Letter from the chair/Writers in Residence/ Sheldon Greene/Department news/ Nov. 17th colloquium/Suzanne Ferguson/Holiday Party Pix/Words for Wellness/Legacy of Thrity Umrigar/Alumni News//
Letter from the Chair
On a recent Friday afternoon in Guilford House, Camila Ring, this year’s MacIntyre Award winner for the best graduate student essay, presented her dissertation work on Gerard Manley
Hopkins. There were forty people in the room; curious visitors, like Jane Vondrak, the Executive Assistant to the President, stopped by to listen from the hallway. Among the many jewels of
Ring’s talk, one stood out to me. According to Ring, the famous density of Hopkins’s poetry (“dapple-dawn-drawn falcon…”) treats us, his readers and listeners, to an auditory experience
prior to seeing or understanding, an idiosyncratic word-world that is worth exploring on its own terms.
As the fall semester ends, the department is positioned to grow in a way that advances our core values and priorities. We have begun our search for a new tenure-track Assistant Professor of
Creative Writing—in the genre of fiction. We are recruiting graduate students for our fully funded MA and PhD. More temporary visitors to campus this spring will include poet and
memoirist Airea D. Matthews, who is presenting the Gertrude Mann lecture, and Ama Codjoe, our Gary Stonum Writer-in-Residence. Lectures in eighteenth-century literature, Romanticism,
Charles Olson, and American literature will fill out the colloquium schedule through April. We’ll end the semester with a visit from Jill Bialosky, Vice President and editor at W.W. Norton.
This fall, we have welcomed new majors in English, minors in Creative Writing, and new concentrators in Film. Guilford and Bellflower have hosted students across the university who
take our Academic Inquiry seminars. I was curious what might compel a student to declare an English major, so I asked Vida Barzdukas. A double major in English and Classics, Vida replied:
When arriving at Case, I was unsure whether I wanted to major in English, despite
enjoying English classes in high school. I wasn’t sure whether it would be too hard or
whether it would ruin my love of the subject. But when I talked to my friends majoring
in English and when I met faculty members…they took the time to get to know me and
welcome me at events, even though I was not in their department. Their kindness
assured me that English would be a good fit for me.
Vida and the rest of her class in American Literature have been reading Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. In that world of “faint implications and pale delicacies,” the encounter
between two pairs of eyes brings a deeper understanding “than any explanation would have done.”
As an English department, we examine creative works for the traces of the human intelligence that made them. Confronted by a new poem, film, novel, or essay, we develop hypotheses,
conduct experiments in the human posture of attention. We train our students to navigate uncertainty and contradiction—not through equivocation, but rather through engaged
attention to the varieties of human experience and difference. Sometimes we must proceed with nothing more than the faith that we’ll find something and that the trust in each other will
lead us there.
Voices from Within: Writers in Residence
by Elysia Balavage
“In my neighborhood we think about is you gonna eat or / starve or strive to make it out the trenches.” –C. H., “Trench Baby”
Voice, story, narrative, empowerment. As students, scholars, and lovers of literature, we know the power of the pen and the potency of poetry. And we’re not the only ones. In Ohio, over 2,000 youths, some younger than 12, are incarcerated in “juvenile correctional facilities”—prisons for minors—with youth of color comprising a disproportionate number of this total. If a completed text can evoke change in mind, ideology, or policy, then what about the writing process itself? Can the act of creative engagement help a marginalized individual, such as a teenager confined to a youth prison, find their voice, or reclaim their individualism?
This is the endeavor of Writers in Residence, an organization that responds to these questions with an emphatic “yes.” Co-founded and guided by Executive Director Zach Thomas, Writers in Residence— “WiR”—works with incarcerated youth and encourages them to write creatively and share their stories. What began as a student-run group at John Carroll University has grown into a nonprofit that connects higher-education institutions with juvenile facilities across Ohio. In short, WiR is an ally and advocate for a vulnerable population.
“Life gets hard before it gets better / Jail food is not good / Life is not easy / Am I gonna get out on my mom’s bday?” J. D., “Untitled”
Everything that the WiR directors, mentors, and student volunteers do has a singular aim in mind: to show the residents that they possess and can assert their unique voices. It is perhaps unsurprising to hear that the juvenile justice system in Ohio fails to rehabilitate imprisoned youth, a distressing reality confirmed by an eight-month investigation into the system. Helmed by Ohio’s major newspapers, including The Cincinnati Enquirer and The Columbus Dispatch, the investigation’s discoveries were published on 11 November 2023, and revealed that 43% of juveniles held in facilities reoffend within three years of release. Without proper support networks, both inside and outside detention center walls, the proverbial snake of disenfranchisement will continue to eat its tail, fuelling a system that steadfastly neglects these young people.
For Spencer Dolezal, WiR’s Re-entry, Community Outreach, and Advocacy Director, Writers in Residence is a support network that offers a chance to escape or prevent the reproduction of marginalization entirely. He notes, “For many youth, the juvenile justice system is a revolving door that is difficult to exit. By providing a trusted adult who can build relationships, help them achieve goals, and build vital life skills, we hope to help these young individuals through a transitional time in their story and to help them see their own potential.” Eliana Tandy, a volunteer with our CWRU WiR student organization, echoes Spencer’s attitude and asserts that “Writers in Residence gives [residents] the opportunity to construct their own narratives and reclaim control over their lives. It is imperative that our community understand the talent and ambition that these residents possess.” By reclaiming their identities and narratives, residents ideally replenish their confidence, self-worth, and even hope.
“My name came from a / beaten soul, not quite put together, not / quite whole…as I grow older I / began to see why my name / was assigned to me,” M. B., “M. B.”
Mentorship, teaching, and expression buttress WiR’s mission, and this is where creative writing enters the equation. It is the organization’s bedrock principle. Teaching artists and student volunteers from local academic institutions lead creative writing workshops in several juvenile facilities throughout the state. And just this Fall, CWRU became an official part of the WiR community with our newly established student organization, aptly named “Writers in Residence.” Since September, our talented, dedicated student volunteers have worked with the residents at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center (CCJDC) at weekly writing workshops. Student volunteer Hannah Jackson describes her positive experiences with the residents as “rewarding” and “life changing.” She explains, “As you work through the semester with the students, you start to see them open up and lean into the workshops. The work that they produce is exceptional and a true testament to the importance of writing as a form of expression.”
While both the residents and volunteers benefit from the workshops themselves, they are not the end of the process. At the conclusion of each workshop cycle, WiR publishes the residents’ prose and poetry in chapbooks, which are displayed and disseminated in juvenile facilities, on college campuses, and throughout the broader community. For Spencer, publication is an integral component of the process because it allows the residents to feel a sense of fulfilment, a rare experience inside prison walls. He explains, “In publishing their work, we hope that [residents] can take pride in seeing their words in print, and that it will sit with them deeply, so they can continue to write as they grow.”
“[F]loating like nothing / it takes no effort / who needs Zoloft / when you can / just glide by / do nothing,” J. B., “Untitled”
Creative writing indeed can transform lives. As readers, scholars, and writers ourselves, we know the strength of the written word and the catharsis behind the act of writing. The directors, mentors, and volunteers at Writers in Residence know this, too. So, I’d like to end with impact statements from two of our CWRU student volunteers. Through her volunteer work, Eliana both hones her current competencies while simultaneously passing them on to the residents. She observes, “Writers in Residence [is] the perfect opportunity for me to practice my writing skills, learn about the legal system, and positively contribute to my community…I am grateful to be able to support [the residents] in their creative endeavors.” And, in a call to action, Hannah remarks that “anyone who loves reading and writing and wants to share their passion for it with others should volunteer with WIR…Now that we are established on campus, we hope that we can encourage more CWRU students to offer their time to these students and help them navigate the juvenile justice system through writing and mentorship.” The effort of Writers in Residence is collective and cooperative. Students like Hannah and Eliana and directors like Spencer work tirelessly to ensure sunnier futures for Ohio’s incarcerated youth. As emblazoned on the back of each chapbook’s cover, “[t]his is for them.”
Sheldon Greene Visit
by Hayley Verdi
On Wednesday, October 11th, the English department was fortunate to host CWRU alumnus Sheldon Greene. Greene spoke with a group of undergraduate and graduate students about his career. Beyond his work in a range of legal and public service roles, Sheldon Greene is a prolific author publishing both well-received novels and a number of articles in scholarly journals. His novels include Lost and Found, published by Random House, as well as Burnt Umber, Prodigal Sons, Pursuit of Happiness, The Seed Apple, After the Parch, The Lev Effect, and Tamar. Primarily focusing on his work as a novelist, Greene spoke to students about the value of training in English even alongside other professional pursuits. Gesturing to a stack of his published works, Greene drew students into conversation with his generosity and willingness to discuss his writing process.
As he spoke with students, Greene emphasized the importance of creative work as a source of energy and recreation even in the midst of a demanding career. For him, he explained, writing novels is a way to contemplate aspects of human experience that, in turn, helps to inform his approach to work in other areas. Many of the students in the audience responded to this approach leading to discussion of how Greene finds the time to pursue his creative work. Asserting the value of both reading and writing literature, Greene observed that these kinds of pursuits complemented rather than competed with his professional obligations. As Greene discussed several of his novels in greater detail, his passion for exploring life through developing characters and plots was evident.
Listening to Greene speak about his work as a creative writer took on greater meaning when considered in connection with his achievements in other fields. Sheldon Greene has had a multifaceted career with experiences in a range of fields including law, business, and renewable energy. His legal expertise spans diverse areas, including commercial lending, insurance, personnel, administrative agency matters, commercial construction, contracts, commercial arbitration, and high-impact litigation. Throughout his career, he has been a public interest lawyer, tackling critical issues ahead of their national prominence. He has been a pioneer in addressing challenges such as flaws in the healthcare delivery system, the economic impact of illegal immigration, renewable energy, and public land policies. As a member of the national energy policy team for the Obama campaign, Greene contributed to shaping discussions on both immigration and energy policies. Active in renewable energy for over 25 years, Greene currently holds an executive position in a wind energy development company. His involvement extends to serving on the Board of the Great Lakes Energy Institute at Case Western Reserve University. Notably, he played a foundational role in establishing the New Israel Fund, drawing on his experience as the General Counsel of California Rural Legal Assistance.
Sitting in the parlor of Guilford with a ring of students around him, however, Greene spoke relatably about the demands of shaping characters, conducting research for his novels, and refining each draft of his work. For us as students, this conversation was a chance to learn about the role of the imagination in both creative work and in the world of work beyond the written page. Greene’s visit encouraged students to consider how their training in English will benefit them even in their pursuits of seemingly unrelated career fields.
Elysia Balavage gave her talk, “Class and Consumption: George Orwell and the Desecration of Bread,” at Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities in September, and she gave the same talk to Cleveland’s Rowfant Club as well.
George Blake‘s article about the progress of lead safety in Cleveland has been published in The Land.
Cara Byrne presented at the annual MMLA conference in Cincinnati, funded by a flash grant from the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities.
Michael Clune‘s essay, “What is an Author?” has been published in the 50th anniversary issue of Critical Inquiry.
Vicki Daniel took some of her AIQS students to the Mummies exhibit on October 28th. They visited in connection with Daniel’s Bodies Behind Glass course about human remains in museums.
Charlie Ericson gave a Baker-Nord Graduate Work-in-Progress Talk: “Djuna Barnes, Logic, and Metaphor: How to Take Fiction as Structure” on Tuesday, November 14th.
Mary Grimm has a flash in the new issue of Border Crossing.
Jamie Hickner participated in the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative’s Anisfield-Wolf Faculty Summer Seminar at CWRU, which focused on teaching Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winner Lan Samantha Chang’s The Family Chao.
Walt Hunter’s book of poems, Some Flowers, has been reviewed in the Cleveland Review of Books.
Amber Kidd presented her work as part of a panel on Research Pathways and Community Colleges at the 2023 Humanities Mellon Scholars conference in October.
Kurt Koenigsberger presented work in a seminar on metafiction at the Modernist Studies Association meeting Oct 25th-28th. He also participated in a memorial roundtable for Professor Mark A Wollaeger at the conference.
William Marling‘s podcast on “Anarchism and Rhetoric” aired November 6th on the Anarchist Studies website.
Marilyn Mobley‘s book on Toni Morrison’s narrative strategies is forthcoming from Temple University Press.
Congratulations to Hannah Potantus and Alyssa Viscounte who have both passed their MA oral exams!!
Stephanie Redekop presented her work on essay-writing as a spiritual discipline in November at the American Academy of Religion conference in San Antonio as part of a roundtable discussion of Thomas Merton’s sensory-spiritual labours.
Congratulations to Camila Ring who has won this year’s MacIntyre Prize for her paper “Overhearing Doctrine: Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Accident of the Poem.”
Robert Rowan‘s article, “Student Self-Diagnostics: Engaging Students as Co-Respondents to Their Own Writing,” was published in the Fall 2023 issue (9.2) of Journal of Response to Writing.
Robin Beth Schaer read poems as part of Literary Cleveland’s Inkubator Afterparty Reading at Cleveland’s Worthington Yards Courtyard.
Martha Schaffer presented a paper at Writing, Thinking, and Learning with AI: Exploring Relationships of Rhetoric and Artificial Intelligence, a virtual conference hosted by the SUNY Council on Writing and the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University on October 13th and 14th. Her presentation was titled, “10 Things Teachers Need to Know About AI: A Rhetorical Analysis of Teaching Materials for AI & Academic Writing.”
Lindsay Turner‘s book of poems The Upstate has been published.
The Women’s National Book Association’s 2023 Great Group Reads has selected Thrity Umrigar’s new novel, The Museum of Failures, as one of their books.
Xia Wu received a fellowship from the Freedman Center and will be directing a documentary about Chinese international students for this project.
November 17th Colloquium
Professor Jaji’s lecture: “Gathering Thoughts: The Anthology as a (Modernist) African Genre.”
News Report from Suzanne Ferguson
After moving here to Academy Village near Saguaro National Park (East) from Florida six years ago to be near my daughter, I’m doing a lot of “journalism.” I write Arizona Senior Academy Website previews for some of the academic and practical lectures we present (such as the UA Osiris-Rex project to bring back samples from the asteroid Bennu or the local fire department on How to Protect Your Home from Wildfires); do reviews and profiles for The American Recorder; interviews, articles and (alas) obituaries for the Viola da Gamba Society News; and engage in “white paper” debates over community governance. This past spring I taught a course at the Village’s assisted living facility on “Poems about Paintings” and have proposed one on “Prosody—the Nuts and Bolts of Verse” for fall, a subject about which I learned much from Bob Wallace’s work. The ASA also sponsors concerts—classical, ethnic, jazz, or eclectic combinations thereof—movies, and art exhibits for ourselves and the public around our desert neighborhood.
What’s more fun, though, is that I play the viola da gamba regularly with a serious amateur quartet we call “Chuparosa” (a desert shrub and a Mexican name for hummingbird). We don’t do concerts but hour-long Early Music Seminars in which we play a few pieces to illustrate some aspect of music before 1700. In June we did “The Early Repertoire of the Viola da Gamba,” with pieces by 15th through 17th century composers, in which we talked about and illustrated the characteristics of the early viol, of the music first played on the viol (nearly all vocal) and how it led to the sophisticated polyphonic English Jacobean consort repertoire. This fall we’ll do a program on William Byrd, during the 400th Anniversary year of his death.
Holiday Party Pix
Words for Wellness at Writers House
As Chief Clinician Experience Officer for the University Hospitals Health System and Professor and Chairman of the Department of Family Medicine at Case, I have been charged for a number of years with monitoring and improving the well-being of physicians and other health care professionals. The role grew out of the considerable attention “physician burnout” received a few years ago. I set up programs to help build a sense of community among health care professionals, a newsletter to celebrate the achievements of junior faculty members, a confidential hot line for physicians for help with professional and personal needs, and a peer support system for physicians affected by trauma, such as the death of a patient. All this ran quite smoothly. Then came the pandemic and the world flipped upside down.
The first few months were the most traumatic for health care professionals. You’re undoubtedly familiar with images from the news of doctors and nurses in New York working heroically to save COVID patients and being applauded from balconies as they began or ended their shifts. The level of stress in my own institution was high. As our hospitals filled and deaths mounted, how best to tackle the enormous psychological burden became at least part of my duty. It didn’t help that I too was severely affected. I felt isolated, vulnerable, frightened. What was going to ultimately happen and when would it all end?
As the hospital was a place to avoid unless caring for patients, something I did only two days a week as a Department Chair, I found myself with extra time saved from not commuting. The shuttered shops and restaurants also meant that many of the usual distractions were unavailable. To cope with the stress and uncertainty and make good use of any extra time, I turned to an old friend: My passion for writing.
My identity as a writer is as important to me as my identity as a physician. I’m the author of four books, editor of a prominent medical journal, and have served in many editorial roles over the past twenty-five years. I’ve also taught writing skills to physicians for more than twenty years. But I’ve found nothing more fulfilling than writing interesting stories which have become novels. My first novel, Rainy Day Comrades, was published in 2021. Each writer’s process is different of course. I immerse myself in a topic I find interesting. Read what I can. (I’ve spent considerable time reading about the impact of lightning strikes on the brain, and the secret lives of the Amish, for example.) And then construct an interesting story about it. Writing is therapeutic for me. My characters become my friends. I’m sure, of course, what they’re going to do next, and I might be impressed by it, or disapprove of it. They come to life and keep me company in the lonely days in my office.
I began to wonder in 2022 if the benefit of creative writing I experience was something others might as well. There is some evidence that creative writing can be a useful outlet for stress. Some believe that writing allows us to reflect carefully about our own lives, our emotions, and our values. That reflection makes better doctors by being better able to understand patients. In short, there were many reasons for me to share the value of my experience with others. In early 2023, I started Words for Wellness. It’s a group open to anyone interested in creative writing that has at least some connection to health care and Case Western Reserve University. We meet on the last Tuesday of every month for an hour and a half at the Writing Resource Center. The agenda includes discussing our individual writing projects, group exercises in response to writing prompts, peer feedback, and planning for publication. This fall we have been focused on short stories and spend considerable time understanding the genre, developing ideas, and correcting basic problems of usage and style. I am the group’s leader but I learn as much as everyone else. We have been growing slowly, adding roughly a new member each month. We now number around twenty active members. Some join us by Zoom, but most come in person. We serve a light dinner and members are welcome to bring whatever they wish to drink.
Health care professionals in academic settings are often highly driven, and have a strong need to accomplish tangible things to feel that their time has been used wisely. So each of us is to complete a short story ready to submit for publication (somewhere appropriate) by the end of January.
I welcome everyone to come learn more about us.
Goutham Rao, MD
The 20+ Year Legacy of Thrity Umrigar; or, The White Whale of the Blank Page
by Matthew Greenfield
During my last seven weeks as a Case undergraduate, I would hold up blank signs on the circle in front of Kelvin Smith Library every Thursday during what was then dubbed “Provost’s Hour,” a class-less interval when student groups would demonstrate, protest, and/or advertise. After seeing a gamut of signs with actual writing on them during this weekly community time, I literally meant nothing by it. Whether I was juxtaposed with vitriolic Iraq War protestors, pro-choice demonstrators, IMPROVment advertisers, other-cheek-firmly-turned Christian groups, or even the cold rain falling down (as it did one Thursday in late March), my blank signs took on nuances of meaning that I could not have anticipated at the outset of this social experiment: some thought I was satirizing protest as an effective means of political expression, others thought I was advocating for white supremacy, and one older man thought I was conducting a vision test which he was not able to pass. When I saw demonstrators in China this past year holding up blank signs of paper to protest government censorship, I understood even more the power of blankness.I am reminded of that chapter from 1851 called “The Whiteness of the Whale.” Melville, The Herm Whale himself, was such a brilliant pre-post-modernistic author that it seems odd to me that he does not include a would-be writer’s blank white page as a foreboding sign of horror and apprehension for artistic types everywhere. Nonetheless, Ishmael and doubtless Melville too must have had a writerly Ahab of some sort to invoke a higher (or lower) power and bless (or curse) his sharp writer’s implement before stabbing out at the blankness and proudly leaving his marks on those proverbial blank white leaves. I had such a captain—thankfully not an Ahab—to give me the confidence to take my first proud stabs at writing but, more important than that, to give me the inspiration to captain my own vessel one day.
As I approach the 20th anniversary of my graduation from CWRU, I am reminded yet again of the debt I owe to that institution and to the English Department in particular. Before my years at Case, I was writing closet drama—not in the style of the Romantics but instead plays meant for my closet rather than any real audience. It was only after I was introduced to the workshop model at Case that I ventured to share my writing with a broader public. For the past 20 years, I have attempted to bring that same workshop model to middle- and high-school students. Each and every workshop, I am reminded of my original instructor, my first captain, Professor Thrity Umrigar.
I was lucky enough to have Thrity as a teacher during her first years at Case, during which time I took four courses with her, traversing genres from Creative Writing (ENGL 203) to Short Fiction to American Fiction to Journalism. By the time 2004 approached, I knew I was headed into education after graduation, and I took mental notes of Thrity’s teaching style that I have consulted over the past two decades much more often than any published teacher’s guide or state-approved curriculum. With Captain Umrigar, I discovered the strength of my voice and the range of my style; no matter the genre, Thrity inspired each and every writer in workshop or literary analysis or interview write-up to discover their own perspective. I look back now at my early writerly experiments with pride, and I have tried my best over the past two decades of teaching to emulate Thrity in action. Between 1,000 and 2,000 students have come into my classrooms and I’d like to think that most all of them exit with the same pride in their craft and their words that I have had since I exited Case in May 2004. In fact, when I was offered the chance to take on the Creative Writing program at Gilmour Academy here in Gates Mills, I
copied borrowed much of Thrity’s design of ENGL 203. My students’ success is as much Thrity’s legacy as it is mine.
As for me, I fared much better than Cap’n Ahab. Some ten years after I graduated Case, when I greeted a daughter into this world, I decided to take on the Herm Whale himself, crafting a chapter-by-chapter parody/homage of Moby-Dick but flipping the patriarchal script: an all-male whaling crew embarking on the high seas in the 19th century is replaced with an all-female high-school trivia team in the 1990s, navigating a labyrinthine sister-school library one Christmas Break looking for the answer to an elusive partly-faded question prompt (called “the Mocha-Rich” after a variety of coffee). Whether this work should also be considered part of my and Thrity’s legacy, I leave up to discerning readers of this newsletter with time and patience enough to tackle an Ishmaelian voice and digressive narrative structure: https://rise-of-west.com/epic/mocha-rich-or-the-question/ (Regardless of if you make it all the way to the end, please comment at the bottom of the page and let me know “How I’m Driving.”)
I, for one, hope that Captain Umrigar continues to stab that white whale: not just the rapidly-filling blank pages of her impressively growing canon but also (and perhaps just as importantly) indirectly filling up the reams just now being born, swimming in the depths to face Generations Z and Alpha. With Captain Thrity at the helm, those white whales don’t stand a chance.
Alum (’91) Will Allison’s second novel, the New York Times bestseller Long Drive Home, has been selected by the Ridley Park (NJ) Public Library’s One Book, One Town reading series for October 2023.
Iris Dunkle (’10) will begin teaching in the MFA program at Dominican University beginning in January.
After graduating from CWRU in May 2020, Brian Eckert started a graduate program at Johns Hopkins where he graduated with a Master’s of Liberal Arts (MLA) in May 2022. Right now, Eckert’s applying to PhD programs to start in Fall 2024. He had two poems (“Just Cancer” and “Spoopy Tejas”) published in the Spring 2023 issue of Confluence, where his first peer reviewed essay will also be published in Spring 2024. It’s titled “The Artist’s Novel: Defining the Künstlerroman.”
Alum (’81) Bonnie Jacobson‘s manuscript The Mystery of Food and Thought: 100 sonnets was one of five finalists in the 2023 Passager national poetry competition.
Brian McLaughlin (’16) is halfway through with his PhD in Hispanic literature at the University of Salamanca. He says: “still grateful for the skills I learned in Guilford, whether in English or Spanish. Thank you to all my professors and mentors for helping me on this path through academia.”
Aaron Perine (’16) interviewed Nia DaCosta, the director of The Marvels recently.
Brandy Schillace (’10) spoke at the University of Lynchburg in October.
Brita Thielen (’22) was recently elected to the chapter board of Apra-MN. It’s a two-year term beginning in January. Apra is the professional organization for prospect researchers and those in related roles within nonprofit development.
Marie Vibbert (’10) taught “Three Sentences to Unlock Your Plot” at Literary Cleveland’s Inkubator in September.
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