Life in the Meadows

“If Indianapolis hopes to stem rising crime, it can’t afford to ignore Edgemere Court or neighborhoods like it. City officials and community leaders must step up and sustain efforts to sweep away the mayhem and urban decay. As The Star’s Matthew Tully reports this week in a three-part series on Edgemere Court, the lack of concentrated effort is one reason why squalor continues to plague this neighborhood and other parts of the city. Community policing, which is a key in uniting residents and police officers in fighting crime, has fallen by the wayside. Job-training courses, mental health services and other programs once provided to Phoenix’s tenants by its former owner, are no longer available.”

My sister used to live in the Meadows for a time. She was in the middle of doing her “prodigal child” routine, but I still wanted to keep in touch with her, but I would only visit her only during the day. The level of squalor present, the sheer decay, represented an experiment gone bad. From the rampant crime, to the structural rot, to the entrenched poverty, society had turned its collective back on a portion of itself.

It was a symptom of a self-perpetuating problem. We need to address these problem areas aggressively rather than letting them fester and, in turn, become worse. Most of the solutions people seem to have amount to tear such places down or remodel the neighborhoods and have new people move in. Unfortunately, this amounts to little more than moving the problem rather than deal with it – kind of like chasing the homeless from downtown. We’re talking about a human problem requiring human solution and human connection.

There’s a perception that the poor want to live like this, that they are there because they are lazy or are there strictly as the result of their choices. The reality is that most want to transition out of the streets, from this way of life, but they were let down, if not abandoned, by the system.
How we treat the poor defines us as a culture and as a country. I believe that government needs to assist those unable to take care of themselves, but is that where we are and what we’ve been reduced to? I have to be honest in saying that a system that supports dependency without accountability hurts any community, especially a community burdened by institutionalized racism. The programs on the surface seem to help poor people. The intentions were good, but the solution and remedy was short-sighted.

God identifies with the poor and those in pain, liberating them from injustice. It’s the hope that says just as He reached out to the forgotten, those “outside” the establishment (religious or civil), we are to care for the “least of these”, widows, orphans, the poor. Our mission is to join with His, to relieve suffering and fight injustice because evil is real and ongoing. And our forgetting of the poor is just that: a preventable evil.

It’s easy to blame the poor. They are under-represented. There aren’t many political action committees, few professional lobbying, publicists in the media on their behalf. I can’t help but be reminded of Jesus’ words “the poor you will always have with you.” Jesus’ story is the story of poverty: God humbling himself, becoming poor and weak. Human. In order to free the oppressed from poverty and powerlessness. Becomes a victim in our place (at the hands of a corrupt justice system no less) and transforms the condition of bondage. That doesn’t mean we get to simply quit caring about the poor.

Boy Band Blues

ORLANDO, Fla. — A federal judge has ordered the creator of the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync to stay behind bars while attorneys prepare his case. Lou Pearlman, who faces charges of defrauding an Indiana-based bank out of $20 million, will be represented by the federal public defender’s office.

Do you remember Maurice Starr? Yeah, you may not, but he was the mastermind behind a group called New Edition (which would one day lead to giving us Being Bobby Brown). He decided that he could make more money creating the same sort of group with young white guys and pretty soon the world would have New Kids on the Block.

I’ve never forgiven him for that.

Along come Lou Pearlman, who couldn’t just be satisfied that Art Garfunkel was his cousin. No, he had to go out and follow in Maurice Starr’s footsteps and history comes full circle again as the musical world has to suffer through another few years of bubble gum boy pop. They weren’t the first boy band and they certainly weren’t the last, but I count myself fortunate that, for the most part, I quit listening to pop music before the Backstreet Boys/’N Sync era.

Of all the things to go on trial for, of course it boils down to money. Pearlman couldn’t go on trial for crimes against humanity, well, against musical taste. But before I get too comfortable in my musical judgment seat, let’s have a moment of silence as we ponder the musical legacy left in his wake, because by my calculations, we’re only a few years from another boy band explosion. Or worse, the return of the Spice Girls.

Ain’t no lie … bye, bye, bye.

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Get Off My Property!

Homeowners through-out Indiana will face increases in their property taxes as local assessors hike values for the first time in several years. The amount of your increase depends upon tax rates set by your local units of government.

Then comes the government speak that translates into some homeowners seeing their property taxes increase as much as 300-400 percent. This in turn led to “hundreds of people pinched by soaring property tax bills boosted turnout Wednesday at a holiday tax protest.” Had I received our bill by then, I’d have been one of them. And folks want to ask “am I angry?”

We live in the land of opportunity, seeking prosperity for ourselves and a legacy for our family. The lure of home ownership is part of what we’ve defined as the American Dream. Ownership means folks have a stake in the community. Higher taxes may seem like uptown problems, but—as Indiana faces a skyrocketing foreclosure (and bankruptcy) rate—we risk knocking the legs out of the housing market once folks realize they can’t afford the tax on their dream.

I don’t mind making sacrifices and paying my fair share, however, there is a tipping point. We’re told that we need to do all this stuff to attract business, such as abolish the inventory tax; but I’m here and I work. Putting it all on the backs of your base is ridiculous. We’re taught that spending our money renting is a waste of our money, that ownership is the first step in the accumulation of wealth; but all of a sudden it seems downright affordable. Well, until you think that someone is paying the taxes on that property, too; and those costs will only be passed along to the renters. And folks want to ask “am I angry?”

The idea of home ownership strikes a special cord with me. Many leaders from Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Malcolm X have been encouraging people to parlay land ownership into self-sufficiency and economic power. One of the American values is self-determination and economic empowerment is a pivotal part of that equation. We’re told to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps when many folks don’t even have boots. Some of us are still trying to make sure the shoes fit because it’s difficult enough to run a race when one’s shoes are tied.

Many folks are clutching to middle class by our fingertips. Essentially our government is asking an extra three months mortgage payment out of me; or, to put it another way, an entire month of my wife and I’s combined salaries. Everyone in office, regardless of party, when this went through needs to go. It’s not that long until November. And folks want to ask “am I angry?” Yeah, I’m ready to throw some tea into Eagle Creek.

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Knozone Breathe-Zone

Indianapolis is urging children, the elderly and people with heart and lung problems to limit outdoor activities today because of a likely mix of dirty air and temperatures expected to reach 88 degrees. The Knozone Air Quality Action Day is more stringent than the city’s ground-level ozone alerts, which urge residents to mow lawns and pump gasoline early or late in the day.

“It’s literally dirt in the air,” said Steven Hardiman, spokesman for the city’s Department of Public Works, speaking of floating particles the diameter of a human hair. The particles — created by fuels such as coal, natural gas, gasoline, diesel, oil and wood — can leave a dangerous haze.

Granted, Knozones typically don’t affect how I work: once it gets hot enough to be declared a Knozone, count on me not leaving the confines of my air-conditioned house. During my actual working hours, I’m an environmental toxicologist at Commonwealth Biomonitoring. I spend my hours running aquatic toxicity tests: in other words, I’m a water guy, not an air guy. It’s bad enough that I know what gets dumped into our water (non-toxic is a long way from “I want to swim in it” or “I want to pull fish that have been saturated in it out and eat them”). Don’t get me wrong, in the nearly twenty years that I’ve been in this field, there have been great improvement in the Indiana waterways. When we had a fish kill not too long ago, everyone was shocked to wakefulness about our water issues, little realizing that twenty years or so ago, there weren’t any fish to be killed in those rivers.

[Can I make this a spiritual issue? One of the lessons from the Genesis account of creation, right after God created all things and declared them “good” (even “very good”), is that we were created to be stewards of creation. Yet, we’ve lost our connection with creation, continuing to develop new ways to either insulate ourselves from it or encroach our brand of civilization into it. Our souls are starved for God’s creation; being an environmentalist could be considered spiritual work and a pro-environment agenda should sit alongside any sort of “family values” some folks seem so keen to promote.]

My point is that while water has its particular issues, I imagine it is fairly analogous with air. Now, coal-burning power plants are the main reason why Indiana is the nation’s seventh-largest producer of carbon dioxide. However, let’s face facts, we aren’t going to change our ways unless it is in our interests to do so. We love cheap power and the lifestyle convenience it brings. We love our fossil fuels and the independence they bring (thus why more people don’t carpool). Companies will keep providing them, gouging us in the process, until either we reach our squeal point or the government steps in and says “enough’s enough: find a new technology and clean up your act until you do.”

In other words, Commerce and Necessity are the Father and Mother of invention.

Note I said interests and not best interests. Breathing clean air is in our best interest.

Christus Victor and Tony Dungy

Just a month or so ago, I was struck by how the fans adored Tony Dungy. At the Super Bowl Victory rally, two of the people the crowd wanted to hear most from were the two who least wanted the microphone or attention: Tony Dungy and Marvin Harrison. Coach Dungy, a man who walked in quiet dignity as well as with pride and humility, received more cheers than even Peyton Manning. And the thousands of fans who filled the dome, after seeing him suffer setback after seeming setback, we shared in his final victory. We were united and reveled in the sense of a mission fulfilled.

To me, it was a picture of Christus Victor, Christ the Victor, the passion story of God triumphing over the powers of this world and liberating humanity from the bondage of sin, death, and the unseen spiritual forces. That was then, this is now. Here’s a reminder of why Christ couldn’t get elected to political office:

CARMEL, Ind. — Colts coach Tony Dungy said he knows some people would prefer him to steer clear of the gay marriage debate, but he used a speech Tuesday night to clearly stake out his position. Dungy told more than 700 people at the Indiana Family Institute’s banquet that he agrees with that organization’s position supporting a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between one man and one woman. “I appreciate the stance they’re taking, and I embrace that stance,” Dungy said.

Well, he certainly stepped into it now, testing the strength of his popularity among his fans. Several debates rage on around this issue, but the one that fascinates me is the idea of whether he is abusing his position by speaking on matters so far astray from why he has risen to celebrity status. We all know he has a right to say whatever he wants, the question is “should he?”

Just because someone becomes famous does that obligate them to stop being who they are? What good is a larger pulpit if you don’t use it? Actors/celebrities do it all the time to bring attention to their pet causes (to quote the great philosopher, Homer Simpson: “Rock stars. Is there anything they don’t know?”). So why should athletes and coaches be above this?

In this era of carefully controlled images and public personas, Tony Dungy is simply being who he is, does what he does, and believes what he believes. We don’t have to agree, but he is staying true to himself, however unpopular his stance may be. This might not be an abuse of his pulpit as much as his higher profile causing him to be under more of a microscope, with his every word and action parsed.

To a degree, the man will be largely bulletproof and this will all blow over. Let’s face it, in our world, a Super Bowl victory adds a bit of a Teflon coating. I’m just happy no one from the team was in the news for breaking the law. This week.

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Not As Entertaining

Meet Adam “Pacman” Jones: On the field, a terrific force in the NFL. Fast, great instincts, a nose for the football. Off, a public nuisance — perhaps worse. Slow to see reality, gutless, a nose for trouble. The Titans love the first Pacman. They tolerate the second one. Too bad. Where there’s smoke, there is usually a raging inferno named Pacman Jones … the club owner said [he] came and left with the man who did the shooting.

Whether we want them to be or not, athletes do tend to represent us. They are ambassadors of what we value and how we compete. This speaks to the importance of having character guys on our teams. Yes, we want to win, but we don’t want to win at all costs. Haywood Hale Broun is noted for saying, “Sports do not build character. They reveal it.” While sports should be teaching lessons about stronger teamwork or greater self-discipline, instead we get a “me, me, me” attitude, a culture of accommodation, and win at all costs mentality – all driven by money. Rarely is there anything to be appreciated as a “role model” among the athletes.

The Cincinnati Bengals set a record for number of players arrested for off-the-field antics. Closer to home, two Pacers were just indicted for their participation in a bar fight. The Indianapolis Colts running back, Dominic Rhodes, was just arrested on the suspicion of driving under the influence. Coach Tony Dungy said that “It’s disappointing. How that’s going to impact what we do, we’ll have to see down the road. But Dom knows that it’s something I’m very disappointed in. But we’ll sit down and go through everything and try to sort it out and try to be as supportive as we can.”

In America, we live under the presumption of innocence, and a grand jury indictment does not translate into guilt. However, as mentioned with Pacman, though, where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire. The Colts have enjoyed a certain amount of a halo effect, in spite of Rhodes’ past domestic battery charge; in spite of Nick Harper’s domestic batter charge; and in spite of Mike Doss’ gun-firing incident. Like Bobby Knight when he was at Indiana University, we forgive a lot when you’re winning. You start to slide and all of a sudden you are cut a lot less slack.

Frankly, these athletes’ shenanigans embarrasses themselves, the cities they represent, and the game, distracting from what people should be focused on: the sport. The NBA, suffering through sagging ratings and attendance, attempts to rehab its image. Starting with dress codes to stiffer penalties for stepping onto the court to fight, the league wants to shed its “thug league” image. (Though, interestingly enough, the NHL was never characterized as a “thug league” despite the regularity of its on court tussles. That’s probably a blog for another day) . NFL players, protective of the league’s image, are sick of all the press for their stumblings off the field. The players themselves are taking the initiative to push for a “three strikes and you’re out of the league” policy.

Then again, maybe I’m making too big a deal out of all of this. Athletes, like actors or musicians, are entertainers. And as much as we, as a society, love to build people up, we love to tear them down, or at least make popcorn and enjoy their tumble from grace. We are just as entertained by the off-screen antics of our pop culture icons. Celebrities reduced to tabloid fodder, to the point where people can become famous strictly due to their tabloid exploits. Why should athletes be any different. The E in ESPN does stand for entertainment. And we are just as entertained by train wrecks as we are super star performances.

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Run, Obama, Run

In keeping with my recent track record, my vote is up for grabs. Either party. I’m just waiting for someone to convince me to vote for them. Honestly, is the most interesting part of the electoral process how we treat the election like a horse race? Since politics as entertainment is a blog for another day, several horses have announced their entry into the fray, but I’m particularly intrigued by the excitement Barack Obama has generated.

As a writer, I’m all about storylines and right now, the most interesting storyline so far in the race is Obama. Sure, one of the reasons why he has gotten so much attention is because he’s black. Not just black, but a popular candidate with a real shot at getting the nomination. There are many things that have been covered with respect to Obama, from the trivial (he’s handsome, he SMOKES!) to more relevant discussions (his experience, a conversation that ought to subside considering Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s bid). However, it is the question of his ontological blackness that intrigues me.

He didn’t come up through the civil rights political machine, which means there are those who question his “commitment to the cause” (the usual suspects being those who want to hold him at a distance while still reserving a dinner spot at the power table in case he wins).

“Black,” in our political and social reality, means those descended from West African slaves. Voluntary immigrants of African descent (even those descended from West Indian slaves) are just that, voluntary immigrants of African descent with markedly different outlooks on the role of race in their lives and in politics. At a minimum, it can’t be assumed that a Nigerian cabdriver and a third-generation Harlemite have more in common than the fact a cop won’t bother to make the distinction. They’re both “black” as a matter of skin color and DNA, but only the Harlemite, for better or worse, is politically and culturally black, as we use the term.

I get what the writer is saying, though I whole-heartedly disagree with her final assessment. Building on her semi-point, a race of people could be defined as a people with a shared story, that is, experience, heritage, culture (insofar as it goes deeper than appreciating the aesthetics), and most importantly, history. History is the story of individuals coming together. Authentic blackness is about personal responsibility, pride and a sense of history and community. It means staying true to yourself, your faith, your life and constantly seeking the truth. This whole “blacker than thou”/”I’m I black enough for you” game is utter foolishness. It buys into the racist construct of race in the first place, and smacks of the days of classifying black people by the amount of black blood that they had (octaroon, quadroon, etc.). Plus, it ignores the fact that Obama self-identifies as black.

On the flip side, while he’s not black enough for some, you can tell he’s “black enough” for others. I’m a strong believer in the fact that words mean things and how words can shape us. All of the talk I’m hearing (while trying to ignore the air of surprise when he’s described) about how “clean” and “articulate” Obama is reminds me of Chris Rock’s routine describing General Colin Powell as “so well-spoken.” Translated, white people, this is your cue that he’s alright to vote for. You want to find out how black someone is, if the “clean” and “well-spoken” talk doesn’t clue you in, then apply the Klan test: you can be as articulate as you want from the end of their rope.

Though, I’m already on record believing that a black male will be president of this country before a woman of any color.

My hopes for Obama are high, and it’s not because of the “black thing.” It’s because he communicates hope. We live in a cynical age, a time of particular distrust of our president and government. One of the most important, and under-appreciated, roles of the presidency is to be our national cheerleader. The best two, of recent memory, at speaking to the people were Presidents Reagan and Clinton. Obama is under the microscope, the anal examination that comes with increased media scrutiny, his every word parsed, speech dissected, and gesture analyzed. He may be young to public life, but the process will mature him quickly. Maybe Obama is too “racially transcendent” for some, but maybe that’s exactly what this country needs right now.

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Once More Into Valentine’s Breech

Men, I’m taking a stand against this Hallmark endorsed day of male oppression. That’s right, someone’s got to do it. That’s right men, stand up, cry out with one voice: “We are not going to participate in this made up holiday for the sake of going through the motions of showing some token affection as if this gets us out of anything during the rest of the year. We know that this so-called holiday is just another opportunity for us to screw up and we refuse to be the objects of scorn presented to your girlfriends as Exhibit A in the case of how men are worthless.”

See? I’ve grown since that blog or at least, I’d like to believe so. I’m older, have matured, and most of all, have realized that after nearly seven years of marriage, I’m stuck with Valentine’s Day.

Unlike Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, the traditions of Valentine’s Day predate the greeting card industry forcing fake holidays down our throats. Oddly enough, it has it roots in pagan traditions (in a feast called Lupercalia to honor Lupercus so that no harm would come to the shepherds and their flocks), was Christianized (or mythologized) by the actions of St. Valentine, and then romanticized by Chaucer (though, having read Chaucer, I can’t claim there’s anything romantic about Middle English).

We’ve come a long way from marking the occasion of seeking the affections of women by giving out handwritten messages of admiration citing Valentine’s name. Sadly, handwritten notes have largely given way to greeting cards because, as you know, we are incapable of surmising our own thoughts and feelings – at least, not with the poetry, wit, and beauty of nameless card scribe #12. I’d daresay that it is the endless marketing and commercialization of the holiday that leaves a bad taste in people’s mouth. However, for me, the day comes back to the idea of remembrance.

I am all about remembrance. We, as a culture, have notoriously short memories and notoriously hard hearts and heads. We need rituals to draw our imaginations back to certain things, to stir our affections, to serve as reminders to what is important in life. Valentine’s Day is a ritual of memory for my wife and for those around us who have our affections. It’s an opportunity to take the time to honor them.

It shouldn’t be a matter of fulfilling some sort of “affection duty”. No one wants duty, especially those who are supposed to own our affections. They want our hearts, our choice to love them. With that in mind, once again this year I am going to make a choice to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Once again I’m going to honor she who guards my heart.

I know, it’s early, but I have to mentally gear up for this. I still ain’t buying Sweetist’s Day though. I had to squash that would-be tradition early.

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Go Colts!

Well, I got one of my Indianapolis Wish List items: the Colts made it to the Super Bowl. The question before me now is will the Colts win the big game?

I could talk about the running tandem of Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes or the money of Adam Vinatieri’s leg. I could talk about this being a team of character and heart, how we’ve gotten rid of grumblers and bad eggs and have only become stronger. I could talk about the defense finding new life after being told by so many that they couldn’t. However, that would require the kind of sports expertise beyond my casual brand of interest. To my mind, though, this game boils down to two men: Dungy and Manning.

Coach Tony Dungy joined Chicago Bear’s coach, Lovie Smith, in making Super Bowl history by being the first black coaches to lead their teams to the Super Bowl. One more barrier broken, another cultural advancement achieved – and another step toward this not being an issue. In the NFL, where nearly 70 percent of the players are black, only seven of 32 head coaches this season were black. The NFL has aggressively fought for diversity and their efforts have paid off. Save me your blather about affirmative action, covert racism is something difficult to root out. People are people and still cling to those they are comfortable with. We aren’t quite to the colorblind utopia we all hope for and keep talking about. Should either of these two friends, Lovie or Tony, win, we will be one step, on a still long journey, closer.

QB Peyton Manning has finally proven he can win the big game. In the AFC Championship game, he exorcized a lot of demons. He came from 18 points down, went through arch-rivals: coach Bill Belichick, QB Tom Brady, and the rest of the New England Patriots. However, he is still an elite quarterback haunted by the ghosts of Dan Marino: incredible individual talent that has yet to win the championship ring. He has nothing left to prove to his critics, but he is in need of the last measure of greatness. Should Manning win the Super Bowl, however, everyone should shut up.

I like our chances. In the end, I just want Dungy and Manning with championship rings to signify what we already know. They are men of integrity, passion, and greatness. Of prodigious talent and quiet dignity. Part of a team who play the game and win the way they should. And they can do it on the largest stage available. In other words, go Colts!

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I Love Sin Taxes …

… as long as you aren’t taxing my sins of choice. There is an old saying that, “if you want less of something, tax it.” That is the rationale for “sin taxes,” high taxes on things like cigarettes and booze, although there are “sins” we like, such as gambling. So why the rant today?

The Republican governor’s plan calls for covering at least 120,000 low-income adults by hiking cigarette taxes by at least 25 cents per pack. It is one of six or more proposals being considered by the Democrat-controlled House as it wrestles with how to provide insurance to the estimated 850,000 Indiana residents who now lack it.

Our governor is attempting to push through his version of an “extort Peter to pay for Peter’s eventual costs on society” tax scheme. On the surface it seems like we’re trying to kill two (good) birds with one (questionable) stone: find a way to fund an insurance for those who don’t have it (good) and lower the amount of folks who smoke (good). As a way of changing people’s behavior, it’s a start, I guess. We’ve been waging our war on smokers for a long time. You can tell it’s a real war because we haven’t “officially” declared war on them. They just woke up one day under siege and treated like second class citizens. They can no longer smoke in restaurants (because we apparently decided that restaurants were making too much money). But like I said, just don’t attack MY sins. I’m not a smoker and I appreciate being able to breathe free in restaurants, so I’m not complaining too loudly. The government hasn’t come for me. Yet.

Actually, we might as well raise the price of cigarettes a dollar a pack. A quarter isn’t going to deter anyone, not even that fifteen year old who is thinking about picking up the habit (and isn’t that who we do these things for? The children?). The smokers I know would pay the extra dollar, because they’re addicted. And it’s the state’s role to exploit the addicted and the ignorant (need I mention the lottery thing again?)

It becomes harder and harder to call myself a Republican because I’m not seeing any clear delineation between the parties much anymore. If we’re against taxes, we should want to see taxes go down across the board wherever we can. What happened to “the desire to return power and control of our economic resources to the grass roots people of this country. THAT is our agenda. It is not a money agenda. It is the moral agenda of self-government.”? What happened to seeing taxes as a moral issue, governmental racketeering and money laundering with tax cuts merely the State giving us back the money we’ve earned?

At this rate, and by this rationale, I’m surprised that the government hasn’t legalized “soft” drugs, like marijuana, and prostitution if only to tax them. Those would seem to be consistent with this line of thinking. I’m sure it won’t stop there. Frankly, I keep waiting on the transfat tax, especially in the land of State Fairs. Come on, right now there are redneck scientists in their basements trying to deep fry something new to debut this year (we’ve had deep fried Twinkies, chocolate covered strawberries, moon pies. However, I’m here to testify, deep fried Snicker bars will be served in heaven.)

However, in the final analysis, nothing is free. Not health care, not education, not any of the things that government has to do. And the money has to come from somewhere. In the ideal system, everyone would pay their fair share. In our world, we seem to want more from those who have more (the rich) and those who “benefit” more from the system (the poor). Nothing about that seems particularly fair to me. But hey, I’m in the middle somewhere and you aren’t taxing my sins. Yet.

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