Statue of Liberty. Photo by Callen Harty.

Statue of Liberty. Photo by Callen Harty.

This has been on my mind for some time and I have not been able to clarify or express my emotions about it. But my heart hurts right now. It hurts not only for the Syrian refugees who are being treated like pariahs by the likes of the governor of my state, but also for all of my fellow Americans who are so filled with fear that they have lost their ability to show compassion and empathy to others.

Except for those in this country who are of Native American heritage we are all either immigrants or descended from immigrants, including many who were escaping war, horrible political situations, or other dire circumstances. My great-great-grandfather and great-great-grandmother came to this country during the Irish potato famine to escape the terrible famine in their native land and to find a better life here. They were greeted with contempt by those who were already here, those whose ancestors had come from many other lands.

In my lifetime I have seen Hmong immigrants who fought along our soldiers in Viet Nam come to this land and be greeted the same way, Cuban refugees who were treated like criminals, Mexican immigrants who settled on the bottom rung of the social ladder because people thought they were stealing jobs. If the Statue of Liberty–the “Mother of Exiles”–were a real woman she would cry at what we have become. If Jesus were to walk among us he would be ashamed to see what we have become.

Prejudice and hatred are borne of fear taken to its most extreme, and we are a fearful people. We fear our own political leaders, our townsmen, our neighbors, and, especially, the strangers among us, those who do not look like us or pray like us, those who do not share the same skin or the same ideas. The melting pot has become a weapon to bash the heads of those who would look to Lady Liberty’s lamp for refuge.

I do not recognize my state. I do not recognize my country. I do not recognize the Christianity in which I was raised. I do not recognize my fellow citizens. We are told by many that this is a Christian country, but in a Christian country we would give shelter to those who have none, we would welcome strangers into our homes, we would care for those in need. We would take the tired, the poor, the huddled masses and we would care for them as if they were family.

During the height of the Great Depression, when my mother’s family had little or nothing, my grandmother gave food to itinerant men who knocked on her door fresh off the train that used to run past their house. It was the Christian thing to do, the moral thing to do. When my roommate Dan and I were as poor as I have ever been we shared our apartment with others who needed a place to stay and shared what little food we had with those who were as hungry as we were. It was the right thing to do.

It is not the decline of the family or the Constitution being undermined or Christian values being challenged that is leading this country into ruin. It is the loss of compassion and humanity. It is the idea that our lives are more important than anyone else’s lives and that we deserve what others can’t have. It is the lack of empathy, the inability to see the world from someone else’s perspective and to understand, or at least try to, how they feel.

We need to start walking the long road that will return us to a nation of giving and compassionate people. We need to find our moral compass. We need to welcome the Syrian refugees to our land as much for us as for them.

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I Think I Can Make It Now

Me in grade school Photographer unknown.

Me in grade school Photographer unknown.

I never wanted to confront the person who abused me as a child. Confrontation was not what I sought. But I did want to talk. I wanted to speak my truth. Not everyone who has been abused can or should do that. For me, I felt it was necessary and the time was right.

Today I spoke my truth, and it was heard.

On the way there, as I drove around curves and hilly roads the sky was grey, dark, dreary, and the conversation I was determined to have was weighing heavily on my mind. I knew I was ready, I knew I was in a place of strength that would allow me to say what I needed to say, but my body was tense. My mind was filled with fear. I had thought of what I believed to be all the possible ways it could go–denial, taking responsibility, violence, anger, apologies, and although I had played out so many different scenarios in my mind the truth was I could not know until I was in the moment what would actually happen.

As I was thinking through these things a song from youth came on the radio–“I Can See Clearly Now”, by Johnny Nash. “I think I can make it now, the pain is gone. All of the bad feelings have disappeared.” I sang along, “Here is the rainbow I’ve been praying for; it’s gonna be a bright, bright, bright, sun-shiny day.” I knew at that moment that I was ready and that it would go as well it could.

Because there was someone else in the house when I got there I said to him, “Can we go downstairs for a bit? I need to talk with you about something.” I saw in his eyes in that moment that he knew what was coming, but didn’t know how to get out of it. For the first time in our lives, maybe, he was not the one in control.

I had thoughts of positioning myself to be able to make a quick escape if necessary, but I decided that I wasn’t going to go there, that I would have no fear. I sat in the corner and stumbled a bit as I started. He didn’t sit. He stood looking down upon me, a position of power. Even so, I knew I had the power and the strength at that moment because I was there to speak my truth. Because the words were so intense and the time felt so compressed I know I can’t quote exactly what either of us said, and it might not be in the exact order, but it was pretty close to what I am remembering now.

I started it with saying again that I needed to speak to him and that it was important, but that it wasn’t going to be an easy thing to say. I then said something along the lines of, “I have to say some things, and I need to say them without interruption. I’m not looking for responses or anything right now. I just need to say what I have to say. When I’m done you can ask questions, make comments, or whatever and I’ll be happy to chat.”

At that point there was no turning back. He did not object to my terms and the look in his eyes verified for me that he knew what was coming. “You did horrible things to me when we were younger,” I said, “and it hurt me very, very much. It damaged me for many, many years. I turned into an alcoholic and drug user, I was suicidal, I hated myself. I really hated myself. Pretty much all the typical behaviors that people who were abused as children have as adults–I fit them all. What happened hurt me very deeply, and if you didn’t know that I need you to know it now.”

That was the hard beginning. I continued. “I don’t know if you know this or not but five years ago I wrote a play about the things that happened to me . . .”

It was the only time he interrupted me before I finished the few things I knew I had to say. “I heard about that.” I honestly didn’t know before that moment whether it was something he had been aware of or not.

“In the play,” I said, “the character that was based on you was not named, the relationship was not named. The character wore a mask because it was important to me that the character be more universal and the audience members could project whomever they needed to onto that mask.”

The next part was going to be tough because I knew it would cause a reaction and I wasn’t sure what kind of reaction. “But now I’ve written a book about it, to share the story with other people and to educate people about this kind of thing. Most people think of abusers as strangers with candy or creepy guys who hang around school grounds, but the reality of it is that most abusers are family or close trusted people. They’re people who are loved. Because of that, because I needed the book to be honest it is named in this book.”

I paused for a second and he almost immediately interjected, “So now you’re going to hurt me because I hurt you. Revenge.”

The words took me by surprise. There was no thought of revenge in my mind at all, only the thought of honestly telling my story. “No, it’s not revenge. It’s not about you. It’s not even really about me. It’s about helping others by telling my story as honestly as I can. But I also thought that ethically I couldn’t release the book without letting you know in advance because it could have an impact on you.”

“It will hurt me.”

“It might.”

“It will. I understand you have to do what you have to do but it will.”

Our hometown is small and we are both known there so his fear was understandable. It is likely that if anyone there reads it they’ll talk and word will travel. He was speaking what was a truth for him in that moment.

He said, “I knew this day was coming.” My thought was that if he knew it was coming maybe he should have come to me first, but I didn’t have a chance to say anything before he added, “Dan told me years ago that you told him that I did that to you.”

“I told a lot of people,” I answered.

He then said something about having apologized to me about it years ago and I immediately and firmly said, “No, you didn’t.”

“Yes, I did,” he said, and we went back and forth like a couple of children several times with the “no, you didn’t”, “yes, I did” routine.

“What I remember,” I finally said, “was you and me in a bar and I brought it up and I told you that I hated you. Not hate, but hated. I forgave you years ago. A large part of the play was about forgiveness. I’ve forgiven you and let it go. That night you acknowledged it in some way–I don’t remember how, but then you turned it back on me by saying ‘You enjoyed it. You wanted it.’ I have to tell you that no, I didn’t want it and I didn’t enjoy it. Yes, physically, when someone touches you it can feel good, but emotionally and psychically it didn’t feel good at all. It hurt me.”

Without really acknowledging what I had just said he added, “It was right here and I apologized to you after we talked about it.”

I told him, “Honestly, I’m sorry, but I don’t remember that at all.”

“I told you it would never happen again.”

I said something about it not mattering if he said that because I wasn’t going to let it happen again and then added, “And that doesn’t sound like an apology.”

What he didn’t say was telling to me at that moment. He didn’t say, “I told you I’m sorry” at that time. He didn’t say that he was sorry now. He repeated that he had told me “that it would never happen again.” He mentioned that he’s grown a lot since doing those things with people, but that he’s never done it with anyone else since then. (Yes, people; I knew beforehand that I wasn’t the only one). There was a sincerity in the way he said that he’s never done it with anyone else and I believed him in that moment.

I told him, “I am really happy to hear that because I have always wondered. I believe what you’re saying now and I’m really glad.” And then I added, “I know you were abused, too, and I think you have a lot of healing that you need to do.”

He told me that he had dealt with all of his issues and that it was in the past, until now, when it was all brought up again.

There was a moment that felt like the most honest moment of the short conversation when he said something along the lines of, “I didn’t know that what I was doing was hurting anyone. I didn’t know.” I believed him in that moment, though with some of the history of what he did with me it is difficult to believe that he couldn’t have known it was hurting me. Still, I think in his worldview, in his memory and in his truth, it’s what he believes. So I said, “I know that you are a generous, loving, and caring person and that you wouldn’t want to hurt someone.”

At that point it didn’t seem like there was a lot more to say. We looked deeply into each other’s eyes. I think he saw the hurt in mine and I saw hurt in his, too. I think he thinks I am writing the book to somehow get even with him and it didn’t matter how many times I told him that the book was to help other people and the only way to do that was to be completely honest. I didn’t mention there’s a lot in the book that is not a good reflection of me either. I also understand the fear of what will happen once it’s published. As we were about to wrap it up he said something along the lines of, “I guess I can change my name and move.” He may be seriously thinking of that or it may have been a manipulation to try to get me to change my mind about publishing the book. It doesn’t matter. I’ve made my choice to do what I need to do. He will have to make his choices about how to deal with it and I more or less said that to him.

He then took control and his power back by turning and walking toward the steps. I followed him up the stairs. He stopped at the sink and started messing around with dishes as I stood there awkwardly. Finally, I said, “Well, I’m going to go. Talk to you again.” There was no response. I headed out the door, got into the car and took off. On the way home the grey clouds were parting and showing a brilliant blue sky and the sun was gracing the treetops.

The Johnny Nash song came into my head again. “Look all around, there’s nothin’ but blue skies; look straight ahead, nothin’ but blue skies.”

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Letter to Donald Trump

A new citizen holds an American flag and naturalization papers. Photo by Callen Harty.

A new citizen holds an American flag and naturalization papers. Photo by Callen Harty.

Dear Mr. Trump,

I saw a very sad story about you in the newspaper today and wanted to offer my condolences about your tragic history. I had made assumptions about you that were clearly wrong. After reading that article I now find it so difficult to believe that you were able to create such a magnificent empire with only a one million dollar loan from your wealthy father. I had assumed that you were a man of privilege and that your father gave you whatever money you needed to get your life started and to keep it going. I could not have imagined that he would only loan you money rather than giving it to you outright and that even then the loan was not for an unlimited amount but a measly million dollars. How did you ever survive? I have a hard time imagining it.

Then again, survival is an amazing thing in this world. It just occurred to me that as amazing as your success has been others have somehow survived on even less than your tiny million dollar startup loan. In fact, my father never gave me a loan at all because he died when I was only two years old so I grew up in a lower middle class single parent family with a mother who barely had a million pennies let alone a million dollars. Like you she struggled and worked hard to provide for her children and to create her own empire. Granted, her empire was a bit smaller than yours–a three-bedroom house that took her a little more than a dozen years to pay off–because she really started with pretty close to nothing. However, when she passes away my brothers and sisters and I will be set for life–well, maybe not life unless it’s a lot shorter than I hope, but at least a few months–because of the wealth she accumulated over the years. Like you she had a head for finances. She just didn’t get to start with as much or I’m sure she would have had an empire as large as the Trump fortune by now.

I’ve had friends, too, who have shown that same Trump spirit, who have survived disasters like losing jobs, eyes, legs, or minds with a can-do attitude. I know if their dads had given them a million dollars it would have helped with medical bills and recovery, but then again they wouldn’t have learned the hard lessons that you’ve learned through your intense struggles to create your own wealth from the small loan your father provided.

I’m sure you’ve paid your father back the way I paid my mother the several $100 loans she gave me when I was just starting out. If nothing else you paid him back by making him proud of you for the way you created something out of (almost) literally nothing. Just like me and my mom. I think I’m starting to love you, Donald.

I really would like to be more like you but I never learned financial responsibility by being forced to create my own life the way your father made you do it. As a result instead of investing and growing wealth I tend to spend money almost as quickly as I get it. I often take friends to dinner or coffee, donate to causes that are meaningful to me, and even donate money to politicians like you who show empathy and concern for others and who know what it’s like to be destitute and struggling just to live day to day.

I would wish you success in everything you do, but I can see that you don’t need my support. You’re a self-made man. Maybe, instead of sending you money for your campaign I’ll keep it and try to make it grow some–just like you did–or maybe, because I do tend to spend it as I get it, maybe I’ll donate it to a candidate who appears to need it a little bit more.

Thank you again for your honesty in the article. I appreciate your humility and humble beginnings. It makes me feel much more like you truly understand the plight of the have-nots that populate my family and circle of friends. It makes me feel like you get the immigrants who come here to live the American dream and to better their lives. It makes me feel like there is no 99% or 1%, but that we’re all part of the 100%. God bless you.

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Introduction, Empty Playground: A Survivor’s Story

Cover of Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story. Cover photo and design by Callen Harty.

Cover of Empty Playground: A Survivor’s Story. Cover photo and design by Callen Harty.

This is the introduction to my next book, Empty Playground: A Survivor’s Story, scheduled to be released on November 14.

After years of self-examination and self-discovery and after suffering a major heart attack in late 2008 I decided that I needed to share my story publicly. We all have life stories. However, they don’t all necessarily make for stories that others want or need to hear. But I felt that my story needed to be told and as the author of more than twenty plays and a good number of published articles and essays I knew that I could find a way to tell it. I knew that I needed to find a way to tell it.

The result was a play, Invisible Boy, that was produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin late in 2010. The play examined years of childhood sexual abuse and years of its aftereffects. That was my story. Unfortunately it is the story of about one in four girls and one in six boys and probably more because so many people don’t share the stories of their abuse, so it really wasn’t a unique story, except in the details and in the telling. What was unusual was maybe not the story, but my willingness as a man to tell it in such a public way. My hope was to open up a discussion about surviving childhood sex abuse. I understood that not very many men were willing to talk about their own stories and that my voice might help others come to terms with their own abuse or at least start to get much needed help to deal with the abuse and its effects. I wanted to end the silence.

The run of the play was only moderately successful as far as attendance goes, but had a significant impact on those who saw it. Many of the actors and others involved in the production admitted their own sex abuse for the first time in their lives during our rehearsals. One of the women in the play even confronted her abuser for the first time. On Sundays we had talkbacks where audience members could ask questions, comment, or talk. Many, many people opened up and shared their own devastating stories, their hurt, and their healing publicly for the first time in their lives. Other audience members pulled me aside afterwards to tell me their stories or wrote e-mails to thank me for opening up and helping them by being honest with my story. I know that lives were changed because I was willing to talk about what happened to me through a dramatic production. The impact is still rippling. The play is still getting about a view a day online.

Because of my experience with the production of Invisible Boy my life was rededicated in part toward a different direction as I sought other ways to end the silence about male childhood sex abuse (and really, child sex abuse in general). I wrote articles that were published in Our Lives, the Progressive, Wisconsin Gazette, and elsewhere. I created a Facebook page, “Solidarity with Child Abuse Victims/Survivors”, as a clearinghouse for news stories and information about child sex abuse. I was the driving force behind a conference on surviving child sex abuse–Paths to Healing–that is now an annual event in Madison. Finally, I became a speaker on the topic as I did a presentation entitled Healing through Creative Expression, one called Survivor Story, and another entitled Survivor Activism, and also simply appeared before audiences to share my story.

Each one of those things brought me more evidence that child sex abuse in general, and male child sex abuse in particular, are still mostly hidden. As a society we know it exists, but we don’t want to look at it or talk about it. We don’t want to admit that it could happen in our towns or in our own families. It’s easier to pretend that the monster isn’t in the room and blithely go about our lives as if nothing is wrong.

Occasionally a news story such as the Penn State scandal around Jerry Sandusky or the BBC scandal around Jimmy Savile will shock us into reality, but even then the focus tends to be on the celebrities involved and not on the children who were hurt. As soon as the next hot news story comes along the story disappears and we go back to our lives, conveniently forgetting that these are stories that play out every day in every city and town across the country. Every day in every city in this country.

We need to talk. We need to be open about child sex abuse. We need to have community discussions and we need to speak candidly, share ideas, and really examine the issue if we are ever to have a chance of ending the problem.

To that end I decided that I needed to share my story more widely. A couple hundred people saw Invisible Boy in its first incarnation in Madison, more saw it in a student production in San Antonio, and nearly 1,400 people have watched a video of it online. But more people need to know that there are survivors in every group gathered anywhere and that they are mostly silenced and that they mostly accept that silence as the reality and the price of victimhood. I refuse to be silent. I refuse to be a victim. I am a survivor. And I want all victims to become survivors. I also want there to be no more victims.

That is why I decided to write this book, to more widely share my experiences so that others might recognize themselves and might possibly move toward a place of healing. Continuing to share my story also helps me to continue to heal. I hope, too, that those in positions of power might be convinced to use that power to do a better job of passing laws to protect children and get predators off of the streets, off of their computers, and away from possibly harming more children. I dream of a world where children are only harmed by skinning their knees while playing safely in their own back yards or on playgrounds.

Please note that parts of this book may be triggering. If you are a survivor please, first and foremost, take care of yourself. Check in with loved ones, therapists, spiritual guides, mentors, or anyone else who can help you get through the tougher times.

Parts of the book are pretty raw and parts of it are pretty damning not only about the person who abused me but about some of my own behavior. It is all part of the story of the abuse I suffered, my denial, my coming to terms with it, and my own path toward healing. A few of the names and identifying information of certain individuals have been changed for their anonymity and protection, but other than that everything in this book is true to the best of my knowledge and recollection.

It is also important to note that I do not purport to speak for all survivors, or even any other survivors. I can only speak for myself and my experience.

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After the blood red moon

After the blood red moon had passed
left to find the horizon,
find your place among the stars,
your life
like a long lone sliver of light
falling into the darkness of the sky.

I wish–
though I know that wishes are meaningless,
like falling stars fading into nothingness–
I wish that you could know
how beautiful you were,
how much you meant to so many people.
I wish that you could know
I never wanted another hashtag.
I never wanted another queer trans youth of color to go
before your time.
Know that you were loved.
Know that you should be here
changing the world
the way you already were
changing the world.

When the moon comes back into light
I wish, I hope that it shines upon your soul.

Skylar. Photo by Callen Harty.

Skylar. Photo by Callen Harty.

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Sometimes I Cannot Speak

Me as a child.  Photographer unknown.

Me as a child. Photographer unknown.

When I was a young boy and being molested on a regular basis I sometimes fell into an emotional paralysis. I would be physically unable to move and unable to speak. Essentially I couldn’t function in any kind of way at all. It carried into adulthood and during times when I felt threatened, either physically or emotionally, the same thing would happen. My mind would be bombarded by thoughts and I couldn’t figure out what to say or how to say it and I would pretty much be mute, unable to utter a word or even a sound. It has been several years since the last time, but today it happened again.

I recently finished writing a book on my survivor story and I have been struggling with what will happen when I find a publisher. Several years ago I found forgiveness in my heart for the person who did those things to me. The abuse severely impacted my life and led me into hell and back, but the only way I could move past it on my healing journey was to come to a place of forgiveness. That doesn’t mean I think that what he did was okay; just that I was letting it go. I wrote a play that shared those experiences and forgiveness, but I have not been able to talk with him about the abuse and how it affected me. I figured I did not need to do that. I don’t need apologies or explanations. I have arrived at my healing without needing anything from him.

With the book, though, I feel a responsibility. In all fairness, even though I know intellectually that I don’t owe him anything, I feel I owe it to him to let him know that I have written the book, am looking for a publisher, and that in the book he is named. With the play I made the perpetrator a masked character because it was important to the play that the character was a universal everyman, so that audience members could project whomever they needed to upon the character. In the memoir it is essential that I name him and the relationship because I need readers to understand that child molesters are rarely strangers in vans or creepy old men lurking around school grounds. In most cases they are family members or close trusted adults and we need to talk about that and understand that as a society.

Despite the things that happened to me I don’t believe it would be fair to publish the book without giving him some advance warning as it could (and very likely will) affect his life. While I know that what he did affected my life in an extremely negative way I want to believe that I have a better sense of right and wrong than he did all those years ago. I am not doing the book to get even with him. I am doing it to help others. The only way to do that is to be completely honest in the telling of my truth, and I understand that the sharing of my story could hurt him. He lives in a small town, people know us both, and word could travel fast. He could be shunned by the community or worse. My moral code tells me that I must talk to him before it is published.

I have been struggling with this for a long time. How do I bring it up? What words do I use? How can I make it so that he allows me to say what I have to say without interruption? What do I do if he denies it or puts it back on me? We have only talked about the molestation once–about thirty or so years ago–and that time he did not take responsibility but engaged in victim blaming. What if he does that again? What if he threatens me as he did when I was a child? I thought about making sure that he would know that other people have access to the manuscript and that it would get published even if something happened to me. How could I make that clear without letting him know that on some level I was scared that he might do something to me?

Today I had the opportunity to take this step, and I froze again. We were alone and in conversation. We talked about many things and every time I had a notion to say, “I need to talk to  you about something” I could not get it out. My tongue was like a stranger to my mouth and I could not make it work. When I left I almost cried because I was so disappointed in myself. I think I was scared in several ways. I was afraid of where the conversation might go. I was afraid of hearing him deny it all. I was afraid in the deep recesses of my mind that there could be a violent reaction–either physically or emotionally. As I was driving away, even ten or twenty miles down the road, I kept thinking about turning around and going back to get it done but my foot stayed on the gas pedal and I kept moving away from the possibility of that conversation.

Maybe it just wasn’t the right time for it. Maybe I need to be better prepared for many different responses. I don’t know. I know that I will have this conversation at some point, and I know that I need a reservoir of courage to do it. Today wasn’t it. I need to look deeper at why I couldn’t and prepare myself better for the next opportunity

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Labor Day Visit

Mom. Photo by Callen Harty.

Mom. Photo by Callen Harty.

This Labor Day weekend when I walked into my mother’s bedroom she smiled as if she recognized me. Sometimes her memory is good and other times it is not, and I never know which it will be. I sat down to chat with her and she asked if I knew her kids, referring to the stuffed animals resting on her belly. I said yes as she has had them for quite a while and they keep her company nicely. She looked at one of the stuffed ducks and said to it, “Do you know who this is? This is my brother.”

My heart sunk a little. I knew she wasn’t going to be as good on this visit as she was the last time when she knew my name and my brother’s name, even though she had not seen either of us for a bit. A couple minutes later she let the ducks know that I was her nephew. This time I corrected her and said, “No, I’m your son.”

“You are?” she asked, then she looked at me deeply and said, “I guess you are.” She didn’t seem fully certain.

She went silent and just stared into space for a minute or two, then started looking deeply at her hands. Finally she said, “My hands look like an old lady’s.”

I said, “Well, you are an old lady and your hands are beautiful. You’ve earned them.”

She kept studying her hands and her arm. “There’s not much skin on my arm,” she said. I didn’t have a response to that, so I let it go.

Later as we were talking I mentioned that I live in a suburb of Madison. She asked how long I’ve been living there and I told her I moved to Madison thirty-three years ago. She seemed a little stunned and confused by that and asked, “How old are you?”

I told her I’m fifty-eight, that I have a forty year class reunion coming up this month and all she could say was, “What?” She seemed very confused by it.

“Why, how old did you think I was?”

“Well, you’ll always be a little child to me.”

Indeed I will, and despite the stoic man in me the little child in me is sad when my mother is like this, when I witness her disappear little by little. Despite that, though, I can see in her eyes that she is still there. I think that she also is a little child, and these days she is connected with the person she was when she was a little girl. Old lady or little girl she will always be my mother, and I will always love her, whether she knows me or not.

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