Writing Captivitylogues

Pascal's Pensées

Monday, December 21, 2020.

It is the Winter solstice. The sun was at its southernmost around 5 a.m. At one moment then the sun stopped its southerly movement on the horizon. It began its path north. It will now rise a little more left or north each morning.

I awoke with dawn’s first light around 6.

Looking out the window, I see the wood smoke spills over the eaves outside my windows. This morning, it does not rise but flows down the mountainside into the woods toward the valley. Heavier air above pushes it downhill.

Around 7:30, the sun rises through the fog. The morning is brilliantly shrouded, brightened even more by the layer of snow it reflects upon. And the disc of the sun translucent spreads large and indistinct behind the bare trees.

I arose to open the window and take a picture.

Solstice Dawn

I understand this is the farthest the sun will be from me for 6 months—when the Summer Solstice occurs, and the sun rises at its northernmost point.

From my perspective, the horizon is a kind of calendar. The sunrises move right to left, north to south, left to right, south to north. Time is marked 365 times in small increments.

A year from now, it will be back here.

There are so many ways time is marked in our lives.

I mentioned last week I ignored the calendar display in the store. I checked. Indeed, I have not turned the page past May 2020 on the calendar above my desk. That desk is so cluttered I haven’t sat at it for a couple years. Instead, I sprawl my paperwork on the conference room table. It is a massive slab of wood about 4 feet wide and 12 feet long. I periodically “clean up” but have not gotten to the point of clearing out and returning to my office desk.

There is so much paper in my life. My corner of the table has collectibles and dreary statements and notices that are for my eyes only.

A resolution.

To work my way back to my office.

Maybe next year—which is less than 10 days away. Another artificial date—something we can hang on to.

I wonder what the next twelve months will bring—here and out in the world.

All I can do is follow the sun. I’m very lucky to have this perspective. I’m a living breathing anthropological observer of cosmology (The study of the physical universe considered as a totality of phenomena in time and space.) Humans have been studying the skies since regular celestial phenomena were first noticed. (Think Stonehenge and long before.) I wish I understood it all better.

I wish I understood a lot of things better.

Monday is also the beginning of winter. This is an arbitrary date, as the solstice doesn’t always occur on the 21sts of December and June. But the dates do provide structure for us. It is something we can look forward to—if one can look forward to winter.

My wonderment at the universe lasted a few minutes.

I had to let Pippin and then Merry out. I’m very lucky they can just run free. They don’t go far—unless I let them both out together.

I had to open the dampers on the woodstove and toss some wood in.

I put the whistling teapot on to boil.

I attended to other morning rituals. I washed my very long hair. I’m getting used to my little (though growing) ponytail. I wear knit hats often when it is frigid. I don’t want to catch cold or any other viruses. The hats won’t go over the ponytail, so they are pushed a little forward on my head. Something else to get used to.

Then I crawled back in bed to write my journal entries. Because these stories have turned into “Captivitylogues” (did I just coin that?) I try to avoid duplication of events and thoughts here and in my journals. The old journals are now about a 2-foot stack in the closet. A sequential number is taped to each spine.

A year ago, I was concerned these stories were becoming Travelogues too often.

Then down the mountain and to the warehouse. We lost a good driver, so I’m in the rotation more often. This morning my contractor surprised me by wanting to come down. When I want him, he is often unavailable, if things aren’t urgent, for months.

Now he urgently wants to see me about some old lingering projects.

During Christmas week! Well, Christmas isn’t what it used to be. Plus, I’ve learned to take people like him when I can get them. So, my day became structured around him. I had other plans.

“I’ll meet you at Gaithersburg around 10:30.”

He was planning to redo the spit shields at the point of sale. We had jury-rigged them when we expanded the counter area to provide more separation for customers and employees. It would have been disruptive tearing them all down when we are open. The improvisations looked fine.

I took him back to see if he knew an electrician who could put more light fixtures in the dark corners in the new spaces we expanded into when we were closed by the County. When I went back, I saw there were new fixtures! But they were putting out hardly any light.

WG Dim Light

There were black gray things that look like Darth Vader mood lights!

“How long have these been up?” I asked a manager.

“A month, I think.”

I’ve been in at least once a week. I didn’t notice them because they really don’t add any light. I sent images to the landlord with a gentle complaint. He said he would reach out to his electrician who did the work.

Since the contractor was here, I looked around for things he COULD actually do.


Every bookseller (and book collector) dreams of infinite bookcases. Borges did too, I imagine.

I searched, and to my surprise, I found places for about 10. And we could put built-in record bins in the expanded LP room. Currently, we are using 8-foot plastic tables and milk crates. We can do better. And the built-ins would hold more records.

More! I love that word.

I left him there to measure and headed back to Frederick. We made plans to meet at the Frederick store after he had lunch.

At the warehouse, I checked in with Annika doing research.

“I think it is real!” she said excitedly.

On Sunday I…well, I’ll backtrack there further down.

When my contractor’s lunch was done and he was on his way to the Frederick store (“40” for short), I headed over as well. I took an empty van to multitask—doing a swap.

There has been a long steady decline in sales of CDs and DVDs. COVID has pretty much killed our DVD rental market. More and more people are streaming. Hollywood is bypassing theaters—due to COVID. We have calculated that we should decrease the space devoted DVDs—rentals especially. Oddly, the sale of the “obsolete” medium of vinyl records has been doing well—even online, we are seeing all kinds of records selling. Except classical. Those are tough to sell.

But the records already have an enormous amount of space. And the way the store is configured, putting bookcases down there just wouldn’t work.

What can we use that space for?


We are getting in more “things.” Bric-a-brac. Tchotzkes. Collectibles. Toys… Some of these are valuable and / or fragile.

We’ve decided to build some Wonder Curio Cabinets.

Maybe something like this:

Curio Cabinets

Only more durable.

And with sliding lockable doors.


The store was very busy. Lots of customers. Lots of employees.

A few stories ago, I mentioned we had acquired a hoarder’s collections of old ties.

Hoarder's Ties

There are a lot more hanging from other rails.

We have plenty at the other stores too.

Ties are a traditional Christmas gift. Ugly ties even more so. There are a LOT of ugly ties in stock. 1960s and 70s…

Just sayin’…

Ummm, maybe they are even collectible.

That store location is 30 years old now. This is its 30th Christmas season. It is my 40th as a bookseller.

But this is the first we’ve been in a pandemic.

I’m trying to get in the mood.

The weekend was my usual.

I came in to do “Chuck” carts.

I also watch EPL soccer. More correctly, the games, which often go from 7 a.m. til 5:30 if there are 4 that day, played in the background on my laptop.

I’ll look up if I hear something interesting is going on.

There were fewer carts because the snow kept sorters away. I also did more carts than usual during the week to kill time and because there weren’t other pressing things to do—because of the snow.

I even did some of the “problem carts.” These are carts that have exotica on them. Archives of letters, photo albums, autographed pictures…

Problem Carts

Some I just can’t face. They are overloaded with problems. Good material but difficult to quantify and list online.

On Sunday, I decided I needed something different.

I had done the two Gaithersburg Farm pallets. They were mostly old stuff. But I found nothing exceptional. I decided to dig out a William Safire pallet.

We have about 4 left. The sheet taped to them is dated 8/1/18.

Safire Pallet

That is a long time ago. The world was far different then.

We now have a much better way to catalog and add these to our online stock.

I now feel confident we are treating the books with the respect and showcasing they deserve.

Earlier in the week, my old friend and correspondent Michael Dirda had emailed me to thank me. I had found a couple Wonder Book/Sherlock Holmes t-shirts hidden at one of the stores. This style is long out of print.

Sherlock Shirt

(I think I coined that phrase. “Read as if your mind depended on it.” We should probably resurrect it.)

I had sent them down as gifts. Among his many, many other accolades, accomplishments, awards…he is a Baker Street Irregular. I think that is one of his favorite honors.

After his first email, we both exchanged news. He sounded a little down. The Plague, you know. The captivity and worry and fear.

I suggested he come search the Books by the Foot old book rooms on the weekend. It might cheer him up. He was concerned about being around strangers. The Plague, you know.

“Sunday there is only me and two guys working out in the remote aisles. You’d never see another person. Even me, if you don’t want.”

(Saturday wouldn’t work—we had a pretty large group scheduled to work. Packers and pullers came in for a special shift, trying to get as many orders out as possible in hopes they’ll arrive before Christmas.)

He loves hunting and finding lost treasures in the antique book cull rooms. Usually his finds are obscure authors that perhaps only he is reading nowadays. If a long forgotten author merits rediscovery, Dirda is their best chance. He occasionally finds some very nice things that have slipped through our nets. I’m ok with letting those go—cheap. He “discovered” our mistakes. I’d rather he get them than sending them out as decorative objects.

You can’t catch them all, I remind myself.

He thought he just might come visit on Sunday.

In my email reply, I thanked him for the extremely nice comments he posted on the story last week.

Back to Sunday afternoon… I got a hard plastic stool and sat before the Safire boxes. I began rooting through them. There’s no question of culling them. I put even the common things online at a fixed price. Who knows, someone might want an old dictionary of Safire’s as a memento of the word master. We put a slip of paper in each book to identify that it has come from the Safire house.

It was hard work. I looked through each book in case it was autographed or had some special meaning. Certainly anything to do with Nixon or Watergate has a strong association.

There were lots of signed things. Mostly common things—authors wanting to get his attention. Some were old friends sending a copy of their latest.

Alistair Cooke wrote this warm inscription.

Cooke Inscription

I found an old leather book with Tiffany Thayer and Safire’s bookplates on the pastedown.

Thayer Bookplate

I have seen hundreds or thousands of Thayer books. The only person I recall wanting any was my friend and erstwhile “employee”—Sterling Lanier.

I’m embarrassed to say I thought:

  1. Tiffany was a female author.
  2. That “her” books were somewhat racy romance novels.

The bookplate was so intriguing I looked up Tiffany.

Tiffany Ellsworth Thayer (March 1, 1902 – August 23, 1959) was an American actor, author and founder of the Fortean Society… Thayer also wrote several novels, including the bestseller Thirteen Women which was filmed in 1932 and released by RKO Radio Pictures. Many of his novels contained elements of science fiction or fantasy, including Dr. Arnoldi about a world where no-one can die… Towards the end of his life, Thayer had championed increasingly idiosyncratic ideas, such as a Flat Earth and opposition to the fluoridation of water supplies…

Oops…I am not the omniscient bookseller…not that I ever claimed to be.

But how could I have missed this—founder of the Fortean Society…?

I spent a little time down that rabbit hole and moved on.

Michael arrived, and we waved to one another across the expanse.

“Take a cart and have fun,” I spoke from a distance—raising my voice a bit to mitigate the mask’s muffling.

He had a few hours to hunt before our mutual quitting time of around 5 p.m.

I returned to the Safire books. This pallet had a lot of antique leather on it. A big set of Carlyle. Unfortunately, most of the spines labels had long ago peeled off. Usually it would go to Books by the Foot. But if you need an odd volume of Carlyle, now you know where to look.

These are books that Safire had relegated to his basement. They didn’t make the cut for the formal library. Maybe he’d acquired some when he was a beginning collector. But there have been some sweet surprises…

I came across a lot of biographies and references about William Blake.

Blake Books

I recalled his formal library had some magnificent Blake editions.

Those were not for sale.

A rather obscure anthology came to hand. On the first blank, it was inscribed to “Daphne…”

Daphne du Maurier Inscription

Nothing…until something had me look opposite on the verso of the free endpaper.

Bookseller's Note

An old bookseller’s lightly penciled note that this was from du Maurier’s collection and a price of 2 pounds and 75.

Dame Daphne du Maurier, Lady Browning, DBE (/duː ˈmɒrieɪ/; 13 May 1907 – 19 April 1989) was an English author and playwright. Although she is classed as a romantic novelist, her stories have been described as “moody and resonant” with overtones of the paranormal. Her bestselling works were not at first taken seriously by critics, but have since earned an enduring reputation for narrative craft. Many have been successfully adapted into films, including the novels Rebecca, Frenchman’s Creek, My Cousin Rachel, and Jamaica Inn, and the short stories The Birds and Don’t Look Now/Not After Midnight.


I didn’t pay heed to the inscription. Too busy. Too many Safire books to plow through.

(Later in the week, I looked. Du Maurier’s father was named Gerald. She wrote a somewhat scandalous biography of him entitled…Gerald: A Portrait.)

Plus, the day was waning. I was tired. It had been a hard weekend.

It has been a hard year. My sleep is intermittent nowadays. I often don’t know if I’m awake or not. I seem to slip into momentary dreams and then waken.

It is tiring.


…fatigue, Plague, vague…

Sometimes I wonder if I’ll awaken and discover this has all just been a very, Very, VERY long nightmare.

I found more leather.

Pascal’s Pensées.

Pascal's Pensées

I flipped through it. I dunno why. Perhaps I was guided. Someone pulling my strings. Two sheets of paper with ink writing. It looked like someone’s notes.

I was going to toss them into a box of cheap ephemera to go to the stores. There we usually bag and hang the stuff in hopes it will catch someone’s eye.

I was fatigued.

I was feeling vague.

(Vaguer than usual.)

The Plague…what would I do for dinner tonight?

There were a few Safire boxes left.

Michael’s treasure hunting would soon be done.

We had agreed to share a distanced beer and chat when we were finished.

I glanced at the papers.

Slider image
Slider image

It was headed The Pensées of Pascal. By T.S. Eliot”


But I slipped it into a book on a cart that I was sending to Annika to research during the week. I promptly forgot about it.

I hurried to wrap up my weekend’s work.

I labeled tubs and boxes. I pushed the carts I’d created.

The Books by the Foot carts go east and then north.

The books for “special” data entry—expensive things I’d used my experience to evaluate and value—went west. Data entry managers would assign those carts to specialists who are trained at cataloging difficult material.

I pushed the research cart into the “Photo Room” where Annika has a table. There weren’t a lot of books. I emptied the books onto the table. We always need empty carts on Mondays.

I left a note on one stack. “Do these Safire books first.”

Michael appeared. We were now alone in a 3-acre building among millions of books.

My friend David—owner of Smoketown Brewery—had dropped off the Patsy IPA* in tall cans.

* The beer is named after Patsy Cline who had some strong Frederick ties. She performed in the old Brunswick MD Firehall. David owns the building and brews some of his beers there. Smoketown is an old nickname for Brunswick. It was once most well-known for being a depot of the train lines for the B&O alongside the Potomac River. It was also once pejoratively known for Hills, Whores and Bars. It’s now a vibrant and growing community. In part because it now has a station for the MARC train which whisks commuters to and from Washington D.C.—when there were commuters…

I asked Michael to grab his own beer so I wouldn’t touch his can. I went after him and retrieved my own Patsy.

We sat on hard plastic stools with about 20 feet between us.

We chatted about books, life, the universe and…everything. Last week’s story had a bit of a dream sequence about going to New York City during the Christmas season. Michael mentioned that and spoke of places I’d mentioned he hadn’t been to yet.

Then he told me of places he’d been I hadn’t.

“Maybe someday we can meet there…”

Bookish Manhattan. I miss it very much.

I followed him out into the dark and bid a distanced mutually masked farewell.

I dragged my tired sorry self home—along with Merry & Pippin who weekend at the warehouse when I work. (“When” = EVERY weekend.)

Somewhere in my mind, I had ambitious plans to clean up, organize, stock books, transcribe poetry manuscripts into the laptop.

My tired sorry self reminded the ambitious self that that was just not going to happen.

I heated something wrapped in foil from the freezer.

I shook a Gibson or two.

I ate on the recliner watching…something til Lethe’s potions lifted me off the planet.

I did some chores Monday morning before leaving for work. I was late.

When I returned from my meeting and van swap in Gaithersburg, I checked in with Annika.

“I think it’s real!” she told me excitedly.

She had the two pages of ink manuscript before her.

“Ah, you found them. I was going to orient you on my thoughts about them, but it looks like you’re already on your way.”

I took a couple pictures to send to autograph specialists to seek informal opinions.

Then I was off to…do what I wrote I did above.

When I finally got back and settled in, I looked at the images.

Could these be notes by Eliot using the Pascal book?

For what?

I DuckDuckGo’d “Pascal T S Eliot.”


Eliot wrote an introduction for a 1958 edition of Pascal’s Pensées.

A Dutton Paperback
New York
This paperback edition of
“Pascal’s Pensées”
Published 1958 by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
All rights reserved. Printed in the U. S. A.
SBN 0-525-47018-2

I emailed the link to Annika:

Does this match some of our text?

If so it might be a draft.

If not it could look even better.


She replied:

I actually looked at that in my research!

My guess is that these are his initial notes for the intro. Here’s what I said in my notes: “I believe that this is T S Eliot’s handwriting. Signed. This appears to be Eliot’s initial notes on ‘Pascal’s Pensées by Blaise Pascal, for which Eliot wrote the introduction. Many of the phrases in these notes are present in the published introduction, but some are not. The published introduction is much longer—therefore, these are likely initial notes that he later expanded upon.”

Hmmmm…Here I thought I was being a biblio-detective, and this apprentice is ahead of me.


The verdict isn’t in yet. But the results are tantalizing. It doesn’t appear to be someone’s notes on the Introduction by Eliot. It wasn’t copied by rote—as much of what we have doesn’t appear in the printed introduction. The notes were left in an edition of Pensées that predates Eliot’s birth by many years.

The stuff dreams are made of…

I can think of no Christian writer, not Newman even, more to be commended than Pascal to those who doubt, but who have the mind to conceive, and the sensibility to feel, the disorder, the futility, the meaninglessness, the mystery of life and suffering, and who can only find peace through a satisfaction of the whole being.

T S Eliot

And all and only because I flipped through one of hundreds of Safire’s books last weekend.

Perhaps my hands were guided. Perhaps my Book Muse is checking in from time to time?


What? I thought I heard something.

I’m writing this Wednesday morning.

Christmas week is winding down.

It is too late for mail order to arrive before Christmas.

Unless a customer wants to go to the huge expense of an overnight delivery.

Tomorrow, Christmas Eve, the three stores will close early—late afternoon.

We will deliver a lot of last-minute orders to each store. They will call the customers to tell them their orders have arrived.

This will make some people very happy.

Of course, they can always buy Gift Cards and let the recipient choose their own books (or movies or music or…)

If you hurry in, you can still select from that large selection of vintage ties at all three stores.

Hoarder's Ties

As I said earlier, many of these are from the 60s and 70s. Some might be collectible.

Many are incredibly ugly for current sensibilities.

You can start a Christmas tradition. Exchanging ugly old ties. Unforgettable.

I’ll take a van to one of the stores today. I’ll deliver those last-minute orders.

I’ll take a van to a store tomorrow as well. We’ll deliver the last-last-minute orders to all three stores.

Then comes Christmas. My plans are up in the air. I may go for a walk with a friend on Christmas Eve along Carroll Creek. That body of water is filled with brightly lit boats. I haven’t had a chance to see them this year.

COVID has me going out less, you know.

I’ll get with family whenever the boys come home to Pennsylvania with their partners.

I baked some last night.

Cranberry muffins from a jar kit someone gave me a while back.

I haven’t baked for a long time. Why would I?

They turned out ok.

Cranberry Muffins

Much better than the picture. (Because the picture shows just batter.)

It’s been so cold the woodstove fire has not gone out for a few weeks, I think.

I bring in wood from stacks in the barn and fill the iron rings on the porch as needed.

Sometimes I can recall the source of the wood.


The large gray log is Sumac. It is rather poor firewood. I didn’t think of that when I cut it. It is a “trash” tree. I think invasive. There are a bunch up on the 7-acre lot next to the warehouse. I cut it in the fall of 2019. Dry, it is pretty light. It burns rather quickly and not very hot.

The chunk of wood next to it is oak. I cut that along the lane in late spring 2019. Some trees were encroaching over the lane and were presenting problems. If the lane is too shaded—even by bare trees—the sun can’t hit the road and melt snow and ice. That chunk probably weighs twice as much as the larger sumac log. It burns long and hot.

My editor is taking off Christmas Eve, so this week’s story must get done today.

So, I will wish you the best for a safe and warm and healthy and Merry Christmas.

This week has been filled with dreams. A couple were strong enough that I awoke and wrote them down. I’ll burden you with one.

No, it is Christmas. You deserve two! LOL…


He is hunting me
If I slow he will catch me
I must stay ahead
To slip, to sleep, to slow
Is asking a doom
From which there is no return

Tempting is a surrender
To be over taken is…
Easier than resistance
Evasion…much more difficult
Hard work
Harder because now
Pain is my constant companion

A year ago I was much younger
You gave me cause to run
To sprint from the pursuer
and flee to you
Aye, it has been a bad year
Fatigue, plague, vague visions
I am slowing

This year ends
Will I resolve to redouble my efforts?
I resolve to forget you
Well, I cannot do that
But if I find the will to race again
I can…run you from my mind
And if I race I can…
keep ahead of him

If I stop
The trap to the oubliette will open
I will drop to oblivion

He will catch me some year
To decline decay deteriorate
is unavoidable
This year I swear he touched my shoulder
I nearly fell
Can I keep ahead through another like this?
When the winter solstice comes again
if I can answer
then the answer is “yes.”


The bone white moon looks in my window
like a disembodied smile
floating in a sea of black sky
Cold grin you call to me
in my December bed
bundled amongst voluminous softness
I stare at the distant light
—the only light this night
It is not mocking
It is nothing
Just a cautionary tale
A reminder of the eternity
So familiar yet so out of reach
I pull the bedclothes up
and over my shoulder neck and face
Only my eyes are unbundled
I close them
and one icy dead impression
accents the vast dark behind my eyelids

Later when I open them again
you have moved
out of my window’s frame
You rose up over the roofline
taking your eternal journey.
Round, round, round and round

18 Comments on Article

  1. Thanks Chuck – Merry Christmas

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Merry Christmas – and thank again!

  2. I so enjoy your journals – also I hope you were able to see the conjunction of the stars earlier this week

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      It was too cloudy and then on the other side of the mountain.
      But I saw them online.
      Thank you so much for reading and writing!

  3. Richard commented on

    From one of your two ABAA readers

    May you be blessed
    With the spirit of the season, which is peace,
    The gladness of the season, which is hope,
    And the heart of the season, which is love.


    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you so much Richard.
      I wish you and yours peace hope and love.


  4. David Holloway commented on

    Merry Christmas and happy new year Chuck. Thanks for all great weekly posts. I enjoy them – I feel like I’ve had a good (but one-sided) conversation with you after reading them.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you David.
      Happy holidays to you and yours!
      Thanks for writing. I’m glad you like the stories.

  5. Rick Banning commented on

    Chuck, I just had an odd vision. I’m walking through some woods , little underbrush, and I see something unusual, every tree has one ugly men’s tie carefully tacked to each tree, at about my neck height. They all face me. As I keep walking, the ties continue to face me, but the designs become better and better. Then they started to tell stories, rather strange ones at that. Taking turns. Becoming slowly louder. …… Rick

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      I just had that same dream last night!
      It must mean something…
      Thanks Rick
      Happy Holidays and a great New year


  6. Patricia Lawrence commented on

    Chuck –
    I have enjoyed, laughed at, and been moved by your stories during this Plague Year.
    I also have been fascinated by the internal workings of your stores which I have (I now realize) patronized nearly from your start. First in Frederick, then Gaithersburg, now online. I love that I can often get the odd titles that I am interested in from your warehouse online when they probably wouldn’t be found on the store shelves. Thank you.

    Wishing you a Merry Christmas and for us all a better New Year.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you so much for writing.
      I really appreciate hearing that you enjoy the stories – and the stores.
      Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  7. Nancy commented on

    Sending warm wishes for your continued good health and a new year much, much better than the last. You are treasured.
    Merry Christmas

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Merry Christmas Nancy!
      I’m glad you’re in my corner!

  8. Terry commented on

    I love reading the blogs to see what is happening at the warehouse and stores. I hope to get back to the warehouse soon. From the way you describe your house and the surrounding woods I would love to see it sometime. Preferably when there are no snakes in residence!
    Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a healthy New Year to come.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you
      Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours.
      I hope to see you soon!

  9. Susan Bruner commented on

    Your Book by the Foot is getting some internet attention. Neatorama, Bookcase Credibility, Politico, Althouse. I love when my favorites get some screen time!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      That is so cool!
      Thanks for letting me know where it went
      Politico did the story. Started 7 months ago!


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