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Years ago, I watched a relationship dissolve over dinner.

My wife Ashlee and I were still dating, and one night we stopped by our favorite seedy hibachi restaurant — one of those where a chef grills and serves food to you there at the table. Seating allowed for up to eight guests, but that night, we were joined only by a young couple, seated next to me. The four of us ordered drinks and I scooted my chair closer to Ashlee.

The grill master stopped by to cut on the grill and collect our names. I caught theirs — Joe and Melissa. I overheard Joe tell the chef they were recently engaged, and he grinned as he fingered the white gold band on his finger. Melissa flashed a smile that died quickly. The four of us exchanged nods, and I turned to watch the chef as he organized his workstation and gave the salt and pepper shakers a flick over a bed of sizzling rice. Ashlee smiled at me between sips of Diet Coke.

“You going to save some for me tonight, or are you planning to clean your plate again?” Joe asked Melissa. I noticed Melisa grimacing in the corner of my eye.

The chef broke the sudden tension with a loud crack of his blade on the grill, signaling the beginning of his knife twirling routine. He waved his spatula around his finger like a propeller as if his finger was magnetized. He flipped the knife from behind his back, over his shoulder and caught it gracefully. I reached over and held Ashlee’s hand. She squeezed mine back like a stress ball, even though she’d seen this routine dozens of times.

“How much college did you have to go through to learn to do that?” Joe asked the chef. Melissa ribbed him. No one laughed except for Joe, but the chef was a good sport and smiled. I wondered if he’d ever let his knife slip in the direction of rude guests.

“I don’t know why you brought me to this place,” Melissa said . “You know I don’t like Japanese food.”

“Well, I like it. I hear this place used to be a strip club,” said Joe. “Tell you what. If you promise to put out tonight, I’ll pay for your dinner.” He laughed. I couldn’t tell if it was a joke. Melissa stared into the rising grill flames, expressionless.

We all sat quietly as the grill master prepared onion volcano: he stacked layers of onion one on top of the other and filled the center with oil (or maybe lighter fluid). Steam whined from the onion stack like a tea kettle. The chef lit a match over the top, and the steam morphed into flame. Then came my favorite part: the chef sliced into the onion volcano with a knife large enough to chop down a small tree, and the stack collapsed into a boiling stew of oil and milky steam. For a moment, I’d forgotten about Joe and Melissa.

“Why are you being such a bitch tonight?” Joe asked Melissa, as if this was something he asked her often. I turned to Ashlee and gave her a look that said, did you hear that? But she returned a look that said, hear what? and sipped her Diet Coke peacefully, lost in the white noise of chatty restaurant guests and sizzling fat. I realized that I was alone, a voyeur, in this little hell with Joe and Melissa.

“Excuse me?” asked Melissa. She waited a moment for a response from Joe that never came, then said, “I’d be fine if you shut the hell up for the rest of the night.” Joe heaved a sigh and took a long drink. I started to look in their direction out of instinct — like watching a tornado touch down outside a window — but I overcorrected by looking down at my crotch for no reason in particular.

“Look, ever since we got in the car, you’ve been acting like a terror. What’s going on with you?” Joe asked.

“Now’s not the time or the place, Joe,” said Melissa. I gulped my drink and focused on the grill master like a hungry dog as he sliced freshly grilled chicken into cubed chunks.

Joe replied, “I don’t care, Melissa. Tell me what your deal is.”

“Right now? Seriously?”

“Yes. Right now.”

And then Melissa said in a curt whisper, “I’m cheating on you.”

I coughed up flat Coke and soy sauce. The grill master flipped browning scallops; they smelled burned. Ashlee sipped the last of her Diet Coke, which bubbled: more, please. I wondered if Melissa and Joe noticed my reaction, but they gave no indication.

After a hellish pause, Joe asked, “How long?”

“Eight months.”

“It’s with Reggie, isn’t it?”

Melissa, seemingly by accident, nodded.

“Melissa, my best friend? What the hell? And you waited until tonight to tell me this?”

Melissa sat quietly. “It’s funny,” Joe said to fill the silence. “When we walked in, I bet everybody in here wanted to be us.” I wondered if it was bad timing to roll my eyes. “Now nobody does.”

The chef inserted himself into the conversation as he shoveled steaming food onto the four empty plates. I ate three bites and retired my fork. Melissa thanked the chef, then calmly placed her napkin on her plate and walked out of the restaurant. Joe remained, stupefied. He motioned for the check, paid, and left the table quietly, ashamed.

More surprising than the cheating was that the tone of my neighbors’ conversation hadn’t risen above a mild exchange: no yelling, no tears, no violence — two composed adults just casually ruining each other’s lives over dinner. Looking back, I sometimes wonder if it was all a sick joke, some perverted public fantasy.

Ashlee held a fork of rice and shrimp up to my mouth. “Try it,” she said. I bit down, closed my eyes, and thought, thank you for Ashlee.

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June 21, 2017

What I Learned from a Pyramid Scheme Indoctrination

"What is it you do, exactly?"

I was sitting at Starbucks across from a slick-haired salesman when he opened his notebook, clicked his pen and asked, “So Brian, have you ever heard of multi-level marketing?”

Yes.

He continued, delicately, “What are your thoughts on it?”

“Honestly,” I replied. “I had a pretty bad experience with an MLM company.”

“Gotcha. Well hey, will you do me a favor? Will you forget everything you know about MLM for fifteen minutes? This is an exciting business opportunity that Josh shared with me, and he wanted me to share it with you, too.”

I knew what was coming next, and I had a plan.

“Sure,” I said.

~

I met “Luke“, the salesman, months before at a gas station. We were both standing in line waiting for our fast food orders when he walked up and said hello.

A friend once told me that I’m terrible at networking. In the spirit of personal growth, I’ve looked for opportunities to build a more solid network since moving to California. As Luke and I exchanged short stories about our lives, jobs, and the weather, I sensed an opportunity to learn from a fellow young professional and maybe make a friend in the process.

Luke struck me as a pretty nice guy at first, and we concluded our chat on a positive note as we exchanged business cards and planned a non-committal coffee meet-up.

A few weeks later, Luke and I met for lunch. I asked him about his job as a salesman, what he’d learned from it, and what his goals for the future looked like. He asked me the same, and I shared with him my visions of writing books and starting a business later down the road.

“Oh, that’s awesome,” he said. “Hey, do you happen to know a guy named Josh?”

I know “Josh” from the local tech scene. He’s a bit older than me, mid-thirties. We’ve travelled in similar circles but never officially met. From my understanding, he has a good reputation, the kind of guy I could trust.

“Josh happens to be my mentor,” Luke added, proudly. “He’s taught me so much about business and personal growth. He has it all. I kind of envy the guy. You know what? You, me, and Josh should get together to talk business sometime soon.”

“Sure, let’s all grab some coffee,” I said, suddenly feeling nauseous and but not knowing why.

And then Luke said something that surprised me. “I’m excited—it’ll look good to Josh if I refer you to him.”

That’s strange, I thought, The only time I’ve ever been “referred” to someone, I’ve been a customer. After our lunch, I decided to lay low and not press the meeting.

But Luke persisted. He left multiple voicemails and sent follow-up texts saying things like, Brian, call me back as quickly as you can! Considering I’d only interacted with Luke for a combined 60 minutes since meeting him, this felt intrusive.

I continued to “miss” his calls for the following week, until one evening while my wife and I were at dinner. She saw his name buzzing on my phone and urged, “Just answer this time. See what’s up. No harm in it.”

Luke began, “Brian, where have you been? It’s like you dropped off the Earth.”

This gave me a sour, stalker vibe.

He continued, “Anyway, I talked to Josh about you, and he’d like for you and me to meet up to go over an exciting business opportunity.”

At that point, I anticipated there would be some sort of pitch during our meeting. In the spirit of curiosity and networking — ugh — I ignored my internal warnings and agreed to coffee that Friday.

I met Luke at a nearby Starbucks. We exchanged small talk for a bit, when finally I asked, “So, what’s the story? What’s Josh’s business?”

Luke smiled and pulled out a notebook and pen.

~

It was there at that table in Starbucks when I finally started to put the narrative together: the seemingly random interest from a salesman at a gas station, the insistence on connecting with Josh, and the pushy phone calls. Of course—I’d even talked to him about my desire to start a business on the side. I’d painted a target on my back.

“So, let me tell you a bit about this opportunity,” Luke said as he began his pitch.

He turned to a blank page in his notebook and started drawing crude illustrations: a four-step analogy on the concept of a scalable business, two squares to represent concepts he referred to as “suppliers” and “builders,” and a dozen arrows pointing to the various diagrams. Nothing made sense to me. After he finished, I took advantage of the pause.

“Let me stop you here for a moment,” I interrupted. “Tell me this: in one sentence, what does your company do?”

He paused, thought about my question, then began the pitch again. He used more than one sentence, but this time, he added an ingredient I was anticipating: the vague emotional hook.

“Our goal is to serve people and help them achieve their dreams,” he explained. “Imagine making more money. Imagine making your marriage better. I’ve seen the people our company has helped. I’ve seen the tears in their eyes as they share how they’ve achieved everything they’ve ever wanted. Look, I know you’re passionate about service to others, Brian (read here), so what do you say? Are you ready to learn more?”

“Hold on,” I said, “you didn’t answer my question. In one sentence, tell me what this company does. What do they sell? What service do they provide? Just humor me and try to explain it in one sentence.”

I could tell he was puzzled, so I elaborated, “If we look at a company like Amazon, you could describe them in one sentence by saying, ‘They provide a high-quality e-commerce experience for a variety of products and services.’ You could describe Google by their mission statement—‘To organize the world’s information.’ So what’s your company’s core mission? What do you do?”

He reached to his pocket for his phone — I assumed to text Josh and get an answer from him — but he put it back in his pocket. “I’ll humor you. I’d describe our core mission around integrity, passion, and great service. Great relationships. Family-oriented. When Josh showed me this opportunity, I asked him, ‘Why me?’ and he told me, ‘If you had the cure for cancer, wouldn’t you want to share it with the world?’”

I pressed. “So in that analogy, what’s this ‘cure for cancer?’ I’m not asking for your company’s secret sauce. I just want to know what you guys do.”

We talked for forty-five minutes, yet I never got a name of the business or a clear understanding of the business model. It was a black box, and Luke was struggling to entice me to look inside.

There’s a common thread with the more nefarious MLM companies: those involved refuse — or can’t — describe the business in a simple way. Like the floor plan of Ikea stores, confusion is part of the indoctrination process. They keep you engaged with frequent meetings to discuss the business, but most of the initial pitch is built on the emotional hook. By the time you get into the details of how to get involved, you’re emotionally invested; you believe this business opportunity will solve all your problems — no more debt, a happier marriage, no more pain or illness.

“Would you be willing to talk about this another day?” Luke added, “Maybe you just need some time to let what I’ve shown you sink in. I wish Josh was here to help explain.”

I was thrilled Josh wasn’t there. “Luke, I have to be honest with you. I don’t think I want to be involved in this company if it’s this difficult to describe.”

What bothered me the most was the feeling of being used. MLM businesses empower their customers to view everyone as a customer, a perpetual cycle that turns friends into dollar signs and causes money to flow up to those who do the most recruiting. This is where MLM gets its common name: a pyramid scheme. I realized that Josh indoctrinated Luke as a customer and profited off him. Luke was now on the hunt for customers of his own.

“Well, okay,” he said. “Listen, I understand you might not be ready to dive in yet, but I have a book in my car that does a better job than me of sharing this vision. Then, how about you, me, and Josh get together next week to talk more about it. How does Wednesday sound?”

I pulled out my phone, miming productivity (and a “yes” to his invitation). But I knew what I needed to do. I switched off my phone and slipped it back into my pocket.

“No. I don’t want to read the book, and I don’t want to move forward with discussing this with you and Josh.”

His face tightened. “So, what you’re telling me is that you’re not willing to forget your past experience with MLM? You’re not willing to be open-minded here and take the time to learn something new?”

“That’s right.”

He shrugged condescendingly. I expected a salesman to handle rejection better than he did, but I soon realized how deeply he’d entrenched himself. He started to open up, and I watched another layer of the narrative reveal itself.

“Look, I believe in this business,” he said. “I’m looking to make a lot of money in just a little amount of time. I have a ton of debt,  and I just want to hit it big and be significant. Josh has all that: the great life, the great finances — everything I wish I had. And he’s showing me how to do it. I shared all my financial information with him, just like he asked. And then we shook on it .  I dedicated the next five years of my life to him and this business. But yeah, honestly, Brian, this is just a means to an end.”

It was all coming together: the desperate kid, eager for a quick buck and an escape from debt and obscurity, finds a mentor who takes him in and tells him that if he just pledges his loyalty, all his problems would be solved. It was an unsettling story, one that I’d seen and heard many times before, and it never ends well.

“A means to an end? So, what’s at the end for you?”

His tired expression gave way to a pained response. “I… don’t know. I don’t know my end goal here.”

“Have you considered using some of the skills or knowledge you have to start a business of your own? If you could share a skill or service with a group of customers, what would it be?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what I would do.”

Luke and I parted ways, and I wished him well. But what he failed to realize is that he had nothing valuable to offer me in all his promises of success and fortune. I’ve found my richness in life, and it has very little to do with money.

He also couldn’t have known that when I was 19, I was him.

I came home from a MLM conference and met with my first potential sale. I told her how I could show her how to make her dreams come true — travel, money, success — and all it would take was fifteen minutes of her time. After explaining the concepts, she said she didn’t understand and it all sounded like trouble. I got defensive and frustrated, just like Luke did. I’m still ashamed that I once viewed the girl I’d go on to marry as a potential sale.

These days, I stand beside a vow that I never want to be involved in something that causes me to view those I care about as dollar signs.

As for Luke, I have no hard feelings towards him—how could I, knowing that we were once in the same shoes—and I hope he finds the significance he’s looking for, one way or another.

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April 11, 2017

The Littlest Bully

In fourth grade, I attracted a particularly nasty bully.

Sometimes, before class, he’d stop by my desk and slap me across the cheek. My response was always to clam up, and he always got away with it.

One day, while I was standing on first base during a game of kickball, the bully ran over to me and pushed me down in front of my classmates. When I looked over to the nearby teachers for support, I saw the bully’s mom–also a teacher—laughing at me while I brushed the dirt off my pants. It ran in the family.

An important detail here is that the bully was much smaller than me, at least by a foot. But I was a friendly, awkward giant and absolutely never stood up for myself. He knew this about me because we were best friends in first grade. I used to spend the night at his house and, on one occasion, we stayed up late and danced to the Macarena. It was new and cool then.

Then one day he jumped on my back during a basketball game. He screamed over my shoulder and said he wanted the ball. So I gave him the ball by smacking him in the mouth with it. It was an accident. But it must’ve hurt; he jumped off my back and responded in a way that I still remember vividly: he clenched his teeth, stomped his foot on the ground, gave a pained ugh! and walked away.

He didn’t pick on my anymore after that.

We went through eight more years of school together after the bullying phase, but things were different then. Sometimes I wished we could go back to first grade when we were friends. But he became a basketball star and I became a musician and our worlds never met again.

I looked him up on Facebook recently. I saw where he is in his life and I smiled. Good for him. Then I closed the tab and went on to other things.

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When I was in first grade, I found a Leopard Moth Caterpillar (pic) near a playground swing set. I was instantly freaked out by the prickly needles on its skin.

I ran over to fetch my friend to share what I’d found. He told me a story he heard about a Leopard Moth Caterpillar falling from a tree, landing on a man, and killing him. I was a gullible kid, so from that day forward, I was deathly afraid of those caterpillars. Even worse, I’d get nervous walking under trees.

Each time I’d stand near a tall tree, I’d nervously look up and around, expecting a Leopard Moth Caterpillar to fall out of a tree and murder me with its razor sharp skin.

Only minutes before writing this did I realize that the Leopard Moth Caterpillar’s spiked exterior is actually hair.

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These days, I’m managing a team of engineers at a tech company in California, all thanks to a guy from my hometown who drank too much at a party and cheated on his girlfriend.

Let me explain.

In 2007, I was a single, recent high school grad on my way to an uncertain career path. I had a small group of friends I’d known for most of my life. Shortly after starting college, one of those friends introduced me to his new girlfriend, Sarah. He’d known Sarah for most of his life, but they only recently made a connection after Sarah’s boyfriend cheated on her during a drunken night out at a party. While Sarah’s heart was broken, my friend stepped into her life. Shortly after their relationship began, my friend introduced me to Sarah. We three became fast pals.

One day, in passing, Sarah mentioned that I’d be a perfect match for her friend, Ashlee. I knew the name; I’d seen pictures of this Ashlee girl on MySpace (yep, MySpace). She was super pretty. Weeks later at a social gathering, I ran into Ashlee. To my dismay, she was with another guy.

She was just as pretty as her pictures. Recalling Sarah’s match-making recommendation, I introduced myself and pointed out our shared connection. Through this alone, we bonded and soon became close friends. One year later, after her relationship with the other guy fizzled and through a series of unusual events (that’s a story for another day), Ashlee and I were dating.

Fast forward two years later. Ashlee and I headed to a new college. We embraced the college experience as well as two introverts can manage and spent most days together. One day, on our way out of the cafeteria, I stepped through the main doors only to find that Ashlee was no longer walking with me. I turned back to find her scanning a job posting bulletin board. She met my eye and pointed my attention to one of the flyers. It was a job posting for an IT Specialist Internship at a local accounting firm, a perfect fit to go along with my major. A few weeks later, I landed the job. Looking back, that was the day my career began.

Years later, as Ashlee and I were making marriage plans and I was building my experience in the IT Specialist role, she took me out for dinner. She could sense my complacency in my job. She reminded me I could always go somewhere else and pursue a better job. I didn’t have to stay somewhere that wasn’t good for me. In my heart, I knew she was right, and it was this insistence that would push me out of my comfort zone into something better. Months later, I made a career change into something I had a growing interest in, web development. While that IT Specialist job is what started my career, the move into web development is when I found my purpose, and I credit my wife for the motivation to make the switch.

Two years later, the complacency set in once again. I was exhausted. That first web development job was working me far too hard to maintain a happy newlywed life, and she again stepped in to give me the push I needed; this time, it would be an even greater step forward than before.

“Boobie,” as she calls me, “I think it’s important that we move away from home.” It had been an ongoing discussion since the beginning of our marriage a year earlier. I was terrified. Both of our jobs up to that point had planted us firmly close to our childhood home, but we both knew there were greater possibilities out in the world. With our shared goal, we set our sights on a move.

Months later, we hit the road to Memphis, TN. Up to that point, I never imagined I’d leave home. It was never in the plan. I’d go to the schools on my life to-do list, get a boring degree, settled down with a boring life that never challenged me, maybe have some kids, and die. That’s the best I had ever hoped for. Sure, I had dreams to see and experience the world, but I truly don’t believe I would’ve chased them without the continued support of my wife. She’s said the same of me; I think we’ve always been great for each other.

Memphis would turn out well for us; we developed a strong community of friends and found our footing in the world far away from the familiarity of home. With each other, it was easier than we’d expected. But still, something crept back. The call of the outside world was still alluring. Should we answer it?

Answer it we did, in the form of me receiving a job recruitment email to a tech company in California. As we debated pros and cons, it was decided for us by what I can only attribute to divine intervention. A good phone interview turned into a good technical evaluation, which turned into a terrifying flight to California for a round of interviews. From there, an accepted offer turned into a frantic search for a place to live, which culminated in an apartment acquisition that, in retrospect, defied all odds.

With these events laid before us, we made our move to California. It was me who made the final decision to move this time, much to Ashlee’s distress. She had to abandon a good job and put her career prospects in the air, leaving us in a difficult position in examining the trajectory of our lives. It would take months to overcome the outcome of this difficult decision, but as was the common thread through our lives up to that point, new opportunities presented themselves to Ashlee in the form of some amazing calligraphy projects and a few featured spots in a California magazine.

As my career was carrying on at the tech company, my planned path towards a potential Senior Engineer title after a few years soon was up in the air as my manager left the company. Suddenly, my role was being shifted to another department to assist with resourcing needs, and I began to wonder if that Senior title would ever come. Could it be that our California move was just a big mistake that I’d brought us into?

One day, as my fellow engineers and I were discussing our difficulty in finding a new manager, I went home to consult my wife. “What if I applied for the manager role?” I asked her, suddenly afraid of the words.

“Boobie,” she said, “I believe in you.”

That’s all I needed. Weeks later, I went through a round of interviews with my peers, leading to a successful promotion into my current manager role.

I often wonder what that moment of success will represent in 10 years time. Will it be the beginning of a string of failures, of greater success, of terrible tragedy?

All I know is that the story of the jerk at the party who cheated on Sarah, whose introduction led me to meeting my wife Ashlee, whose encouragement led me away from a life of complacency, which gave me the confidence to pursue bigger goals makes a damn crazy string of events if you ask me.

I sometimes wonder what became of that guy at the party. Maybe I should buy him a beer.

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April 18, 2016

The joy of great parents

The best gift I’ve received throughout my life is that of a happy childhood. I was the proud owner of marvelous parents, and it shames me to say that it took over two decades to realize just how great I had it.

My parents were unlucky enough to be burdened with an annoying, chunky little dork who had a difficult time finding his way in social settings. My childhood was riddled with embarrassing anecdotes, awkward panic attacks, and the bitter defeat of bullying by kids who were either half my size or years younger than me. I was also a teary kid, to which my mom would sympathetically claim that I simply had a big heart.

But they loved that little dork, and my need for approval and affection was never left wanting. My mom would later tell me that in raising me, I was their hobby.

From those early years, I was raised to be a functional adult. I was taught to work hard, whether it be in school or in day to day chores. But of course, I didn’t work hard at all. Working of any sort sucked. Instead, I just wanted to play video games, which I spent vast amounts of time doing (I’m most certain that my parents lost years of sleep over this, imagining their son would continue to be a dork well into his adult years. Sadly, I’m still a dork who plays video games. (Sorry, mom and dad).

But when the disapproving speeches weren’t working, my dad took the time to try another approach at bringing me out of my shell and showing me a more adventurous side to life – he spent quality time with me. A lot of it.

Looking back at times with my dad, I remember fishing, taking long road trips, jumping on a plane and going to Orlando, going to Six Flags, joining up with a Boy Scout Troop, getting involved in formative church activities, he coached every sport I played, and made an effort to involve himself in any and all activities I took part in. I was never without my dad.

My mom was unbearably patient with me, and I had the unique opportunity of having her involved in the vast majority of my early years. She chose to be a teacher where I attended school from K5 to senior year, and she was never out of reach when those pint sized bullies ruined my day or I needed to hide from the perils of high school drama. I was a mamma’s boy to the core, it seems.

By day, there was Teacher Mom. By night, there was Coach Dad.

I also had the good fortune of having parents that simply let me be a confused little kid. When confronted with the choice of playing baseball or trying out for football, I firmly said, “neither!”, to which my dad, gracious as he was, provided his full approval at my decision. When my attention later turned to music, they were all in.

There was never a feeling of having to live up to unrealistic expectations. From as early as I can remember, they had a core message in the way they raised me: you’re our son, and we’re proud of you, no matter what.

•    •    •

Today, I feel as though I approached adulthood with grace, little of which I attribute to my own doing. In college, I met a great woman that I would go on to marry. I took on a great job that led to an even better career. I walked a path that my parents helped carefully shape through patience, lessons of faith, and an unwavering ability to display their love, even at my worst.

When it was time for me to leave the nest, they waved goodbye with the promise that I would always be welcome back.

In moving away from home, far from the sphere of influence by my family, I’ve found that my relationship with my parents has evolved in a healthy way. What was once wrapped in guidance is now more closely resembling a deep friendship.

I’ve known many people who wallow through their adult lives, never able to claim a constructive childhood. This is the case for many people, and with that knowledge, it makes me ever more appreciative of the impact my parents left on me. Should the day come that I become a parent myself, I have a proven roadmap based on my own upbringing (though I must say, the thought of living up to their example scares the hell out of me).

But for now, I can go out into the world confident in the example they set. I can love my wife completely, I can dedicate myself to a calling with assurance, and I can father a child with humility, knowing that I was given what I needed most in those early years of life.

I know who I am, and I know my name; my dad gave me his.

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