Tell Me About It

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 5, 2007; 12:00 PM

Carolyn takes your questions and comments about her current advice column and any other questions you might have about the strange train we call life. Her answers may appear online or in an upcoming column.

Appearing every Wednesday and Friday in The Washington Post Style section and in Sunday Source, Tell Me About It offers readers advice based on the experiences of someone who's been there -- really recently. Carolyn Hax is an ex-repatriated New Englander with a liberal arts degree and a lot of opinions and that's about it, really, when you get right down to it. Oh, and the shoes. A lot of shoes.

Other mail can be directed to Carolyn at


Carolyn Hax: The T-shirts are coming! The art is en route to the printer and we're taking orders. It's white with an original Nick Galifianakis portrait of Zuzu on the back, with "Lick ALS!" above it, and on the front is a logo with my version of a Zuzu portrait. Make an anti-ALS, pro-canine, pro-elegant-pen-and-ink-illustration, pro-no-talent-Sharpie-doodle statement all with one shirt. You can get one by:

1. Walking with us on Sunday, Oct. 21 on the Mall, near the Vietnam memorial. You can get details and sign up by going to the Hax Pack page-- looking for the "Register for a Walk" link on the left side of the page. (It says Team Hax still, but we've been preoccupied with T-shirt detail.)

2. You can sponsor us. Same page, but click the "Donate to a Walk" link. (Don't want anyone to be deterred by instructional imprecision, right?)

3. You can buy one from me directly, and I'll forward all profits to the cause.

If you've already pitched in, thank you! I'll be in touch about your size and address.


Carolyn Hax: One more note before we start, revisiting the "online only" issue. As I said last week, I will honor it, but it's starting to become seriously overused. Example from last week's transcript:

"Anchorage, Alaska: Hello Carolyn (online only pls), I live for these chats on Friday! So, want your opinion on something. Do you believe that good things (people, healthy relationships, circumstances, self-confidence) can't enter your life until you deal with, work through and ultimately change or rid of the bad things (people, relationships, energy, attitudes, behavior,emotional baggage)? Thank you!"

Now, unless everyone in Anchorage 1. is without baggage and therefore 2. knows the identity of the one person in Anchorage with baggage, I see no reason for the use of this question to be restricted. Especially since the "City, State" field can be filled in by people who aren't under oath.

For the questions with detail that could prove recognizable, the need for some control over presentation is clear. I understand it and will keep choosing those questions when they I think they're interesting.

But where that need isn't clear, I will often have to skip over those questions and keep looking for someone with a similar query who won't handcuff me with "online only." So, please, before you make that request, please be sure your question really is unique. Thanks.


Washington, D.C.: Silly question, I know, but what should a hairy-backed man do? How much does this usually matter to women (haven't really reached that stage yet with a woman)? Waxing? Laser it off? And by hairy-backed, I mean a ridiculous amount of hair. If I do get rid of it, should the front go, too?

Carolyn Hax: The answer to this is always that the women who care about this aren't the women for you. We've all been to pools and beaches, it's not like the guys in grow-it-yourself sweaters are all there alone.

But I do think public humor has taken a tough line on you guys recently. If you start to feel battered by it, maybe keep an eye out for women of hairy-backed ancestries. There might be a built-in affection for it there.


Confused: If you follow the link you gave, and look just below the "Team Hax" block with members, the site of the walk is listed in Constitution Gardens?

Just a heads up

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. Right under that is a "Driving Directions and Transportation" link.


Cleveland: Re the column today about the "lazy" but sweet and wonderful girlfriend. If she moved in recently, as implied in the letter, he should be especially careful to give her some time (and if she needs it, some financial assistance) to move on. She didn't get into this scene by herself.

Carolyn Hax: Good point, thanks.


Updatesville, USA: Carolyn

I wrote in a few weeks ago regarding advice on how to discuss my new girlfriend's anxiety disorder. I didn't use the exact words we (and the peanut gallery) talked about, but I expressed the sentiment. She told me that she is fine and the anxiety is under control through medication, that people don't cause her anxiety, but places do.

Unfortunately, I think things are over. A buddy, who does not know her, had forwarded me a profile of someone I should check out. The profile was of her, and she had been logged in recently. I left a message for her (nothing accusatory, but just a what's new?). No response. Whether she got freaked out by a new relationship because of her anxiety or because she just freaked out, who knows.

Anyways, I appreciated the advice as well as the love and support I got from the peanuts gallery. I just wish I had a happier ending to report.

Carolyn Hax: Maybe this is the happy ending. You got out of something pretty early that apparently wasn't going anywhere, and you also got some practice handling an open conversation about something that isn't easy to talk about. That's actually a pretty good run, especially compared with some of the other stuff that we talk about here.


Husband: Ms. Hax,

My wife went in for preliminary fertility counseling and found out she needs a hysterectomy ASAP. As a fairly new husband I don't even know how to begin gauging the kind of support she'll need right now. I know we're both heartbroken and I don't want to screw up or let her down. I was hoping you and/or your audience might have some words of wisdom.

Thank you

Carolyn Hax: The first thing that hits me is to ask whether you've gotten a second opinion. This is serious stuff, and while I appreciate that time is a factor, I also think your afternoon should consist of calls seeking the authority in this field who lives closest to you.

My second thought is that, if I were in your wife's position, I would want to hear a few things: 1. That this news, upsetting as it is, doesn't take her away from you, and that's the most important thing to you; 2. That you appreciate that she's grieving, and don't try to minimize it with, "It's okay, we can adopt." Everyone knows about adoption. There will be a time where it's appropriate to signal your willingness to explore it, if you are in fact willing, but don't present it in a way that suggests you see it as a mitigating factor. 3. That you are grieving, too, if that's true. People who've been through a loss often lose touch with their mates because they think they're alone in their feelings. Just the fact that you're asking how not to let her down probably would mean everything to her. Just get that across.

I'm sure others will have things to add but these are my raw impressions.


Don't wax it!: For the gentleman sensitive about his hair - be patient, you'll find someone who loves your back just as much as she loves the rest of you, just because it's part of you. My husband, bless his heart, had his back waxed for our honeymoon and that was just torture. Sure, it's the only time I've ever seen him in a bathing suit without a shirt, but it really wasn't worth the pain, blood, and ingrown hairs.

Carolyn Hax: Wincing here. Apologies to the lunch-at-your-desk crowd.


Washington, D.C.: I've got a friend crazy about a hairy back. And I don't really mind it either! We ladies exist, too!

Carolyn Hax: Next year's T-shirt idea is brewing.


East Coast: Carolyn,

I'm four months pregant with our first baby, something my husband and I both wanted. Last night after he got home from work I mentioned how much our lives were going to change, and all of the sudden it was like something inside of him snapped. He spun around and pushed me and I fell down the stairs. He left the house and didn't come back last night, nor have I heard from him yet today. He has NEVER so much as raised his voice with me, and I'm so confused. Part of me knows what I should probably do, and the rest of me keeps saying this was too out-of-character and sudden for it to be what I think it was. I'm sitting here with my office door closed, stifling tears and all I can think is, "this can't be happening..."

Carolyn Hax: Please get help asap. I can't conjure the circumstances where pushing one's pregnant wife down the stairs and then disappearing isn't life-and-death serious. Even if it isn't a mark of an abusive nature, it could be the mark of the onset of a serious illness. You don't mess around with either abuse or sudden personality changes, especially not when there's about to be a baby on the scene. Call 1-800-799-SAFE for local emergency counseling resources, find out if he ever turned up at work and call the police if he didn't, and plan to stay with a friend. Write back after you've called, please.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn,

I work for a major corporation, and as of this month I'm a boss for the first time in my life. The problem is that I've been promoted to the slot just above one of my best work friends. She's returning from maternity leave in a few days and I'm afraid this will be awkward or that problems will arise when I start handing out assignments. What do you suggest?

Carolyn Hax: Take her out to lunch, welcome her back, and encourage her to talk openly with you if she ever feels uncomfortable with the new arrangements.


Seattle, Wash.: I have an aunt (my mom's sister) whom I really love. Honestly, I like her a lot better than I like my mom. My aunt and my mom live in the same town, and I've decided that the next time I visit, I'm going to stay with my aunt. It's just a much more pleasant visit when I stay with my aunt, whereas when I stay with my mom the first thing she does is give me a list of chores, which she proceeds to criticize me for doing wrong. When I told my mom I was staying with my aunt, she said her feelings were hurt. Do you think I did anything wrong here?

Carolyn Hax: Sure. You did something that you certainly could have anticipated would hurt your mom's feelings.

Not that you shouldn't have done it. You're an adult, you can decide for yourself where and with whom you stay. But adulthood means also recognizing the consequences for your choices. When a woman's own daughter could stay with her but would rather stay with an aunt, I think even the strongest of moms is going to feel slapped in the face. So, you have to face the consequence of mommy who's face is still stinging.

Your mom, at least, was open with you about her feelings, which I might not have expected given your thumbnail sketch of her as a mere chore-assigner and nit-picker (which suggests high walls around some vulnerability or another). Her openness shows you the way to talk to her about it. Let her know you love her and she'll always be your mom, even when you do decide to spend some time with the aunt. Also, next time, consider staying with mom and trying to repair the dynamic.

What you do depends on the history, but if you had a youthful entitlement streak, maybe an apology for taking advantage in the past would be the right tone to strike. If not, if your mom just tends to be brittle or demanding, maybe greeting the list with, "Mom, I'm happy to pitch in, but the list makes me feel like I'd otherwise be a burden."


For new boss: And don't show favoritism or create a yes-man clique. Be fair with ALL of your subordinates.

Carolyn Hax: Needs to be said, thanks.


Um...: ....and get herself to the emergency room to make sure nothing happened to the baby....

Carolyn Hax: I imagine under the circumstances her OB would see her in the office, assuming the office has the necessary ultrasound equipment. Given the nature of this field of medicine, the "how soon can you get here?" appointment isn't as rare as it is in other specialties. Thanks.


Madison, Wis.: I have a question for all the smokers out there. Say you live in a large, non-smoking apartment building, but smoking is allowed on your patio. Each patio directly abuts a neighbor's patio. Your neighbors dislike the smell of cigarette smoke, and are annoyed when you smoke on the patio, because the odor wafts over to their patio and into their windows, making their home smell like a cheap motel and making dining or relaxing on their patio unpleasant (further, this is a city with a smoking ban on all indoor spaces, and some of us have grown accustomed to being able to eat without a foul stench spoiling our appetites). (ahem, you can probably all guess which party I am...) Anyway, supposing all this, is there anything your neighbors could say or do to convince you to not smoke on your patio? Or are you just going to go ahead and do it because it is technically allowed and you think non-smokers should just suck it up and stop being such healthier-than-thou crybabies?

Carolyn Hax: Ah. It sounds like you've run across a person of the they-asked-me-to-stop-so-watch-me-do-it-more variety. If it's true and you're in a battle of wills with a smoker who has an oppositional personality, then I think your best (only?) chance might be in dropping the issue with the neighbor and raising it with the building's management. If you're dealing with someone reasonable, maybe you can work out a deal where the neighbor doesn't smoke outside at certain set times of the day.


Just curious: Who is your glam/ruggedly handsome producer these days? They sure are quiet...I like hearing them chime in occasionally. It's me, Liz, the ruggedly handsome produceress.

Carolyn Hax: She wears hiking clothes and no makeup. She lets her back hair grow wild. She is producing this outside in the freezing rain. When there is no freezing rain, she sets up a sprinkler and sits in a tub of ice. She is my hero.


Fluff: It's gloomy outside and this chat has some very serious issues being discussed today. May I submit a fluffy wedding question? I keep sending my bridesmaids faux ideas on the dresses I have selected; from one made of toilet paper that someone emailed me, to the hideous shots from the SATC movie. When do I let them know of the actual dress? I could really play this game for quite some time ...

Carolyn Hax: When you can let them know they can wear whatever they want?


Everyone knows about adoption: Carolyn, I love your chats and your column. I've noticed that you frequently say "Everyone knows about adoption," which is why you never advise bringing it up or advise it yourself.

But the thing is, everyone knows about second opinions, too, and that didn't stop you from advising one. Your refusal to recommend adoption signals that there's something wrong with talking about it, when in reality adoption is a wonderful thing that should be discussed.

Carolyn Hax: Actually, I disagree that it's an apt comparison. Everyone may know about second opinions, but people in the throes of an upsetting diagnosis sometimes do lose that thought in the immediacy of it all. There is also the more important fact that the recommended treatment involves a hysterectomy "ASAP." They can't proceed, wait till the dust has settled and then remember the option of a second opinion. It's now or never.

The adoption conversation, on the other hand, can wait until the couple is in a better frame of mind to talk about it, at which point they will think of it themselves, without the assist from well-meaning spectators.

I have the benefit of seeing what people have posted here for almost a decade, which is that the, "Well, you can always adopt," comment is perceived by couples struggling with infertility as unnecessary at best, and at worst offensive. People don't like even the perception of being judged on their reproductive choices, and rightly or wrongly people see an outsider's need to state the obvious as a judgment, as if the couple is either too dense to have thought of it themselves, or is not interested in adopting and therefore is too closed-minded or genetically self-absorbed. Yes, it's wonderful, it should be discussed--by the people who would be doing the adopting.


Comment about online only policy: Carolyn, I have been reading your column and weekly chats for years and I must admit, the purpose of using "online only" totally went over my head. I have never requested it myself, but I just thought it meant that people were impatient to get an answer and didn't want to wait for the question to show up in one of your columns. Call me dense, because the desire for anonymity makes a lot more sense! However, my point is that maybe some people are confused about the purpose of the online only request, just like I was.

Carolyn Hax: Good point, thanks.

If people would rather see it here than wait for the paper, then submitting it to the discussion is the best chance of having that happen. It's very rare that I pass over a question sent to this forum because I want to save it for a column. When I do that it's only so I can give it more thought--which means it goes in the paper or it goes unanswered. Certainly I pull some out for the paper later that could have been answered online, but that's only because I go through the outtakes after each session and pick out good stuff that I never even had time to see.

The truth is, if I see a good question I feel I can answer live, I answer it right then. The time pressure means I don't have the luxury of sorting things out as I read.


Washington, D.C.: In your response to "East Coast" you changed what she said about the pushing/falling down stairs incident. She said she was pushed and then fell down the stairs, you said she was "pushing" down the stairs. One implied the push was intentional and the falling accidental, the other that the whole incident was intentional. I will admit I'm an optimist who has never had her physical safety in danger, but if this act is so out of character for the husband, it could all be one horrible accident. The husband could be so ashamed he feels he can't face his wife. Perhaps the wife should go somewhere with friends, family or a shelter where she feels comfortable and safe (after checking on the baby) and try to contact the husband. Sometimes accidents happen, it doesn't always mean it's spousal abuse.

Carolyn Hax: You're right, the push was a push only and the fall down the stars was a consequence. I compressed the two in haste. But the push alone was spousal abuse. Make no mistake about that. There is no "all one horrible accident" here. If shame is enough to make the husband flee instead of tending to the health of his wife and unborn child, then that too is a sign of a serious problem. That he didn't come back after a cooling-off time is again a sign of a serious problem.

People wonder how others end up staying in horrible situations, and you just spelled out the method in the most well-meaning terms: by minimizing things in an effort to find some explanation that isn't terrible or upsetting. What happened, happened. The only way anyone gets to a happy ending here is by facing the facts straight on. That means getting the assistance of professionals who are qualified to handle the many possible, serious implications of what happened.

Now that were here, I'll add that the OB can be a more general crisis resource, with the counseling and the missing husband.


San Diego, Calif.: Some of us don't get The Washington Post (maybe we should, but we don't). The only way I read your column is online -- hence, for me to ask a question, online would be the only way I would know you replied. That's what I thought online only was for.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks for helping clear this up. All my print material also appears online, so anything I write is available.


Wedding party: Once you've agreed to be in someone's wedding, is there any way you can have a candid conversation with the bride about the costs? It's turning out to be a lot more expensive than I realized, and I'm paying for a lot of things that strike me as kinda dumb (things I never would have dreamed of asking my wedding party to pay for when I got married). It's not that I -can't- afford it, but I'd rather spend my money on other things. Can I say all this to the bride, or should I just suck it up? The wedding is in four weeks.

Carolyn Hax: Absolutely you can set a limit. Explain to the bride that you've spent X, and that to you it seems more than fair for any one person's contribution. Being four weeks away from her wedding doesn't qualify her for admission into an emotional ICU.


Rescue group or animal shelter: Hi Carolyn,

I want a doggie and I am not all that picky about the type (I am thinking black because they are harder to adopt out for some reason) or anything other than it be cute and smart enough to be house-trained. I have applied to a rescue group but they are super slow about getting back to me. I am thinking about just going to a shelter and getting a dog? Thoughts?

Love the chats. And hunky Liz. Grunt.

Carolyn Hax: Shelter! Shelter! Just be sure to talk to the staff to find a dog with a size, temperament and breed/breeds that are suited to your way of life. If you don't mind an older dog, the staff will be ecstatic; adult doggies can be really hard to place.


Anywhere, USA: Refering to the very disturbing quesetion submitted by the 4-month pregnant woman, can you think of any warning signs or red flags that can alert one to a potentially abusive or dangerous relationships, before things get too far?

Carolyn Hax: The Peace at Home site is down now, but I still like their handbook the best for flagging early warning signs. You can find it out in the ether by typing this into your browser: "peace at home" "domestic violence: the facts" and clicking on the pdf that turns up. If it doesn't work, email

Sorry for the delay; I wanted to make sure it was still out there.


Silver Spring, Md.: For the couple worried about passing on obesity to a child:

You have no idea what part of your genetic legacy will be passed to your children. My husband and I are both on the heavy side and we both have very dark hair. Our son turned out to be lanky (actually 10 pounds underweight) with light brown hair, something we have to go back at least three generations in our family trees to find. You have no control over this, either positively or negatively -- don't worry about it.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. Two things they can control: what food they offer, and what they talk about. Getting on the kid all the time about weight will virtually guarantee a food hangup, and those are really hard to rewire.


Columbia, Md.: For you to describe people not interested in adoption as "therefore too close-minded or genetically self-absorbed" is quite a slap and a generalization.

Carolyn Hax: I wasn't describing them that way, I was saying that couples who don't want to adopt are often judged that way or sensitive to the possibility of being judged that way. Thanks for proving the point!


He said, she said: What if you both love each other but both fit a number of warning signs in the Peace at home booklet?

Carolyn Hax: Being abusive and being in love aren't mutually exclusive. Look honestly and hard at what you're doing that made the list, and see if there isn't another way to approach things.


Seattle, Wash.: It's me again, staying with aunt instead of mom. Thanks for answering.

However, you suggested trying to repair the dynamic. What if I've decided the dynamic is past repairing? What if there's nothing I like about my mom and really only visit town ever because my aunt lives there? Do I just try to repair the dynamic because otherwise I could put my aunt in a bad situation?

Carolyn Hax: Hm. Is it irreparable, or past repairing? I see them as different things. One means you've tried and tried but your mother is toxic to you in ways that will never change, and the other is that you've lost interest in making an effort. One is that you can't be healthy around her, the other is just that you don't like her. With the former I see estrangement as doing what you have to; with the latter I see estrangement as being hard on someone who might well just be doing her best. If that's the case, stay with the aunt but do make an effort with mom.


RE: Seattle: About the woman who wanted to stay with her aunt - of course, Mom is hurt. But in addition to not staying with mom, you've also chosen her own sister over her. While it may or may not be apparent to the duaghter/niece, it's probable that there's been some competition between the sisters for years, and you may have found yourself as an unwitting accomplice to this dynamic. How about getting a motel room?

Carolyn Hax: Something to consider, thanks.


Northern California: Hi Carolyn, I love you and your chats and specifically your stance against trying to change our partners to fit our sense of what they should be...but I'm having a problem right now that brings up the wish to nag: we recently moved for my new job and my husband switched from salaried to hourly employment at the same job, so now he's working from home--and finding out how bad his work habits were. Our budget is based on his working 35 hours/week, and we've been moved in with the kids in daycare for 5-6 weeks now, and not one of those weeks has he hit target; he averages about 20/week. This with both kids in daycare fulltime.

So how do I keep from nagging, from checking up on him, and more importantly, how do I be supportive and helpful to him? I have a lot of anxiety about the finances right now, because the move took a big toll on us and we're in debt and already on a tight budget even if he were hitting target.

FWIW, I myself am going to get a therapist soon (I was waiting for our health insurance to finally kick in, which it only did as of this week).

Carolyn Hax: Thank you!

Therapists are good for stress you don't want to dump on a spouse, but for the stress of not being able to tell your spouse he's stressing you out, communication is still your best option. Approach him in a "What can we do about this?" kind of way, just so you're sure not to set off all the "What are you doing all day" defenses. Maybe he's miserable and frustrated with himself and can use a supportive ear. Maybe he'll be open to creative solutions, like being part-time and caring for the kids more. Just put down your dukes and just admit that you're talking about it only because you think it'll be even harder not to talk about it.


Archives?: I can't find a link to the Tell Me About It chat archives. Has this gone away? Nope. The page has just been rearranged. I'll add to the intro text so it's always there. You can always search the site for "Carolyn Hax," too, and it'll bring up everything.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks Liz.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn,

I'm submitting this early because I'll be in a meeting during the chat. I've been reading you for awhile but never written in before, but in the last two weeks, I feel like I've just stopped being able to function. Nothing terrible happened -- nothing at all happened- just out of nowhere I'm suddenly in this horrible crushing depression. I've really never been like this before, no history of it, but I can't shake it off. It's gotten to the point where I'm just feeling constantly sick. Any idea why something like this would start for no reason, and what I can do to get rid of it?

Carolyn Hax: Get to a doctor for a checkup, and be your own advocate--ask for possible explanations of what could make this happen suddenly. Get blood work, give details--before you go, try to remember (and write down) what you've been doing, eating, etc., differently. If you don't get a satisfying answer--ie, one that makes some progress toward feeling better--think of new questions, and if your doctor won't invest the time to play detective, ask around for recommendations for a new doctor.


Carolyn Hax: Still here, just stuck in a long answer ...


MIL in the delivery room: So why did the responses to this question fall along generational lines?

Carolyn Hax: Right right, almost forgot. Thanks.

There was an era where science was seen as the antidote to icky nature in childbirth and childrearing. It's when formula was considered superior to breast milk, and when women in labor were essentially drugged to the gills and their involvement began when they were presented with a newborn. This certainly contains some hyperbole and not all mothers went this route, but a lot did, and a lot of opinions were shaped by this experience. I got quite a bit of pressure from someone of this era, for example, to stop nursing and switch one of my (not even remotely underweight) babies to formula.

Before all the medical intervention, of course, was the old-fashioned biting of sticks and bearing down, while being cared for and cheered on by, if they were around, other women.

So now, present day, there's a real push (ha ha) for getting some of the medical intervention back out of the process. Not the essential emergency kind, obviously--I chose hospitals, thanks, for both births--but the kind that might not be necessary. Like, epidurals. I won't argue the reasons to pass on one because I don't have the right degrees and I'm taking forever here, but a lot more people are coming back around to choosing that than the few holdouts of the ether days. The woman who didn't want her MIL in the room was choosing that.

I chose that. And that's why I know (and what someone of the high-drugs and privacy-drapes era might not know) that the laboring un-drugged mom is not lying on the birthing table, but instead is in constant motion. A lot of the people who insisted the MIL be allowed in said that modesty concerns could be addressed by having the MIL stand at the head of the bed, vs, the foot. But it just doesn't work that way. This is a woman in an extremely exposed and vulnerable state. Highly personal.

Add to that the fact that stress inhibits labor, which could result in needing a medical assist, the thing the mother doesn't want--and what could be more stressful than someone who thinks her right to watch her grandchild come out takes precedence over the mother's own health?

And finally--what does help some women is a comforting, experienced female presence. I didn't go that route myself, but I'll stick up for the right for someone else to choose it.

So while I believe that any laboring mom, who chooses any degree of medical assistance, is fully entitled to choose who comes into the delivery room, I think a lot more people would recognize the madness of pushing one's way into a birth if they realized what the raw process entailed of pushing one's way out.

That's all.


Carolyn Hax: Had I not forgotten, I could have written that in advance. (And dug up a few emails from readers who had the same hunch I did about the generation gap.) Sorry everbuddy.

That's it for today. Thanks, type to you next Friday, have a great weekend and don't forget the T-shirts for the cause.


Alexandria, VA: i went to the site - it says Peace at Home is no longer in operation.

Carolyn Hax: I know. On the list of hits from your search, you have to go to the one that's a pdf. That's the handbook.


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