Tag Archive: human rights


shutter

Photo Credit: James F. Cline III; Licence: Public Domain

Photo Credit: James F. Cline III; Licence: Public Domain

National Geographic today released the results of their 2013 World Photo Press Contest, which awards news photographers for astounding work completed in the previous year.  It’s well worth a gander.

I was so struck by some of the photographs that I knew instantly I had to write something about it.  If you’re a writer — and by “writer,” I don’t mean that you have something published, or that you’re recognized for your writing, but simply that, when you are moved by something, you know that you will be restless until you can write about it — you will know that sometimes there is an irrepressible imperative to share your thoughts with the world by writing them.  My first thought looking at the photographs was that they made me feel grateful for many things.  My second thought was that I’ve written about all of those things in other posts, so it would be cheating to say I’m thankful for them again (even though I am continually grateful for them).

Some of the feelings of gratitude the photographs elicited?

Let’s start with the first photograph in the series, taken by Paul Hansen, and which won First Prize.  Moving in a most breathtakingly devastating way, it depicts family members carrying two Palestinian children to their funeral after they were killed when an Israeli missile struck their home.

Nothing but nothing makes me feel more helpless than when children die.  Nothing but nothing makes me more furious than when children are the victims of violence.  But I also feel gratitude.  I am chilled at the thought of losing my child to something so senseless, and I am so profoundly thankful that I live somewhere that is not war-ravaged.  This isn’t to delude myself into a false sense of security.  Who knows what the future holds?  The parents of the children who attended Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut thought their kids were safe too.  But, still: it stands to reason that, when missiles are flying around your ears, people are going to get hurt, and eventually those people are going to be children.

But I’ve already talked about my appreciation for my safety and the safety of my family.

Let’s look next at Second Prize winner in the News Single category.  This photograph, snapped by a very brave Emin Özmen, depicts a man being tortured by Syrian Opposition Fighters by, I gather, having his feet whipped, for being a suspected government informant.  I can’t fathom the searing pain he must have experienced.  I am so grateful that I live in a country where torture is illegal, and where it is not so commonplace that torturers seem to have no problem with being photographed doing it.

But I’ve already written about my gratitude for the country in which I live and the basic human rights which that country protects.

I’m moved too by the First Prize winner in the Contemporary Issues Single category.  Photographed by Micah Albert, the picture shows a Kenyan woman taking a break from her labour picking through trash at a dump near the slums where she lives.  She’s sitting, reading through a book she found at the dump.  I live in such a wasteful culture, and we dissociate ourselves from the waste so easily because we’ve worked out this great system where we ship it off and hide it in giant landfills.  The concept of someone making a living from picking through garbage is a pure testament to so much of what is wrong with the world.

But I’ve already mentioned by thankfulness for having a meaningful job, and my gratefulness for having so many luxuries and amenities in life.  I’ve even expressed gratitude for books.

I think the most astounding of all of the photographs in the series is one by Fausto Podavini which claimed First Prize in the Daily Life Stories category.  It shows Mirella, a 71-year-old Italian woman, assisting her husband Luigi — who has dementia — drying off after a shower.  I am so thankful that I have the full capacity of my mind, and thankful too for the ones who love us and take care of us even when we have lost so much of who we are.

But I’ve already discussed my gratitude for family and those who stick with us through thick and thin.  I’ve expressed thankfulness for my health.

I find the photographic talent represented by this series of award winners to be mesmerizing.  They haven’t just snapped a picture: they’ve captured a moment.  It is their work that has helped me revisit and remember so many of the things that make me a lucky person each day.

And so, although it seems inadequate or trivial given the content of the photographs I’ve shared, today I am thankful for photography and photographers.  I would have such little insight into what goes on in the world — both the heinous and the beautiful — if it weren’t for the fact that those things have been brought to my doorstep through the efforts of others in capturing those realities and bringing them to my doorstep.

knowledge

To any readers who have become accustomed to a more regular dose of gratitude, I apologize for having been missing in action for a while.  Getting back into the school year routine has taken a greater toll on my energy than usual.  Gregory’s homework regimen has clearly been developed by someone with a sadistic streak.  Helping him with the homework on top of getting the kids to/from their extracurricular activities, getting dinner on the table, spending as much quality time with the kids as possible, and everything else, has left me feeling that I need to hire a project manager just to keep my life under control.  Then I got sick, and things just went further south.

But enough of the pity party.  This is the life of every parent.  This is also what every September is like.  I always manage to wriggle my way back into the swing of the things before too long.

Photo Credit: Michael Anderson; Licence: Public Domain

The other night, while I sat with my son in our dining room moving from homework task to homework task, with the descending sun casting longer and longer shadows in the room, I found myself overwhelmed with bitterness.  That bitterness has arisen partially from the time and energy I have lost in trying to motivate my son to tackle his homework when he is understandably frustrated by the tedium and sheer volume of it.  The bitterness has also originated from seeing my son finally head to bed, exhausted.  But mostly the bitterness has developed from seeing a society that increasingly fails to let children be children.

In the midst of all that bitterness, however, one thing did occur to me: at least my children have access to public education.  I know there are cultures that don’t prize education greatly, and that the history of my culture is one which did not always recognize the right of all children — regardless of status or wealth — to benefit from education.  My children and I are fortunate to live in a time and place where each of us has the opportunity to pave a way for ourselves, not through our family names or the coins in our pocket, but through diligence and merit.

Today, I am grateful for public education.  It helps us work and live better, opens our minds, enriches our communities, and propels forward human understanding of this mysterious universe.

freedom extended

Mid-June, I put away Hugo’s Les Miserables in favour of Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Hugo was too heavy for the sultry summer weather, and I desired literature that had been aired out a little.

Both of the two Twain novels are light-hearted, enjoyable reads, but Huck Finn’s saga has an underbelly of racial commentary.  There are a few points in the novel which stand out in this manner, but there is a short section in Chapter 16 which I feel is almost the crux of the story.  In it, Huck Finn and his runaway slave companion, Jim, are travelling down the Mississippi, looking for Cairo.  Cairo is positioned at a crossroads between freedom and enslavement: continue further down the Mississippi and travel deeper into the south, or travel up the Ohio river and reach the northern states where slavery is abolished.

Huck begins to have a crisis of conscience (please excuse the use of derogatory language below, but I am quoting and, really, considering the point I am making, it would be idiotic to censor):

Jim talked out loud all the time while I was talking to myself. He was saying the first thing he would do when he got to a free State he would go to saving up money and never spend a single cent, and when he got enough he would buy his wife, which was owned on a farm close to where Miss Watson lived; and then they would both work to buy the two children, and if their master wouldn’t cell them, they’d get an Ab’litionist to go and steal them.

It most froze me to hear such talk. He wouldn’t ever dared to talk such talk in his life before. Just see what a difference it made in him the minute he judged he was about free. It was according to the old saying, “Give a nigger an inch and he’ll take an ell.”  Thinks I, this is what comes of my not thinking. Here was this nigger, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children — children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know; a man that hadn’t ever done me no harm.

Reading it, I couldn’t help but shake my head.  Of course, I have a decent grasp of history and the treatment of slaves. I understood, too, that slaves were truly objectified, and stealing a person’s slave or helping that slave escape was perceived as no different than stealing their farm animals or their jewels.  It still astounded me, though, to hear stated in such bald terms that a greater crisis of conscience might arise from the idea of a man taking back his children and wife from the person who “owns” them, than does arise from the idea of the person “owning” them in the first place.

Later in the book, Jim talks about how he misses his family, and Huck simply cannot understand it, even though he would think nothing of a White person missing his or her family.  To Huck, it must seem as crazy as a table getting emotional about the absence of other tables: he simply cannot see Jim as a human being with feelings and yearnings.

Twain, of course, lived and wrote in the time when all of this was a reality so, even though it is fiction, he is a satisfactory and reliable commentator: this is what people believed.

Huckleberry Finn: Jim on the Raft

Illustration Credit: E. W. Kemble (original book illustration); Licence: Public Domain

The idea of having no free will and no personal choice; of being owned, and having my destiny determined, by another; of knowing that fulfilling a natural desire for companionship and offspring would simply enslave another person at the profit of another; of being separated from the people I love and not being able to bridge that gap; to say nothing of the abuse suffered by slaves…. the idea of it all is simply too disturbing to consider.

Slavery is truly one of the most disgusting blights on the history of humanity.

A few days ago, I spoke about my gratitude for freedom, but I felt that this example of freedom deserved special attention.  Today, I am thankful not only for my freedom, but for the heroes of history who went against the grain and fought against slavery, and fought for civil rights.

freedom

freedom

Photo Credit: David Niblack; Licence: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

Today was a difficult day.  Sometimes, working in mental health, you have to do things that feel wrong.  You have to keep reminding yourself that it’s right.  Sometimes, you’re even successful in convincing yourself of that.

Today, after having gone before a Justice of the Peace to argue that a person needs to be taken to the hospital to be assessed, I had to show up at that person’s home with police.  I had to help demonstrate at the hospital that she is ill enough to be involuntarily admitted for psychiatric assessment.  I had to stand by while she hurled a barrage of verbal assault at me for doing this to her, all of which was valid, even if what I was doing to her was necessary.  I had to wait with her in a cold, unfriendly hospital room for 7 hours while the hospital system tried to get its act together.  I had to ask her if there was anyone I could call for her, knowing as I asked what the answer would be: there is no one.

And through all of that, all I could think is how awful this entire experience was for her.  Here is this poor, lonely woman.  Her illness prevents her from understanding what is happening or why it is necessary.  All she knows is that she is surrounded by people she believes intend to harm her.  She is helpless.

Today, I am thankful for my freedom.  I am thankful that I am not plagued by a mental illness which necessitates involuntary confinement.  I am thankful that, in my home, I feel safe from the possibility of police showing up and taking me to a strange place when I haven’t done anything wrong.  I am thankful that I live in a place where I can express what I think, feel, and believe, knowing that, although I might be persecuted, I’m unlikely to be prosecuted.  I am thankful that I am not targeted because of my race, ethnicity, religion, or sex, and that I feel safe to walk through my city, day or night, without any significant fear that I will be attacked.  I am thankful that I live in a democracy. I am thankful for my freedom in so many ways. Most importantly, I am thankful that, if any of these things ever happen to me, I am not alone.

What does freedom mean to you?  Tell me about it in the Comments.

legs

In July, I saw a woman walking her dog.  It’s an important part of the story to note that, at the particular moment I saw the dog, it was defecating on a patch of grass on city property.  It was a little white dog — a poodle, I think.  When I say I saw a woman walking her dog, I should clarify that the dog was walking, but the woman wasn’t: her legs did not extend beyond the upper third of her thigh.  And the reason I am mentioning that the dog was making a deposit on the lawn is because, when it was finished, the woman went to great effort to align her wheelchair with the poop, lean over, and stretch her arm to collect the dog’s “gift.”

Man fishing in wheelchair

Photo Credit: Steve Hillebrand; Licence: Public Domain

In my job, I see a lot of people who get pets for companionship, but who are either ill-equipped to care for them or end up treating the animal like it’s some sort of toy: cute and fun when it’s a novelty but, after a month or two, completely forgotten.

I once called an animal shelter to inquire whether they had any space to accept a cat.  I had finally managed to get a woman with whom I was working to acknowledge that she couldn’t care for the cat, and I wanted to find a home for it before she changed her mind.  The woman at the shelter was quite friendly, but sadly reported they had no room.  I explained the circumstances, not in any attempt to pressure her, but simply to determine if she had any alternatives I might pursue.  Unsure, the woman asked her supervisor.

To put it plainly, the supervisor was jerk.  He cut her off and wouldn’t listen to what she was asking, and kept telling her, “it’s not our problem.”  The woman tried to tell him that I understood it wasn’t their problem, and that I was simply seeking their expertise on another solution, but he wouldn’t listen to any of it.

I was rather put off by the supervisor’s treatment of the employee (who probably wasn’t even an employee, but a volunteer), but later I granted him a little bit of grace.  I still think his boorish behaviour was inexcusable, but I tried to place myself in the shoes of a person who works in a “dump zone” for animals. I could understand why he might be a tad cantankerous.  Not that it was an excuse to treat the woman so poorly, but at least it was a bit understandable.  So many people get puppies and kittens when they’re cute and adorable; then, when they realize that some work is involved, the animal is dumped off at the local animal shelter.  It’s sickening.

This post really has nothing to do with pets.  This whole convoluted story was to lead up to noting that one of my biggest pet peeves (pun fully intended) is when pet owners do not clean up after their dogs.  I am frustrated by people who, to save themselves a few seconds of effort, or who feel they are too “grossed out” by poop to pick it up, decide that it’s entirely fine for the rest of us to have to step in it.

But despite that, and despite my sheer annoyance with people who get pets when they can’t take care of them, I think I might just have let the woman in the wheelchair “get away with it” had she not collected the dog’s waste.  I thought: this woman is up against enough barriers in life; how humiliating and degrading would it be for her if she were to tip the wheelchair over trying to pick up dog excrement, and then be stuck there until someone came to help her?  Surely, we can spare this one woman that indignity!

The fact that she didn’t shirk her responsibility was a bit inspiring. It made me realize how lucky I am to have full use of my legs.

Some day, I’d like to get my hands on a wheelchair and spend an entire day in it.  I want to get a first-hand idea of the pure struggle it must be to get aroutnd in a world filled with stairs.

Right now, if I want to buy a widget, I look up “widget” on Google and I go to the closest store that sells widgets. But if I’m using a wheelchair, I have to determine whether I’ll be able to enter the store once I get there and, if I can, whether I’ll be able to move down the aisles of the store and, if I can, how I am going to get to the store in the first place and, if I can do all of that, am I going to have to ask for help to get the widget off the shelf, etc. Because, even though I have every right to ask for help, I still feel as if I’m inconveniencing everyone by doing so.

I feel exhausted just writing that sentence.  Imagine what it must be like to live it?  And that’s not the half of it.  I also need to find a place to live that has a ramp to allow me to get in the door, and enough wheel-around room for me to be able to move my wheelchair around, and which is set up to allow me to bathe on my own, and get in and out of bed on my own, and get dressed on my own, and whose countertops are not so high that I can’t prepare food on my own because, like anyone else in the world, I would really like to be independent.

And here’s hoping I can find a job I can do, and one where an employer will not discriminate against me, because receiving a disability allowance really doesn’t pay the bills unless I want to live in squalor or unless I can idle on a wait list for a place with subsidized rent.

And on weekends or vacations, it would be nice to get away from it all, but I can’t drive anywhere, and the intercity buses have those very steep stairs I can’t climb, and the hotel isn’t set up to accommodate people using wheelchairs. Or maybe I’ll go to a cottage, or go camping, and maybe someone will go with me — someone with a car — except that now that I am there, I can’t go on any walking trails because nature wasn’t built with people like me in mind.  Or maybe I’d like to go to the beach with my friends, except my wheelchair wheels don’t move through sand very well and, besides, it’s really tough to get in and out of the water.

Today, I am so very thankful that I have the use of my legs.  Life is hard enough with them; people who get through life without them are nothing short of courageous and amazing.

patronus

I am a capitalist… with a few socialist ideologies.  I gather that is sort of like being a vampire who doesn’t like the taste of blood.

[I’ll interject here to note that, if you think — from the title of this post — that I’m going to be talking about how to fight off Dementors, you’re about to be really disappointed.]

I think socialism is a really beautiful idea.  I can get behind the from each according to his ability, to each according to his need philosophy that summarizes socialism.  But socialism fails when it runs up against a universal constant: greed.  Whether it is a desire for money, a desire for power, or a desire for fame, I feel that any human culture can only provide socialism barren, infertile ground for growth, and that it is only through tyranny — a greater evil than capitalism — that socialism can be sustained.

My golden compromise is to espouse the ideals of social responsibility, which I will oversimplify as: rich people care more.

In ancient Rome, when a slave was freed by his master, a patron-client relationship was often forged.  It was understood that a wealthy master was bound to provide for his former slave in some capacity.  Similarly, I feel that the haves of our society have a responsibility to give to the have-nots.  By haves, I don’t mean millionaires; I refer to those who do not struggle to put food on their tables, those who can afford a family vacation, etc.  When I write have-nots, I might mean the poor, the downtrodden, the sick, the disabled; I do not mean the lazy.

The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence of Rome

Title: Martyrdom of St. Lawrence (1592); Artistic Credit: Pellegrino Tibaldi

Have you heard the legend of the martyrdom of St. Lawrence of Rome?  It’s an inspiring story.  Upon the death of Pope Sixtus, St. Lawrence was ordered to turn over to the Prefect of Rome the riches of the church for which Lawrence was deacon.  Lawrence requested three days to comply with the instruction.  He proceeded to distribute the riches of the church to the poor.  Then, on the third day, he went before the Prefect accompanied by the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the suffering and said, “these are the true treasures of the church.”  For his audacity and irreverence, he was gruesomely martyred.

Today, St. Lawrence is a symbol of charity.  He reminds us that, no matter a person’s lot in life, that person deserves love, respect, care, and to have certain basic human needs met.

Today, I am thankful for philanthropy.  Whether it comes in the form of a few coins tossed into the Salvation Army kettle at Christmas; a sandwich given to someone who hasn’t eaten; a warm smile given to the marginalized; an anonymous act of kindness.  I’m also grateful for the more headline-catching acts of millionaires and billionaires giving hoards of money to charities.  Even if the money is essentially pocket change in comparison to the donor’s amassed wealth, it’s still an amount that will benefit others immensely and an amount the donor could just as easily have kept.

Charitable acts renew my sometimes dwindling faith in humanity, and instill in me a feeling of “oneness” with those around me: my companions on this tiny tilting blue planet in the dark expanse of space.

Do you have a story about charity?  Please share it with me in the Comments.

teacher

Who was your favourite teacher?  I know you had one.  We all did.

I had a few memorable ones, but the first and most memorable one was my grade 5 teacher, Mrs. Keating.  Before her, I was a goofy kid with my head in the clouds.  After her, I was still a goofy kid with my head in the clouds, but felt better about myself for it.  She instilled in me a love of writing and generally made me feel like I had a special place in the world.  A lot of who I am today, I owe to her.

Teaching has changed a great deal over the years, spanning back to the archetypal one-room school teacher: scholarly, poorly paid, highly scrutinized.  The chief and sole reward of the position was the opportunity to enrich young minds, to make a difference.

Child raising his hand in the classroom

Photo Credit: Michael Anderson; Licence: Public Domain

Sometimes teachers are yet another class of secret hero, changing the world behind chalk-dusted dockers and polka-dotted skirts.  Perhaps it doesn’t carry with it the diamond-studded glamour enjoyed by the “heroes” we raise up on pedestals.  But there is a small village somewhere in the world — it doesn’t matter where.  There is a little girl who is the first in her family to go to school.  It took a lot of work for the missionaries to convince the elders and her parents that there was benefit to this. Now she is bumbling off to the small school house built by the people of her village.  It’s her first day.  She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s about to meet someone she will never forget, someone who will give her possibly the greatest gift anyone will ever give her: education.  Maybe if we fast forward 25 years, that same girl is an economist, working with the government to bring a better life to people like the ones in her village.  Try to tell her that her first teacher, 25 years ago, wasn’t a hero.

Now the job pays better, thank goodness, although I think teachers put up with a lot more attitude and defiance in the classroom.  Like that one-room school teacher, though, the greatest reward for most isn’t the pay cheque at the end of the week but the possibility that, some day, one of those children will grow up to do something extraordinary, and the teacher can reasonably enjoy a brief moment of pride in knowing that he or she might have contributed to that.  Even better if that young mind — now older — looks back through all of the angsty years, the awkward years, the first kiss, the first love, the first thrill of learning something that made his or her mind explode with possibility, and says, “thanks.”

I haven’t done anything extraordinary.  I hope some day I will.  But no matter what happens, I still want to say: thanks, Mrs. Keating — today, I am grateful for you.

Who was your favourite teacher?  I know you had one.  We all did.  Tell me about yours in the Comments.

health revived

I am writing this post as part of a series on gratitude for health, in its various forms. It is a continuation of sorts from my very first post (“health”) and a recent post (“health revisited”).

I want to express gratitude today for something around which there is far more controversy than is deserved.  Understand that I am wincing when I say that today, I am thankful for healthcare.

I know that shouldn’t cause a lot of disturbance, especially since healthcare is such a broad topic.  I feel a great deal of gratitude for living in a place where there is medical training available to would-be doctors, where there are colleges and regulating bodies that are in place to ensure that doctors behave ethically, where there are hospitals available to the sick.  I am glad to live in a society that promotes ongoing medical research so that the outcomes of healthcare can be improved.

But I am blanching at the prospect of opening up the can-of-worms that is healthcare because I think it is only inevitable that people will add the word “universal” to the term, and that seems to cause a great deal of consternation.

Continue reading

courage

Have you ever experienced that feeling when courage stirs in your heart and fear retreats? It is a marvelous, disinhibiting sensation.  Sometimes it takes the form of a major accomplishment for you but one trivialized by outside observers: the person with obsessive-compulsive disorder fighting back a compulsion, the man with social phobia stepping out the door, the child who stutters doing a speech in front of the class, the woman with dyslexia reading to her son.

Imagine you are at a nearby theme park and hundreds of people are lining up for rides. A man with a life-long fear of heights gets into his seat on the ride that goes 300 feet straight up to the sky, then plummets back down to the earth with nauseating velocity. You don’t even notice him but, in a little bubble around him, something great has happened: he has put his butt in that seat.  It doesn’t matter if he screams, or cries, or pees. It doesn’t matter if he never gets more than 2 feet off the ground for the rest of his life. He has demonstrated more courage than any daredevil in the history of the world.

Then there is the less localized brand of courage. The courage of true heroes like Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Rosa Marks, Abraham Lincoln, and countless others who have gone against the grain and stood up for their beliefs in one way or another, and often suffered heinously for it.

There are the lesser known heroes like Frank Kameny, who was a long-fighting and forerunning gay civil rights activist, who passed away last October. Kameny was fired from his position as a federal employee in 1957 when it was discovered that he was gay. At a time when most people would have just slipped into hiding with their tails between their legs, Kameny protested his firing all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and, though he did not win his case in the end, he is a man who should be honoured for his fearlessness. It doesn’t matter what your personal beliefs are: this was a man who had the courage to stand up for his beliefs, and that should be respected.

There are heroes like Helen Keller, who fought against the greatest obstacles, and Anne Sullivan, who trudged past all of the naysayers and believed in her student.

Inside all of these heroes was a common element: courage.  Today, I am thankful for courage, because it has inspired great heroes to do great things, and I believe my world is a better place because of it.

In the Comments, please share with me your stories of personal courage or the courage of others you know.

skin

Today’s post is going to be difficult because it has the potential to offend.  It is here that I must make something very clear about this blog.  I am grateful for those who take time from their day to read what I write here, but this blog is something I started to help me appreciate more of what I have in life.  Maybe there are some things I write which will inspire you to notice the things in your own life for which you can be thankful, and that is why I share my thoughts publicly.  But I realize that I also run the risk of offending those who do not have whatever I am expressing thanks for in any given post, because my gratefulness could be interpreted as a statement that what I have is intrinsically better. (Put more simply, I am concerned a reader might boil my post down to “neener neener neener.”).

But let me be clear: sometimes the things I am thankful for having are better than the condition of not having them — safety, health, food, etc. — but sometimes I am simply thankful for them as an acknowledgment that they make my life easier, even though the “thing” itself is no better than an alternative.

That preface was needed before I state: today, I am thankful for the colour of my skin.  I am thankful not because being caucasian is intrinsically better than not, but because I know that having white skin has made life easier for me, even though I feel it is wrong that society has made it so.  I think of the challenges I have faced in trying to advance through life, and knowing of the discrimination that pervades our communities, I shudder to think how much more difficult it would have been for me if I had to face the added challenge of trying to get people to look past the colour of my skin to see my value as an employee, volunteer, human being, friend.

My friend, Owen, participated in a psychological test one time that asked him to look at an illustration of a man looking in a mirror and identify differences between the man and his reflection. Owen correctly identified that the man was holding a comb, but his reflection was not.  The assessor then asked Owen if he could see any other differences, and Owen confirmed that he saw no other differences in the illustration.  The assessor then pointed out that the man in the illustration was White, while his reflection was Black.  Owen, who happens to be colour blind in the traditional sense, also appears to be colour blind in a racial sense.

I would love to hear your thoughts on “racial blindness” so please share them below in the Comments.

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