Filling in the Blanks of Women’s History

Last week we traveled to Utah for a women’s history symposium where I saw this image of “Brigham Young and an Unknown Woman.”  The unknown woman’s beaded bracelets and marks of torture on her hands have led historians to speculate that she was Native American. If so, is her ethnicity the reason her face has been blurred or was this just an accident? Either way, this is a startling illustration of how women’s stories have disappeared throughout history.

Over the course of two days, scholars and history buffs presented nearly fifty papers that filled in the blanks of women’s history in the Mormon church. I learned that though women weren’t allowed to speak in church meetings until the twentieth century (the church was founded in 1830)  historians like Jennifer Reeder are documenting what they were thinking and feeling during those early years through minutes of their women’s auxiliary meetings,  diaries and the objects they produced.  For example, in talking about the clothing women made to bury their dead, historian Kris Wright said that  “sewing and other crafting were a form of knowledge making for those pioneer women” and that “embroidery is the text of textile.”

I sought out a presentation on why women were drawn to glossolalia—the speaking of tongues—a practice that feels so foreign to my own religious experience but was a source of comfort and enlightenment for 19th century seekers.   Christopher James Blythe posited that women were particularly drawn to this practice in the early Mormon church and shared first-hand reports that early practitioners “glowed” as though there was “electricity in the room.” Modern examples of this practice in Pentecostal churches as captured on You Tube mostly give me the heebeejeebees, but I’m willing to believe that my pioneer foremothers welcomed this “gift of the spirit.”

I chuckled with the rest of the crowd when art historian Josh Probert shared “domestic literature” from the turn of the last century that advised struggling homesteading women to inspire “Christian morality” by aspiring to the Victorian opulence of Salt Lake City’s famed McCune Mansion. Though officially titled ”Mormon Women’s Domestic Advice Literature 1880-1920,” Probert said he really should have called his remarks “Be Careful Which Couch You Buy Because You Will Become Like It.”  (Hey, haven’t I shared similar advice throughout my design writing career?)

The most shocking and widely reported session was titled “Women in Danger” and featured papers on sexual violence towards women in the early Mormon church.   BYU-Idaho professor Andrea Radke-Moss spoke about the mob violence in 1830s Missouri that prefigured the death of the church’s founder Joseph Smith.  She focused on the brutal gang-rapes by these same mobs that happened to several women in the period (numbers are sketchy given the Victorian reticence to report such atrocities) and that have been suppressed in the telling of Mormon history.  There was a collective gasp in the room when she revealed that one of the victims was likely Eliza R. Snow–one of the most prominent women of the early church. Snow was a renowned poet–the Emily Dickinson of Mormonism–and a trusted advisor to both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. You can read more about Radke-Moss’s findings here and her responses to questions about her source material here.

The day after the conference was over we sought out Snow’s grave just a few blocks away from Salt Lake City’s Temple Square. She’s buried near Brigham Young along with two of his other plural wives. (Snow was a plural wife to both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.) Many referred to her as a “prophetess.”  Some said she was the most intelligent woman they’d ever known. That she is also a survivor of sexual violence is remarkable.

Someone had come before us and left flowers and chocolate on her grave.  As we walked away an older gentleman and his grown daughter came to take our place.  I assume there will be more visitors now that another chapter of Snow’s life has been revealed. Will her expanded story force us to look at other women of the period differently?  Since attending the symposium I have a clearer picture of those mysterious tongue-speaking, polygamous ancestors of mine.  I also have more questions. What undocumented trials did they face?  What horrors did they overcome? (On a lighter note, who was the first of my grandmothers who could even afford a couch?) I may never fill in all the blanks, but knowing that they pressed onward to find sanctuary—as a popular pioneer hymn calls it, “the place which God for us prepared”— gives me confidence that I can too.

Are there women’s stories from your family, religious or cultural history that have been fleshed out in modern times?  If so, how have they informed or inspired your life?


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Of Oscars and Owls

What a wonderful spring we’re having here in Northern California. I’ve been working on my garden removing the things that didn’t survive the deer or early frosts and then shopping for and planting more of what seems to thrive. The temperature is just warm enough to feel rejuvenating as I work outside and the light is so cinematic it deserves some kind of award.  Best Seasonal Glow–or something to that effect.

Last week, my landscape designer and friend Keeyla Meadows lended some expert help. Together we shopped at the wholesale nursery for more grevilleas and hellebores and added a white rhododendron and some daphne–fingers crossed that it survives since daphne can be so temperamental.  Then we spent a day placing and planting before the rains started up again.  At the end of that very full day of digging, watering, fertilizing and cleanup we sat down for a cup of tea in the twilight.  A large bird flew by and landed in a nearby eucalyptus tree directly across from where we were sitting. It immediately started to “whoo hooo” so we thought we knew what we were looking at but to confirm I fished out an old pair of binoculars.  Sure enough there was a great horned owl (“uncommon but widespread” says my Sibley Field Guide to Western Birds) challenging us to blink first.

According to “Birds–A Spiritual Field Guide “ (yes, I have ALL the bird books) the owl can be seen as either an omen of something terrible to come–think spooky Halloween creature–or a symbol of wisdom. Either way it seemed quite mystical to have it appear and communicate with us at that moment. We chose to think of “our” owl as a wise messenger blessing our clever efforts to outsmart the deer and anticipate the rain.

Usually this time of year is when I produce a post about my favorite set designs from the previous year’s movies.  Alas, I’ve been immersed in novel revisions or garden plans the past few weeks and didn’t take the time to put one together but if the Academy Awards show peaked your interest in seeing some of the nominated films here’s my 2 Cents on 2015 movie design.  Of the films nominated for Best Art Direction I was rooting for The Martian. I wasn’t up for seeing either The Revenant or Mad Max: Fury Road on the big screen but the rest of my family did and raved about Max’s visuals so I’m not surprised it won. Of the films I saw I absolutely loved the sinister modern house in Ex Machina (read about the mostly Norwegian locations here and here)

And the beautiful color palette of Brooklyn.

How fitting that the female leads of these two films also wore some of my favorite Oscar gowns.

To quote my backyard visitor–Whoo hooo!  What were your favorite movie sets from last year?  How about Oscar fashions?  I’d love to hear.

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Friday Things: The San Francisco Super Bowl Edition

True confession?  I didn’t know the Super Bowl was happening here in the Bay Area until last Saturday when my gay Mormon activist friend Mitch mentioned how early festivities had impacted the traffic coming from the city to a conference in Berkeley that we were both attending.  Now how in the world did I miss that?  I’m not that sporty but I do tend to tune in for big sporting events like the World Series or the Olympics.  And this year the Super Bowl is here in my back yard! I don’t have any loyalties to either team in the game but I’ll be watching for the commercials and the Coldplay concert. I’ll also be cooking up some Big Game food from this month’s featured cookbook “The Gourmet Today Cookbook”. Last month I had fun working through some recipes from David Leibovitz’s “My Paris Kitchen”–more about that later–but Sunday I’m planning to make some citrus-sauced ribs and an old family Super Bowl favorite—Whoopee Pies.  Score!

Here are a few other things that touched down with me this week.

Super Bowl “Ad-mojis.”

Some tips for buying Valentine flowers.

Trying to separate Bill Cosby from Cliff Huxtable.

Swimming as an adult. 

Bay Area artist Lisa Congdon’s coloring books!

James Cordon and Rosie O’Donnell rapping Hamilton lyrics.

My friend Dana’s son making the Top 24 on American Idol.  Go James VIII!

Happy Super Bowl Weekend All!


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Friday Things: The Daffodils Edition


Last week I noticed a sign in the nursery near a market I frequent advertising bulbs half off.  I intended to pick up a few to force in the house and ended up with dozens of daffodils and a few tulips to plant around the garden.

During a pause between rainstorms I tucked the tulips in some of the back yard pots away where they’ll be protected from deer and gophers.  Most of the daffodils ended up in the back as well but I decided to risk planting a dozen or so out front as an experiment.  We’ll see if they’re as “critter-resistant” as advertised.  I’d love to have them naturalize and return year after year.  (That doesn’t happen with tulips here in Northern California—the climate’s too mild for repeat blooms.)

It’s been a good month all around for planting things.  I’ve been working with the 10% Happier app to be more consistent with my meditation practice and I’ve also made time to attend more yoga classes as part of my intention to “stretch” more.  I’ve read several good books including “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “H is for Hawk” (funny, I just realized they both have birds in their titles.) And I’ve made good progress with my novel revision while fine-tuning the course on Mormon Women I developed with M.J. last year so we could teach it again.

Nice to scatter–and look forward to–a little sunshine-to-come.

Here are a few other things that have been planted over the past few weeks.

Zoolander Home Tour.

The resurgence of “Housewife Novels.”

Jill LePore’s insightful piece on the sad history of child abuse.

The impact of the new Barbies.

David Bowie’s notebooks.

A bevy of winter salads.

Marcella Hazan and her namesake bean.

Quantum Chess with Paul Rudd and Steven Hawking.

Happy Weekend All!

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Friday Things: The Stretch Edition

 For the last few years I’ve focused less on setting specific goals and more on choosing a word that speaks to my intention for the year.  Last year’s word was “Ease.”  This year I’ve settled on “Stretch” as my word for the year.  I’m hoping that by setting “Stretch” as my watchword I’ll be more expansive and flexible. That I’ll extend a helping hand more frequently and consistently. That I’ll eventually do “child’s pose” without falling on my face.

There are a few other specific ways I’d like to Stretch in 2016.  These aren’t big changes. It’s not that you can’t teach this old dog new tricks, but I’ve already learned a lot of tricks in my life that work well already.  They’re also not intended for the entire year. My son-in-law mentioned over the holidays that he is always setting goals but does it on a quarterly not yearly basis.  That makes sense to me.  Who knows what I’ll be trying to tweak in December? Maybe some of the same things, maybe not.  But for the next three months I’d like to Stretch in these ways:

1. At Home: I’d like to have more room to stretch out in my kitchen so I’m editing down some of my cookware and either getting rid of occasional use pieces or moving them to secondary storage.Also,  my cookbooks are beginning to overflow their allotted shelves. When we moved a year and a half ago I pared the volumes down to ones I cooked from regularly but a few new books have joined their ranks.   In order to determine whether a book stays or goes, I’ve decided to “feature” one of these newcomers each month and try at least one recipe a week from the featured cookbook that uses vegetables from my CSA box.  That will help determine if it’s earned a place on the shelf.

2. Intellectually: I’d also like to extend my attention span by reading more of the New Yorkers that pile up by my nightstand.  My niece Hannah is a voracious reader and for the past few years has read every New Yorker cover to cover.  (You can see her list of favorite top ten articles in the 2015 New Yorkers here.)  I’m not willing to make reading every New Yorker my New Year’s goal, but for the first quarter of the year I’m at least going to read each week’s short story and likely pick up a few more articles along the way.

3. Physically: I’m lucky enough to live across the street from a beautiful swim club where I take water aerobics and yoga classes regularly so that allows me to stretch out 3-4 days a week.  On the other days I tend to stretch my legs by walking in the nearby hills with M.J. Or friends. On those days I’m going to do a little home stretch session as well—probably through the Sworkit app on my phone.

4. Towards Others: And finally, I’d like to be better at extending a helping hand to people at both ends of the age spectrum. Phone calls or visits to older women, babysitting for younger moms, and my ongoing volunteer work teaching foster kids writing and life skills.  I figure those of us in the middle with experience, resources and energy need to help where we can. Taking a moment every Sunday to reflect how best to do this in the coming week seems like a good system for now.

Hmm, this sounds like I’m setting goals now doesn’t it?  Can we call them intentions instead? Because intentions feel more realistic as I stretch out in the New Year.

I’d love to hear how you approach New Year’s goals and resolutions?  It’s so different for everyone, don’t you think?

In the meantime, here are some other January things.

A year later, are you a Konvert? (My sock drawer is.)

Delia on setting concepts, not lists.

Some useful organizing tips from a young mom.

Thoughtful, low-key New Year’s resolutions.

Are you the Person of the Year for 2015 as well?

And finally, shouldn’t we all be practicing power poses? (this Ted Talk is old and popular, but it’s the first I’ve seen it—maybe you too?) Tomorrow I’m going to work on these out-Stretch-ed poses with my foster kids.

Happy Weekend All!

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Happy New Year!

Are you enjoying this first week of the year as much as I am?  It’s cold and rainy here in the Bay Area.  Perfect weather for packing up the holidays and unpacking plans for the year to come.

I’ve spent the last few days moving things from one floor to another trying to restore order here at home.  We had holiday house guests for nearly three weeks—so fun!  But that meant that every room (including our glamping tent), every dish, and every linen was pressed into service.

Also, things piled up.  Papers, mail, recycling, laundry. So the last few days have been spent sorting and savoring the season (not to mention the remaining holiday treats.)

My mother-in-law always says “a change is as good as a rest.”  Vacations—and aren’t the holidays a vacation from our everyday life?—often leave me energized and ready to tackle old projects anew. This week as I put things right I’m already scheming about new design projects. Specifically I’m ready to start feathering our new nest with furnishings more appropriate for the home’s era (contemporary) and feeling (spare but comfortable).  First up—some Pinterest planning sessions and then the hunt will begin.

But before I dive in I’m taking a moment to enjoy a few new items that found their way under the tree.

First, a Pendleton wool blanket as a winter topper for our bed. We bought one in the Yellowstone pattern for our guest bed years ago and I’ve always enjoyed the weight of it when mid-night insomnia drives me to the guest room to read.  Wanting to enjoy the same cozy sensation in my own bed I chose the graphic San Miguel pattern to enhance my winter’s sleep (and M.J.’s, of course, which is why I gifted it to him).

Next, a beautiful new pot to make winter stews. Over time I’ve gravitated to Le Crueset cookware for most all my stove top stewing and braising.  However, the LC pots I owned ranged from small to medium in size and were purchased in Cherry Red to match our old red-accented kitchen.  I was making do with some well-worn stainless steel pots for larger cooking projects but hinted that I might be ready to upgrade.  M.J. picked out this beautiful 7.5-quart model in Ocean (exclusive to Williams-Sonoma) to match our teal granite countertops.  What a luxury to make winter soups without worrying about them spilling over onto the stovetop. Eventually I may find a place to store this dreamy enameled pot, but for now I love how it commands center stage on the cooktop.

And finally, some hand carved “toaster tongs.”  This is a little kitchen tool that I bought in volume for gifts this season after picking one up while reporting on the ACCA Craft Fair here in San Francisco last summer. These may seem silly (after all, can’t we all fish our toast out of the toaster with a fork?) but these ingenious little tongs are pleasant to the touch and—due to a little magnet that keeps them attached to the toaster—always accessible.

How about you?  Were there any home gifts under your Christmas tree that you’re savoring in the hushed aftermath of the holidays?  And what plans are you cooking up for your house and garden in 2016?


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Friday Things: The Ease Edition

Well, here we are again.  First couple of weeks of December done.  Holidays in full swing.  To Do lists hopefully getting shorter and shorter or abandoned entirely.  After all, at some point you just have to say enough is enough, right?  Otherwise you miss it all by racing to the finish line.

I still have some wrapping up (and wrapping!) to do but I’m trying to invoke my “Word of the Year” every time I start to feel that familiar holiday panic over demands on my time, energy and resources. I’ve used the word “Ease” as a guiding principle throughout 2015 and though it’s not been a particularly easy year, invoking “ease” when called upon made a real difference. Even if a situation was challenging, just thinking that I wanted to tackle it with “ease” has helped me take a step back, analyze what needed to be done and try (not always, but mostly) to calmly take in the moment. Of course, the word “ease” also nudged me to simplify some things in my life and not obsess about what didn’t get done.  Helpful practices both.

If you are interested in setting some intentions for next year by choosing a single word for direction you might want to work through some of these exercises provided by London photographer and writer Susannah Conway.  Her free five-day Find Your Word course started today.

Hope you’re well, finding some sparkle in your life and taking everything in stride.  Wishing you peace as you ease on down the road toward’s the New Year.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

This Thanksgiving, like every Thanksgiving, will be a little different.  Over the past year our regular gathering place–my friend Pauline’s house–suffered a catastrophic fire.  So we’ll gather in a new place.  A rental nearby.  Surely one of the weekend activities will be touring what’s left of the old place. The photos were sobering.  I expect the actual devastation will be worse.  But there will also be talk about what’s to come next.  Rebuilding plans will be shared. Look–a new, better kitchen for future Thanksgivings!  We’ll focus on that.  And eat pies–some old, some new like this Cranberry Curd Tart. Life goes on. Different but also the same.

Wishing you a wonderful day whether you’re hosting or helping.

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Autumn Dinner Party Menu

More garden descriptions and photos soon but in the meantime, as promised, here are recipes and links to my Autumn Dinner Party.  It relies heavily on Ina Garten recipes because they’re reliable, easy to execute and crowdpleasers.  In fact, I received several requests for recipes after the party and one of our guests deemed the baked beans the best she’d ever had.

For an easy appetizer I did some radish toasts—an idea I picked up from an old Jaques Pepin cookbook.  Slice baguettes thinly, slather with good butter, top with thinly sliced radishes and sprinkle with good salt.  Easy peasy.

The main menu featured:

Butternut Squash and Apple Soup from “The Barefoot Contessa Parties!”

Slow-Roasted-Spiced Pork from Ina Garten “Make It Ahead.”

Maple Baked Beans from “The Barefoot Contessa At Home.”

Winter Slaw featuring kale, brussel sprouts and dried cranberries—also from Make it Ahead.

Sour Cream Cornbread—another Make It Ahead recipe (Ina really outdid herself with that cookbook. I’ve used it extensively especially when I have family in town and want to prep things in advance.)

Dessert was a pumpkin cheesecake that I’ve made for years. It comes from “California Fresh” a cookbook compiled published by the Junior League of Oakland-East Bay in 1985.  Good recipes never go out of fashion.

Pumpkin Cheesecake

Karen Shapiro, La Viennese Pastires, Oakland


3/4 cup graham cracker crumbs (about 12 single crackers)

1/2 cup ground pecans

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup butter, melted


3/4 cup granulated sugar

3/4 cup pumpkin puree

3 egg yolks

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground mace

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 pounds natural cream cheese, softened

6 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 egg plus 1 yolk

2 tablespoons whipping cream

1 tablespoon sifted cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract 1/2 teaspoon lemon extract

Whipped cream and whole pecans for garnish

To prepare Crust: Combine all ingredients and mix well, coating crumbs completely with butter.  Pat crumb mixture firmly onto bottom of a 9-inch springform pan.  Place in freezer while preparing filling.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

To prepare Filling: Mix 3/4 cup sugar, pumpkin puree, 3 egg yolks, cinnamon, mace, ginger, and salt in a bowl.  Set aside.  With an electric mixer, beat cream cheese and 6 tablespoons sugar until smooth.  Add the egg plus 1 yolk and the whipping cream.  Mix again until smooth.  Add cornstarch and blend well. Add vanilla and lemon extracts.  Mix again until very smooth.  Add spiced pumpkin puree to the cream cheese mixture.  Mix until no traces of white remain. (The smooth texture of this cheesecake depends on thorough mixing.)

Pour filling over crumb mixture in springform pan.  Bake 45 minutes, or until sides have risen.  The center will still be somewhat soft.  Remove from oven.  Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until thoroughly chilled.  Run a knife around the edge of the pan and release the sides.  Remove cheesecake from pan bottom.

Garnish with whipped cream rosettes and whole pecans.


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Our Garden Project – The Rocks

Now that we’ve returned to whatever we call Not Daylight Savings Time and the days are growing short, I’m reflecting on what we’ve done around here over the past year. Counting my blessings, I’m grateful for the beautiful garden that greets me every time I come home. Some of you may be dreaming up some spring garden plans of your own.  If so, I thought I’d share some photos of our garden design and installation to help you plan for garden projects you might want to tackle when we turn our clocks forward again.

Let’s start with the foundation of the garden design – the dirt and the rocks.

The good news was that our existing soil wasn’t terrible.  It still needed some amendments but we weren’t working with impacted clay that needed extensive re-working.  A landscaping crew cleared out the few struggling plants from a long-defunct garden, leveled the existing soil and spread a new layer of soil over the area to be landscaped. Time to add some larger rocks to contain and shape the garden.

Buying Rocks

In early April I met up with our landscape designer Keeyla Meadows at American Soil & Stone in Richmond, CA.  American Soil sells dirt and rocks and a few other things but mostly lots of dirt and rocks in every size.  We were there for the big rocks.


Keeyla had in mind some beautiful brown and black birdbath basalt boulders.  These sculptural beauties are quarried in Washington in such a way that one side often forms a bowl.  The bowls hold rain (or irrigation) water which attracts birds—thus their name. The idea was to put a  number of them in the front yard and then connect them with a dry stream bed of smaller rocks—preferably some black Mexican river rock to bring out the black veining in the basalt.

Alas, we couldn’t find river rock black enough to match the basalt so we decided to keep hunting for the smaller rocks but selected nine basalt boulders and some less-expensive granite boulders to use in and around the rock walls of the driveway.

Boulders selected and order placed, we were on our way out of the stone yard when Keeyla’s toe caught on a palette of rock causing her to trip and fall and break her elbow! The next few hours were spent in the emergency room.  Ugh.  Keeyla was headed for surgery and would be out of commission for a few weeks.

Installing the Rocks

A month or so later, Keeyla was on the mend (though she would be in a sling or in physical therapy through most of the project, poor thing!) and we set dates for the rocks to be delivered and a crane to show up to move them into place.  There was some question as to whether we’d need a big or a little crane.  Thank goodness we could get away with a little one, because cranes don’t come cheap.

The day the crane arrived was very operatic – cold and windy with swirling fog.   Ominously, it seemed like a day when someone could end up in the emergency room again. (Thankfully, no one did.) Look at the front wheels of the truck levitating–so sorry I didn’t have a little boy still at home to watch this equipment in action.

A crew loaded each rock into a sling attached to the arm of the crane. Keeyla took her place as “the rock whisperer” and guided every boulder into place, carefully turning it in its sling until it was sitting just where she wanted it.

The guys worked with hand tools to do further fine tuning.

By the end of the day we had our own little bird-friendly druid circle in the front and a rebuilt driveway area that was decidedly more interesting.

Tinkering with Rocks

Once the big rocks were in, the crew could lay down the stream bed. Since our first trip to American Soil we’d continued to look for other blacker river rock—but to no avail. We revisited  American Soil and decided that their latest batch of Mexican river rock looked blacker, more suitable. We had a basket delivered and the landscaping crew commenced to lay out the stream under Keeyla’s direction. (By now some plants were in place as well.)

But it was clear once they were down that the color of the river rock was going to be a problem.  It wasn’t only that it wasn’t as black as the basalt veining, it was actually quite BLUE out there in the wild.  The crew left for the day and I kept checking on the color.  I told myself that the rocks were very beautiful on their own and their grey-blue color did highlight the Bay view beyond the garden.

But as much as I tried to embrace the gray rocks, it was clear they were wrong.  The blue cast was such a strong contrast that you lost the zen beauty of the basalt.  And so, another trip to American Soil where this time we found a mix of brown and tan rocks in various sizes that coordinated with the brown color of the basalt.  Keeyla sprinkled some little black pebbles between the river rocks to highlight the basalt veining. Here are some before and after shots.  Rock on!

Next up – The Plants


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Kathryn Pritchett

writes about Things Elemental — where we find shelter, why we connect, what sustains us and how we strut our stuff.

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