Day Six: Leaving Cappadocia. Hittites, Brace Yourselves.

Nothing highlights what a picky eater I am more than a table full of 800 bowls, from which I eat two things.

I do like honey. And cucumbers. And the red pepper paste on the frittata. All the other stuff? Right up Byron and Virginia’s alley. More accurately, “down their gullets.”

Indeed, those two share a palate for savory, even slightly sour. The earlier in the day these tastes can be shoveled into the mouth, the better.

For me, not so much. I’ve never liked olives or tomatoes, and my aversion to something fundamental in Turkish dairy products remains.

In more positive news, I’m coming along swimmingly on the lokum-liking front. Previous to this trip, I could look at a box of lokum and never consider cracking it. Now, wellllll, if it’s fresh from the dried fruit & nut store, I’m all over the pomegranate gel encrusted with pistachios. Please, Bey Efendi, may I have another?

After that final warm and chat-filled breakfast on Laura and Nurettin’s terrace, we readied ourselves for goodbyes, a process lubricated by the requisite group photo just before hugs and tears (mine). Because Nurettin was at his workshop, we found a stand-in (hmmm, but is it the dog or the photo?).

Not only will we miss our Ortahisar friends, we’ll also miss their “maid,” Senay, whose dignity, discretion, and gentle smile are appreciated by everyone in her orbit.

Having checked out of Laura’s hotel (her place actually is a hotel, so if you’re up for it, I can give you her contact information), it was time to head to Goreme to visit friend Ruth’s carpet shop once again. After some mulling, Virginia and Kirsten had decided to make a purchase. Outside Ruth’s shop is the carpet crew’s baby donkey. Its diminutiveness compensates for its general state of scraggle.

The great thing about Ruth’s shop is the feeling of invitation. Sit. Have tea. Chat. Listen. Learn. Have more tea.

Our Turkish friend, Deniz, came to Ruth’s shop so that we could have an hour of catching up. She’s a pathologist at a hospital in a nearby town, and she’s someone for whom I developed a true affection during our year in Cappadocia. It doesn’t hurt that she’s so itty I could eat her for lunch, were I so disposed. So long as she’s not savory or sour, of course.

When I entered the store, Ruth called me over to ask if her shirt were so sheer as to be TOO sheer. I assured her that the heavy patterning camouflaged all her best bits quite properly and that all I could make out were her dessert-plate-sized nipples.

Then I asked her to toss out a nip for easy viewing. Happily, tossing back her hair, she obliged.

As conversation and tea continued to flow, Kirsten and Virginia got down to making a decision.

Ultimately, they bought a cradle bag kilim. Formerly, the rug had rope loops around its edges, so that the loops could be threaded through and the resultant bag hung from a couple poles. Then a string was tied from the cradle bag to the mother’s toe; while Mama sat and did her knitting, she could tap her foot and rock the baby.

When it was time for Deniz to head back to work–lots of biopsy slides to read–we again lubricated the goodbyes with a group photo.

Please admire what a beastmaster Byron is compared to Deniz. She tried to explain to us that she’s of Turkmen stock, which is apparent from her triangle-shaped eyes, but I maintain she’s descended from elves.

It would help her case if she’d stop snatching a handful of fairy dust from her purse every five minutes and scattering it everywhere she goes.

After a lovely lunch of gozleme (village food: kind of like huge soft tortillas stuffed with spinach, cheese, or potatoes) with Ruth, we hit a couple more shops and then hopped into our newly-repaired rental car. The tires had been replaced; the alignment, erm, aligned; and the scary noise from the transmission quelled. It was time to leave Cappadocia and head towards Hattusa, the ancient capital of the Hittites.

Arriving near the village of Bogazkale just at sunset, we pulled off to view a Hittite rock sanctuary–used for ceremonial purposes (a phrase just vague enough that no one actually has to admit she has no earthly idea what actually took place on the site; whatever it was, from sacrifice to coronation to funeral, I’m sure there was pomp). Personally, I don’t care what they did there, so long as someone carved figures in the rocks. I firmly believe that, without carved rock figures, one shouldn’t even bother with a ceremony. Just ask my wedding planner. He still crumples into tears when you mention my name in his presence, whimpering, “I thought she said ice sculptures,” his sobs subsiding only when his boyfriend hums a few bars of Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” softly into his ear.

So, yea, rock guys.

Then there’s my rock guy. I like this picture because it shows how very soon all the purple will have grown out of Byron’s facial Statement Hair:

With darkness setting in, we stopped at the Kale Otel, which is where we stayed with the kids a year and a half ago when we visited this area. As was the case then, we enjoyed the feeling of being the only guests in a well-prepared establishment.

Tomorrow, we visit the Hittite city of Hattusa. Then we drive up to Amasya.

I know. I KNOW. You’re excited about Amasya’s cliff tombs and wooden Ottoman houses, too!

Patience, little one. Patience.

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Day Five: Cappadocia

Someone had a very good morning.

How could she not?

Virginia and Kirsten loved their balloon ride, made even better by having gotten a discounted rate thanks to Laura’s clout and by the presence of a journalist in their basket celebrating her birthday. What better way to end a balloon ride than with a piece of birthday cake and a mimosa, all before 9 a.m.?

As they recovered from their flight, I went out to run some more of my favorite country roads with this Nicest of Doggies Ever:

Later, back at Laura’s, our hostess took us on a quick walk to see “her” church. She bought it 17 years ago for $2,500, back when she was buying up property and buying it at scandalously low cost. For roughly the price of an airline ticket from Indianapolis to Toronto (I looked it up), she got a church dating somewhere between the 6th and the 9th Centuries. I’d rather save the money, drive to Toronto, see all the stuff in between, and get me a church, frankly.

Here’s the view of Laura’s house from her church:

Having been to church, it seemed only fitting to hop in the car and tear away at high speed towards darker places. We started the afternoon’s tour in the town of Mazi, which features one of Cappadocia’s twenty-some underground cities. There are a couple other underground cities open to tourists, but they’ve been all slicked up and safe-ified. Mazi is just starting to think about doing that. They’ve hired an architect and are building an exterior. They’re doing excavations. But so far? It’s still rustic and raw. Our guide sized up our collective physical condition and decided we could handle the Rough ‘N Ready tour (not that he told us this), which meant we climbed up thousands-of-years-old tunnels and chutes, tunnels that have little footholds carved into the tufa rock, so the climber puts one foot on one side of the tunnel and one foot on the other side of the tunnel and scrabbles up. Where the rock is quite worn, small panels of wood have been hammered in. On the longest ascents, the guide put a harness around our waists and held onto the rope from above.

Best of all is this: he carried Virginia on his shoulders up every single passageway. He’d get her up into the hole, and then he’d scoot underneath her and nestle her onto his shoulders. Then he’d climb her up. The city is so dark that, even with our flashlights as help, I could only snap a couple of photos; my camera resisted the rest of my attempts. Here’s what I got:

There are a variety of protective “traps” and ideas built into these cities (which were constructed to provide safety during times of invasion and battle). The guide actually did scare Kirsten with this hand-grabbing stunt when it happened in real time. I don’t mind the re-enactment, though.

The next stop in our circle tour was at the Roman ruins (also undergoing serious excavation; Turkey has kicked itself into high gear when it comes to readying the place for more and more and more tourism) near the village of Sahinefendi:

After the Roman ruins, we zipped over to the peaceful and bucolic Keslik Monastery. I’ve taken so many photos of all these places before that I’m finding the random “small” shots more interesting. For example, hidden behind a piece of the monastery was a stack of brooms. Just the right weeds have been growing, drying, and getting tied up. Where better for a family to store a year’s worth of brooms than behind the monastery?

By late afternoon, we were back and Laura and Nurettin’s house, where we brushed the sand and dirt off our clothes (Mazi stuck with us) and prepared to take our hosts out to the hole-in-the-wall shish house of their choosing. One of my favorite things about Turkish food is the mezzes (appetizers). A various assortment of all kinds of everything is laid out across the table in dishes. Then everyone dives in.

Hey, guess what? Byron’s teaching a mezze class in Duluth in November! Sign up now, before it fills!

Dessert was kunife, which is essentially Shredded Wheat soaked in syrup and featuring cheese in the middle. This is a dessert that pains me not at all to pass up. This is not the case for Nurettin.

Virginia and Kirsten discovered a great Like of the stuff, too.

Incidentally, Nurettin has no gaydar for women and is completely unable to hold the thought in his head that Virginia and Kirsten–yes, their age difference can run interference on perceptions–are a couple. He has spent the last three days joshing Virginia about how he’s going to find her a husband. She has taken it well and deflected his every joke.

But, um, then he brought a geezer over tonight and attempted to facilitate an introduction.

I am eternally grateful that Virginia used to teach communication classes and is well able to negotiate her way through any potentially-tough situation. If that fails, feigning a complete inability to understand what’s being said and proposed also works.

So we gathered together tonight, as we have the last few, and tomorrow we’ll head out on the next leg of our trip and once again plaster Turkish kisses on the cheeks of our Cappadocian friends as we bid them a gratitude-laced adieu.

Ah, but before we zip off to see the sunset of the Hittites, we’re spending tomorrow morning at a carpet shop (a good one, run by a friend), having coffee with a different friend, and switching out our cruddy rental car for one with tires that can actually drive on loose rock. All the better if the tires have been aligned in the last decade.

In sum, it’s been yet another full day, during which we–seriously–accepted and declined no fewer than ten offers of tea.

Sloshingly yours,

I remain,

The full-bladdered Jocelyn

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Day Four: Cappadocia

Travel can be intense, which is why it can be so vivid and memorable. It also, in the worst case scenario, can be why traveling companions begin to chafe as the days tick by. Not so here.

I still like her:

I still like her, too:

And, lawsy, does I still likes him:

In the best news of recent days, I slept for ten hours last night. Not only has jet lag been an issue, trying to stay on top of grading and keeping up with my classes have cut into a couple hours’ sleep time each night. Of the six classes I’m teaching right now, four are ending this next week, as they are accelerated 8-week courses (I get to read research papers as we drive north, towards the Black Sea region, thus fulfilling what was never a life-long dream), so there’s not only the usual weekly work, but there’s also end-of-term work, like final exams that are about to come in. Fortunately–knock wool and lokum–I’ve had good Internet access so far, so getting online hasn’t been an issue.

The perfect way to follow-up a good night’s sleep (I recommend cave sleeping incidentally: cool and silent, unless a band of young Turks is setting off fireworks in the canyon at midnight) is with a laid-back morning. Once I rubbed the sand–both from Mr. Sand Man and the cave ceiling’s shedding–out of my eyes, I graded the work that had been turned in over night and then meandered up to the terrace, where one and all, plus our former neighbor, Balloon Pilot David, sat eating breakfast. As I ate a piece of cornbread made with cornmeal we’d left behind when we returned to the States, we basked in the sun and the backdrop of the valley below.

Then, taking Laura and Nurettin’s Golden Retriever, Karamel, with me, I headed up to my favorite country road for a run. Poor Karamel had already been out for a long walk earlier, and so she was dragging and panting the whole time. I just about had to carry her the last few miles home. Luckily, there are “ablutin’ fountains” (which some families also use for washing their laundry) out on some roads, so I was able to stop and give her a drink as we headed back into the village. Even more reviving were the grapes I fed her; the man who remembers me as The Woman Who Runs had seen me heading out and, as he was in his garden plot, gathering grapes, he promised to leave me a cluster on his fence post, for picking up after my run.

It’s amazing how much can be communicated without language.

Upon my return, we were feeling ready to face an afternoon of showing Virginia some great Cappadocian sights.

First, we stopped at Devrent Valley, also known as “Imagination Valley,” for every rock can be imagined into some figure…a camel…a mother holding a baby…a Viking ship. Because we lack imagination, that was a quick stop, allowing only minimal time for vamping.

Done with Devrent, we zipped to Zelve. Zelve is the town, made up of three canyons of cave homes, that was inhabited until 1960, at which time the government noticed the tendency of carved out rock to cave in. The citizens of the town were mandatorily relocated to a few apartment buildings down the road. Apparently, though, the danger to Turkish citizens outweighed the danger to German men in embroidered jean shorts, for the place remains open to tourists.

I just love it. Before today, I’d been there in April and July, but October is the best. It’s less hot, and the light is gorgeous. Even in the mere 14 months since we were here, much has changed in Turkey as a whole: the bathrooms are, by and large, better; the airports have been updated; and Zelve has new paved paths that make it accessible (and less dangerous) for all sorts of people.

We four people were in need of some energy-boosting gozleme (potatoes, cheese, or spinach inside a folded-up piece of yufka, which is like a large, thin soft tortilla).

Well fortified, we headed out to peek through holes and try out the new paths.

Cappadocia’s subtitle could be “Churches, Churches, Everywhere!”

Slick whitewash outside pigeon alcoves made it impossible for weasels and their creepy claws to find purchase. Thus, the pigeons could roost and remain safe from predators.

Virginia has no padding left on the bottoms of her feet, and she uses special insoles to help, yet every step can feel like “walking on marbles.” During an hour and a half of walking around, she never emitted any noise except oohs and ahhhs. Well, actually, she did more than that: she also translated a few of the best tidbits from the German group behind us. A favorite translated complaint: “Rocks, rocks. This place is just rocks.”

While it’s been great fun to share with Virginia some highlights from “our” Cappadocia, Byron and I are particularly enjoying the moments when we see something new, something we haven’t seen before. This evening, just before sunset, we went to the new sculpture park, a place created by Australian sculptor Andrew Rogers. Ideally, the  park is viewed by car, as the sculptures are spaced out from each other a fair ways; however, our cruddy rental car couldn’t make it up the steep, rocky road. We parked halfway up the road and walked the rest of the way. Not having a car also meant that we stuck to the closest “geoglyph.” As the sun set, I jogged up the road to the next glyph, as well. Other photos can be seen here.

No geoglyph here. I just like the view.
A couple of the glyphs seem almost Celtic or like crop circles gone wild.

This particularly Stonehenge-ian sculpture was impressive even off in the distance.
I jogged to this one as the sun dipped.

Hey, Paco? If you’re looking at these pictures with Allegra and Oma and Jay, you should know Daddy spent a long time looking for a chunk of obsidian for you. He ended up finding only a small piece–but a small piece is better than nothing. I wanted us to bring home one of these sculptures for you, but old Party Pooper Pa said no.

———————

With the sky dark, we zoomed into Goreme to stop by our friend Ruth’s carpet shop. Ruth has a deep and specialized knowledge in tribal rugs; fortunately, asking her one question opens the door, and the education begins. We sat for a half hour, transfixed by her explanation of old versus new, good versus bad, valuable versus crap. (I didn’t have my camera in the shop, but when Kirsten shares her pictures with me, I’ll post a few!)

By the time we staggered, happily, into the night and drove back to Laura’s, we were late for dinner, which earned us a stern reprimand. We groveled, and all was forgiven, which then allowed us all to sit down with two of Laura’s British friends who live in Ortahisar. One is a recently-retired airline pilot, and the other is an artist/writer/Egyptologist type who was able to fill us in a bit on the Hittites–since we’ll be visiting their ancient capital in a few days. They were completely lovely, so much so that we all fought off our yawns until a reasonable hour.

Now I’m back to grading; Byron’s back to sleeping; and in a few hours, Virginia and Kirsten will wake up very early so as to

stuff Virginia into the basket of a hot air balloon.

She’s never been in one before. She’s 75. It’s time.

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Day Three: Cappadocia

Graded class work until 2 a.m. Woke up twice before 5 a.m. Got dressed at 5:20 a.m. On shuttle to airport by 5:45 a.m.

Haven’t slept since.

Tragic sleep update is now officially over, as lack of sleep is only making me feel slightly loony (the main effect of which is that I’ve lost huge bits of my vocabulary, but I find smiling makes people think I may be dumb, but that I’m a benign blight), and so I should get to posting today’s highlights. Incidentally, I’m really appreciating your comments, and I’m really appreciating that these over-full days are getting recorded so that I can look back later and remember what the hell I actually did.

So we flew to Kayseri, rented a car, drove into the town of Urgup, and started visiting our old haunts. We went to our favorite fruit and nut guy and loaded up on presents for beloveds back home; we went to the Saturday market and stared at huge cabbages; we went to the used kilim shop and bought a few more used, um, what’s the word?

Then we went to Pancarlik Church and stopped at the Ortahisar overlook to stare at the stunning profile of our former village. We also drank tea at every stop, of course. My favorite was the guy at the overlook who, despite his limited English and my limited Turkish, managed to convey that he remembers me well as The Woman Who Runs.

I mean, if I had to leave a legacy behind, there could be worse titles. I didn’t tell him I was also The Woman Who Had the Runs, for example.

Closing out our day was our arrival at friend Laura’s home, a veritable compound in which every aspect makes one feel one is on a movie set. We are staying in two of her suites for a few nights, and when Virginia walked into the first one, I do believe it was the first time I’ve ever seen my quip-for-every-occasion friend fall speechless. Laura invited over another friend from our time here, who brought some cousins along, too, so it was a regular dinner party. Byron helped close it out in fine style by gifting our host and hostess with matted art work he had done expressly for them. For Laura’s boyfriend, Nurettin, there was a comic depicting Nurettin’s great-grandfather choosing the family’s surname in the 1920s (when Turks were required to select family names). For Laura, there was a pen-and-ink drawing of a famous mosque in the city of Adana. I daresay they were just the right audience to appreciate Byron’s talent.

Here, now, are the colors and textures and people who contributed to today’s bliss. Leading the list are my travel companions.

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Day Two: Istanbul

Sleep is still an issue. But let me give you highlights from today–a very good day, indeed.

We took the tram to Dolmabahce palace, which is where the sultans and their families started living in the 1800s, a place that remained the seat of power for the country until it became a republic. Once Turkey became a republic, the first president, Ataturk, used the palace until his death. We stared at the bed where he died. Even when people haven’t died in them, I tend to find beds interesting.

I wish I were flat in one right now.

Anyhow, here’s Dolmabahce Palace, overlooking The Bosphorous:

We had time standing in line to people watch.


The couple that sunglasses together, stays together. (Can you see the henna on the bottoms of her feet, if you peer through the straps of her shoes?)

Sunglass and henna free were these three:

I really like gates. By water.

And I like closed gates. By water.

And I like these people:

Here are our be-plasticized feet. No carpets were harmed in the touring of this palace.

After the palace, we had lunch. They weren’t able to make me the scrambled egg dish I ordered, as it wasn’t breakfast time. They could, however, make me an omelette.

After lunch, we took the tram to the Spice Market. Everywhere, always, are mosques and abluters.

Below, I present to you–SPICES!!

And lokum (aka “Turkish Delight”):

And tea:

And pretty junk:

And dried vegetables amongst other pretty junk:

Up close, the dried veggies (eggplant and peppers) are the most beautiful kind of red, white, and blue. These can be rehydrated and stuffed with meat to make dolmas.

For the evening meal, our great friend Elaine (she of three Turkish husbands; she now lives in Istanbul instead of Cappadocia) and her daughter Selin came into our part of town. We stopped and had a street vendor do some calligraphy:

At the restaurant, this guy made us a huge “mixed grill” platter to share. He did not lack for personality.

By the end of the meal, my heart was more full than my stomach. To have so many people I love all at one table

warmed me from toe to scalp.

Fortunately, a cone full of pistachio dondurma (Turkish ice cream made with orchid root as the thickener) cooled me down

to a perfect temperature for sleep.

As of this typing, I have 3 hours to zzzzzzzzzz before we get up and catch a shuttle and then a plane to the city of Kayseri. The next three nights will enjoyed in our former village of Ortahisar as we visit our great pal, Laura, at her New York Times-featured cave home.

Joy!

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Day One: Istanbul

After an easy flight to NYC, followed by a long-but-okay (despite the screening of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL, which seemed to last forever) flight to Istanbul,

we’re here.

I actually, so far, don’t feel one way or another about being back. Another way to put this is that it feels like we never left. And when you’re in a place you never left, well, that just feels like home.

Yet, hmmmm, it does feel like we’ve traveled and are doing “a thing,” so I guess the upshot is that I don’t know how I feel. Since I’ve had 3 hours of sleep in the last two days, the first order of business is to get some sleep. I’m pretty sure rest = normal emotional functioning.

I shall be pictoral, therefore, but word-brief.

I mean, you know, word-brief for me.

Here’s an overview of our first day in Istanbul:

The bed in our Istanbul hotel, a city that takes its sights and sounds very seriously. And loudly.
Wouldn’t The Blue Mosque make a delicious birthday cake?
This is what Turkey looks like if you’re not in a tourist area or buying a ticket at a museum.
Here’s where men perform their ablutions before going into the mosque to pray (photo taken at the Sokollu Mehmet Pasha mosque).
Virginia and Kirsten wrap up before entering the Sokollu Mehmet Pasha mosque, a place full of life and young boys at the madressa/ school.
Virginia and Kirsten prove they are even bigger hams than schoolboys at a madressa. Wait: can Islamic schoolboys be hams? I know they can’t eat ’em.
Abluters doing their abluting.
At The Blue Mosque, the worker ladies maintain a protective barrier between tourists and those praying. Interestingly, these women are not allowed to pray in this area.
When albuters are done abluting, this is what they do. I continue to find myself transfixed by the postures.
When Byron told this guy “NO” twenty times, he got aggressive and took some polish on his fingers and rubbed it all over one of Byron’s shoes anyhow, pitching himself onto his stool in the street and grabbing Byron’s foot. Giving in, Byron let it happen. We all joked around. At the end, the guy said “100 lira” (about 70 USD). Words ensued, even after “the price” dropped to 35 lira (22 USD). I finally had to leave because I was so OVER the attempts to embarrass into paying huge money for a service we never wanted. Ready to shout the guy down, I excused myself and let the nice people left behind decide to give him 10 lira. In other news, I hear this kind of stuff is even worse in Egypt.
Ah, the ultimate mood restorer: finding the ever-elusive Actual Good Cup of Turkish Coffee. It was fabulous, as was the rosewater lokum on the side.
I got that amazing cup of Turkish coffee at The Museum of Islamic Art, which is housed in a former sultan’s palace. In one grand room, huge rugs covered all the walls. No flash photography was allowed, but let’s pretend all sultan’s palaces are naturally blurry.
Two of my favorite rugs in the museum.
A turban ornament. Note to self: get turban.
A former sultan’s turban topper. When I looked at this thing and realized I not only could have been wearing a turban all these years…but that I could have been topping it with loony accessories, I started to think I’ve been missing out on a lot of opportunities to have fun.
Then I went outside and breathed in the cool air and wondered why they ever started calling that thing The Blue Mosque.
Then I walked down the stairs to the ethnographic museum and remembered that I’m pretty much having fun all the time, so long as there are no shoe shiners around. I’m especially having fun when I get to see indigenous homes. I mean, JEEHOSEPHAT: that’s the roof of a yurt there. With a blurry Virginia right by it!
Just as awesome was an actual full yurt. WITH A BLURRY BYRON RIGHT BY IT!
After going around the corner, I met a new friend, Hanife. Quiet girl, but very diligent about her hand-dyeing. Her kilims kick ass, people.
Virginia took one look at the display of hamam-wear and noted, “That girl’s a walking advertisement for Bed, Bath, and Beyond.”

Pssssssssst.

You know what I’m going to do now?

Sleep.

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We’re Going to Need Some Witnesses

…because we’ve made a will.

Only twelve years past any reasonable expectation of such a document being drawn up.

I guess the drafting of such an important disposition, even at this late date, frees us to die with impunity.

Whew.

This is important because Byron and I are getting on an airplane on Wednesday and leaving the kids behind for twelve days, in the care of their grandparents.

That reality only makes me a little bit super sick to my stomach at the same time it sounds like the recipe for an amazing time.

To understand fully the story behind our imminent trip, you may need to take a quick glance at this previous post, and this one, both of which detail the kind of friendship that makes Han Solo and Chewbacca question their bond and realize they are mere feckless pretenders in terms of egoless cooperation and tackling the challenges the universe. I’m about to go on a trip spurred by the kind of friendship that makes The Golden Girls seem like a troupe of annoying mock-ups whose interactions–meant to come across as authentic and original–smack mostly of shtick and cliche.

Wait. Even outside the context of this post, The Golden Girls chafe.

Let me try again. I’m about to take a trip thanks to a friendship so intensely full of “we’ve got to do this thing together” that it seems, in comparison, Louise was casually digging through her purse, looking for a breath mint, while Thelma announced, “Actually, the gas tank’s on Empty. I can’t gun it over the edge of the canyon.”

If my point is still muddy, let me express it through a picture. I’m about to take a trip born out of the reciprocal love this woman I have shared since 1996:

The point here is that I have been blessed with great friendship, and from that friendship has arisen the opportunity to go on an amazing journey.

I had notions of writing up the entire story here, but as I look at the calendar and the clock, and as I step around the heap of “I might pack this” clothing on the floor of the bedroom, and as I count up the discussion messages that need processing in my online classes, and as I eye the shopping list of things to buy before we go, I realize time has gotten the better of me.

Thus, I’ll simply share the video I posted in my classes last week, a video that gives my students a heads-up. It’s also a really good video to watch if you’ve been wishing you could hear the words um and and more often.

Let’s hope I do better at posting updates during these travels than I did with the East Coast road trip this past summer. Otherwise, you’ll be hearing about this one until the first tulips are poking their petals through the dirt come Spring.

So:

We’ve got a will. We’ve got plane tickets. We’ve got a plan.

Can I get a witness?

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Then There Was the Time Jimmy Carter Woke Up Playboy to the Notion of Committing Adultery in One’s Heart

Perhaps it started when then-President Richard Nixon invited Elvis Presley to the White House to discuss the possibility of the drug addict taking on a role as “federal-agent-at-large” with the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

It definitely gained momentum when Chevy Chase began regularly spoofing Gerald Ford’s clutziness on Saturday Night Live.

It felt like glamour in the Reagan era when an ex-actor stood up and delivered his lines with George H.W. Bush as his sidekick monkey.

It became a natural part of the national psyche when “usually-briefs”-wearing Bill Clinton blasted his saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show.

Often to the detriment of policy and platform, modern presidents and pop culture have become irrevocably intertwined. While Nixon issued his invitation to Elvis out of a sort of bewilderment about how to rein in the counterculture, today’s presidential candidates act not out of bewilderment but savvy.

They know that getting elected these days rests on their ability to tolerate Joy Behar’s fidgeting, to act as though Jay Leno is the nice guy he pretends to be, to tweet anniversary wishes to their wives, to eat dinner at Sarah Jessica Parker’s house, to “slow jam” the news with Jimmy Fallon, to throw a few special-filter photos up on Instagram.

The plural pronoun in that previous paragraph should be changed to singular, truth be told.  The guy who does all that is Obama.

Romney, who suffers from the combination of Brobdingnagian personal finances (which release him from the impulse to pander to the plebes) and Mormonism (which assures his wife wears Temple garments beneath her dresses and that he sidesteps the caffeinated dangers of Mountain Dew), has struggled to harness the power of pop culture. Yes, he’s doing the circuit of talk shows; yes, he’s got a reliable staffer sending out tweets. But mostly, he’s still the guy who wonders why airplane windows don’t open.

I can’t get too indignant about the mixing of nominees with Ellen and Oprah. Candidates have always relied on media outlets to package their messages. The difference is that “media” has morphed into something beyond straightforward journalistic reporting, and today’s audiences have been trained to expect dancing along with their policy messages. It may be dumb as dogs jumping through hula hoops that a politician has to list his favorite television shows before he can talk taxes, but that’s the new reality (incidentally, Romney enjoys Friday Night Lights while Obama favors Homeland). The game has changed, and those who want to win the game have to play along.

Whether unfortunately or simple fact, pop culture can swing an election.

Because something in me (perhaps the fourteen-year-old who still just wants to wear really high heels) savors nearly every aspect of pop culture, I actually see value come out of the seemingly-irrelevant moments when politics intersect with celebrity. For example, it does say something to me that Romney likes a tv show about Texas football and Obama looks forward to a CIA thriller that focuses on Al Qaeda-influenced mind games.

Even more, I actually had to stop the elliptical trainer at the YMCA the other day when I encountered a slick “Overheard on the Campaign Trail” blurb in the light-as-air magazine US Weekly. The piece was meant to be innocuous enough, but the quotes contained within in hit on fundamental values differences that explain why I’ll vote the way I do next month.

In the piece, both long-suffering candidates were caught attempting to connect with celebrity culture–and, as a by product, with voters.

First:

President Obama spoke at Jay-Z’s 40/40 Club in New York City, joking, “Jay-Z now knows what my life is like. We both have daughters. And our wives are more popular than we are. …We’ve got a little bond.”

Then:

On September 14th, Mitt Romney got gossipy on Live! With Kelly & Michael, when he admitted, “I’m kind of a Snooki fan. Look how tiny she’s gotten. She’s lost weight. She’s energetic. Just her spark-plug personality is kind of fun.”

The fact that Snooki gave birth on August 26th makes me laugh about Romney’s comment, as I know he wasn’t referring to post-partum weight loss. I doubt he even knew she’d had a baby a few weeks before. Rather, he was referring to last year, when Snooki cut her weight to 98 pounds through the use of a diet pill program (something else I’ll wager he’s unaware of).

His comments make me screamy.

SCREEEEEEEEEEAMY. And SHOUTY.

First, we’ve got Obama who, with his usual facility, gives rapper Jay-Z an all-in-fun poke about how wonderful it is to play second microphone to one’s hugely charismatic wife. Obama is down with Jay-Z.

But Romney? Seriously, I had to stop my non-diet-pill approach to genuine and lasting health for a minute there and pause the elliptical. That his first thought about a female pertained to her weight and size was seriously dismaying to me. That his subsequent thoughts about her were patronizing, even condescending, infuriated me further.

Obama focused on a message of “Hey, friend: you and I are damn lucky to have powerful women in our lives.”

Romney sent a message of “Dither dither, blither blather, women should be thin but move around with enough vigor that their boobies bounce while they stir the spaghetti sauce for my dinner.”

Sure, they have differing agendas about The Real Issues, too, about the state of the middle class and the economy and education and health care,

but it turns out I’m a values voter.

And it’s pop culture that’s doing the best job of highlighting those differences and giving the populace the best sense of the place from which each candidate will work on any issue.

Because I’m in possession of a pair of bouncing boobies,

and because I want my boobies to be my business,

and because I want my boobies, which might get lumps in them, to be covered by health insurance,

and because my boobies delight that it’s my husband who makes the spaghetti sauce,

I respect the man who respects women.

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My Life Fell in the Woods, But It Didn’t Make a Sound

Box of Godiva chocolates, delivery from ProFlowers, fully-loaded gift card, sentiment from Hallmark. Envelope of cash, place setting from the registry, His ‘n Hers towels, crock pot, expensive single-use dress. Pack of Pampers, pair of knitted booties, engraved rattle, assortment of onesies. Tray of deli meats, donation in the deceased’s honor, potted plant. Seashell, scrapbook of island photos, persistent rash, bracelet from the gift shop. Dried wrist corsage, mortarboard tassel, bulletin of names. Brochures, invitations, ticket stubs, post cards, certificates, medals, yearbooks.

To these objects, we attach great emotion and power. Packed into labeled plastic tubs, stacked on closet shelves, pinned to bulletin boards, shoved into cardboard boxes, they accumulate into a mountain of evidence: Exhibits A through ZZZ prove that we’ve done things. Been an active part of our own lives. Mattered.

It’s as predictable as a chorus of birds twittering at dawn, this human need to commemorate the significant moments of our lives.

There are events, and the events are coupled with physical reminders, for the event will end, but the thing remains. We apprize emblems of great days.

For example, in my current phase of life, I have become liberatingly unsentimental; still, the loss of my wedding ring would cause a hitch in my curtsey. It’s not so much what the ring symbolizes—as I often suggest to Byron, we should discreetly divorce and then, in thirty years, announce our ruse to those in our lives for whom approval and acceptance are—queerly!– linked to legality. It irks me that millions don’t care to consider marriage is perhaps more about reassuring those around the couple (and providing right of access to each other in times of crisis) than it is about providing a source of sustained commitment between the two involved. My ring is not some Precious that remands our love. Even bare, my fingers would itch to run through my beau’s hair.

Rather, I would mourn the loss of my ring because I loved the day Byron and I ran on the Root River Trail and ended at the jeweler’s cottage shop. Together, we talked through ideas, first entertaining a thought about rings in Japanese Mokume Gane style but ultimately going with the artist’s idea for making a design that was reflective of the rain pattern on a kimono. I loved that we got a lesson in metallurgy and how to make randomness out of specifics. I loved that day, so I love my ring. I would be sad to lose it.

Of course, the loss of the ring wouldn’t negate the marriage. Even without the symbolic thing to show the world, the life event still occurred. Even without a kimono-inspired pattern of rain speckling the ring on my finger, I still had a beautiful day on the Root River Trail, ending it, most importantly, with a bowl of ice cream from the shop next to the jeweler. Even without the life event of a ceremony in which the rain rings played a major role, my adoration of Byron would remain fixed. It’s about the feeling, not the ceremony, not the ring.

Then again, I might just be getting crustier with each passing year. Flowing counter to my thinking are the 2.3 million couples who marry every year in the United States, averaging an outlay of $20,000 each as they agonize over sizes of blooms and varieties of mauve, full of certitude that the perfection of a single day prognosticates continued rightness for sixty ensuing years. Pressed into albums across the planet are paper napkins inscribed with remnant benedictions of bolstering fact: “Jason and Martha Sue united in love June 19th, 1996.”

Archeologically, this napkin is an intriguing artifact. As a talisman of happiness, it’s highly suspect.

I am bemused by the emphasis put on memorial iconography and even more bemused—confounded, even—by the emphasis put on commemorative actions. When the two intersect, I have to resort to deep yogic breathing (in for a count of five; out for a count of ten); on more than one occasion, I’ve found myself in the midst of wedding congregants, many of whom have paid several thousand dollars to get their entire families to the “destination,” buy the specified fancy clothes, and drop their suitcases in one of the reserved block of rooms. Sometimes, if the organist is fiddling around with his sheet music too long before beginning the prelude, I even have time to look at the guy next to me and muse, with a long, slow exhale, “Poor sod. When you sat down next to the groom in math class your freshman year of college and tossed out a casual, ‘Do you have an extra pencil?”, I bet you never envisioned a day when you’d have to take out a new line of credit just to prove your unflinching support of his life choices.”

Then I wonder, “Why do so many couples conflate the lavishness of the wedding with the success of the marriage?”

Then I wonder if I’ll be able to dodge the receiving line and if the reception will be so rude as to house a cash bar.

Speaking of things that make me crusty.

A few hours later, I make a break for the door and dash out into the freedom of Not Wedding,

and a few days later, the expensive single-use dress takes up residence in a zippered bag,

and a few years after that, a baby is born, or counseling begins, or papers are filed,

and the next event happens, and the mountain of evidence that life is being lived grows. We’ve been active participants in our own lives. We’ve done some things. We’ve mattered.

The papers, tubs, boxes, albums corporealize the chimeraic.

What’s so fascinating about all this is that these tendencies are common to all cultures and peoples. On every continent, and not just with weddings, humans manufacture fuss and bother to create touchstones, to define moments in time, to assign thrill to a set of hours.

We try to get our hands around our days, to grasp them, so that they can be plucked, parsed, worried, appreciated, felt, weighed. We want to quantify, to catalogue, to compile drawers of mementos–so that we can continue to thrum with the resonance of the special. Public, shared experiences confirm our worth and place us into collective memory. After each event, there is the archiving: we count and hold and record the minutiae of “I did this.”

We go on a three-week vacation. Some mark their mileage with every filling of the gas tank and track per gallon achievement.

We weigh ten pounds less than three years ago. Some log every calorie consumed and minute of exercise sweated.

We read five books last month. Some share their reactions in groups; others announce progress on Goodreads.

We swam twenty laps. Some track their splits with every length.

2,976 people died. Some write books about the heartbreaking loss of a single individual.

Despite all of this—despite all of all of this: I would argue that we are more connected to each other by our untold moments than those we organize and announce. You had a wedding. I had a wedding. You went to your grandma’s funeral. I went to my grandma’s funeral. You went to Yosemite. I went to Yosemite. Someone hit you. Someone hit me. Yes, yes, yes. These commonalities are the yarns that knit tight the degrees and minutes of latitude and longitude into a beautiful, tangled spinning ball.

But isn’t at least 60% of life beating with moments that are unremarkable? That belong to you alone? That aren’t worth commemorating? That you would never think or want to share with someone else?

Our bathroom moments, for example, are not the stuff of sharing—unless you live in a frat house or are unfortunate enough to stumble upon me enjoying a loo amongst the trees when I’m out for a run. We also don’t care to detail publicly those quirky little non-scatological incidents of the bathroom: of trying to hang a new roll of toilet paper but dropping the entire contraption and having it skitter out of reach as we sit, cemented to the porcelain oval by business-in-progress…of retiring for a private yet colossal go-to-pieces in the middle of a family gathering…of tweezing a chin…of crawling around with a Kleenex in hand, swiping at accumulated hairs congregating in the corners, sink, shower drain.

Nor do we jot in our diaries or publish in the newspaper thoughts entertained while parking in front of the grocery store; while tying our shoes; while unpacking our lunch bags; while walking the dog. It’s the non-event times of our lives—the ones we never turn into a punchline-littered monologue to be shared at holiday celebrations—that unite us most profoundly.

All those things you’ve never told anyone about,

all those times you opened a drawer and stuffed in the clean laundry

all those times you affixed your signature to the line at the bottom

all those times your heart hurt, and you lay on your bed alone and cried your lids puffy

all those times you opened the fridge and ate three grapes

all those times you absentmindedly ripped a leaf into pieces

I’ve got them, too. I wasn’t there for yours, but they’re mine, too. They’ve never brushed against each other, but we share completely our discrete experiences.

It’s hard work to mull over moments in my life no one knows about. They are private trices not because they are special, nor that I hoard them unto myself, but more that they happened, and then I forgot to remember. They are mundane, flitting, quiet.

I forget to remember, and there’s no inscribed napkin that reads “Dusty Dashboard united in cleaning with Windex and Paper Towel, July 6th, 2004” to remind me.

The essence of these instants is not so much that I was alone—the definition of the unvoiced moment doesn’t limit participation to a single soul. In many of my “no one knows” moments, others were present, but they wouldn’t know that my brain would store them as part of a memory flash. Fundamental to these ticks belonging only to me is that I never put words to them or recounted them to anyone who is ongoingly in my life. As I think back and try to park myself in the moments that, say, my husband has never heard about as we shovel wild rice salad into our mouths, my kids have never heard recounted during a long car trip, my gal pals have never been regaled with over a lavender martini,

I realize that many of them are moments of intimacy

of questions that wonder “Do you like this?”

But just as many are moments of tears or fears

of watching the end of a beloved television series

of waking up in the night with a start, certain someone is standing at the foot of the bed

of stubbing a toe and needing to lean on the kitchen counter until the pain subsides.

Yet the most interesting “no one knows” moments, to me, are not those that rely on heightened emotion or adrenaline to gain their permanence in memory

I have a deep appreciation for those that are purely nothing moments. You know the ones. They fill most of your days.

Here’s one of my nothings; by the act of my articulating it, does it become something?

The night I turned 30, the Oscars were on,

and I sat in front of the television in black leggings, making a pair of snowshoes.

I was trying to challenge myself, in terms of tackling the spatial puzzle that is weaving cord correctly on snowshoes,

and, to be perfectly honest, I was also trying to become someone who could say, casually, in conversation, that she’d made her own snowshoes.

I was trying to become worthy of a certain kind of person.

But most telling was my fascination with what women were wearing to the big awards show as I held the lacing diagram up in front of my face, again, then again. How was I to remember over-under-around when Halle Berry’s bodice was sheer?

Finally, feeling proud that I had figured out the correct knotting, I lit a match, so as to melt off the end of the cord,

and a drip from the melt landed on my leg,

burning a hole through my leggings

and sizzling my skin.

I wore those leggings with the hole for years after

and never really told anyone how I’d sat on greasy carpet in a darkly wood-paneled house,

alone,

as I turned 30,

hoping I was making myself more interesting–

but mostly, most honestly, enjoying rooting for Julianne Moore as Best Supporting Actress in Boogie Nights.

No one else has known of this before,

just as no one has ever heard about how I once babysat for a family that, technically, was on my sister’s roster,

but she was busy that night, and I had been deemed suitable back-up,

and I was maybe 13.

The kids had gone to bed.

I was only five doors up from my own house

with a few more hours to pass until the parents came home.

So I looked over their bookshelves

found Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi’s book about the Charles Manson murders

and started reading.

An hour later, I was terrified,

having been opened up to possibilities I’d never before realized,

and I paced the hallway outside the children’s rooms

back and forth

not able to stop reading

not able to stop being horrified

certain they were coming for me

for us

knowing I had to defend the front line

but that, despite my fighting, they would kill me. And then I would never be pretty or loved. I needed more time, if I was ever going to get to pretty or loved.

Just as no one knows about the time I went to get my Austen on and headed to the theater, by myself, to see Sense and Sensibility. At the end of the film, the lights rose, and I saw a colleague from the composition department standing up; she had come to the movie by herself, too. We caught eyes, exchanged greetings, and I thought, “We both have cubicles in the same shared office; we could have arranged to see this movie together.” On the heels of that thought came this: “But I’m pretty sure neither of us really wanted to do that. It’s a safe wager that we both, in truth, are awfully glad we didn’t try to turn professional collegiality into forced society. Her eyes were just as glad as mine, when we exchanged glances, that we’d each come alone. By sticking to ourselves, the movie was about the movie and not trying to talk to each other until the lights dimmed.”

Continuing to remember the unremembered, I see myself

listening to a choir of summer bugs hum while lying in the sole patch of shade under the tree in the corner of the yard;

taking a spoon out into the garage, where the deep freeze lived, and standing in front of the open freezer, eating the softened corners of ice cream directly out of the box;

dropping to the floor of my office and doing push-ups;

pulling into a rest stop off the highway, turning of Shawn Colvin, tipping the seat back, and trying to catch a cat nap;

trying to open my electric garage door during a power outage;

riding my bike down Rehberg Avenue with a bassoon balanced on the back;

using sticky tack to hang up a poster of Hall & Oates;

flipping over a couch cushion to cover up a stain;

sitting down on the curb to empty a pebble out of my shoe;

swimming into the shallows and “walking” on my hands, then elbows, to shore;

being a very-specific someone who, unpinned from her narrative of Major Life Events, could be anyone.

Recently, my husband and I both read Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, a story of how the author repaired her derailed life by spending three months hiking the Western United States’ Pacific Crest Trail. As Byron and I discussed our reactions to this book, I noted that her story of hiking the trail was more about all the times she got off the trail—the times she met up with others, re-entered civilization, shared a drink, opened a re-supply box, took a shower—than her days on the trail. “It’s like she’s trying to write a book about how the hiking fixed her, but the truth is, the book ends up being about how the interactions and culture of that place changed her,” I argued.

“I suppose,” Byron agreed. “But any long-distance story is ultimately pretty boring. When I think back on the six-week bike trip I did [from Seattle to Minneapolis], I don’t remember the countless minutes of pedaling and watching the asphalt blur by. I remember the people I encountered. I remember where I stayed. I remember really good meals. I remember the unusual, the rare occurrence. What I remember most from my bike trip is all the times I wasn’t biking. Strayed couldn’t make a book out of describing every tree and rock she saw while hiking, even if it was the peaceful remove of just those things that healed her.”

Fair enough.

Here then. Try this. Our weddings and funerals and graduations are the times we pull off the trail, get off the bike, and the bulletins and brochures and flowers and plaques are the pages in the book reminding us of those stops.

I still maintain, though, that it’s only when we stash our bikes and set down our books–when we forget we’re on a journey or that narratives can be recorded–when we recline against a tree and absentmindedly crack open a pistachio and drop the shells to the ground, unaware of thought or action–when we release completely out of attentiveness and shift into the no-mindedness of just being–it is only then

that we all become One.

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Cupcake Wars

A whimsical side-adventure to our road trip this summer was Cupcake Wars. I’d like to say I forced my family into participation because that would make me sound strong and powerful and as though I wield a Dominating Will,

but if I did try to convince you my family needed to be forced to eat cupcakes, then my pants would be on fire, and I’m not in the mood to deal with scar tissue. Truth is there was no grousing in response to this family challenge–although Byron would have bowed out earlier than the rest of us because he’s the kind of effer who can look at a sugary baked good and say, “No thanks. Don’t need any.”

I tried one time to say those words, yet the strangled gargle that emerged from my larynx ended up sounding like, “Please, sir, may I have another?”

‘Twas I, therefore, who declared war on the cupcakes. Too many of those little buggers running around, smearing their buttercream on the walls, taunting children on the playground. They needed to be taught a lesson, hardcore.

We launched our first attack at Georgetown Cupcake, the business featured in The Learning Channel’s program D.C. Cupcakes (wherein two very nice-seeming sisters awkwardly deliver “no, these aren’t scripted” barbs aimed at creating tension where none exists; the show is such a flatline, in fact, that I neither scooted to the edge of my seat nor quivered nervously during the episode when they made a dog sculpture out of cupcakes and just before The Reveal, the pup’s fondant nose fell off. Normally, a nose falling off elicits from me at least a wee gasp; I may be a Will Dominatrix, but I’m not entirely unfeeling).

The storefront is quite nice, and once inside, one does feel that a television program could break out at any moment.

We ordered a sampler of gorgeous-looking cupcakes:

Then, having received a communique from the general at the front lines (“Reinforcements needed at Sprinkles!”), we moved our battalion down the road to the next point of engagement:

While Georgetown Cupcakes was founded in–haha! I’ll never tell!–Sprinkles Cupcakes has its roots in Los Angeles and is much-touted as the go-to shop for various celebrities, including Katie Holmes. If eating a Sprinkles cupcake could assure me of the kind of happy life Holmes has been enjoying, count me

…hey. wait. a. minute.

Just when I started thinking about Katie and divorces and Scientology and crazy-intense alien husbands and the collateral damage inflicted on children, my attention was caught, magpie-like, by something shiny.

Or at least what constitutes shiny to someone with a sweet tooth.

Lots of times, “shiny” is covered with sprinkles. Especially when it’s from a shop named Sprinkles.

It only took me a few days to riddle that one out.

With ten cupcakes from two famed shops in hand, we sat outside and cut each cupcake into four bites. After the first few bits of goodness flew into our maws, we looked at each other and began the voting. Who would win the war? WHOOOOOOOO?

“This chocolate ganache one is okay.”

“The cookies and cream one isn’t bad.”

“The vanilla one does the  job.”

“The lemon one seems all right.”

To a one, these expensive, ballyhooed cupcakes were

adequate.

They looked great. However, as is the case with most cupcakes I’ve ever met, they were no piece of cake. Always, no matter the advertising or cost, I’ve found that cupcakes are…okay. Yet I continue to believe that somewhere a cupcake exists that’s something extraordinary, something sock-knocking-off-ish, something that causes me to yell “Wow!” with such enthusiasm that crumbs poof out into the air to punctuate my exclamation.

Because I’m not easily daunted, particularly when it comes to important scientific-type research, I insisted we also try the cupcakes at New York City’s Magnolia Bakery. These sweets were made famous by the ladies of Sex and the City; on occasion, Carrie Bradshaw would extract her ankles from behind her ears long enough to belt a garbage bag around her torso and teeter her Louboutins over to the bakery so as to enjoy cupcake and conversation during her refractory period.

We bought a couple of the Magnolia’s “Grand Central” cupcakes, which we then sat and ate in front of Rockefeller Center.

The Magnolia cupcakes, like the others, were fine. They were a little more of fine than Georgetown Cupcakes’ products, and they were distinctly better than Sprinkles’.

In each case, the cake didn’t take the cake. The frosting did. Magnolia had the best buttercream, and that fact, coupled with the bonus chocolate medallions stuck on top, gave NYC the win.

Not only did we declare peace by parceling up Europe–the spoils of every war, right?–we also drafted The Treaty of Fat Thighs, which vowed eternal detente with Cupcake. From this day forward, we shall leave Cupcake well and goodly alone. Its borders are safe from future incursions by this faction.

It might do well to lock up its medallions and buttercream, though, in the event that our hunger reignites.

However, it’s a fair guess that, with Gourmet Ice Cream and Silky Smooth Cheesecake flanking Cupcake’s borders, my family will wage its next war in richer territory.

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