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Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 4, 2008; 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 day in The Washington Post Style section and in the Sunday Source, Carolyn Hax offers readers advice based on the experiences of someone who's been there. 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.

Carolyn's Recent Columns

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn,

Why do I have some much difficulty resisting the urge to Google a former flame when I know that it will result in feelings of: regret, yearning, and paranoia that he has some kind of advanced technology that will allow him to know that I'm doing so? Is it me, or has the internet made the recovery process all the more turbulent?

Carolyn Hax: I think you've just made the Internet process more turbulent. Google him freely until even the idea of it bores you. Sense by desensitization.

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Carolyn Hax: Oh, and, hi. I'm still trying to get used to this whole say-hello-before-you-start-talking thing.

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For Maryland in Today's Column: I know you often receive "I'm in love with my friend" submissions so I thought I would share my experience for those afraid to take the risk. In my senior year of college, I confessed to my closest guy friend (who was a year behind me in school) that no other guy was appealing to me because he was the one I really wanted. He didn't think we should see each other romantically since I would be graduating soon and that was that. But we became even closer friends after that extremely difficult conversation and, over a decade later, he is still a good friend of mine. At least I found out the answer to the burning question and was ultimately able to move on.

Carolyn Hax: Enthusiastic clapping from the rest of the group. Thanks.

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Regretville: Help! I finally started dating someone who was good for me -- not perfect, but so much closer to my ideal than anyone ever has been in the past. We got in a fight a few days ago and I had too much to drink and ended up kissing someone else. Worse, he saw the whole thing. Obviously I will be seriously evaluating how much I am drinking and potentially seeking counseling if I can't stop drinking on my own, but...how do I get a second chance? I fear you will say I take it one day at a time and let my growing pile of alcohol and drama-free good days prove how committed I am to not repeating my mistakes. But if he won't return my calls, how will he ever know that? Did I just nuke the relationship? Thanks.

Carolyn Hax: Actually, I'm inclined to think you nuked the relationship back when you established an "ideal," but you probably did stomp out any remaining smoking embers with the drunken antics.

You fear correctly: Take it one day at a time and let your growing pile of alcohol- and drama-free good days prove how committed you are to not repeating your mistakes. But I'm going to tweak two parts of that advice, since I have to get my fingerprints all over it somehow. First, broaden your definition of mistakes from inebriated face-sucking to ...

Ah. Well, that part's up to you. But just from the little bit you've shown, I suspect there's some stuff you're burying inside that you don't like, and that you're thinking you can avoid dealing with by living your life according to the happier story you've written for yourself. It doesn't work that way, it never works that way. The stuff you're burying is just as much "you" as the stuff you like, and the only life narrative you'll manage to live successfully is one that incorporates that bad stuff somehow--be it by making it right, or learning to live with it, or learning to avoid it, or whatever. Maybe I'm making too much of it, but "ideal" visions plus substance excesses usually mean there's a less-than-ideal reality you're trying to rationalize and medicate away, respectively.

Second tweak is that the person to whom you need to prove your worth is you, and only you. If my hunch about the first part is correct, then by the time you're feeling good about yourself, you'll be so far past this guy he'll be irrelevant. And if he is still relevant, then you can always track him down.

Good luck with it, and if you slip along the way, get yourself back to it by remembering that all you ever have to do is make your next decision a good one, no matter how small the particular decision may be.

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Herndon, Va.: There was an article in The Post yesterday about cultivating empathy that had some really excellent suggestions. I was curious about something though.

One of the exercises it mentioned was to help empathize with someone who you knew didn't like you. One of the aspects to this exercise suggested imagining that the reason this person didn't like you was completely correct and that you were in fact in the wrong -- and to do this without rationalizing your own perspective or making excuses.

I tried imagining a girl whom I had been friendly acquaintances with. When my boyfriend (of 3 years now) and I started dating she became rude and insulting to me. She and my BF had dated for about 2 months -- 6 months before he and I met -- and she had ended the relationship.

I tried imagining that her reasons for not liking me were legitimate, but kept mentally circulating back to the idea that treating someone poorly because they date your ex is irrational and immature. She had never been rude to me before that.

I'm having a hard time with this because I have always thought that I was pretty empathetic and it's something that I want to continue to improve upon.

Any suggestions?

Carolyn Hax: It is a great exercise, and it's not just about empathy; to me, the only way to get anywhere productive when a relationship problem comes up is to trace the various possible thought processes of the people involved. It's the way the best solutions present themselves.

Anyway, you've followed the right trail with this acquaintance, but maybe you quit too soon. Yes, she was probably being immature and irrational, but that's still the "what"; you're going for the "why." If she were, say, angry at herself for dropping the guy, or if she had invested a bit too much of her self worth in her attractiveness to men, and was now realizing that this guy (of whom she had been in complete control) is now completely ignoring her, then that would explain why her bad feelings were spilling over onto you.

Would it make her any more likable? No, maybe even less. But you're not looking to like everyone, I don't think--just to see their humanity. Even better, their vulnerability. Then (to continue the example) you can see it's not about her disliking you but about feeling threatened, which is something most of us can identify with on a human level.

And then you can use that as motivation to make an extra effort to be civil/sympathetic to this person, or you can go about avoiding her like the plague. Either one will be a better decision for the insight behind it.

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Therapy: I'd like to go to couples counseling with my boyfriend of four years. We've reached the "break up or get married point" in our relationship and I think counseling could be very helpful. He is very, very resistant to couples counseling, has a variety of reasons as to why he is resistant, but I think his real issue is sitting in a room with a stranger and talking about "feelings" skeeves him out. Any suggestions for how I can coax him into a session, or should I just give up the idea all together?

Carolyn Hax: Or, Door No. 3, ask yourself what his refusal is saying about him, and apply that to the way you want to live your life, and make your next decision accordingly. The point of therapy is twofold, first to get stuff out in the open and second to make sense of that stuff. You've just been handed a solid truth about your boyfriend, free of charge, and now all you need to do is make sense of it.

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Sterling, Va.: I've been reading you for years, and have a question that I haven't seen before. You recommend therapy to many people who need it. But when do you know it's okay to stop therapy? I started seeing my therapist in 1993 at considerable expense, and am still seeing him. I believe I'm still a work in progress, and am not quite "there" yet, but when do you know that it's time to quit? I'm leaps and bounds over where I started, but does the therapist ever tell you they can't help you anymore? Or is therapy a life-long thing? This is the first time I've even thought about stopping going to him. I started considering it when I was working on my 2008 budget and had to set money aside for him that I could put towards my retirement.

I admire the no-nonsense advice you give to people and appreciate your opinion.

Am I done yet?

Carolyn Hax: There are some therapists who won't see a patient indefinitely. Some patients also reach a point where they feel they've gone as far as they can with their current therapist and either switch to someone new or stop therapy altogether.

This is something you should feel free to discuss with your therapist, in fact, and if he says he thinks you need to continue, then you can ask for a referral to someone new, in the interest of getting a fresh set of eyes on your situation. That takes care of any conflict of interest in the advice to continue.

You can also stop for a while and see how you feel about it, or cut back on appointments to once a month--you really are in control of your care here.

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Washington, D.C.: Help!

Last night my apartment mate and best friend accused me of being an alcoholic!

I come home from work and have 2-3 beers everyday. My idea of down time after work is that plus reading a good book. How do I ever get her to calm back down!?

Carolyn Hax: By not being an alcoholic. Did she cite anything else to support her concerns besides the 2-3 daily drinks? (That's a significant number, by the way, for almost all but very large men.)

Except where the volume alone is clear proof, any well-founded suspicion of alcoholism is going to include the impact alcohol appears to be having on various areas of your life. Do yourself a massive favor by going to this site--http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/--and giving yourself a quick test to see if your drinking raises any other alarms. Obviously people can pass these self-tests with flying colors if they lie to themselves, but I'll trust you not to do that because you know it would be thoroughly pointless, unless your point is to self-destruct.

And if you do pass honestly, you'll get your roommate to calm down just fine by saying you appreciate her concern--and by cutting back, quietly, on your own, to no more than two.

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PG County, Md.: Hey Carolyn,

Happy New Year. My mom passed last year and though my sister and I are very close (both in our 30's) -- my sister didn't really care for my mom. I don't know all the details and the things that I do know are so stupid (but everyone has their own opinions). My mom lived with me and my family for more than 5 years, she was sick but he death was sudden. Here goes...some of my friends are really pissed with me for agreeing to share my moms fortune down the middle because my sister did NOTHING for my mom. I just think that it is better not to fight about money and that my sister is already feeling guilty about how she treated my mom. What do you think?

Carolyn Hax: I think your friends have serious issues, both with compassion and boundaries. Down the middle is the gracious thing to do. I'm sorry about your mom.

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Therapy - Door No. 4: Or maybe the guy doesn't feel there is anything that therapy will do in terms of resolving his girlfriend's perception of an impasse. Why, after 4 years does she think they are at the "Break up or Get Married" crossroads? What does that say about her? Why is it always the guys in these situations who are in the "wrong?"

Carolyn Hax: Why is it that my "interpret what it means that he won't go to therapy with you" qualifies as an "always"?

I do agree that a "break up or get married" point is silly--it's is and always is a break-up point, because the only viable marriage point is when both of you feel that now is a fine time to formalize what you both have already known for some time.

She apparently sees an impasse. I agree with you on that, too. He either doesn't see it as an impasse or doesn't care to deal with it. Either way, he's not invested enough in her satisfaction to just show up at an appointment already. That says both of them need to realize breaking up is the next step. Had he asked me, I would have said the same to him.

Actually, I would have said that if you are committed to this person then go to the counseling. And if he still refused, then I would have done the time-to-move-on interpretive dance.

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Another in-love-with-a-friend question: Hi Carolyn,

You often say to be wary of relationships based on a strong initial physical attraction, and I get that. I recently started dating someone I've been good friends with for over a year and recently developed romantic feelings for. She told me that she's been attracted to me since we first met. Is there any inherent reason to second-guess her friendship and by extension the relationship?

Carolyn Hax: Nah. The reason to be suspicious of quick attractions is that they're often based on newness and surface traits, and you can't count on fondness for each other's inner selves to kick in when the newness wears off. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't.

It sounds as if in your case the newness is gone and the fondness has taken over. As long as you don't feel her attraction to you is based on an unrealistic image of you (it's hard to describe by example, but you probably know how it feels), then, enjoy.

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NE D.C.: Technical issue -- I opened your chat around 12:10 and read a few questions and answers. But now (12:55), when I try to open it, I just get the header -- no questions or answers at all.

washingtonpost.com: We know -- all the answers are there, it's just a problem with getting the site to load/refresh. We're working on it. Thanks for your patience.

Carolyn Hax: If you can read this, then you don't need it, and if you need it, you won't be able to read it.

Like, trippy.

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Boston: I recently met a friend's sister at a big group shindig. We chatted for a while, I like the girl, and I want to ask her out. Is that icky? I feel like I'm violating some unwritten social code.

Carolyn Hax: No, it's okay, especially if you can find an unweird way to mention it to your friend. You did violate an unwritten social code, though, by using the word "shindig."

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Anywhere: Carolyn, I have evidence (but not proof) that my sister's husband has very recently cheated on her. They are currently trying to get pregnant (it would be their first). I don't know what, if anything, I should do.

If I confront him and I am wrong, it will damage our relationship forever. If I tell her and I am wrong, it will damage multiple relationships forever. If I am right, well...

You can imagine how sleepless this has made me. Any thoughts?

Carolyn Hax: Don't confront the husband, talk to him. Tell him what you saw, and explain: that you understand these things often have innocent explanations, that you didn't want to jump to conclusions, but also that you feel you have an obligation to your sister not to just look the other way.

One would hope that treating him as a decent, respectable human being will bring out the decent, respectable human being in him. If not then you'll have a new decision to make, but it will probably be easier to make if he responds to you badly.

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Bethesda, Md.: Hi Carolyn,

I'd like to see a therapist, but on the one occasion I went, I felt much too embarrassed to just launch into the details of my personal/psychological life. So I kind of discussed side issues that I'm not really so interested in, and then didn't go back. So I'm wondering, how are you supposed to start? Are you really just supposed to walk in and start blurting it all out? I thought the therapist seemed smart and nice, so I don't think I'd feel any less shy with a different person. But now I don't know how to go back, what to do, etc.

Thanks!

Carolyn Hax: First thing you do is describe what you just said here. "I went to a therapy session once before, but I felt embarrassed and never went again." That isn't (to my mind) a hugely embarrassing revelation to make, but if it is let me know and we'll pull back the wording even more.

Saying this will tell a (competent) therapist 1. that s/he needs to draw you out, and 2. that when you do talk, you might be talking around the problem instead of about it.

Remember this, too--a therapist has heard everything,and you're not trying to see this person socially, so impressing him or her is beside the point. You can't embarrass yourself.

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Invisible girl: Nobody ever posts my comments or questions! Carolyn, I'd really like to hear what you think of my friend getting engaged to a guy she's known since September. Please, nobody else seems to think it's crazy fast, especially since this guy is the first serious relationship she's ever had! Tell me what you think?

Carolyn Hax: I didn't post it because it looked like you knew the answer already and wanted validation more than you wanted an answer. I'll look for it again, just a sec ...

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Engaged so soon?: Hey Carolyn! I need some Haxian wisdom: how soon is too soon to get engaged and/or married? My friend (27) just got engaged to a guy (her first-ever serious boyfriend) whom she's been with since September, as in four months.

Don't worry, I'm being supportive and happy for her and keeping my mouth shut. But I wanted to hear your minimum time a couple should be together before any rings get involved. (Personally, I say at least a year -- see your partner in all seasons and holidays.) Thanks!!

Carolyn Hax: For some people four months is plenty, for some two years isn't enough. It depends on the age, experience and maturity of the couple; it depends on their individual motivations; it depends on how naturally well-suited they are to each other.

If you're really worried about your friend, then say something--not "it's too soon," though, because that's not only easy to dismiss, but a lot of people resent friends who question their judgment. Instead, you'll need to single out the facts that have you alarmed--"You're talking only about the wedding and not the guy," or, "I want to be happy for you but it's hard for me to get past that you were just telling me a week ago that you're afraid of his explosive temper."

If you don't have this kind of specific fact, but instead just the general fact that your friend is an immature person making the kind of decision that immature people make, then I think you need to be realistic about what you can accomplish, and speak up/bite tongue accordingly.

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McLean, Va.: Does the time-to-move-on interpretive dance include the occasional keyboard-to-forehead triple axl?

Carolyn Hax: I'm 41. It's more like some King Tut arm gestures that I can perform without leaving my desk chair.

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Anonymous: My 2008 goal is to try and find myself and my voice because I've been so wrapped up in living the life I should be living (versus the life I want to live). The problem is I've been living this life for so long, it seems I've lost my bearings. I have no idea what I am really interested in or how I truly feel about certain things. I have a hard time saying no and more times than not I don't put myself first. Any thoughts on rediscovery after being gone for so long?

Thanks.

Carolyn Hax: Little things. Picking a restaurant, for example, deciding what to wear when you go, picking something from the menu--all these are minor expressions of self that have negligible consequences for any one night but that start to express something over time (your tastes, your weight, your self-image, your companionship). It's in these small and therefore low-risk decisions that you can start to learn where you feel a sense of belonging, and from that a sense of yourself. Food, again, is just an example--the reasoning applies to all your daily decisions.

The point is to making conscious changes at this level to nudge your confidence up to the point where you feel you can make stronger statements/bigger investments, like taking a class, joining a group, making a friend.

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Therapy again: Your point about his "willingness to go to therapy" being a reflection of his commitment to the relationship is a good one, and I will take it into serious consideration. Could I ask, how should I present this to him? "If you don't go to therapy, you must not be committed to the relationship" is hardly appropriate. (FWIW, we are deciding if we want to commit to the ugly, talk-about-our feelings stuff etc., as well as the fun and romantic stuff...not looking for an engagement ring, I thought "Married or Break up" would be useful shorthand. )

Carolyn Hax: You don't have to present it to him. The point isn't to use it to get him to therapy, it's for -you- to use it to get to know him.

And now you can also use that you've been together for years without really talking. Intimacy isn't a decision or a stage or a treaty you negotiate, it's something you cultivate with time, openness and trust. If there's no intimacy between you, if you want it, and if you don't think he realizes how little intimacy he has been offering you, then that's something to talk about--on your own or in therapy, it doesn't matter. But if you present that to him and he insists there's nothing wrong--or if he agrees but wants to deal with it just between you (and then doesn't do anything about it), then you need to accept that you aren't the right people to meet each other's needs.

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Perhaps I'm Stupid, DC: Carolyn,

My fiance and I have been going through a rough patch for the last 3 months. We're working through but it seems as if progress is slow.

Well, the other day he tells that he's going to stay with a young lady friend when he goes on a business trip in a few weeks. He visited her long before we were together, took her to meet his father (which is rare) and wanted to get serious but she shot him down. He considers her the one that got away and has kept in touch with her once before.

He wasn't going to tell me but didn't want to lie and say he was going to a hotel. I told him that I wasn't feeling it and it makes me uncomfortable (he was going to lie and he's staying with her knowing he wants her). He said he didn't want to tell me because he knew I'd react this way and I just have to trust him. Right now, I don't trust him as far as I can throw him and don't know how to broach the subject without seeming like the paranoid chick.

Please advise. I want to trust him but this doesn't sit well with me...

Perhaps I'm Stupid...

Carolyn Hax: Tell him that you trust him to behave like an adult. That means he does what he feels he has to do, and he brings nothing back to you but honesty and respect.

Obviously you want him to love you and no other, but his falling for her all over again isn't the bad outcome here. The bad outcome is his having feelings for her but staying with you out of a sense of obligation--or, worse, out of a fear that you'll wig out if you hear anything other than exactly what you want to hear.

You're in a rough patch, so you're probably white-knuckled from hanging on to everything you think you want. Trust that the natural thing is the best thing, let go and see what you get.

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Providence, R.I.: Regarding the guy who wanted to ask the sister out, a perspective from the brother - my adult sis moved to town a couple of years ago and sometimes draws interest from guys in my extended group of friends. My attitude is to stay out of it as much as I can. First, I don't expect my friends to discuss their interest with me. To the extent that they say something, I tell them that as long as they treat my sister respectfully I'm not going to get into their business otherwise. And I've told my sister that unless she is genuinely mistreated, I'm not going to alter my relationship with a friend based on the ups and downs she might have with a particular guy. Has worked so far, for what it's worth.

Carolyn Hax: Great stuff, the whole thing. Thanks.

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DC: I have a friend who, pardon the phrase, is about as whipped as he could possibly be by his wife. She has absolutely no qualms at all about making a scene if it gets her what she wants, embarrassing him in public (or in front of his family and friends), and essentially twisting him to her every whim. I and a lot of our mutual friends are all very concerned for him, but here's where we run into the problem: it's THEIR marriage, therefore it's not our place to do or say anything.

How do we voice our concerns to our friend without stepping over the line?

Carolyn Hax: Well, if he's being abused, it is your place, and the public scenes to humiliate him into getting her way have emotional abuse written all over them. When you have a specific incident to cite, call it to his attention that you believe her treatment of him is abusive. Urge him to do some homework on verbal/emotional abuse so he doesn't have to take your word for it. The still-available Peace at Home handbook, "Domestic Violence: The Facts" has a good checklist of signs to look for (there's a pdf he can find by Googling it, or you/he can write to me at tellme@washpost.com).

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Martyr City, Wash.: Hello, Carolyn --

How can I stop being a martyr in my marriage?

My husband is loving, honest, and a good dad to our teens. He also has untreated ADD, is an iffy communicator, and takes me for granted. I'm doing more tasks so I don't feel betrayed when he doesn't follow through. We're going back to therapy which helps us connect. But it doesn't solve the daily problems.

I'm not ready to leave -- and on some level I don't want to and I know it will affect the kids.

I'd love your perspective because even though he drives me crazy, I'm driving myself even crazier. How can I stop being angry and expecting him to change after two decades? I want to have "the serenity to accept that this is how things are." Until I get the courage to change. Any advice?

Carolyn Hax: Why is the ADD untreated? It sounds as if that's a small thing he can do to mitigate your anger. Just knowing someone -wants- to shoulder his share of the daily burdens can go a long way toward erasing the resentment when you have to do a little more.

Also, on the practical end of things, treatment can help you and he figure out ways he can contribute that work with his nature instead of against it.

Another suggestion would be to figure out how much you feel you can take on without crazifying yourself, and then to resolve to do that and no more.

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For stupid: Reread the phrase "I can't trust him" and try to figure out what that means. That's a bigger deal than one business trip.

Carolyn Hax: on that note--thanks everybody, happy new year and type to you next week.

Oh wait, there's one more thing. Two people reminded me, re; the answer last week to the bi teenager who was wondering whether to come out, that a minor always has to consider whether the parents might react by 1. kicking him or her to the street or 2. putting the kid into a "program." It happens enough that anyone under 18 needs to take the possibility seriously. This would be true with any big revelation, in fact. "Dead Poets Society" comes to mind as a Hollywoody extreme.

Anyway, that's it--thanks again.

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Spfld,VA: I went to the NIH website about the drinking and I cant find the are you drinking to much poll, can you be more specific. Please

Carolyn Hax: Go to FAQs.

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NIH: Still can't find it even under FAQ's

Carolyn Hax: Item 10

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Two to three drinks is an alcoholic??: Carolyn, two to three drinks is a lot for anyone but a big man? Give me a break! For all we know the writer is talking about have two cans of miller lite. I am constantly shocked by what people in this country consider alcoholism...

Carolyn Hax: I didn't say it made someone an alcoholic. I said it was a lot. It can harm a body over time.

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