Tag Archives: autobiography

Updream, part I

Considerations about a childlike element in philosophy

1

The beginning of my exposition seems not to matter much, for isn’t the beginning doomed to be offset by the continuation and by what it concerns in the end? If there is, in the area that I now set foot in, a core of the matter, and if that takes a central place, then there must be lots of ways and entrances to reach it, a bit like how all roads are said to lead to Rome. And if that core isn’t there or if it’s too puny, too wide or too vague to point out, then the long loop of the detour around the area in which it is located, the detour we have to make in life and thought to return to the obviousness that we started from and that we tried to replace with a reflexive certainty, despite its futility has still been an unavoidable Odyssey to the place we already were when we started the detour. The question of the point of something which turns out to be necessary, is superfluous and reaches above our capacities. No one can know how much winding up is needed, or even must be mobilized purposely, to ever unwind and be content with what little we can dispose of from the outset.

From the beginning into which I want to tie this consideration, I’m not even sure if it’s just an expression of astonishment about existence or a question about the point and the meaning of all. It stems from a childlike train of thought that might have already taken the linguistic shape of a question, but perhaps would sooner like to share the question with whom it is asked to than that it expects a definitive answer to it.

One evening, when I was bringing my son, who was six years old at the time, to bed, he suddenly asked: “How can I know that I’m not dreaming everything now?” The question sounded guileless and didn’t give the impression that it was the product of a long mental struggle with questions too big and too precocious and probably not just for him. I even thought, in a surge of maturity that kids can provoke, that it more suited his age than mine. For grown ups are supposed to not even mention anymore the questions they don’t know the answers to.

His day had been, as far as I could tell, sooner been saturated by pleasures than that it could have been cause to a quick forgetting or a writing off. He’d rather wanted to hold on to the day and what had happened than see it disproved as a mistake. And apparently he was experimenting at that moment with a possibility that adults are ashamed of, that is to believe in an existence he didn’t share with anyone, that existed solely in his imagination and from which that outside world had been thought away or in which it had conversely been made up. In the mean time it didn’t seem at all, not in the least from his drowsy sleepiness, that the dream he had made up seemed like an oppressive nightmare from which he’d like wake right at the point of going to sleep. It sooner belonged to the rituals that would have to be rigged just so he could sleep without worrying about the continuity of his world. He wouldn’t have to be the sole wakeful watchman in a sleeping universe.

2

On second thought, is this a question that demands a serious answer, so an answer that is more than a comforting adjuration? And can anybody ever answer it in a sufficiently businesslike manner? We could probably dismiss it as childish, but with that we’d only say something truly meaningful if at the same time it was also clear, that all childishness as the initial phase of human life has the status of provisionality and is doomed to disappear without trace from a life and a way of thought that claim to have real validity and have reached a definitive stage. Then all of childhood would be superfluous and every memory of it pointless. I sooner have the tendency to regard that time and the memories of it as normative and decisive. Then indeed would this decisive beginning be random and could it be crossed out against the continuation.

In the mean time I didn’t know the answer and therefore just said, that we, if it did concern a dream, probably dreamt the same thing. We went through some of the details and soon came to the conclusion that it had to be that way. We also dreamt the same father, the same son, the same house on the same address, the same room and the same bed. And moreover we had to assume that others too, who would see us there, for example his mother and his sister, would come to the same conclusion at the same moment as us.

If that was the case, at least there would be a familiar circle around him which in very different heads dreamed the precise same thing as he did. Within that circle there was a communal world. If we now assumed that the world limited itself to that circle, then within it he could feel relatively safe and talk about anything that went on inside him. But outside it he could also discover, on the street and in school, that apparently everyone sees the same things, hears the same sounds, and gets out of the way for the same cars by the same brand.

The easiest way to explain why it is that we have the impression that we all experience the same things, is to assume that all those things are real and aren’t dreamt by all the people at the same time and in the same way. For then the differences in all those dreams would have to be so big that people couldn’t talk in the same language. And the things are just there, when we are awake; they remain while we sleep, and they don’t change, no matter what we dream.

3

That’s how he could know, I explained, that he didn’t dream. He seemed to be very content with that and fell asleep peacefully. But I had to think a bit more about the word ‘how’ in his question. For that doesn’t just mean ‘in what way’, so that the answer can be ‘so’, but also ‘to which degree’, so that gradations of probability and certainty can be given.

In what way and how certain can I then know that I’m not dreaming and that the things outside of me and which I’m concerned about, actually exist? For a shared experience of a communally observed world too can be dreamt. There are no possibilities, no matter how unlikely, that can be thought of where the realization cannot be dreamt. The dreamer isn’t accountable for the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the things he dreams. He just sees them before him, and what we just see before us without understanding it and without being able to relate to it actively, of those things we could start to think that we’re dreaming them too.

Once that possibility has been discovered, there appear to be no more limits, not to dreaming, and not to the doubting that the suspicion that we are dreaming can give way to. His dream did that too. It was a dreamed, thought up dream, a dream without images or certainties, a reflected dream in parentheses and within a loop, in which at the same time also the whole world and the mutual coordination of all things and thoughts were included.

His question also could have been: “does anything really exist, apart from myself?” ‘Dream’ would then have been another word for a way of thinking, in which we realize that thinking is a precarious affair and that we are only thinking and not knowing for sure. Then I should have maybe told the story of “I think therefore I am” and the fantasies of René Descartes (1596 – 1650), about an eventual evil genius, who presents us with a whole world, including our thoughts about it.

The question did assume the ‘I’ and the certainty that can be reached from this point, but the existence thereof wasn’t in question -everything else was. For a six year old child the own existence seemed sufficiently embedded into a ‘we’ that could guarantee a jointly habited world that could be regarded as the real world, even if only because that world is shared with others.

dream-

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Without a sigh -last part

March 6

There could be a beautiful, integrant and almost happy sorrow about a life gone, if we didn’t have to become so active. There are so many things to take care of and so many things to be thought of. People are never busier than when they’d do nothing rather than staring ahead. Especially surrounding death and funerals there is a frantic urge to organise and moreover a strangling etiquette. Hundreds of regulations determine every step we take and the more fearful we are, the more we get trapped in the fyke of funerary commerce. For every degree of ‘piety’ there are adjusted rates.

Then there are the expressions of sympathies that consist mostly of speaking in cliches. ‘How old was he?’ ‘Eighty five.’ ‘Well, then you can’t complain. I’d sign up for that.’ ‘Yes, yes, you can say that.’ ‘But it’s not in our hands.’ And then they tell you to ‘stay strong’, which you really only need to stay nice amidst all those well wishes.

There are endless considerations about what has to be, should be, is done frequently, would be greatly appreciated etc. What I would love to do most is to take father with me and bury him in the orchard. There is a beautiful, melancholy spot there that i’ve long considered as a graveyard. The hedge makes a turn there and the grass seems tender. The ground underneath it would have mercy on him.

In the evening there was a stations of the cross and a rosary in the chapel of the old age home. Visiting this ceremony is a part of the innumerable obligations. My hands were sweaty when it was done. Fortunately one of the little ones yelled ‘it stinks’ out loud when one of the attendees wasn’t able to suppress a fart. I think father would have laughed too, for in the field of farts he had a finely tuned sense of humour, almost as imperative as his piety. When we used to sit behind him on the bicycle, he’d sometimes fart loudly and yell ‘catch ‘m’.

The stations of the cross were just like when I was young, an incomprehensible mixture of mysticism, sadism and moralising. In between there were as good and as bad as they could songs of an old Dutch version of the Stabat Mater, sung with sheer, senile voices. It didn’t surprise me at all that none of us participated and I felt most connected to the kids that took every opportunity to giggle or to imprint comical details so they could repeat them at home.

Father is now in an open bier. I scare more from the fringes and tassels that decorate the coffin than from his hollowed face and his blue nails. I never understood what this fuss was all about. Apparently it is a commercial expression of great affection or something. Now that nothing can be achieved anymore, you suddenly have to spare ‘no expense’, even at the cost of your own taste, for someone who is no longer there and thought it all nonsense when he was there.

The residents of the old age home condole us, beautifully, without small talk and sincere. Only old fold should really be allowed to use cliches. Some of them have tears in their eyes. Someone said: ‘We lose a lot with him.’ I belief his housemates were very fond of him, even though he was a bit withdrawn. He’s had a few happy years here.

I don’t think he would have had as much freedom and rest in the houses of any of us. We were never very good at hiding the smaller and larger annoyances he caused: his proverbs and sayings, the drumming of his fingers on the armrest of his chair, his coughing fits, the matt, submissive tone of his rosary and the way he ate or really not that, but the introverted smile with which he held each bite in front of his mouth for a moment and looked at it or really not that either, but the total absorption with which he stared ahead or really not that either etcetera. Those are the things that we now, when we are amongst each other, are starting to talk about, not without regret and shame, but still with the certainty that we never could have done it differently, that it didn’t change a thing in the situation and that the next generation will have the same tricks. It’s like a competition in which we surpass each other in making risible confessions and reminiscing painful moments.

March 7

When I’m looking at him, as he lies there endlessly absent in his coffin, i’m having difficulty imagining that this is meant to be taken seriously. We’ve known him for so long as a presence that a definitive farewell is unthinkable. That’s why I have this crazy thought that he’s sleeping and not really dead. Fathers remain alive forever; they are immortal because they are inevitable and determine our whole life. Only others die; they die because we don’t care about them.

Sometimes I feel the ridiculous urge, like I used to do sometimes in a lonely spot, to try out all my magical abilities, my dormant forces, with a resolutely spoken command. Then suddenly the great wonder would occur. Jesus could do that so beautifully and he managed to pull it off every time too. I would like to take his dead hand: ‘Jan Verhoeven, I tell you; rise’ and then bring him back to the surprised family. It is my old priesthood dream. Perhaps the rector had something similar in mind when he wanted ‘to speak with him alone’. But he couldn’t even make a living person talk. Such is all of life full of a shameful primitivity that we can’t always hide. We make them into solemn rituals, so they seem official and acknowledged.

March 8

The condolences and the funeral, which we had dreaded quite a bit, went by without difficulties. Someone said by accident or out of ignorance ‘congratulations’ and we were very curious if he’d persevere in that eleven times. He did so indeed and we all managed to keep looking serious. The church was full, the service was well taken care of and not as lugubrious as it used to be. The pastor that sang the preface, although in Dutch, is a former classmate. Tea afterwards, where we had about a hundred family members and acquaintances, was even very convivial. The sun was shining as cheerfully as on the Sunday morning he died. The kids ran to and fro from the cafe to the grave to check if it had filled up completely yet. We had a few drinks and agreed to see each other more often. But probably that won’t happen until another member of the family is buried.

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an eye in the mist

It was an autumn evening to get real melancholy about, which is what happened to me. I was alone in a house too big for me alone and the empty spaces were filling up with flimsy spectres. Outside the mist had taken on the density of the buttermilk porridge that gave me shivers as a child: sour with little spiders of barley that would crawl down the soft palate and nestle into what is the most private. Even the curious reptile that is the tongue was scared off by these intruders.

That’s approximately what I was thinking, standing in the place where the cows used to stare into space. ‘Dreamy’, we call that, but that is far too poetic. There is little to dream about for cows. The columns, which remained upright during the remodelling of the farm and were spared as monuments, still carried the traces of a bored scratching that had only rubbed the uniformity deeper into the skin.

I fell back into my old habit of looking at cows in the front, into their eyes, ridiculous and urban, for the rear is where it is at. That is where the experts say a cow’s life unfolds. Perhaps, I thought, farmers avoid looking cows in the eyes because it would make them melancholy too, staring so vacantly at a life that takes place entirely outside of them. The cows also don’t ask for being looked in the eye and invoking compassion; they ask for nothing and look at nobody. You never know what they see, let alone how they see you and what interests them in you. Dogs leave little misunderstanding about that and even cats have their ways to establish a reciprocity. The floaty eyes of cows are merely there as the mirrors of a resigned soul, an outward bulging melancholy. There is no form of curiosity behind them, no enterprising spirit and no plea. They are not leering at a chance and want nothing from the world. All they do is being there and without surprise see that there would still be all manners of things to see, if they wanted to look. With calves you sometimes see a trace of wantonness and interest. They still seem to practise something they’ll never be able to do. Cows already know this and it makes them disheartened.

I was standing there for a while and wasn’t specifically thinking of something. A cow’s eye in the mist has little to digest. It ruminates pictures with which nothing can be done and that are therefore also not images of something. In the mist everything shrinks to a wraith in vague fumes. In this misty realisation of empty presence I opened the outside door to smell the autumn. The nose can sometimes bring a bit of life to the eyes. The soggy scent of fallen leaves could only amplify the mistiness of the realisation. It seemed especially made up for it. It is the scent of stillness and definite completion, ripeness without fruit.

Life came from the other side and unexpectedly. From underneath the leaves a brown rat, misguided by the light and warmth, shot inside. There, she immediately started to find a way out, when she smelled a cat. The cat saw her and panicked too. For a moment she apparently contemplated a ruthless hunt, but she changed her mind and sufficed by arching her back. To my surprise I was quite happy with a bit of life in my house and started, because there was no one there to make fun of me anyway, to talk to the intruder encouragingly. That seemed to help, for the animal slowed its senseless speed down and didn’t flee into the columns. It walked a couple of rounds through the hallway and went back outside almost with dignity.

I was in front of the door again. Nothing had happened. The eye had gone along into the mist to bare witness that there was still nothing to see. It had only aroused the appearance of a small occurrence that meant nothing. I could have imagined that I was looking at cows or that a rat had come to visit. What happens in the mist, is erased immediately, dissolved in wisps: it has not been there. There is nothing to say about it.

cow in mist

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Without a sigh

Night

At midnight, just as we have gone to bed, there is a phone call. The end seems to be near now. After a quick trip through the night we find him still in death throes. It can take hours more. Gradually the others go home, only we remain. The unrest passes into an unrestful sleep, panting and difficult, punctuated now and again by imminent silences. Each time we think it is the end and we bend over him, but then from the inside the respiration is propelled again and the panting surges.

At six thirty, just after the bells have rung for the first mass on sunday March 5th, the quick rhythm falters, but now in a very different way than we have become accustomed to in the last few hours. Back then you could hear it going into depths where it would take a turn, as it were, to come back moments later. Now it terminates like a stalling engine; there is no more echo in nearby life and no promise of a new beginning. We have no experience in these matters, but we don’t have to say a word to both know that this is the end. Without a sigh he stops living. His sighs have always marked the transition to another phase in his existence or the rhythm of the day. Now there is nothing left to sigh. He moves his mouth once, seems to want to swallow, and then lies motionless, his eyes almost all the way closed, his mouth open.

Because i’ve read about it often and because I now too feel the need for a final ritual, more than because it is necessary, I close his eyes. As I press his limp chin upwards, another superfluous gesture, my eyes soak in the last images of his stiffening face for minutes. To my surprise I feel no need to still talk to him or call him to order. I just want to keep looking at him till he’s disappeared at the horizon. Then I press the button next to the bed to warn the nurse. From now on we give him out of our hands and within 5 minutes a living father is a dead and stiff thing.

Not a trace of the famous smile in which the finally found peace would be expressed or even a vision of the happy afterlife. He just looks dead, removed from us at an infinite distance, mute and unreachable. He is even too far to be mysterious. He leaves not a single sign. It is impossible for me to guess what he thought or saw before him in that last moment. All week i’ve been trying to get contact with him about such things, but it has yielded nothing. Probably dying is very prosaic and the absence of every thought and vision belongs with it. There is no contact because there is nothing to report. Could the mystery of death, like so many other mysteries, consist of this, that there is nothing behind it, not just no other life, but also no wisdom, no resignation? Mystery could be the product of our resistance against the banality of life and death.

We drive back home on one of the most beautiful spring mornings I have seen in years. It is quiet on the road and we don’t say much. We’re not bothered by sleep. I almost have a feeling like I did on a day in April when I came back from the seminary, a farewell combined with a mission.Up till now i’ve often had the idea, against my better knowledge, that father also lived a bit for me, or that my life wasn’t definitively my own. It wasn’t completely in my name. It didn’t take place in the front lines and there was still a generation between us and the grave seriousness, a buffer zone. On the way home, with the dead face of my father printed deeply into my eye sockets, for the first time I feel owner of my life, but also heir. What constitutes it has been largely determined by him.

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March 4, afternoon

The priest, diligently busying about to offer spiritual assistance, comes to pray the prayers for the dying. We all join in bravely, in the hope father will notice and will believe that his children will remain on the path of righteousness. I hold his chilly hand and breathe on it. I’ve just had a few drinks at a reception and am getting very emotional. For hours I have watched him the last few days and studied every movement. And now I still don’t know if there is anything I understand about him. Because I see his lips move -which indicates a conscious presence with the situation- I try another exam after the prayer. ‘Are you tired?’ He nods yes. ‘Would you like to die?’ No reaction. ‘Shall we come with you a bit?’ Yes. ‘Is it far?’ Yes. ‘You’re over halfway there by now.’ Nods vehemently yes. ‘Will you see our mother?’ Sigh. ‘Is all well?’ Yes. ‘You’ve been a good father.’ He shakes his head and seems sad. ‘We’ll always stay with you.’ He nods and sighs. Then he closes his eyes. It is enough for today. I squeeze his wrinkled, skinny hand, of which the skin keeps getting looser. The folds that I make in them remain, like in leather. When he opens his eyes again, he seems to stare of into a distance where nobody can follow him. I don’t know whether he sees anything at all; I really believe he doesn’t.

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March 3, afternoon

‘There is a lot of aggression around the dying’, I read yesterday in an article. I believe that this is true and I notice that it also applies to our situation. We’re beginning to resent father’s weakness. We’re on the verge of thinking it is affection when he recognises others but not us, when he is confused and doesn’t behave like we expect him to. But the aggression goes much further and I hesitate to acknowledge this. Weakness cannot last too long; people have to be strong or disappear. It becomes more and more hard to put up with our powerlessness. The situation seduces us to impatience. Tired out by the wake we keep on wishing out loud, that it won’t be much longer. Maybe there is more aggression in that wish than we dare to admit to ourselves. I still don’t know if it is that good for father to die. Dying is never good. Nobody seems to know exactly what happened to him and how far recuperation is possible. But the thought that he would survive treatment and would remain a wreck -and therefore a burden- scares me, not just out of pity for him, but also for myself. I’m getting a deep distrust against the noble talk about euthanasia, because I suspect that there is a lot of aggression behind it that is being kept quiet. People become aggressive when they think they have to do something while in effect they experience that they are powerless. Sometimes they want to kill because this is for them the only way to keep believing in their activism.

Father does not want to eat and only seldom drinks. Again i’m under the impression that he has decided to die. The doctor says we shouldn’t do anything against that. None of us also feels anything for artificially prolonging this life through IV’s etc. Here, amongst his children, in his own room and his own bed, father apparently wants to die. We will look on powerlessly, without the pretension to be able to do anything for him or have control over whatever, including our dubious wishes.

I have to laugh a bit when the rector comes by again and very solemnly asks if he could ‘speak in private for a while’ with father. Very surprised, I retreat and try to eavesdrop from behind the door how this expert will succeed in getting him to talk or even confess. I suspect that he wants to bless away the last remaining bits of sinfulness from him. Out of sheer excitement I hear nothing of what he says. When he comes outside again within a minute and admits that he too cannot make contact with him, I feel a great relief. When father doesn’t talk with us, he may talk to no one.

It strikes me that many people that ask about his situation, talk about him in the past tense. They ask for example ‘how old was he?’ I’ve noticed this before. This peculiar use could potentially be explained this way, that the past tense doesn’t refer to the past, but it is a careful and soothing indication of the present. In the way some people say ‘I thought’ when they want to discretely indicate what they are thinking that moment. They are prepared to, as it were, take back their thought. ‘How old was he?’ can mean: how old was he again, I did know, but I can’t think of it this moment. The same way they often asked in stores: what was your name, what was your size?

For me, I have the tendency to explain it differently and connect it to the aggression surrounding the dying. By using the past tense the dying is written off even before his death, deleted from the attendance list and removed from the area of attention. When someone asks me ‘how old was he?’, I understand that this person doesn’t count him amongst the living anymore; and it feels like a little murder when people get ahead of the facts like that.

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March 2, afternoon

There is little change in the situation. It’s just that father keeps getting thinner. His words become more confused and the hope of a meaningful ‘last word’ is getting to be a bit childish. The reality of dying is different than what I thought. I had imagined a fairly romantic scene in which the dying, held up by pillows, addresses his children for the last time. Probably that never happens and is one of the many lies surrounding the elementary things in life. Father never addressed us, so how would he be able to at such a moment?

Everyone, it is said, has his own way of living and of dying, but I fail to see a connection between this life and this deathbed. Maybe just the silence. Father has told us little about his inner life, for example how he dealt with the death of our mother, thirty six years ago, or if he felt lonely, thought about getting remarried etc. I would also like to know, how he managed in those years of crisis, without the help of an insurance agency, to pay for the costs of a couple of years of care in a sanatorium. In mother’s old letters, which i’ve sneakily taken out of the safe and read in the past, she mentioned now and again that it all cost so much, that he had so many worries and missed so much care himself, but that happened, if I remember correctly, very sporadically. He never complained about it himself and only very rarely expressed himself about the loneliness after her death. Clear answers he has always dodged with proverbs and generalizations, no matter how big and concrete our curiosities and questions were. Answers that weren’t valid for everyone at any time and therefore weren’t suitable for endless repetition, didn’t seem to satisfy him. Usually he’d quote an old saying, that with some good intentions could be interpreted in the direction of the situation. The special case, even if it was himself, seemed to be outside of his attention. I sometimes doubt whether his emotions, conditioned so differently and especially more restrained, can be compared with ours. In any he had a greater acquiescence, and maybe he felt less at the time than we think now and precisely because of his acquiescence a lot of things passed him by. But that is hard to believe with such a sensitive man. I sometimes think too that he didn’t talk with us about all that misery because we were still little children when it all happened, and that where it concerns those occurrences, we remained little children in his eyes. With outsiders he was always more talkative than with us. From my side, I too never told him that in all those years of going to church, I passed the time judging women on their qualities as a potential second mother.

My respect for him grows despite all doubts and complaints to a mythical size. By going outside of all reasonable proportions, I seem to want to make up for all the ways I felt him short. I think I haven’t been a good son and have hurt him a lot. I can’t take that back and there’s hardly sense in trying, for example by becoming extremely religious. Still I think that I am at this deathbed beginning to swerve right, at least inasmuch that I feel a fiery hate towards the propagandists of a revolt against fathers and for a fatherless society. Even a bad son can’t abnegate his father and ignore his heritage without maiming himself deadly.

People still moan about the crisis years and they always depict it as though the crisis only struck the workers. The small tradesman that lies dying here was hit much harder and who knows how many others like him. I remember from that time that we would occasionally have a can of ‘crisismeat’ at home, the same meat that the sons of workers of my age still complain about now. Compared to the rancid bacon that was our daily food, this meat seemed to us a treat for rich folk. But father was a bit embarrassed by it.

He did not, like some other farmers, profit from the war to become rich. He came out of it poorer than he went in it, at least I suspect as much, for he wouldn’t mention it much. That one time he dared to do something, selling some gold coins from an inheritance he had to split up, he got caught. Furthermore he was a little too scared to undertake much. The radio was turned in diligently and even a pistol which was at least 100 years old was not allowed to stay in the house. But that fear wasn’t enough reason to give away as much as he did. After the war he was involved with the currency reform and found out pretty precisely who had enriched themselves. He never wasted another word on the subject; still we noticed that certain farmers he founded harder to respect.

Even though he was often involved with monetary matters, I don’t believe that he was really knowledgable with them. His discussions on the rates of interest and such things impressed me as a child, but far more than the business side of the money it were the moral aspects that stayed with me. Those had only to do with his money, the money I cost him. The small allowance that he gave me so I could study, barely a hundred guilders a month, but i’d have to let him know if I needed more, always made me emotional and brought about a sense of debt that had nothing to do with finances. If he had been a bit more businesslike, i’d probably not have had that feeling. But when communication is a tad deficient, the few things that are fairly clear in and off themselves, and which are calculable, like money, become burdened with an unbearable heavy symbolism. Every penny was a sigh from father, part of my great debt.

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