang on I guess that just leaves all of us and Acey with more views for ourselves…

And just when the day couldn’t be more perfect – ta-da! Dinner at Nobu with Tina and John:

Unlike Santa Barbara, Newport Beach actually has stores – miles and miles of them! So when in Rome – shop! We logged 3.5 miles in steps at Fashion Island with Tina, Viv and Caleigh!

And the CE got this sweet pic of some mother-daughter bonding. Is Viv actually taller than Tina now??!!

Always hard to leave Newport and say goodbye to this crew:

It was a magical visit. Thanks so much, Tina and fam! xoxo

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Snapshot: Santa Fe

We’re here just long enough to skim the surface, and haven’t really ventured more than a few blocks from the town’s iconic plaza What I will remember are the flowers, everywhere:

And the perfect weather, bluest of blue skies:

New Mexico is, and will likely remain, a mystery to me, but it sings an irresistible siren call to many. Since we’re short on time, we decided to tag along on the coattails of two who found their muse here under the vast blue skies.

A few blocks off the plaza is the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. The artist made her mark in New York with her professional and then intimate relationship with photographer Alfred Stieglitz, but was inspired to visit New Mexico in 1929 and moved to the village of Abiquiú north of Santa Fé in 1940. Perhaps she saw the same blue sky I did when she painted Sky Above Clouds IV

She also bought a slice of property at the sprawling Ghost Ranch near Abiquiú, where on her daily walks a V shape in the red hills “spoke to me quietly“. “I did a painting – just the arms of two red hills reaching out to the sky holding it.”

The museum is small, and her large-scale paintings are absent, but it is very much worth visiting O’Keeffe’s work in the context of the region she so loved.

If Georgia O’Keeffe seems an adventuress for striking out to New Mexico in 1940, Willa Cather was practically a pioneer in 1925 when she and her companion Edith Lewis visited Santa Fé in 1925.

They lodged at La Fonda, the hotel that still looms over the edge of the plaza, and Cather took inspiration for her masterwork Death Comes for the Archbishop from the adjacent Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.

A statue of Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy who built the cathedral between 1869 and 1886 and who served as the model for Cather’s character Jean Marie Latour, stands prominently in front of the cathedral.

Cather is memorialized on the “walk of fame” a few blocks away in front of the New Mexico Museum of Art.

Cather’s affection for New Mexico was palpable. In a letter to friend Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant she wrote “Now about Arizona: it’s good, but New Mexico is better.” And, “I don’t know what to tell you about New Mexico. It’s all so big and bright and consuming.

Alas, we are not here long enough to be consumed, but even a few days beneath the bluest of blue skies, tagging along in the footsteps of these great artists feels like quite a blessing.

“In the desert there is everything and nothing – God without mankind.”

– Willa Cather

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Chicken lady for life.

We’d been invited to lunch at a lovely club by a lovely couple we barely knew. Hoping to make a good impression, I was actually wearing shoes that weren’t flip flops or sneakers.

Nice try. But no.

Because as we entered the stately dining room to greet our hosts, a voice rang out from across the room.

“Oh hi there! I know you! You’re the chicken lady!”

So much for first impressions.

It turned out to be someone from our neighborhood, to whom I’d been identified by someone else in the neighborhood as “the neighborhood chicken lady”.

She had a question about a problem hen. “Is it a Rhode Island Red?” I asked, hoping to cut to the chase and change the subject (as well as my persona).

“It is! How did you know?”

Well, it’s almost always a Rhode Island Red so it was a lucky guess. By this point, though, there was no hope of convincing anyone I was anything but a chicken lady. Oh well, at least I didn’t have pine shavings on my shirt. Or did I?

These last few weeks, things have been more than ever about chickens, since broody Willa bailed on her chance for motherhood and her two would-be babies have been consigned to growing up motherless in a cardboard box. Life can be cruel.

How it started:

How it’s going:

At least they have names now! Granddaughter Caleigh has christened them Peggy (left) and Beauty (right) and I think those names fit them perfectly! They are three and a half weeks old now and as you can see, they are feathering out, even sprouting tail feathers, and Beauty’s comb is coming in. Regrettably, they are rapidly departing the “cute chick” stage and entering the “adolescent vulture” stage.

I was showing them off to a friend when they were still fluff balls and she was warming ever so slightly to the concept of a miniature dinosaur with feathers when I spied – oh no – could it be? Was that a crusty dried bit in the nether parts? I held the chick aloft and pronounced the dire news aloud. “Pasty butt,” I confided.

My friend took two steps back and flattened herself against the wall, instantly and deeply regretting that she had actually touched something that could have “pasty butt”. I was so busy dousing the cheeping chick’s derriere in warm water and scrubbing away – pasty butt must be dealt with straightaway or the consequences can be dire – that I had not noticed how pale my friend had become.

“Oh dear, I’m so sorry”, I said, realizing that not everyone wants to be in the barnyard sorority. I’d done it again. The inner chicken lady simply cannot be contained.

A murmur of protest here, though. There are people, many people, whose proclaimed adoration for their dogs over their affinity for humans is considered perfectly acceptable and even reasonable. Cat people – well, okay, they get an eye roll but still, they’re within the bell curve.

But chicken ladies? No respect whatsoever. I can just imagine the conversations. “Oh yes, I know her.” Pause. Sotto voce: “She’s the one who has chickens.”

Even the CE is getting a little edgy about the vultures in the cardboard box shanty. Yesterday he decided to shake things up and set the little ones up in the big chicken pen for the day. Time for the big hens to reckon with their imminent roommates.

Bella was like, “Wait. What?” Here she was, an actual chicken, but giving off the distinct sense that she is not a chicken lady.

“I’ve got my eye on you!” she seems to be saying:

No one will be happier than me when the day comes that these littles make their transition into the flock but I must confess, it has been a sweet time raising them, pasty butt and all. They hate being held – the giant’s hand descending from above to snatch them up – but I can’t help myself. They are irresistible to me and I am compelled to stroke their feathery little heads and croon their new names to them. “Hi Peggy! Hi Beauty!”

I realize the CE and I are poor substitutes for a feathery mother hen, but the chicks are thriving nonetheless. One moment they are chattering away at one another, the next they are cuddling together, all fluffed out for a morning nap. Sweet little things.

Honestly, I had once envisioned a life of pearls and soirées. Instead I find myself festooned with pine shavings (and worse…). I guess, in the end, our destinies choose us. And there’s just no getting around it: these are my peeps.

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Fleeting.

Ah, summer in all its ripeness. July is as spent now as a drunken sailor, and in waltzes August, full of the scent of unfurling gardenias,

scarlet runner beans growing to the sky,

and ruddy tomatoes, begging to be plucked from the vine.

But what’s this?

I walked out the door this morning and found myself trapped in a veil of Halloween spider web, and then another and another. One hen remains summer broody but two others are growing patchy with molt, signaling autumn’s lack of plumage.

Our evening walks are ratcheting backwards in time every night in order to get Lily to the corner and back before we need flashlights.

Does this look like summer?

Or this?

I think we need to check our sources. The calendar says, indubitably, that fall does not begin until September 22 in the northern hemisphere. But the crows say otherwise, gathering in imposing murders to discuss their seasonal reorganization. The afternoon sunshine is deliciously warm, but step into the shade for a moment and the chill in the air reminds you of just how fleeting summer really is.

I start dreaming the mental checklist, fully believing that I will find a way next year to experience the midnight sun. Norway, Reykjavik, or even Canada?

Or, better yet, how about literally following the sun around the world? I have it on good authority that the Canary Islands are a perfect August destination for those who never want autumn to come.

But summer dreams, like the season itself, are oh so fleeting. I suspect that a year from now (God willing…) I’ll be right here brushing off the cobwebs and wondering why I didn’t plant those tomatoes earlier.

I’m planning to make the most of August and its promised extra-large scoops of sunshine. But I remain mindful: two minutes less light on each end of the day, and, oh, by the way, Christmas is just around the corner…

“End of Summer”

An agitation of the air,

A perturbation of the light

Admonished me the unloved year

Would turn on its hinge that night

I stood in the disenchanted field

Amid the stubble and the stones,

Amazed, while a small worm lisped to me

The song of my marrow-bones.

Blue poured into summer blue,

A hawk broke from his cloudless tower,

the roof of the silo blazed, and I knew

that part of my life was over.

Already the iron door of the north

Clangs open: birds, leaves, snows

Order their population forth,

And a cruel wind blows.

– Stanley Kunitz

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Wild Kingdom.

It had been a typical day. All the usual minutiae with a highlight of a major plumbing crisis under the kitchen sink. Our cocktail reading hour was mercifully upon us at long last and the CE decided the week-old baby chicks were ready to join us in the chicken yard for some late afternoon sun. He rigged up a sturdy corral cage for them.

Lily was there, of course and oh, by the way, The Countess came along for the outing. What could possibly go wrong?

I’ll give you the moral of the story straight up: DON’T BE IDIOTS!!!!

Lily (good dog!) soon lay down for an afternoon snooze, but The Countess was on the prowl. We laughed and laughed at the way our royal lioness paced and quivered and stared at the babies. Oh so amusing, right?

I was a little uneasy and stood watch for quite awhile. The chicks were having great fun learning to peck and scratch just like real hens. The CE had gone inside to deploy dual hairdryers to the wet plumbing mess under the kitchen sink so I was on my own with the critters. But then The Countess decamped to another part of the yard and I finally settled into a chair with my book. The cares of the day melted away with the sound of sweet little peeps in the background.

Thirty seconds later all hell broke loose. Suddenly the baby chicks were skittering across the yard with The Countess in hot pursuit! What happened???!!!! The moment I looked away she had stealthily returned and like the criminal she is, figured out a way to displace an unsecured seam in the cage. The chicks were out! And The Countess was one paw swipe a way from a chicken dinner!

If only we had video of me pathetically screaming for the CE to help. Of course he was over in the kitchen and heard not a thing because of the drone of the double hairdryers. I’m sure the neighbors heard me because we ran into them on our walk this morning and they rather pointedly asked “how are you two doing?” Only later did I realize they had probably heard what sounded like an attempted murder at our house the other day.

Well, it was definitely attempted murder. We were split seconds away from either that or the chicks disappearing under the deck never to be seen again after encountering whatever lurks beneath (skunks, rodents and worse, I believe).

Providence miraculously intervened and I somehow was able to pluck both the babies in mid-flight and toss them back into the cage, which has since been firmly secured.

All is well now (no thanks to The Countess). The babies are ten days old today. No names yet – we are eagerly anticipating granddaughter Caleigh’s list. Both chicks are beginning to sprout the tiniest feathers from their wings. They are preciously bonded to one another.

The kitchen sink situation is still unresolved, if ever so slightly less wet. But as long as we manage NOT TO BE IDIOTS I think everything else will be just fine since the little ones seem to be thriving.

And The Countess? Well, we’re keeping a close eye on her. Here she is, looking rather like the cat that almost ate the canary…

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