Friday, June 24, 2005


Holiday Cheer

I think I swore last year that I would pay someone to put up my Christmas lights, yet here I am - again - in a blizzard of lights, trying to figure out why some icicles work and some don’t and why Rudolph’s butt has gone dark.

Ah, yes … it’s Christmas time again.

I managed to get the flying reindeer and their sleigh up without a glitch, the river took some time but was done without any technical difficulties, and the deer are good, aside from the aforementioned butt problem and a previously undisclosed mechanical problem that keeps one from “drinking” from the river. All in all, however, the groundwork went as planned.

But the icicle lights … ay, yah, yah.

Yeah for my one working strand! Yes, one (out of six!) still works perfectly and is even still on the right setting - the slow wave motion. Woo, groovy, dude!

But, several strands just don’t work at all. And some - and this really defies any logical explanation I can think of - have every other icicle strand out, yet changing the fuses does absolutely nothing to fix the problem. Any electrical engineers out there? And of course, there was the one strand I accidentally whacked off with the hedgers as I was trimming down the hedge in front. (That really didn’t help.)

Pretty much this means I am going to be buying more lights.

I haven’t run into my typical “too many lights, not enough extension cords or outlets” problem yet, but I’m guessing that is because I still have five more strands of lights to set up on the roof. I will savor the anticipation of that predicament all day long, I assure you.

Believe me, I may write like I am really frustrated, but I love this time of year. Yes, it is a lot of work, but it is my absolute favorite time, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

And on that note, I think I have fallen in love … with my Christmas tree. It is eight feet tall and wider than any Christmas tree I have ever seen anywhere. Period. It is so huge!

I was on my third visit to a second Home Depot looking through their new arrivals when I found it. The ‘tree guy” was patiently cutting the trees open one by one, and each one was getting shot down for various bald spots or yellowed leaves or abnormal growths. I was beginning to feel bad that so many weren’t working and was about to settle for one when he got called away and another “tree guy” stepped in for him. That was my saving grace.

I asked him to open another tree, and out fell the most beautiful tree on the planet. No kidding - the tree farm people must have known that someone would love this tree. Even the “tree guy” said it was the prettiest tree he had ever seen.

OH! - And with the lights and the ornaments, it is absolutely gorgeous! I can’t wait to finish it off with tinsel and fill up the floor below it with tons and tons of Christmas gifts. Then, I can sit in front of it at night with a good book and drink hot chocolate … yes, I love this time of year!

And speaking of this time of year - even though this has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas - I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to all the other Aggies out there who are as psyched as I am that our football team is on it way back to where it belongs in the rankings and on its way to the Cotton Bowl! See you in Dallas! Whoop! Hump it! Until then … Caroline.

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Spring Lawn Care

Springtime is here. The flowers are blooming, the leaves are growing in on all the trees, and the butterflies and bees are flying around. Unfortunately, springtime also starts the emergence and potential domination of weeds in our lawns and also can bring excess stress for our lawns if the problems aren’t addressed quickly and correctly.

To offer advice to homeowners on how to have healthy lawns, I spoke with a vegetation expert with the State of Texas and compiled his suggestions on lawn maintenance for this area.


Homeowners should strike a balance between mowing lawns short enough to look well maintained and growing them tall enough to provide a shade canopy. This canopy will reduce soil moisture loss and thus reduce the need for watering. St. Augustine performs best at a 3" mowing height. Hybrid Bermuda grasses generally are tolerable of one inch mowing heights, and common Bermuda grasses generally require two inches.

Lawnmower blades should be kept sharp to prevent or reduce splitting the leaf blades, which can lead to disease problems in St. Augustine lawns. If you begin to have a fungus problem, start bagging your leaf clippings and lessen your watering rates until it is under control.

Weed Control

No one likes weeds. Not only an aesthetic problem, a heavy infestation of weeds can waste precious soil moisture. The best way to manage this is to halt weed growth before seeds are produced. Weeds can be suppressed by changing mowing heights (higher to allow grass to naturally “choke” out the weeds), by performing regular fertilizer applications, and by pulling weeds out of the ground.

If you are open to a chemical approach, do research to find out what weeds you have so that you can select the right herbicide and apply it correctly. If you have a St. Augustine lawn, read the label carefully before you buy the herbicide because St. Augustine is not tolerant of many herbicides. Homeowners have a tendency to over apply herbicides - read the instructions and amounts carefully.


With fertilizing, consistency and seasonal, year-round treatments will help establish and maintain a healthy lawn. The best way to fertilize is to apply applications four times per year using low rates of fertilizer each time. A blend such as 13-13-13 (Nitrogen-Phosphate-Potassium) is a good lawn blend. The City of Austin’s organic Dillo Dirt compost can be spread across your yard in a half-inch layer instead of using a chemical fertilizer, if you prefer this method.

Grasses can only “eat” a certain amount at a time, and over-fertilizing your lawn can lead to nutrient pollution in the storm water run-off. Nutrients must be held in place by the soil particles until the plant roots absorb them. If the soil particles can't handle the nutrient particles, they will be washed off the lawn into the creeks, where they can cause extreme algae growth, leading to a depletion of oxygen in the water that can cause fish to die.


Apply heavier amounts of water less often (as opposed to lighter amounts more often.) This allows the water to penetrate deeper into the soil where it doesn't evaporate as quickly. It also forces the grass roots to grow deeper, reaching down to the moisture. This makes the grass more drought tolerant and reduces the potential for fungus problems.

Here’s to the day when all my weeds are history. Until then … Caroline.

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Tsunami Tragedy

On the morning of December 26, I woke up late in the morning at my parents’ house ready to hit the mall for some after-Christmas deals. My mom, not quite the late sleeper I was that day, was already out and about getting some errands done. I was completely contented, with my Christmas gifts strewn about the living room floor, my well slept in bed still warm, and my blissful ignorance of the world outside. Enjoying the light feeling of no responsibility that appears so rarely, I decided that since I had nothing whatsoever to do until my Mom arrived, I would kill some time by checking the news online.

I saw a headline about a tsunami and an earthquake. I remember thinking, “That’s terrible” and also a jolting, “Welcome back to reality.” At the same time, to me it seemed so far away, like just another tragedy I hear about almost every day of the year in a distant place I’ve never been to and that has no connection to my life and my world.

That first day no one really knew the devastation that had occurred, and even now as the damage and death and destruction are known, it is still difficult for me to comprehend. What has changed, of course, is that it is clear this was no minimal destruction. As the days went by and the death toll grew and grew, the gruesome reality started to unfold in my mind for what it was.

But, how do you emotionally process 150,000 dead people? How do you visualize that? Any of the survivor and lost loved ones stories can make me cry, but how do I translate that story times 150,000?

I saw one story about a 13-year-old boy who lost his mother, his father, and his two younger siblings in the tsunami and who was now orphaned and alone. In the complicated stage between a boy and a man, he reminded me of someone I know and love, and when he broke down in to raw, all-consuming sobs, I couldn’t handle it.

All those children with no family left to love them - how do not only I comprehend that level of grief, but how do these thousands of children recover when their entire lives have been obliterated?

I think the only way I, and probably many people, can deal with such enormous grief is to focus on the good that can come from such a loss. From across the world, we are seeing the enormity of the good that individuals - one by one - can do.

When I put on my journalistic hat, I am supposed to be unbiased and be an observer, but interviewing children this week who were helping with the relief efforts truly affected me and allowed me to find some solace in the misery I know so many are experiencing. Little do those children - who were so excited to be helping - know the tears I fought back as I heard them, with all the beauty of innocence in their hearts, tell me about children like themselves so very far away.

I sat there comprehending that each one of the hundreds of toys they had collected would soon be in the hand of a child who, if even just for a moment, could experience the pure joy that only children can and be reminded that yes, she or he is still a child.

When I saw the understanding in the children’s faces that they could actually touch a life so far from their own, I realized it is a magical world we live in when the beauty of a child’s innocence can be felt across continents, across cultures, across languages.

In times like these, I believe the innocence in children can remind us of our own innocence, our own kindness, our own desire for everyone to be happy. So often in our lives we get consumed by our every day responsibilities and lose touch with the part of ourselves that feels nourished from being truly kind. Having that opportunity to connect with that kindness, I believe will leave all of us in a better place. Until then … Caroline.

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Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day is a day of love … and money.

Somewhere along the line, what began as a day of expressing one’s romantic intentions turned in to a mass market, commercialized, how big is your wallet day, and, admittedly, most of the burden for this falls on men.

From what I have seen, men feel a lot of pressure to “perform” well on this day, and women feel a lot of pressure to show the world that their man can perform - romantically, gallantly, and bigger and better than anyone else’s man. (Pun intended?)

I like that there is a Valentine’s Day - I think it is good that we set aside a special day to acknowledge our loved ones, and, admittedly, I swoon over gifts of flowers and chocolates and other gifts. But, I think a little bit of the real feeling behind these kinds of gifts can get lost if we don’t make an extra effort to personalize how we handle the holiday itself.

A dozen red roses, a box of chocolates, and a nice dinner out are what the typical Valentine’s Day entails. Absolutely nothing wrong with that scenario - in fact, it can be quite magical. But, there are so many other things that can show that someone special not only that you care, but that you care enough to have gone above and beyond opening your wallet.

Take for example, writing a poem. Probably many people groan at that thought, saying they can’t write very well or it is too hard, but that is exactly the point! This person you want to share your love with knows your strengths and weaknesses, and therefore, will be impressed doubly if you put yourself on the line and stretch your limits.

Poems don’t necessarily have to be of the “Roses are Red” variety; many poems don’t rhyme at all. As long as there is a decent flow, your loved one will appreciate your efforts. And, they don’t necessarily have to be all lovey-dovey either; a funny poem recounting all the fun times you have shared will be just as special.

Still afraid of a poem? Try a love letter. What are all those things you’ve thought in your head but never managed to get out? What do you think about your loved one every day that slips away before you have a chance to say it? What have you not had the courage to say out loud? This isn’t the movies - words hardly ever come out exactly how we want them. Writing a letter, and having the opportunity to reword and rework it, is a chance to say exactly what you mean exactly how you want to say it.

If you still feel you just can’t get it right, an alternative to writing a poem or a love letter would be searching the Internet for poem verses that say what you mean and putting several of those together for your special someone - citing the real author, of course.

A handmade card is one of the best ways, I think, to show someone you care, especially if you are not the crafty type. Pull out some construction paper, glue, markers, glitter - anything you can find. As long as it has lots of hearts all over it, it will be received well.

How about dinner at home? If you do this, make sure you set the mood - pizza delivery and a reality TV show are every day, not Valentine’s Day. Set out some candles, have some wine, maybe lay out a pretty tablecloth or something that creates a romantic mood.

If you’d like to have dinner out, you always can start the evening at home by making a nice appetizer, or end the evening at home with dessert. Although it can be complicated, it does not have to be - dipping a couple of large strawberries in chocolate works fantastically and can be done in all of 15 minutes, including the grocery store time.

To many happy Valentine’s Day moments! Until then … Caroline.

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Olympic Spirit

Why are the Olympics so special?

I always anticipate the arrival of the Olympics and then hardly can pull myself away from the television when they are on, especially the summer ones, yet getting me to watch sports at any other time generally requires an elaborate plan of compromise or a high dose of bribery.

I actually had to give some thought to why it is that the Olympics are so much more special than other sporting events, but I think I have come up with two good reasons.

The first reason is best explained as being the difference between watching amateur athletes versus watching professional athletes. For the most part, the competitors in the Olympics are young, and it means something to them to win; in fact, it means a whole lot to them to win. It is not at all like the professional athletes who receive million plus salaries and whom agents and attorneys seal off from the real world.

Many professional athletes seem to forget why they are playing a sport – it is a business to them, arguably as it should be for the money they earn. Olympic athletes, on the other hand, have done nothing but eat and sleep and dream their sport for years, often times through many personal obstacles, all in the anticipation of a few precious moments. It is about the struggle; it is about the payoff; it is about the dream.

Because of this, we are able to get caught up in the high emotions involved. For these athletes, there won’t be another game tomorrow or more playoffs next season – it is about now, this very moment, quite possibly their only chance to make all those years of work mean something. The moment is precious.

The second reason why the Olympics are so special is they bring about a sense of patriotism that is pure, uncomplicated by political reasoning. As Americans, our system is designed to create a certain amount of division so that the best of everything will ultimately get accomplished, but because of that we get caught up in dividing ourselves as liberals or conservatives or from this state or of that religion. This is one of the few times where all of our differences as people can be put aside, and we can be just Americans, united.

I feel so much pride when one of our own wins the gold and when I get to watch the faces of our winners as they stand for the National Anthem. I want to cry along with them – their journey somehow becomes mine because they are part of me and I a part of them. Who can’t identify with working hard for a dream and imagining what it would be like to finally have that dream come true?

As I watch the Olympics, I can celebrate along with our winners and feel the disappointment along with those who don’t fare as well, and through those emotions comes a strong sense of bonding. The Olympics are special. Scandals here and there aside, I hope that most Americans recognize the importance of the Olympics and what it means to the competitors and their families and to the so many of us fans who feel the Olympic spirit.

And for those of you who have read this far in to my column, you are probably some of my most loyal readers, and I want to thank you, for this is my 50th column as “Candidly Caroline.” I have enjoyed the opportunity to share my many opinions and views with you, and I certainly have enjoyed the opportunity to receive so many of your comments. Here’s to many more, and thank you all again for your support! Until then … Caroline.

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Russian Tragedy

Although rarely more specific than a feeling, at times I have a sense that something is wrong. This happened in a terrible way last week when I was startled awake at 5:30 a.m., completely alert and clear headed, knowing that I needed to turn on the television.

Fearing the unknown and dreading what was to come, I turned on the news and realized that unfolding before my eyes was what would become the tragedy of the Russian school massacre. I sat there in the dark and watched as children, almost naked, ran or were carried from a school building still encased in gunfire and explosions. Covered in blood, the looks on their faces were those of shock and numbness.

Reporters, surrounded by chaos on all sides, knew the danger was ongoing, but they, like the frantic parents who were scrambling almost wildly for their children, had nowhere to go. For hours, the fighting continued, no one really sure if there were still hostages or if the hostage takers had escaped. Only now, as more details of what transpired emerge, are we learning the full extent of what occurred.

Probably like many people who were watching this event unfold, my first thoughts were that this could happen here and thank goodness it wasn’t happening here. On a logical level, this makes me feel guilty to know that I was glad the pain was someone else’s, but it is instinctual that we seek to protect our own first. Think of the hundreds of parents who were praying that the dead children were someone else’s - anyone’s but their own.

What is really frightening to me is that we know this scenario could unfold at any one of our schools. Quite frankly, now that it has happened, it is almost a given that it at least will be attempted again. Where? Who knows, but terrorists always have to up the ante lest we become immune to their tactics, and I believe they have found our greatest weakness - our children. What kind of evil can gun down children in their backs as they flee in fear? I hope it is a kind I never encounter.

I think of the faces of the children, so in shock that they are not aware of the moment, not processing that they are being rescued. They stare blankly in to the television cameras or straight ahead as others try to take them to safety. They don’t notice their nakedness or the blood that covers them.

I imagine only now are they finally starting to understand what happened. Now the survivors, realizing they are safe, face a wealth of overwhelming emotions that likely will scar them forever. I worry about how their childhoods will be broken when they realize what has happened to them, what has happened to their brothers and sisters, what has happened to their parents, what has happened to their classmates and teachers. Will they feel guilty to have survived? Will they feel grateful to have made it out alive? Will they feel hateful for their permanent injuries or for the loss of loved ones?

We in America have the luxury of moving on from this tragedy. News coverage will quiet, and the event slowly will become a memory, less potent than those of our losses. But, I hope we recognize the danger that lies ahead as our most vulnerable become targets and fair play no longer remains a convention of war.

I don’t know what needs to be done. I don’t know what CAN be done. We can’t live and go to school and work in fortresses, but at least I hope we all say a prayer for those victims - those completely innocent children beaming with excitement on their first day of school who are now dead or scarred for life with the memory of a tragic event that had no rightful place in this world. Until then … Caroline.

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Welcome 2004!

Many people begin a new year by evaluating their lives and setting new goals or resolutions for the next year. From what I have seen, however, most people do not stick with their resolutions past the month of February and then just end up setting the same resolutions over and over again each year.

Perhaps some are setting unrealistic expectations, but I have a theory that probably applies to most: I believe that people are unable to make substantial changes in their lives until an internal motivator makes them feel that there is no other way for them to be - if they want to be happy. Setting a resolution based on a holiday is setting a resolution on someone else’s time schedule, not our own, and therefore, it is almost certainly doomed to fail.

Does that mean we shouldn’t set new goals and resolutions? Of course not. But perhaps if we think of New Year’s as a chance to evaluate our progress at achieving our goals and resolutions, instead of a time to set our goals and resolutions, we will find that we are more successful.

New Year’s Day is the anniversary of the beginning of our calendar year, and the celebration of anniversaries is designed so that we reflect and think back on the previous year or years and focus on what they mean to us. As Americans, we celebrate many, many kinds of anniversaries.

Probably the most widely celebrated anniversary, other than birthdays, is the wedding anniversary, and the greeting card and gift industries depend on making sure we don’t forget them! When we are young, wedding anniversaries are really an excuse to bring out the romance in our lives, but as the number of years increases, the significance behind them also grows.

I went to my grandparent’s 60th wedding anniversary dinner a few weekends ago – 60 years of being married. Very few of us will achieve that. People find it hard to stay together six years, much less sixty. My grandparents have 10 children, 21 grandchildren so far, and one great-grandchild on the way, all now celebrating their own anniversaries. To me, that says they have led successful lives. My parents will be celebrating their 30th anniversary this weekend. Few will even achieve that marker.

Anniversaries also can be about gaining perspective on our lives. New Year’s Eve would have been a five-year relationship anniversary for me. Do I regret that I missed it by just a hair? No, I really don’t, because now I will get to share that anniversary with my future husband, presuming I have one, instead of a boyfriend from the past, and that will make it even that more special. Plus, it is now a sort of new anniversary for being single!

We all have our own personal anniversaries to celebrate and remember, but here are some anniversaries that everyone can look forward to celebrating, or at least hearing about, in 2004:

The 20th anniversary of the Macintosh computer, the 20th anniversary of the federal Sex Discrimination Act, the 25th anniversary of the Alzheimer’s Society, the 40th anniversary of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, the 45th anniversary of the BarbieÒ doll, the 50th anniversary of Playboy magazine, the 50th anniversary of the Humane Society of the United States and the 200th anniversary of Haiti’s independence from France.

And guess what 25-year anniversary was concluded with 2003? The anniversary of Spam, the e-mail variety. Aren’t we glad that rampant run is over? Until then … Caroline.

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Tick Tock Tax Time

I’m sure there are a few of you - probably those who are getting refunds - who have long since filed your taxes, but for many of us, the end of March is when tax preparation time really hits. In deference to the many hours we spend earning and preparing our taxes, I’ve compiled information from the IRS website that gives some interesting insight in to the big picture.

First of all, you can’t get out of it.

It is safe to say the IRS does not take lightly attempts to avoid paying taxes. IRS publications seek to halt preemptively those creative types who would argue, for example, that income tax is unconstitutional, that taxes may be withheld in protest or that taxpayers may obtain a refund of all Social Security taxes paid by waiving their right to Social Security benefits. The IRS wants you to know that these won’t work, and you’ll probably get fined for trying.

Second, be pretty darn sure you did it right.

The IRS reviewed .77 percent of individual income tax returns in 2004. While that doesn’t sound like much, total audits of individual taxpayers topped 1 million for the first time since 1999. Audits of taxpayers earning $100,000 or more topped 195,000, a 40 percent increase from 2003 and a 74 percent increase from 2002.

After years of decline, audits of the largest businesses - those corporations with assets of $10 million and over - climbed to 9,560. One in six of these large corporations were audited in fiscal 2004.

As a result of audits, the IRS initiated 3,917 criminal investigations, with 2,008 convictions and 1,497 incarcerations.

Third, we’re talking about a lot of money.

The IRS collected $2,018,502,103,000 in 2004. The average tax paid per person was $6,848.87.

Texans paid $152,691,189,000 in total taxes, third behind California and New York.

Texas residents received almost $17,261,476,000 in personal income tax refunds in 2004, second only to California.

In Texas, there were 9,290,654 personal income tax filings. 7,685,268 of those personal filers received refunds. 4,619,423 of those personal filings were e-filed.

Fourth, tax time does not inspire generosity.

When filing their taxes, 12.8 million people in the U.S. donated a total of $55.9 million to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. Only 53 people made contributions to reduce the public debt, that total being $120,065.

Fifth, we love our computers.

E-filing is up 6 percent so far compared to last year, with almost 70 percent of returns thus far being e-filed. When all is said and done, it is expected that 2004 will be the first year that more than half of all returns were filed electronically. The biggest increase among e-filers is by individuals on home computers, which is up more than 14 percent.

On that note, I’d better get back to adding up my home office expenses. Until then … Caroline.

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Tarantulas, Rattlesnakes and Trails

A couple of days ago, I went on my regular walk through the trails near my house. Generally speaking, my regular walk starts near Davis and Escarpment on a mile-and-a-half unpaved trail near the townhomes that have been “about to be built” for years. I head to Dick Nichols Park where I walk around the mile-long paved trail, and then turn around and retrace my path on the unpaved trail. Usually, it is a very uneventful trip.

However, this time I encountered some wildlife that, quite frankly, freaked me out. It started on the unpaved trail, where about half way through, I saw something really big crawling across the trail directly in front of me. Even though I’m pretty sure I have never seen one in nature before, I knew right away what it was - a big, hairy, scary tarantula. And this was not in the woodsy part, people - this was right near the houses on the open part of the trail.

From a respectful distance, I inspected it as it proceeded to eat some kind of an insect, oblivious to me standing over it with my jaw on the ground and in awe that this kind of creature existed outside a tropical rainforest. Okay, it wasn’t a foot wide or anything, but it was about four inches, and we’re talking a TARANTULA, here.

If that wasn’t unusual enough, I proceeded on my merry way to Dick Nichols, where part way in to the trail, I noticed a whole bunch of people gathered in one spot on the paved part.

A guy approached me and said, “There’s a rattlesnake up there on the trail.”

“Uh - a rattlesnake?” Gulp. “Uh.” Again.

“It’s not moving. You should be okay if you walk around it.”

Sure. No problem. I’ll just walk around the snake. No worries. After all, snakes’ striking distances are pretty … And they don’t move real … And rattlesnakes aren’t … “This is not good,” I thought.

I was with a friend, though, who had never been on these trails before, and I didn’t want to scare her from ever walking with me again so I tried to play it cool. Let me tell you, cool doesn’t get you very far when you can see a genuine, live, un-caged snake eight feet from you.

We all know snakes aren’t out to get us and that the best thing to do is stay calm and move slowly. NOT SO EASY when you are watching him watch you!

We eventually made it past the snake, where I began conjuring up images of snakes hanging down from the trees and slithering and crawling all over the woods that are only feet from the supposed safety of the concrete path.

Then, I was like, “What on Earth am I so scared of?”

I remembered that last year I had seen a snakeskin that had been shed (which for obvious reasons, is much less intimidating than the real deal) and had written an article about snake safety. The experts I had talked to assured me that snakes really would rather leave us alone completely. I remember feeling much soothed after talking to them and after writing the article.

I’m trying to go with that.

Probably my evening was a rather unusual occurrence. In fact, my friend, who was to be interviewed for national television the next day, asked, “Is this some kind of an omen? First, the tarantula, and then the rattlesnake. What’s next, a dead bird?”

I am happy to report there was no dead bird.

To end it on a happy note, and to keep me from dreaming about snakes, I would like to mention what I saw on the trail last year staring at me from less than ten feet away - a cute, soft, sweet-eyed, fuzzy-cuddly, young deer. I’m pretty sure it was Bambi. Until then … Caroline.

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