Play your way into presence

Neutral mask crafted by Pepper Kaminoff

Neutral mask crafted by Pepper Kaminoff

How does one learn to be more present–in that state of being in the moment, open, receptive, and curious?

And how do I move beyond my overstretched I’ve-got-to-have-life-figured-out brain, and, occasionally, (good luck), stop trying to control the world?

I’d like to find more of the part of me that can be still, notice rather than plan, and walk with curiosity rather than ambition. The me that is child-like and entranced by her senses.

This is not a part of me I’m likely to find in my cell phone or on Facebook.

Last weekend, on a ferry ride into Seattle to attend an improvisational theatre workshop, I realized, oh dread of dreads, that I’d left my cell phone at home. How was I going to be able to entertain myself and stay in touch with the world on my ferry rides?  How would I even let my husband know that I had gone free-range without access to my cell phone?

photo by Joe Mabel

Hoping to borrow a phone from someone so that I could call my husband, I strolled slowly around the passenger deck. There I saw an amazing, if terrifying, sight. All but one of the passengers, on this scenic ride across Puget Sound, were looking down at their phones.

I would have been doing the same.

What’s happened to us? How do we expect to notice the world with our eyes focused on our screens?

Playing our way back to presence

The two-day workshop to which I was traveling soon offered me clues about finding more presence. Taught by master teacher, director, actor/clown Arne Zaslove** the workshop focused on playing, improvising and working with masks. Through simple games, such as throwing balls in a circle, Arne helped us recognize the quirky behaviors to which we default when we become stressed or frazzled. As he often likes to say, “Under pressure, you are your game.”

During most of the workshop, we improvised scenes using masks, both expressive masks that reflect a character, personality or emotion, and neutral masks that contain no expression, and no visible personality.

Before I studied with Arne, I thought masks, whether tribal or theatrical such as Japanese Noh masks, were largely historic relics. In the United States, we barely use masks, except at Halloween when they are used casually to imitate movie stars or pseudo-spook people.

Masks can be so much more. Even a cheap Halloween mask can be transformed into a persona by an actor who knows how to enter into the world of the mask.

Masks invite me to explore the world, free of the worry about what my face is saying to the world.

In donning an expressive mask, I step into the world of a character or emotion. Using masks, I explored being a haughty woman, a crinkled grandmother, a serving wench and a laughable, arrogant Captain (a classic Commedia Dell’Arte character).

Neutral masks challenged me to just be present without suggesting who I was supposed to be. In neutral mask, you play a scene devoid of personality and past. When I’m in neutral mask, I’m challenged to go beyond my mind, ideas and plans, and see the world with the curiosity of a small child or the instincts of an animal.

In neutral maskIn a neutral mask, I respond to the world that is in front of me, rather than filtering life through my past experiences, expectations, and concepts of how life is supposed to be.

Neutral mask invites me to be more present.

I’d done a little neutral mask work in a previous class of Arne’s, but on the first day of this workshop, I failed in my first attempt. “Too much expressiveness,” Arne offered, with his characteristically kind blend of encouragement and suggestion. I stood in front of the group, baffled, trying to understand how I could possibly express the mask without my usual expressiveness.

After class, my classmates whispered hints: “Drop into your gut.” “Let your breath travel throughout your whole body.” “Don’t think with your mind–think through your heart or gut.” “Explore the emotions you find in the scene and let them carry you.”

Arne asked us to consider the world of animals and how they move, ever alert, reactive, and tuned into their surroundings.

I immediately pictured our two new foster dogs. Those bro-pals go from sound asleep to revved up and ready to roll with only the slightest hint of footsteps. No longer can I fix my quiet cup of tea in the morning before these can-we-play-NOW guys demand attention. They live in the moment, always looking to play.

On day two of the workshop, I learned more about what neutral mask offers. I improvised a scene without planning or thinking about who I was supposed to be. I centered in my body and let myself be curious. I responded in the moment to the moment. I allowed myself to be moved by what occurred spontaneously in the scene.

By the end of that scene, I was shaking, as if I’d stepped through a portal to a different part of life, certainly a different part of myself.

Neutral mask is not a philosophy of how we’re “supposed to be” in the world. We also need planful minds that can understand rules and think ahead. I can’t drive a car like a child, free of past knowledge or awareness of consequences. Yet sometimes, I still need to play.

A neutral mask is a terrific tool for re-discovering the worlds of discovery, invention and play.

After just a few minutes of play, listening with my senses, and responding to what was in front of me, I felt my imagination waking up–an imagination that, for many of us, is endangered these days.

Alas, I can’t depend on a workshop to rekindle my imagination–although I would highly recommend studying anything with Arne! I need to find how to bring play into my day to day life.

Maybe I can begin by taking my eyes off the cell phone on my next ferry ride and watching the light shimmering on Puget Sound and the clouds dancing around Mt. Rainier. I can sniff the scent of saltwater mixed with bathroom cleaner from the nearby toilets and coffee in the galley. I can hear engines rattle and the squealing of children running down the aisles. Perhaps in twenty minutes of being present, I will find magic.

As to our new Springer Spaniel foster dogs, those high octane tanks of brotherly energy? Perhaps they’ve come into our lives for a reason. They’re true masters of play and willing to express, at any moment, what they have just discovered. Currently, they’d much prefer that I stop writing PLEASE because, why don’t I see, it’s time to PLAY!

They’re right. Maybe, if people would learn to play more, we’d all bark a lot less.

**Learn more about Arne Zaslove, his work, and his upcoming events. Check out his blog about physical theatre and masks.

Peeking into the lives of others


I’m fascinated by how others live, not just by the face they show the world.

Living in Paris, I’d spend hours people-watching at outdoor cafés. A  café creme was the excuse I needed to be able to sit and watch the world pass by. Living in Seattle, I enjoyed walking my dog at dusk through my neighborhood of small bungalows. When amber lights glowed and curtains were not yet drawn, I could enjoy a quick peek at the lives of my neighbors.

No wonder I’m drawn to reading memoirs.

The lives of three authors captivated me recently, because, unlike fiction, their stories were true.


Educated by Tara Westover, reads like a thriller; I couldn’t put it down. It’s the story of a woman raised in a fanatical, survivalist family in Idaho, ruled by a father convinced that the feds would be coming for his family after the gun-toting, government-hating, Weaver family was shot at Ruby Ridge. (Not to malign Idaho, but weird things have happened out there.)

Fearing exposing his children to any government thinking, Tara’s father decided to keep his three youngest children out of school. He claimed to home-school them, although most of their time was spent working in a junkyard, where Tara was forced to do unbelievably dangerous work.

Spoiler alert: I tolerated reading about her father’s cruelty and her brother’s violent abuse after reading the back cover, which described how Tara eventually escaped her home and became educated. As a testimony to her brilliance, she taught herself what she needed to know to take college entrance exams. (Can you imagine learning trigonometry if you’d never been taught math?)  Her dedication paid off when Brigham Young University accepted her, and she earned a B.A. She subsequently won fellowships at Cambridge University in England and completed both her Masters and  Ph.D.

Not surprisingly, Tara still bears the wounds of a crazy childhood and the pain of loving a dad who mixed religious fervor with psychological pathology. Educated is a story of heartbreak, abuse, love, and the triumph of perseverance against all the odds.

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love

Dani Shapiro grew up in an orthodox Jewish family, proud of her Jewish lineage and devoted to her faith, even as people occasionally questioned how a perky blond child could have been born to two Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews.

Then, in her early 50’s, Shapiro signed up on a whim to have her DNA tested by one of those inexpensive-DNA testing sites. The results were devastating: she learned that her deceased and dearly loved father was not her biological father. After sleuthing online–it didn’t take long– she identified her biological dad: a doctor of Scandinavian lineage, who lived on the other side of the country. Watching a video of him teaching, she was stunned to see that even their gestures were similar.

The foundation of her world seismically shifted.

Imagine what it was like for the biological dad to receive an email out of the blue, suggesting that he had a daughter from a sperm he sold fifty-plus years earlier. I’ll save the rest of the book for you, but Shapiro, a gifted writer,  keeps you spellbound with the questions she raises about what is family and the impact of family secrets. With compassion for her parents, she offers some context: her parents desperately wanted a child in an era in which a court had ruled in 1954 that donor insemination was considered to be adultery by the woman.

Shapiro’s story might seem bizarre and exceptional, but parts of it may be repeating now with the spread of low-cost genetic testing. At a party last week a friend told me that two children born of sperm he had sold years ago just contacted him.

Welcome to the new world.


The Education of Will: A Mutual Memoir of a Woman and Her Dog

As you may have read, dogs are on my mind these days, (a bonded pair of two Springer Spaniel brothers are about to join our household!), so I was gripped by this story of how healing a dog allowed, and required, Patricia McConnell to heal herself. Patricia McConnell is a renowned animal behaviorist whom I had the pleasure of hearing when she came to our island for regional sheepdog trials. She’s a wonderful writer as well as a speaker.

For those of us who know the power of our animals to change our lives, this memoir is a must-read.

So with that, I’ll skedaddle. I have two new furry friends to meet. Ruff!

Cultivate kindness in small doses

Don’t we all need a little more kindness sprinkled through our lives–both kindness we receive and kindness we give?

I don’t mean large-scale, heroic kindness, but more of the small-scale embellishments that can put smiles on faces, give courage to persevere over the next few hours, and make ordinary lives more livable.

Kindness is like a homeopathic remedy where a few small drops can produce big changes. It’s more than doing an occasional nice gesture or favor. It’s a sharing of presence. 

The cool part is that offering kindness opens our hearts as well.

When I look at how I spend my days, there are so many opportunities to cultivate kindness in the most ordinary settings: in the grocery line, through an email, in a telephone conversation, and even on Facebook.

Tracking kindness on Facebook

If you hold your nose when I say Facebook. I understand. For some, Facebook has gone over to the dark side, part of the evil empire that’s out to manipulate and trash our lives.

Our data on Facebook has been stolen and used inappropriately. I take no comfort in hearing CEO Mark Zuckerberg tell Congress his version of “Oops, I’m sorry.”

Then, there’s the matter of Facebook advertising. Sure, it’s a business that’s paid for by ads. But, does anyone else think it’s creepy to see the item you just looked at online–in my case some flashy Zumba pants–suddenly dancing before you on Facebook? When will Facebook start spying on those old sweaters in my closet?

(I won’t touch the issue of Russian trolls on Facebook that derailed the last US presidential election.)

I can understand hesitating before investing any energy in Facebook.

Still, Facebook is the way many of us are able to connect and communicate with people we care about when we can’t be with them. I use it to track the comings and goings on my island, to keep in touch with old friends, and build new online friendships.  

If we are going to use Facebook, let’s make it a force for good!

The magic of support 

My last week was rough. It started well enough, as my husband and I looked forward to welcoming the new dog we had agreed to foster: the rotund, but thoroughly delightful, Jackson. But on the first day of 2019, my life changed when my wonderful cat buddy, Barry, unexpectedly decided to take a chunk out of my hand.

After fifteen years of cuddling together, I was shocked as well as injured by his bite.

It got worse. So I decided to write… on Facebook.

I don’t post a lot on Facebook. Don’t expect me to show you a photo of the cool cappuccino my local barista made–you’ve seen your own. And don’t expect me to respond when you post a series of photos of the five-course, five-star dinner you had on your trip, given that I probably can’t afford the appetizer. (Do you hear a little sour grape?)

Last week, though, I wanted to share. I felt raw and vulnerable, ready to go beyond the “see my great life” façade some people use to spin their posts. I wrote three:

  • In my first, I shared excitement and whimsy as I awaited the arrival of our new foster dog. My friends echoed my enthusiasm, laughed with me, and added their congratulations.
  • In my second post, I reported on being bitten by my beloved cat. Friends commiserated and told me to see the doctor. (I did). A couple suggested that, given the cat’s age, something in his health or condition might have changed.
  • In my third post, I shared the excruciating decision to have our cat put down, on the day our new dog joined us. My friends embraced my tears, and perhaps shed a few of their own.

As I read the comments, I felt heard and helped. I savored them: “Your dog looks so cute.” “Take good care of yourself.” “I had a cat bite. Get help.” “What a beautiful, bittersweet tribute.” “I’m so sorry for your loss.” “Oh, Sally.”

I appreciated each comment, especially the ones full of an “I’ve been there, too” empathy.

I was so grateful.

Not all posts on Facebook elicit such comments. People do seem to respond more to posts that involve kittens, puppies, deaths, and babies.

But here’s the truth: when we respond to any post, we have an opportunity to infuse kindness into what we offer.

I can testify: it matters.

Transforming the ordinary

As you think about your day, are there times when you could pause an extra moment and connect to someone by offering a little extra kindness?

Facebook may not be your ticket–that’s not the point. You send an unexpected email. You pick up the phone. Or bump into someone at the doctor’s office. Any of your default activities will do. You pause, you listen, you open your heart and you respond: “It’s so good to see you.” Or, “Thanks for telling me that.” “That must be hard.” “I’m so excited for you.” You choose words that echo your heart.

When I researched the word kindness, I discovered that it shares roots with the word “kin.” When we are kind, we treat others as kin.

I bet there’s a simple act of kindness you could offer today that will spread kinship in the world.

Something beautiful can grow in the most ordinary settings.

Even on Facebook.



Sweat your way to community

Sometimes you build community by talking, finding common interests, and slowly building trust.

Sometimes you find community by…sweating.

That’s what I did this past weekend in my Zumba (dance-fitness) instructor training. I almost didn’t make it. Life’s been a bit rough recently, and it was hard to imagine myself spending a day doing high-energy, Latin-inspired moves, while feeling burdened by some unexpected problems.

I tried to picture myself among the clientele I thought might be attending this training: nubile, super-buff, exercise-freaks in their twenties, their butts thinly coated by tight, designer stretch pants. Would there be other 67-year-old women, with aching knees, vulnerable ankles and other physical limitations? Not likely.

However, the idea of chickening out made me feel worse than the prospect of feeling out of place. And, thanks to a couple of handfuls of ibuprofen, I did survive all the high energy movement. It was fun, but what I really loved was taking a deep dive into a diverse community.

The participants didn’t fit any stereotypes. They came in every color, and even from some different parts of the world. I danced next to a woman wearing a Hijab and form-fitting pants, and boy could she wiggle!

Yes, there were some crazy designer leggings and tank tops. But it turned out that the insanely cool black and white tights I saw came from Walmart.

Moving together connects us across different experiences, backgrounds, and countries.

Great dance music is democratically distributed around the globe.

Zumba was started by a man from Colombia who started life poor. He danced in the streets before he stumbled on a formula for dance-fitness success. Two Latin business partners joined in, and soon they had created a multi-million dollar empire of instructors and participants. You can find Zumba today in two hundred countries. No longer limited to Latin rhythms, Zumba now draws inspiration from music and steps worldwide.

What stood out for me last Sunday, apart from the fun of dancing, was how fast our little rainbow classroom started feeling like a supportive community. I wished that my pale, winter-white skin could borrow some color from the beautiful Indian woman who was dancing next to me. (She, too, had the moves!) Participant ages ranged from 17 to 67 (yours truly).

Did I tell you we came in many shapes, from finely chiseled to, well, big? What we had in common was that we could all shake (or try), laugh, and enjoy letting our hearts beat with the music we were hearing.

No introductions needed.

We started the day with no introductions, no sitting around a circle discussing our goals, no check-in opportunities for me to give the instructor my list of physical limitations and tell her why I might not make it through the class, Nope. After sharing a few words at the beginning of class, the instructor got us up on our feet. Then she revved up the music and we were dancing.

The instructor was a high-octane bundle of crazy-wild energy, whose might exceeded the size of her well-sculpted 5’4″ body. With a lingering Puerto Rican accent, she shouted out encouragement for us to follow her as she demonstrated some basic variations of core Zumba moves.

The intense beat of the music seemed to bond us.

At lunch, I noticed how easy it was to share with my new Zumba buddies, who no longer felt like strangers. Where else could I ask a dancing friend how many women in her Muslim community dance in Hijabs? (Some do, some don’t.)

Movement, like storytelling and other arts, is a gateway to community.

I’ve written before about forming community through the amazing Story Bridge process. Expressive arts like storytelling, music, and dance encourage us to make connections with each other independent of our intellect or opinions.

We open up for a moment, and enter a truer part of ourselves where we are free to move with less pretense, and, in the case of Zumba, more sass!

Don’t hold your breath–I have no immediate plans to teach Zumba. Trying to do the angular hip-hop inspired Reggaeton moves was still beyond me. (My back agrees with this verdict.)

I kept thinking that dancing is such a cool way to build community quickly, and span differences in backgrounds, experiences, and cultures. On the island where I live, the Zumba community is an amazingly supportive bunch.

The core elements that bond us are so simple:

Sharing joy together.
Engaging our minds together with our bodies (It takes brains to do those moves!)
Laughter. Smiles.

Especially sweat.

Maybe we don’t always need to talk through our problems.

Maybe we should just dance the heck out of them. 


Small talk

Red alert: The holidays are coming! Thanksgiving in the U.S. is followed by Hanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and a ton of holiday parties. Which means you should get ready for small talk.

This week, I did a little research for myself and discovered a secret three-step technique you might want to use.

If you’re the kind of person who thrives when placed in a big room with one hundred strangers for an undefined period of time, skip this post. (Please talk to me if you see me at such a party!) You’re a natural connector, and probably adept, without any training, at making small talk.

For those of us who are introverted, meaning-seeking, thrive-on-deep-conversations types, parties with more than ten people (better make that eight) make us want to retreat.

Given the need for small talk on the horizon, I decided to use the Internet to hone my skills.

Just to be clear, I’m not using small-talk as a mating ritual. or trying to snare the man of my dreams (done that). I’m just trying to 1) survive a couple of hours, 2) maybe have a good time, and 3) learn a little. Not a big agenda, but worthy of some preparation.

Preparing before the party

Don’t disparage small talk.
Note to self: not every conversation has to be weighty and meaningful. Small talk is not intrinsically less valuable than a deeper conversation, it’s just different. At the movies, a short subject isn’t considered bad because it’s not a two-hour documentary. I need to have a good attitude about small talk or I’m doomed from the start.

Be curious.
I am naturally interested in people, although the idea of being locked in a room with a lot of them gives me the willies. (I don’t like boat cruises with no available exit strategy.) When I’m in a mood to be a total party turtle, I try telling myself to pull my head out of my shell and find something new about at least one person.

Look happy, or at least don’t look dour.
I’m sure there are statistics to prove that most people prefer to start conversations with happy people. My ruminations about grief are best saved for other venues or perhaps a blog post. (Thanks to everyone who responded to my post about losing Riley last week.)

At the party

Questions are your friend.
Think open-ended, open-spirited questions. If you want ideas, peruse this list of questions. Rather than doing a cold start by asking “If you could invite one remarkable person to dinner, who would it be?” pick an opening question carefully. It’s a great question, but it risks making you seem like a Martian who just dropped in. You might ask a C.P.A., “What do you like most about being an accountant?” but only if you suspect that people might like being accountants. However, in the unlikely event that you are Johnny Depp, you can ask me anything.

Don’t bait people.
I offer this special caveat for these politically apocalyptic times. Throwing in a reference to the drama of the day, i.e., “Did you see his most recent tweet?” is a flame starter, much like throwing a match on gasoline-soaked tinder. The problem is once the flame has died down, there’s nothing left to the fire and you don’t really know anything about the person you are talking with. Be like the Boy Scouts. Build a conversational fire slowly. Save politics, if you can’t resist, for when the fire of conversation has caught on.

Use ideas from Improv.
 In improvisational theatre, three guiding principles are:

  • Make your partner look great.
  • Think “Yes, and” to build on what’s been said.
  • Keep the conversational volleys going by feeding in little bits of information.

The art of improv is to keep a conversation going between partners in a scene. Each partner says “yes, and” to what her/his partner has said, and then adds a bit of information that extends the conversation:

  1. “I’m going to Mexico next week.”
  2. “Yes, and Baja, Mexico is where I drank my best-ever Margarita.”
  3. “Yes, and I found a great recipe for Margaritas that uses lemon gumdrops,” etc.

These improv conversations may sound ridiculous but they can teach us about feeding a dialogue, bit by bit. Bottom line: keep saying “Yes,” to what your partner says. (People at parties also like it when you make them feel great.)

Don’t play secret agent.
Contrast the above improv approach with a method I sometimes use called “Secret Agent.”  As a secret agent, I spend the whole party asking questions of others, without revealing a thing about myself. This is effective for spies but often leaves me feeling cheated because I haven’t shared anything about me and no one has even noticed! No wonder people don’t know about the book I’m writing. They’re not telepathic.

Try this Secret Three-Step Technique

I adapted this A-R-E approach based on a great, non-gender-specific post about small talk on The Art of Manliness. They attribute the method to Dr. Carol Fleming. (So it’s not really so secret.)

Step one: ANCHOR your conversation.

Find something in common with the person you are talking with to help you start the conversation.  A mutual interest? A connection? A reason for being at the gathering? Or, a fascination with the hors-d’oeuvre tray? Anchoring your conversation in something your share will keep you from sounding like a Martian. The references can be mundane.

For example, at a recent gathering of the Yale School of Management Alums:
I’ve heard that there are over one-hundred alums now in the Seattle area.

Step two: REVEAL something about yourself.

Build on the conversational anchor to reveal something about yourself. This builds safety and keeps you from playing Secret Agent.

“When I first came to Seattle there were only five alums here.”


Now you can start asking questions that invite your partner to go further into the conversation.

“When did you graduate? Are many folks from your class here?” 
 following up with “How do you think the school has changed?”

I could continue by asking about their experience at Yale, how their current experience taps what they learned at Yale, what they think of the school, etc.

The big trick is to LISTEN and, like a good improv artist, build on the conversation. Listen for bits of information that lead naturally to questions and stay alert to what your partner is sharing. You can also notice things about your partner that might spark a conversation. (“I love cowboy boots, yours are great…”)

It’s up to you to show interest and keep moving things ahead.

When it’s time, move on

At mixer-style events, we aren’t meant to stay with one person the whole evening. (Introverts, remember this!) At some point, you’ll want to thank your partner and move on. Do it graciously. Acknowledge the conversation and maybe one thing that stood out about it. 

“I’m going to remember that recipe for margaritas with lemon gumdrops.”

There are ways to be inviting while acknowledging the end of your conversation.

Hey, I see Martha has just arrived. I really enjoyed talking with you. Want to join me in greeting her? ( A nice way to give your partner an easy out.)

However, just because you’re at a holiday mixer, don’t spend your conversation with someone scanning the room for your next partner. I hate when someone does that to me! 

It’s so annoying that I’d be tempted to change the subject and start talking to them about grief. (ha ha).

But, with a bit of cautionary self-coaching, “Sally, don’t take it personally,” I’ll smile, take a holiday breath, and say, “It’s been great talking to you.” Then I’ll make a beeline back to the hors-d’oeuvres.
Let the holiday games begin.

What you can and can’t afford to forget

Do you forget things? I do…and it bugs me, although the consequences are often minor. Selective amnesia is not such a bad thing. Think of it as a kind of spring cleaning of the mind, so you can free up some room for stuff that matters.

That said, here’s what I’d be happy to forget…and what I hope not to.

Stuff to forget during brain-cleanings:

My childhood phone number: (WO6-0642).
The star of Dr. Kildare: (Richard Chamberlain).
The name of the girl down the street who bullied me: (Maureen).
The teal dress I wore to the Junior Prom.
The Kardashians.

I forget other things, and often it’s not a big deal.

What I can forget (no big deal):

Occasional words.
The reason I just came into the kitchen.
How old I am.
The botanical names of the plants in my garden.
The name of the last book I read. (It was good…)

Forgetting can also have consequences–embarrassing, but largely remediable.

What I wish I hadn’t forgotten (but nobody died):

My anniversary. (Isn’t our love to be celebrated every day?)
Birthdays. (“Belated” is a term I use frequently.)
The name of the former client I ran into out of context. (Embarrassing!)
A Monday morning meeting. (Why didn’t I check my calendar Sunday night?)
The list I made to take to the supermarket.

Yet there are memories burned into me that I hope never to forget.

What never to forget:

The twelve people who were murdered in a Jewish Synagogue last weekend.
The children who have died in school shootings.
The stories of my grandparents and other ancestors, fast disappearing.
The lives of the faceless refugees leaving terrorized lands.
The children separated from their mothers at the border.
That guns kill.
That the marginalized: elderly, prisoners, disabled, or poor, are human like me.
That our world needs elders and my job is to become one.
That democracy cannot be taken for granted.
That hope heals even in the worst times.
To vote.

Let the small stuff fade away, but hold on to what counts, like remembering what’s in the United States Constitution.

And please, don’t ever forget to vote.

With prayers for the families of recent victims,

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