Review Category : Danette Vernon

Exiled to the attic: Part II of Horseshoes and the Ex

By Danette Vernon

I was 38, and in my third year in college. It was 1998. I was studying art therapy, and as I searched through a bank of micro-fish one afternoon, I found a few lines that took my life and measured it in black and white.

An anonymous student, in quoting liberally from various sources, unknowingly told my whole life story with her words. I printed and stored these pages, and their unattractive secrets about me. Fourteen years later, I pulled the pages from exile in the attic. I was willing to at last to face all of my well documented and well conditioned flaws, the majority of which stemmed from the parting of my family through divorce. It was at this juncture that I began to write. I was hoping to “write myself well” from this seeming calamity of divorce.

Psychologist and researcher, Judith Wallerstein, in her work with divorced families over a 25-year period discovered, just as I did as a woman long past the bloom of youth, the long lasting impact of divorce.

Judith interviewed nearly a 100 children starting in 1971. She continued to see these same children throughout their lives. The Amazon description of the latest version of her findings, “The Legacy of Divorce, The 25 Year Landmark Study,” opens with these words, “In this compelling, thought-provoking book, Judith Wallerstein explains that, while children do learn to cope with divorce, it in fact takes its greatest toll in adulthood, when the sons and daughters of divorced parents embark on romantic relationships of their own. Wallerstein sensitively illustrates how children of divorce often feel that their relationships are doomed, seek to avoid conflict, and fear commitment.”

Judith advises parents in her original work on the topic, “Second Chances, Men Women and Children, a Decade after Divorce,” on how best to approach a divorce in order to save your child from as much damage as possible.

First, she beautifully shapes her ideas on ending the divorce with civility. Judith encourages parents to be cognizant of the fact that what they say or do may be how their children will forever remember the rending of their family.

Many parents wonder how to tell the children that they are getting a divorce. Judith, having heard a hundred versions of how these words were delivered and then received, offers a plethora of insightful and empathetic guidelines. One, if there are disparate ages amongst your children, tell them all together, and then separately, with an explanation at the second go round that is age appropriate for each child. At the initial telling, Judith encourages framing the idea of divorce as a conclusion reached with reluctance, rationality, and sadness.

This family history changing moment, according to Judith, should be charged with so much clarity that the children are as convinced as possible that they neither caused the divorce nor can they mend it. In addition, while concrete information should be provided about what lies ahead, there is no need to divulge lurid details of what now lies in the past. Explain that while courage will be needed as the family separates, a part of being brave is to reveal your feelings. Judith notes the importance of crying for the parents and the children, “as only crying reduces anger to human size.”

Most importantly, divorce is a matter between adults. Do not burden or attempt to divide your children’s loyalty with your own feelings of jealousy, anger, or loneliness. Go forward with your life, avoiding the inadvertent placement of emotional responsibility for yourself on your children.

Be ever mindful of what words and deeds of yours are being “stored in the attic” of your child’s heart and mind that may displace, or support, their own efforts at happiness years later.

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Horseshoes and the Ex: Part I

By Danette Vernon

I clearly remember coming home from school one day and shyly telling my mother that I had experienced a moment of distinction that day. I have to admit though, that it doesn’t take much for a second grader to feel that the stars are aligned like firecrackers in the night. That particular day stands out in memory, as I had been so pleased to find myself to be the only one in the small, rural, third-grade class of 20 students, in 1967, who could say that their parents were divorced.

Yet, upon recapping the day with my mother, I suddenly felt the converse. My mood turned dismal even. My mother soothed my uneasy feelings for having reveled for a moment in the family laundry as best she could, but it would be my father’s family that would find a way to turn the taint of divorce into a profound message about love, an ideal that I would carry into adulthood.

To wit, family reunions on my dad’s side of my family back in the 1970’s involved deviled eggs, horseshoes, playground equipment at the local park that undoubtedly wouldn’t meet any set of modern safety standards — and ex-wives.

My dad was one of four brothers. Three out of four ultimately divorced, some more than once. The slightly extraordinary thing was that the “ex-wives,” under the ideological umbrella of my grandparents, still came to the family reunions. They came with their new husbands and new step-children. One of my aunts was the family reunion treasurer for years after she was no longer officially a member of the family. My grandparents believed that once you were a part of the family, you were always a part of the family. They had pictures of all of the family, even the ex’s, proudly displayed in their homes as long as they lived.

About the time my parents divorced, a study that followed 60 families for five, ten, even fifteen years began. Judith Wallerstein, who originated the study, wondered what the effects were to be in the long term for the children in my generation. It was commonly believed when I was child, even in academic circles, that after a year, or maybe even two or three years, families would heal and children would heal. Who hasn’t heard the homily, “time heals all wounds?”

The one thing Judith felt sure about, even at the outset of the study, was that the post-divorce child, who would one day create a family of their own, would be wholly different than the adult they might have been, “for better or worse, for richer or for poorer…”

Her study, and subsequent studies, attempt to answer the question that each person involved in a divorce from the immediate family to the wider community of people that make up each family’s “tribe” have asked: What now?

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Decision trees be damned: Part III

By Danette Vernon

In attempting this series on how we make decisions, I skimmed the surface of the most nebulous and slipperiest of examples: romance. The difficulties are the same, however, in all areas of life when it comes to resolving personal dilemmas.

The research presented in Parts I and II demonstrated that hard wiring, that we’re not even aware of is shading our decisions — hard wiring that’s helpful when we need to avoid getting bogged down in a maze of emotionalism, or an excess of options. It’s not so helpful when we want to step outside of ourselves and our own habitual thought patterns.

Fascinating stuff, but when we reach the bottom of the intellectual barrel, it seems that while research can tell us what we ARE doing, it can’t necessarily tell us WHAT to do. That is the land of the mystics, or at the opposite end of the spectrum, those that score high on personality tests for dominance — the decision makers at the upper echelon of the world.

Some people pray when it comes to decisions, depending on God in even the smallest of life’s events, such as the random loss of an item around the house. If you’re a person of little faith, you might want to consider the speakers on the acclaimed video, “What the Bleep do we Know?” who postulate that quantum physics could be the method through which prayers are answered. God and science can hold hands quite nicely in the minds of some.

Others look to a quieting of the mind before even considering a critical decision. I once heard that to meditate is to learn, “to wait on nothing.”

Some look to intuition, or a gut feeling.  “The gut and brain make the same hormones, which are chemical messengers, and they share receptor sites for these chemicals,” according to Larry Dossey, M.D. So why shouldn’t we allow a gut feeling to lead us along?

We have all seen the war of the mind and the gut played out in a movie at one time or another–to a character’s detriment. We watch as someone walks into an isolated area with a killer, despite that person feeling an obvious sense of imminent danger. In the few seconds they have to decide, the mind may be advising against the agitation of the gut. After all, you can’t just be rude and take off running, can you? The scream of the gut, quickly becomes a literal scream.

Other times, our gut is simply churning in response to how the present so reminds us of the past, a time we made a mistake, and as a result we dodge a necessary decision, or fumble it.

Great leaders slide back and forth on the continuum noted at the outset. At one end of the spectrum, wherein the sage on the mountain resides, the mystic, you may be strongly advised to a serenity of the spirit before all else: “The heart of the wise man lies quiet like limpid water,” a Cameroonian saying. Without that quiet heart, writer P.L. Travers tells us the “spark of instructive fire” to be found in a half-heard conversation, a dream, a random phrase from a song you can’t get out of your head, can’t really be heard.

At the other end of the line, facts, deliberation, and experience are more the rule.

No matter which end of the continuum you personally tend to persist in, the trick to making good decisions is being able to distinguish between emotionalism and facts. To use passion, not be used by it.

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Decision trees be damned: Part II

By Danette Vernon

In Part I of this series I presented the fairytale of having to decide between two amazing career choices and three good men.

With our economy still struggling with its own treacherous rebirth, many of you may frown at the likelihood of even one remarkable career option presenting itself out of the general fog of the future.

What about three good men?

Don’t make a nasty face, all of you naysayers. They do exist. Once having accepted this fact as reality, imagine that your sister is a participant on one of those live-action bachelor or bachelorette shows. Let’s revel for a moment in how much you might enjoy cat-calling her decisions as the show progresses.

Then let’s pretend that it’s your turn on the merry-go-round of love, and its real life. It’s not TV.

How would you decide between great, better, and best ever? “Eenie meenie miney mo” has lost fashion, despite its decisive nature. So in response to the loss of this, and many other eminent childhood aids for resolving sticky situations (Bubble gum, Bubble gum in a dish?), you might, just by default, plan an informal comparison study of these three good men, with five of your “bestest” friends.

Duke University’s Behavior Economist, Dan Ariely, demonstrates through a simple experiment that we are more likely to be influenced by those who are in our perceived in-group, even against our better judgment. He found that college students cheated more, if someone in the group made it obvious that they had cheated on some basic math problems — and the cheater was wearing an alma mater shirt. If someone wearing a shirt from a rival school made it obvious they had cheated, there was even less cheating than normal. No one wanted to be associated with cheating that originated with an “out” group. In other words, people are more easily influenced by those we perceive to be like us, and less so with those we perceive to be different.

So, if you decide to “date by committee,” and check with your friends as to whom you might date, this study lays bare the fact that you may be heavily influenced to pick one man over another — no matter the quality of the advice. Not because of long-term ties, but because your friends resemble you.

Albert Einstein noted that we “cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it.”

To wit, if you are going to search outside of yourself for answers, you may have to look for those unlike yourself, so that you at least have a chance at infiltrating what has become habitual thinking for yourself, and your own personal in-group.

In order to successfully solicit advice on life’s deeper questions from those who live in high contrast to you and your friends, Ash Beckman, Equality Advocate, tells us that we need to do three things.  One, we have to reach a new level of authenticity ourselves. Two, we may have to find within ourselves the ability to be direct with the force of bandage removed. Three, never apologize for your truth.

Beckman advices, you must “be real, to get real in return.”

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Decision trees be damned: Part I

By Danette Vernon

Let’s say that you met three great men this past week, and were presented with two amazing career opportunities.

Unlikely? Maybe. But what if it’s true, what if the world really is chock full of everything good and it’s all yours but for the asking? How would you decide what to do? After all, any one decision may eliminate all other possibilities forever.

Research shows that it is the permanence of some of our bigger decisions that can paralyze us into total inaction. That, and the self-blame and regret we may feel if we “get it wrong.”

Author and psychologist Barry Schwartz gives an example of how “too many” options can mire us in negative feelings. He tells us that back in the day, there was one choice of jeans, and they weren’t that great. It took a number of washings to wear them in, but that was the manufactures fault. Blame was external. Today, however, there are a myriad of jean choices — slim fit, easy fit, low rise, straight leg, to name only a few. And if we don’t get it right, who’s to blame? We are.

It’s the same with larger decisions. Studies demonstrate that loads of options, rather than creating a sense of freedom, more often than not, create a sense of dissatisfaction. For example, Duke University’s Behavior Economist Dan Ariely notes that if given pictures of three men, we may feel stymied if we had to pick amongst them for a first date. But oddly, if Mr. Ariely took photos of just two men, that for our own purposes we’ll call Peter and Marshall, and Mr. Ariely added an ugly, photo-shopped version of Peter to the mix, he can very nearly predict the result. The good-looking version of Peter comes out all the sweeter. It’s the same if he creates an ugly version of Marshall. Marshall’s more attractive self is the winner hands down as “most dateable” of the three.

In other words, we aren’t making independent choices near as often as we might like to think. In the face of complexity, our mind has its own peculiar defaults that it operates under.

Mr. Ariely went on to create an additional experiment in regard to choice and the expected or unexpected after-effects. He offered students the selection of two different reproductions of original paintings. Those in study group A were told that whatever decision they made was permanent. Those in study group B were told they could trade in their first choice for a limited amount of time.

When later queried, those in group A felt good about their decision. Those in group B, however, were unable to reconcile their feelings about their choice, even if they took the extra step and traded in their original choice within the time allowed. “What if” continued to haunt them. Therein lies the psychology behind the road not taken, the person we never got to know, the job we turned down right out of college. Given one good choice, we are happy. Toss in another one or two? And we always wonder.

So how do you make good decisions when confronted with a plethora of options? Research continues to enlighten us with answers that will surprise.

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After the holidays: Back to the real world

By Danette Vernon

You survived the holidays. Time off from school is over (until Easter). Families can go back to the general squalling bedlam of homework, bath time, and bedtime.

Experts believe that children need and actually enjoy structure, but how do you implement structure when all you or your children really know is controlled chaos?

Sometimes you can humor or distract your child, and avoid a problem, or even a tantrum. For chronic problems, however, such as getting ready to leave the house, or fighting with a sibling, you need more. You need a plan. That’s what the experts do.

1. Specialists look closely at what happens just before a problem starts, and through a process of elimination they identify the “culprit.” Was your child tired, hungry, feeling left out, or simply confused or embarrassed? If at all possible, discuss the situation with the child after the child has regained composure. They are a valuable source of information. This juncture is also a good time to give your child insight into the “whys” and “wherefores” of other people’s behavior. Children who have behavioral troubles frequently can’t grasp other people’s feelings, or misinterpret the feelings of others.

2. Next, as a part of the process, authorities in human behavior find out what is important to the child, so that they know how to reward the child with what has meaning — and what to take away. You should only take things away from a child after a plan is in place and the child understands the consequences.

3. In addition, you the parent, will need to teach your child how to calm themselves down. That can be as easy as asking your child. They may have some ideas, or you can help them develop a list of options.

4. Finally, many experts develop charts for the child to look at as a reminder when it comes to “what to do next.” Or the chart may provide information, such as what “clean” really means when completing a chore.

At home you might set a timer to help your child wait, or promise that you will spend time with them at a particular point in the day, and keep that promise. Jed Baker, Ph.D., in his book “No More Meltdowns” suggests a red light, green light card system for when you can or can’t talk with mom; an area filled with things to do while waiting; or keeping pencil and paper handy for your child to write down their question so that anxiety about forgetting what they want to say while they “wait” doesn’t trigger a meltdown.

The most important thing is that parents want change for themselves and their family, so take action!

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Your kids on holiday: Part II

By Danette Vernon

If your 2-year-old has yet to learn the meaning of Barney’s “Clean Up” song, your 4-year-old is still in Pull-Up’s, your 8-year-old demands you cut their meat at the dinner table, and your neighbors roll their eyes when they find out any of your children will be in attendance at local birthday parties, you might be in trouble.

The problem is that you’re so tired all of the time, and to be honest, you were the same way when you were a child and you eventually grew out it. But it may have been a rude awakening when you got married and the stuff that worked with your parents didn’t work so well on your spouse. So as you start the new year, it might be time to aim for a long-term peace with your children, as opposed to the short-term peace that a piece of candy buys you.

Setting a few limits now might save your child from divorcee court later.

How do you do that?

The fundamentals are, of course, be consistent, and have rules in place that you are willing to adhere to. Beyond that, I decided early on to learn the “ABC’s” of my child’s behavior, for example, what was going to trigger my child. The ABC’s are as follows: Antecedents (hungry and tired); Behavior (loses temper more easily); Consequences, natural (you hit your brother, he hits you back), or judicial (you’re grounded).

It’s kind of like detective work, combined with the Biblical “eye for an eye” sort of parenting.

Then, I was handed a book called, “No More Meltdowns,” by Jed Baker, and it changed my life, or at least my behavior. That’s right, my first read through the book gave me some tips on how to manage MYSELF better, and the rationales for why I “act the way I do” in certain situations.

First, I assessed myself just as you would assess your child’s temperament, through the “nine dimensions of temperament.” The assessment is kind of like a “Who Moved My Cheese” for children.

Next, I considered myself and the children I know. Do we tend towards dealing in facts, and therefore have a hard time with abstract thinking? For example, when it comes to any of your children, do they argue fiercely against fairy tales situations such as, “cows can’t use typewriters!” as they can’t imagine it? If so, they may not be able to put themselves in another person’s shoes very easily — as they can’t imagine how the other person is feeling with any ease.

Finally, was I inflexible in my thinking? If I want to go to my favorite restaurant, but it’s 11 a.m., and it doesn’t open until noon, do I waste time fuming, or do I consider my options? For me, it depends on the day. What about your child? Is waiting an issue?

Having to wait is one of the “Antecedents” identified by the author for meltdowns. Others are internal or biological triggers (hungry or tired), lack of structure (you demand your child get their coat on, but they don’t know where they are going or why, or even where their coat is!), threats to self-image (feeling shame because they have made a mistake, or were being teased, or criticized), demands (requests to do homework, get out of bed, or kiss Aunt Bertha, etc.).

You can make sure your children are not hungry, or too tired, and explain why they need to do something, or distract them when they get out sorts when their favorite restaurant isn’t open. But they still have to do their homework and get out of bed, and sometimes politely decline kissing Aunt Bertha. So now what? Discover some answers in my next column in two weeks.

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Your kids on holiday: Tips for staying sane

By Danette Vernon

It’s Christmas and school’s out! Is it “Whoopee!” or, “Oh no!” at your house?

Either way, what might you do to maintain or keep your sanity?

Keep your children’s sugar intake low, whole food intake high, make sure they get enough sleep, and as much time outside running around and playing as possible. It’s also recommended that you involve your child in household activities or chores such as folding laundry, setting the table or making cookies. Perfection is not the goal, togetherness is. Make each of these activities into opportunities to praise and talk with your child. You’re not just folding laundry together, haphazard as their efforts might be, you’re building a feeling of competence and being liked and appreciated by you, the “Queen or King” of their world.

Have fun! But when the moment strikes wherein you need your child to do something, here are a few suggestions to keep the holidays at home merry and bright.

1. Get your child’s attention with a clear, short directive such as, “Look at me,” before even bothering to give a direction. Only give a directive one time. If there is no follow through, get up, and take action. This alone will pay dividends for years into the future.

2. Many children have trouble with transitions, such as turning off a favorite program, leaving the house, or going to bed. Provide incremental warnings, “It will be time for bed in 15 minutes” … “in five minutes,” etc.

3. Another example of how to lessen the trauma of transitions is to allow the activity to continue, but for a stated number of times. Consider the transition of leaving the park, you might say, “We need to go home in five minutes, but you can go down the slide three more times.” Count with your child and then leave, as agreed upon. Again, enjoy yourself.  “Count” in your best Sesame Street character voice!

4. Does your child have a melt-down if told no? Then consider providing a “yes” within your “no.” Case in point, if your child wants a treat, try, “You can have it, just not now.” Then, name the time they can have what they want, “You can have some candy after you take a nap.” Keep your word.

5. If your child uses a whiny–type “noise” as a method of request, respond with, “Use your words,” and then pleasantly request a “please” before handing anything over. Always. Repeat the full sentence that the child should use as you hand the child the item requested. That is your ultimate goal — the full sentence. Remember, you are not engaging in a test of wills, but utilizing a teaching opportunity, so no need to allow yourself to be anything but “pleasant.”

6. Make them work for what they ordinarily get anyway, instead of providing something special for good behavior. If you were going to allow your child a Christmas cookie after dinner, why not get something for it — or two things? Such as they have to clean up the living room AND they have to WAIT until after they take a bath. Make what you want in exchange measurable. Avoid something vague like “being good.”

7. Never promise a consequence you can’t deliver, or try scaring a child into doing what you want. For instance, “If you don’t go to sleep you’ll never see grandma again!” or “If you don’t behave, I’ll have the doctor give you two shots next time we go!”

8. If they misbehave, remember, time out generally equals one minute per year of their age.

With these behavior tips in mind, happy holidays to all the busy families spending time together this year.

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We know what we need to do

By Danette Vernon

I once went to lunch with a friend, who unbeknownst to me had invited two other people to dine with us. We were single, they were married. They ordered beer, we ordered water. We didn’t smoke; they inhaled a couple of cigarettes and then casually stuffed the butts in their empty beer bottles.

Having quenched their thirst, one of the two surprise guests started to complain about her marriage. She spoke of a husband so desperate to resolve a marital crisis that he woke her at 3 a.m., unable to wait until morning. The punch line was her derisive laugh.

It seemed within the telling that she wanted her open contempt for her husband, and for men in general, to be affirmed by the gaggle of femininity around the table. She got it, but not from me.  Unable to re-direct the conversation, I made a polite but quick exit.

It was a graceless peek into the private corners of someone’s marriage, but maybe her reveal had a higher purpose then the obvious. Who among us has not disclosed a problem with another person, or ourselves, hoping someone wiser than us, a modern day Solomon if you will, would be able to distinguish between what we should accept in another, or ourselves, and what should be given our immediate and generous attention?

I used to keep a copy of the book “If You See the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him” at my desk when I did life coaching. It’s an unlikely title, but the premise of the book is that we all know what we need to do. We don’t need an authority. The change we need to make is written across our forehead, and it can be delivered to us in ten words or less. The husband in the story above may have been hoping to “deliver his message” before his heart hardened too deeply to go forward in an unhappy marriage. The wife in question may have been so disillusioned she couldn’t bear to hear yet another pronouncement of grief.

I have no idea how their story ended, but what about my story or yours? What do you have simmering just below the surface in your life? What needs to change?  Or what do you need to accept?

The old saying is that “for the man who wears shoes, the whole world is covered in leather.” If you change your reaction, you change everything. Do you need spit out that one simple sentence to your mate that fully reveals what you really need from them? Or is it a matter of critical necessity that you accept that your beloved is different than how you might have imagined your ideal mate…but in so many good ways as well.

There is no Buddha belly to rub. You need no one to tell you what to do. You know in your heart of hearts what the answer is.

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When do we demand change of ourselves or of others?

By Danette Vernon

Kintsukoroi: (n) “to repair with gold;” the art of repairing pottery with gold or silver lacquer and understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken.

We have all wished at some point that our children or our mate were different. Sometimes nightly. The inclination may surge anew each evening when the bedtime chaos of small children begins. Or once that’s over, maybe we get the cold shoulder of a spouse who’s just too tired or too weary to be anything even close to the companion, the confidante, we had imagined when we were innocent of life’s more common disappointments.

If the wish is ardent enough, are we merely wishing away what we don’t like, or are we, in effect, fervently praying for a stranger to arise, someone unknown to us, but better? The Stepford wife, or child? Cookie-cutter clean, but bland? Better, but not anymore imaginative a model than the average among us might create.

Richard Gere once played a man who walked out of the Civil War and into the shoes of a dead man who had been his cellmate for a time in some Yankee prison. He looked so much like the man, and had heard his stories so often, he nearly pulled it off. And given this second chance, he was a better man then the ghost he was emulating — or he had ever been in his own life.

The perfect family member or the second chance to be someone else are the fluff and stuff of Hollywood.

So where do those of us in the real world draw the lines when it comes to our own quirks and habitual patterns, or those of our loved ones? When do we demand change of ourselves, or of others? Or else?

And when do we simply accept the vulnerabilities in another that we so often display ourselves?

This human sway between the two dynamics is never played out more clearly than with the dating game.

A friend of mine rode the roller coaster of his emotions right off the track a couple of years back, eventually arriving at a juncture wherein there was a woman waiting, one who would accept him just as she found him in the day. Their life together may always remain as a new bud, with its promise forever in tomorrow. Or perhaps it will one day blossom gloriously forth, called by the fire of the sun. But no matter, they “will be always happy,” he promised me, “just being together.”

A fairytale ending? Is that what we all want? Not so much. Shmuley Boteach, author and couple’s counselor, characterizes today’s men and women as so over-familiar with the opposite sex that they can’t, or won’t, settle for just some average Joe (or Jane). They, or should I say, “we,” want to pull from the upper 10 percent, the brass ring of lovers, the next time around (or is it the time after that?). We want all of our prayers answered, the best of the best, the cream of the crop, our wish list of attributes fulfilled, whether that means younger, older, or more high-spirited, more traveled, more educated than our last attempt at love ever-lasting. And shouldn’t we want that? Or should we? What’s a healthy attitude, and what’s not? Where are the lines to be drawn?

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