Low as linoleum

Originally posted on Shit on my hands, September, 2015. This post was the basis for an article I later published in Kill Your Darlings about how teenage girls use creativity to address symptoms of mental illness or trauma.

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Me on New Years Eve, 1993

In 1993 I was a fifteen-year-old student at an expensive girls’ private school in bayside Melbourne. I had a new nose stud (covered by a tiny cut-up piece of band-aid during the school day which was summarily ripped off on the bus ride home), long blue-black hair courtesy of a Clairol home dye kit, a checked flanny, and an unhealthy obsession with Mike Patton from Faith No More. I had some good friends at school, but I was far more impressed by my best friend Ellie and her gang at the local high school. I believed myself to have strong eye for ‘cool’, and my classmates – with their brown blazers, blonde ponytails embellished with shiny green ribbons, wealthy parents and extensive orthodontics – did not cut it. Ellie’s mates, however, lived with single mothers with secret stashes of pot shoved behind the toilet cistern. Ellie’s friends had behavioural problems – like pyromania or compulsive bicycle kleptomania. And some of Ellie’s friends had failed year eight. As I said, cool.

Between 1992 and 93, Ellie and I sampled the entire cigarette display of the Hawthorn Road milk bar. We’d make our purchase of Gitanes, Winnie Reds, Kents or Camel non-filters, saunter over North Road to the Brighton Cemetery, insolently plonk on a grave, puff away, and practice NWA’s ‘Just don’t bite it’ until we had the misogynistic dick-centric lyrics perfected. We encouraged each other to go too far with boys, stole gold coins from our parents to buy cask wine, and conducted ‘sessions’ in my Dad’s shed. Sometimes the deals scored from an interchanging parade of doofuses in baseball caps and Stüssy pants outside the 7-Eleven or a Bentleigh park contained actual marijuana, but just as often, dried parsley.

One day Ellie and I bought matching pairs of gingham print bikinis at a Glenhuntly Road swimwear shop: hers pink, mine black. From there we went directly by bus to Elwood Beach, where we lay on our towels, and listened to Madonna’s ‘Erotica’ album on my Walkman through shared earplugs. Our new togs, to our dismay, mercilessly wedged our bums the instant we started the short trek from our towels to the shoreline. At some point we shuffled awkwardly to the Mr Whippy van for strawberry soft serves. For a couple of dudes walking past, the sight us girls constantly tugging at our matching bikini bottoms while licking pink ice-cream proved too alluring to ignore. They were Jim and Liam, visiting Elwood from the other side of the world – Reservoir. To us south-east suburban lasses, these guys were as exotic as Brazilian Indigo Macaws.

I had an ultra-brief fling with Liam, and Ellie cheated on her boyfriend with Jim. Then, from the passenger seat of his 1986 Corolla, I watched Jim be given the bad news: Ellie wouldn’t be choosing him over her long-term beau. Jim plodded despondently back to the car, climbed in, turned to me and declared, ‘Let’s get munted.’ I’ve spent the next twenty-two years wishing I’d responded, ‘No thank you, please drop me off home so that I may get a good night’s sleep and continue my reasonably stable adolescence.’ Regrettably, I instead said ‘Hell yeah!’

We crossed the Yarra. Jim had a sister called Ria with a flat in Thornbury. That is where he hid from his parents all his drinking, choofing, and hanging-out-with-goth-lite-girls-from-Brighton. He prepared the cones. As I alluded to earlier, I was more familiar with the parsley-to-weak-leaf end of the marijuana spectrum. What Jim packed into his bong that night was firmly at the superskunk end. I spent the rest of the night flailing nauseously in Ria’s bed, desperate for relief from the feeling of hurtling backwards through a space continuum, and whimpering for my mum. Generally, having a shit time. Meanwhile, Ria consoled Jim over his understandable misery of having been given the flick by the luminescent Ellie. Somehow I eventually slept.

The next morning I was so relieved to have survived that I celebrated with a bowl of chicken flavoured two-minute noodles in front of ‘Recovery’, said my goodbyes to Ria and desolate Jim, and hopped on a train at Croxton station. Ten minutes later the previous night’s nausea and terror re-struck. I was trapped on a train with no way out, certain I was about to explosively hurl green-hued two-minute noodles over myself. I made it to Clifton Hill, staggered through the sliding doors, collapsed on a bench and took a bunch of deep spew-repelling breaths. By the time the next train came I felt better and gingerly climbed aboard. But all the way to Flinders Street and onwards to Gardenvale station, I was shattered – not just by the sickness, but the panic I had felt that I so nearly disgustingly humiliated myself in front of a carriage full of Saturday morning train commuters.

The following Monday I felt too much residual biliousness to go to the school. And the next day, and the next day, and the next week, and the next month. I felt so crook I couldn’t get out of bed. The very thought of putting on my brown tights and t-bars, getting on the bus, walking through the wrought iron school gates, made my heart race and my stomach lurch. The family GP ruled out pregnancy and referred me to a stomach specialist. Neither apparently considered that I was experiencing the symptoms of anxiety. Nor did my parents. Mum and Dad were frustrated by my sudden school-refusal, by my inability to get out of bed or do anything other than watch the daily episodes of Phil Donohue, Sally Jessie Raphael and Oprah. They also each had their own serious shit to go through – having just divorced and all.

After about six weeks I finally propelled myself back to school. But I was miserable. I fled assemblies and maths classes, certain I was about to vomit. I was in such a constant state of panic, I couldn’t concentrate on what I was being taught. I couldn’t focus on homework, or what the other girls were saying to me and each other. I didn’t want to go out anywhere on the weekends, and certainly not if it meant travelling by train – especially after I had another episode at Flinders Street station and poor Ellie had to fork out the meagre earnings of her video shop job for a taxi home after I bolted from the train, convinced I was about to die from my mysterious undiagnosed gastric affliction.

At some stage during this period, I managed to land my own poorly paid job at a newly opened pancake restaurant. I lacked just about every one of the attributes required of a half-decent waitress, but with a freshly minted mental illness on board, my focus and general equilibrium was completely kaput. One of the restaurant owners had a daughter who attended the same school as me. This woman bailed me up in the staff change room and demanded I explain rumours (reported to her by her charming daughter, of course) that I was a drug addict. I righteously defended myself, but was sacked the next week anyway.

These things are huge when you’re fifteen. I felt terrified of situations and places outside my comfort zone; I couldn’t compel myself to school; my school community had (completely inaccurately) written me off as a junkie, and I was incapable of working a basic job. I couldn’t explain to my family and friends what was happening – that it felt like the sky was crushing my head into shoulders and suffocating me, that my self-esteem was as low as linoleum. With each month that my disorder remained undiagnosed and untreated, it became more and more entrenched. I ferretted out a box of Valium from the ice-cream tub we used to store medicines. This, I think, had been prescribed to my Dad following his heroic whisky detox two years earlier. I didn’t take any, but kept it on my bedside table as an overdose option.

We give our adolescent selves such a hard time. I shudder when I recall the clothes I wore, stupid things I said, the dreadful skin I was afflicted with, and selfish behaviours I indulged in. But I try to give my poor fifteen-year-old self a break, especially when I remember the phenomenal effort I made to drag myself out of a life-wrecking condition that I couldn’t understand or define. I enrolled myself in a new arts-focussed high school where I didn’t know anyone and my ill-deserved reputation as a junkie moll hadn’t reached. There I increasingly threw myself into drama, literature, dance – working some of that dread out through creativity. I was still riddled with anxiety (or, as I still thought, a stomach condition), but I could work. I achieved high enough year 12 results to be offered a place in Arts at Melbourne Uni.

Finally, in my first year at uni, a counsellor explained what had been going on for three years – a vicious circle of agoraphobia, anxiety and the physical fallout of that anxiety: upset stomach. Basically, I was so fearful of humiliating myself in public situations that my body and mind activated the flight-or-fight response, which in turn made me feel terribly sick and then fearful of humiliating myself in public situations, and round and round and round I went. So entrenched was my anxiety that I could almost feel the channels in my brain where my dread-filled thoughts coursed every time I left the house (or even anticipated leaving it).

I recently read an article by Helen Razer in ‘Frankie’ magazine in which she lamented the ubiquity of ‘awareness’ campaigns, particularly in relation to mental health. While I agree with her that ‘awareness’ shouldn’t trump actual funding of proper services, I do so wish that there had been more social ‘awareness’ about anxiety back in 1993, that my behaviour had been properly recognized for what it was – and not considered the actions of a delinquent, druggie malingerer. To me, there can never be too much ‘awareness’ of adolescent mental health issues, particularly if there’s an opportunity to intervene positively and halt – or at least ameliorate – the potentially lifelong symptoms of a mental illness.

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Exquisite Hell

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Originally posted on Shit On My Hands, June 2012

In my second year at uni I took a course called ‘Art, Pornography, Blasphemy, Propaganda’ which may as well have been called ‘Books and Films That Will Make Your Vagina Clench in Abject Horror’. I wrote my final essay on Bret Easton Ellis’s ‘American Psycho’. I happily received a high mark and didn’t question the work’s right to exist, but once the semester was over I threw the book in the bin as fast as my puny Arts undergraduate arm would allow.

Another of the assigned novels that elicited a similar visceral response was Pauline Réage’s ‘The Story of O’. Recently (and perhaps completely incongruously) I have been thinking about this one a lot. My youngest daughter has just embarked on her tenth month out of my womb. Just like her sister at the same age, she is demanding so much of my body. What’s this got to do with a semi-pornographic French literary work? Well, while motherhood doesn’t exactly entail being trussed by the wrists from the ceiling and having a metal anal expander inserted to help loosen that orifice up for use of a sadistic lover, there is surely some masochism involved. Aside from my chronic blocked nipple pore issue (which charmingly requires the application of a sterilized embroidery needle), said nipples are being constantly bitten, my back is fucked from trying to keep the wriggling urchin in place while changing her, my knees pop and crackle like dry kindling from lifting her off the floor when she encroaches on the toddler’s personal space (MUUUMMMMYYYYY!!! PICK UP YOUR BABY!), and I’m ravenously hungry just about all the time – which is difficult to fix when you’re fully occupied in all the above fun pursuits.

Yes, I am having a whinge. But I am also keen to tell chicks who aren’t parents yet (but would like to be in the near future) the blindingly obvious news that the hard physical work doesn’t begin and end with the birth (as much as shows like ‘One Born Every Minute USA’ would have you think). So while you’re in a pre-knocked up state, try to exercise, strengthen, and stretch your body. Get into a habit of eating sustaining, highly nutritious food. And practice things like gradual muscle relaxation. Otherwise, two years later you’ll be wondering why your shoulders are permanently parked up under your ears, your diet of croissants and coco pop fails to keep you alert and upright, and you go into instant traction when loading the baby into her car seat. Remember also, that you’re going to need all your strength and stamina for hanging up your partner* from the roof beam like a side of ham as punishment for his part in creating this exquisite hell of motherhood.

* be he male, of course.

A love letter to women in their 20s

Originally posted on Shit on My Hands in 2012. It seems to be a response to something, but buggered if I can remember what. Anyway, the point of it, I think, is that women aged 30+ need to champion chicks in their 20s.

Recently, while flicking through one of mum’s photo albums, I came across a family group shot that included me, aged about 23. A full decade before breastfeeding had sucked all the plumpness out of my tits and face; my babies’ tendency to yank anything in their immediate vicinity had necessitated a long-standing Annie Lennox hairstyle, and childrearing in general had stamped permanent black circles under my eyes, I was a fresh-faced, buxom babe with shiny brunette locks swishing down to my arse. While the other barbeque attendees grinned mundanely at the camera, I incongruously posed like Bettie Page. No doubt I was indulging in that most accursed activity of post-teens – ironic mimicry – but phwoaaarr! If only I had known how just how great I looked, because of what I remember of my self-opinion at this time, it certainly wasn’t that I was a 1950s pin-up incarnate. If I had recognized that these, indeed, were my ‘glory days’ (to quote the venerable Bruce Springsteen), I wouldn’t have wasted my limited twenties and magnificent curves on the lowliest of dudes.

While I should have been flinging myself at the most glamorous of men in my neighbourhood – captains of industry, emerging visual artists with actual talent, leading intellectuals, or singer-songwriters with record deals – I was giving it up for the habitués of a grimy St. Kilda pub. And I don’t mean grimy-cool. I mean grimy-no-one-had-a-full-set-of-teeth-grimy. A place where patrons shot up in the dunnies and a local ‘eccentric’ (to put it mildly) regularly stripped off in front of the live bands, gaffa-taped a wall clock to his head and let his pet rat hang off his genitals. Regrets? I’ve had at least a dozen. And they all drank at that insalubrious den. Make no mistake, I do not believe that young women should keep their jeans zipped or risk eternal spinsterhood (Frankly, I’m of the enthusiastic position that your future life partner will value a missus with a few runs on the boudoir board more than a giggling virgin). But I certainly could have pointed my perky girls and orthodontically-enhanced pearly whites at blokes with more to offer than a dank pair of jeans and a first-name familiarity with the nearest methadone dispensing pharmacist. So why didn’t I?

Lack of self-esteem meant I wasted time and energy on men who were barely capable of showering, let alone embarking on a joyful, rewarding connection with a good-looking young brunette – whether it be a one night stand or a year-long relationship. It was my good fortune that I met my husband in an entirely different realm, and a testament to some suddenly developed nous, that I didn’t let him go. Otherwise, there’s a high likelihood I would have eventually made my way round to that dude with a wall clock stuck to his head, and would right now be co-parenting his rodent collection rather than the two lovely daughters with whom I have been recently blessed.

So if there’s anything this chequered history has taught me, it is that young women need their self-esteem fortified, not shot down. Only then can they enjoy sexually and emotionally gratifying relationships. You’re not lacking a long-term lover or a series of magnificent bed partners (whatever your preference) because you’re a slut or a bitch or useless at housework or cooking. What I needed when I was in my twenties was a couple of 30+ aged birds to tell me I was a goddess and to not let anyone treat me like pond scum.

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Me (centre) with two of my closest friends – all in our 20s – on the eve of my wedding, January 2007.

Not just for boys

Originally posted on Shit on My Hands, January 2012.

On Boxing Day hubby enjoyed the cricket at the MCG and I imbibed my body weight in leftover Christmas pudding, kept two small people fed/entertained/rested, and followed with great amusement the Twitter feed of that fabulous feminist rabble-rouser Clementine Ford. Included in a loooong list of things giving her the pip was: ‘Fuck pop culture pretending chicks don’t masturbate just as much as teenage boys’. Hmm, is that true? I wondered. And since then, while walking to the market or pegging endless baby clothes on the line, I have dedicated my brainpower to recalling pop culture moments that admit (forget celebrate) – girls’ self-pleasuring activities. And aside from the odd Cyndi Lauper, Divinyls or Madonna song, I’ve been pretty much stumped. As in porn, touching one’s self is performed for the amusement of males, or else is a failed endeavour. Such was the case in the recently screened ABC series, The Slap. You may recall Connie has a bit of a go in the bath but can’t get herself off – though that’s possibly because she chooses the world’s largest shampoo bottle to make the attempt (hmm, like Tsiolkas’s novel, women seem to have trouble locating their clitorises).

Yes, positive pop culture references to girls wanking are as rare as well-behaved Australians on Kuta Beach. But what about high culture? Two memoirs come (haha) to mind: Dorothy Hewett’s Wild Card and Krissy Kneen’s Affection. In the former, the playwright recalls joyfully masturbating in various secret locations on the family farm. And Affection includes this evocative description of childhood fiddling:

I lie on the scratchy carpet, pushing my body down against the short pile. The television is on, Playschool or Mr. Squiggle or Bill and the Flowerpot Men or some other burble of music and rhyme. My hips press against the carpet the delightful pressure of a full bladder, full of milk no doubt, a lovely innocent pressure and the feel of sunlight burning a window shape on my calves … when I cross my legs over each other there is an even greater pleasure. I can hear my mother clattering through the washing up… When I fall over the edge I am surprised. Pleased. (pp. 14-15)

Who knew ABC’s finest had such erotic potential? But seriously, I’d bet the examples of women recalling their sexual self-discovery is negligible compared to those of male writers. Is that a result of the historical oppression of girls’ sexuality? Mmm, dunno. Boys were (until the 1960s) subjected to some hideous devices and sermons designed to prevent their masturbating. If anything, there was a cultural myopia concerning the mere possibility of girls performing such acts. If you’re a Mad Men fan, you may still be recovering from the highly disturbing episode in season four when young Sally is humiliated after being busted by her friend’s mother getting off while watching The Man from U.N.C.L.E. ‘What is wrong with you?’ Betty demands of her poor eleven-year-old daughter before threatening to cut off her fingers. Before the sexual revolution, such ‘behaviour’ was deemed so abnormal in girls that it required therapy.

But this response was benevolent compared to the treatment meted out to unrepentant girl masturbators in Victorian times (when self-pleasuring was considered both a medical condition and moral weakness). Here’s how one Parisian physicist treated a 5-year-old diagnosed nymphomaniac in 1864 (the quote is so extraordinary, I’m including most of it):

Neither the constant surveillance of her mother, nor the use of a chastity belt fabricated by M. Charrière had the slightest effect. We know, in any event that this device is much more effective in the case of little boys, by imprisoning their penis in a metal case, than it is for girls. Our little girl, thin, wasted and extremely flexible, managed to insert her toe between the belt’s metal plate and her soft parts, and thus succeeded in masturbating.

Her memory, her intellect were weakening; momentary mental blanks were becoming increasingly frequent. My colleague M. Moreau, of the Salpêtrière hospital, had been consulted and has considered amputation of the clitoris. Questioned in turn, I indicated that I found the section of the clitoral nerves, a procedure employed by some surgeons, to be of doubtful efficacy, leaving the door open to recidivism; that the amputation of the clitoris was the destruction, the irreparable ruin of the organ of pleasure an excessive thing in the case of a young girl whom one is seeking to cure, and I thus came to the idea which I then put into practice.

I operated on the child on December 31 … I joined the top two superior or anterior thirds of the major labia at their thickest point with the aid of a metal suture, leaving in the inferior section on orifice barely large enough to accommodate the small finger, to permit the flow of urine and later, of menstrual blood. Today the union is perfect, and the clitoris is placed out of all reach underneath a thick cushion of soft parts. (quoted in Masturbation: The history of a great terror, 2001, p.111)

Ouch. And this man was supposedly guided by Western scientific reason.

But are we comparatively enlightened these days? Well, as Clementine Ford suggested, in popular culture girls are more likely to engage in shopping and texting than wanking. Indeed, the rich interior fantasy world of young females is quashed to the point they appear brainless ciphers for male desires and commercial interests. And, when we are exposed to an honest, beautiful portrayal or image of burgeoning female sexuality, we become hysterical due to a new moral hazard – the pedophile gaze. The 2010 scandal surrounding Bill Henson’s photograph of a pre-pubescent girl was motivated by fears that sick individuals might become aroused. ‘Absolutely revolting’ responded Kevin Rudd when shown the image (remind me why people want him to be PM again?). Perhaps not the thing 11-year-old girls want to hear about themselves. And if a picture of a girl just standing in the nuddy can provoke such community outrage, the likelihood of regular, non-problematic portrayals of girl wankers in pop culture will remain rare indeed.

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Sally Draper outside her psychiatrist’s office, with her nanny, Carla.

Bubbling: The fountain of Aussie Manhood

Originally published by Kidspot on 11 July, 2014

When my husband showed me the now infamous Todd Carney ‘bubbling’ photo I was in the process of pureeing and freezing a month’s supply of pears for my baby boy and didn’t pay it much mind. Just another rugby league player out on the town, too inebriated to direct his urine flow appropriately or clock the presence of a mobile phone, I thought. No big deal. So I was surprised when he was summarily sacked from the Cronulla Sharks for posing for a ‘lewd photo’. Granted, he has a bad history with alcohol and this latest incident was the last straw for his embarrassed club. But really, players across several Australian football codes have retained their jobs after engaging in much more disturbing behaviour. You can be charged with rape and still receive a pay cheque in some clubs – providing your on-the-field- and part-of-the-team attributes are considered valuable enough.

 

Todd-Carney

 

To me, Carney’s men’s room shenanigans are part of the culture of masculinity whereby (some) dudes get a thrill from out-grossing each other. You may have heard of the Soggy Biscuit game. Google it if you want the full details but let’s just say it involves masturbation, target practice, a savoury snack, and the loser having to eat something extremely yucky. The Carney photo also reminded me of a strange activity some boys in my high school engaged in while camping: filming (in full colour close-up) each other defecating in the bush. What the? As far as I know, women don’t seem to get a similar thrill from disgusting each other – unless girls’ nights out now involve the swinging around of used tampons and comparison of menstruation fluids, and I’m just not aware of it. Eww, right? So what is it about Australian masculinity that makes performance art with bodily liquids such a common phenomenon in men-only spaces?

Why do they do it?

I reckon these acts are a way of proving ‘manliness’ to other men. Australian masculinity is equated with physical bravery, larrikinism, mateship and the epic consumption of beer. Think Anzacs, Australian test cricketers of the 1970s, and Paul Hogan. A ‘top bloke’ has also been long-defined as the opposite of anything remotely feminine. This stems from early European settlement, when the perfect Australian man was considered to be one who toiled in the harsh outdoors or shearing shed, as far from the world of girly concerns like nice manners and domesticity as possible. Homes were for women; the great outdoors, pubs, and playing fields were for men. Those men who enjoyed theatre, tailored clothes and actual conversations with the opposite sex were considered highly suspect.

But now that a vast chunk of Australian men work in offices, live in cities, watch sport from the couch, and aren’t bumping off Germans on a frontline, the average bloke can’t easily display his Aussie manly props. So he might look for other means of doing so. Men are not inherently or ‘naturally’ prone to risk-taking, aggressive or violent behaviour, and nor do they crave a good war, but the myth of Australian blokedom is an enduring yardstick. Just as women monitor each other’s weight, hair, clothes and makeup, a lot of men police each other’s capacity to meet the Aussie male ideal, and feel they have to ‘perform’ this role for each other. Throw in excess consumption of alcohol and you have a recipe for some pretty unsavoury acts. Just ask your local ER doctor or nurse. To me ‘bubbling’ is an example of trying to prove you’re the most hardcore manly man who doesn’t give a stuff about social niceties.

How should we parent our sons to prevent this?

All this is harmless until, of course, someone is harmed.  Andrew Johns said of the Carney sacking, “It’s silly … it’s stupid (but) he is only doing it to himself.” And I agree. The Cronulla Sharks lack perspective. Weeing in your own mouth is one thing. Participating in sex acts involving a bunch of other rugby players and a confused, overwhelmed young woman, is entirely another. The army skype sex scandal, nasty university college hazing rituals like forcing inebriated ‘freshies’ to drink their own vomit, and ‘Mad-Monday’ assaults on short-statured entertainers are on the same barbaric continuum as rugby player gang bangs. There are real collateral victims in such cases. I have no problem with men lighting their own farts, guzzling their own urine, or ejaculating on biscuits if they really must, but to hurt others in the process is not only ungentlemanly, but outright assault.

Right now, the most complex aspect of mothering my baby son is getting the consistency of those pureed pears right and dealing with a gazillion night feeds. But I know that he’ll be understanding language very soon. So I’m going to be hyper-alert to everything he hears about what it means to be an Australian man. As soon as he can talk, I’ll be encouraging him to question any statement he hears about what ‘real’ boys or men do (especially if it’s related to binge drinking) or don’t do, and I’ll be doing all I can to ensure that he will be confident enough in his masculinity that he won’t seek validity of it from others. With any luck, then, I’ll be spared seeing photos on the nightly news of him imbibing his own bodily waste.

 

In between

I’ve just finished the first semester of uni, and I’m in that space where the next semester is yet to start, the housework is too dull to contemplate doing properly, and I’m feeling a little overstuffed from binge-watching the fifth season of ‘Orange is the new black’. At this point of the year, I usually commence a new writing project which gobbles up all the time I could alternatively spend on dusting skirting boards and attending properly to my benignly neglected children. This year, however, I’m going to limit myself to merely digging out my favourite blog pieces from ‘Shit on my hands’, which has unfortunately disappeared into the internet stratosphere, and re-posting them here. I’m still proud of some of them. I’m also going to post other favourite pieces I’ve written for Kidspot, Eureka Street and Overland and, of course, anything I miraculously manage to publish this year.

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