The Blue Wound

The Blue Wound (etching)After the Civil War, a great many of the men honored for valor could not read or write.  Less than half of Americans were actually literate.  A good many of the Westpoint men died in battle–on both sides. For years, Civil War vets were tracked down by word of mouth to award them their medals, and a great many of these men refused them.  The suicide rate among veterans of the North and South was astoundingly high; more than any of our other wars.  There was no therapy.  Post traumatic stress disorder was a century away from even having a name.  The vets of the Blue and Gray called it “battle fatigue.”

After the war, many men took to the road, or the rails, hopping freights in such numbers they became a culture of people we now know as hobos.  There were 300,000 unemployed men and lots of free transportation.  Many looked for work and many more just wandered the country looking for a place to fit in, or call home.  One of the ugly byproducts of the war was men discovering they no longer had a place to go home to.
The hobo alphabet was the language these men and women cobbled together; marks, slashes, stick-figures and pictograms left on fences around railroad depots, with which to alert each other as to what was coming their way; if food could be found, if shelter was to be had, if the cops were brutal, if they would be beaten or arrested. . .or worse.

There is anecdotal evidence these symbols have their genesis in cattle brands and battlefield sketches, which would make sense.  What has always touched me about this set of symbols is how it united a culture of powerless people; how humans in any dire circumstance find a way to communicate.

As a kid, I was a ceaseless daydreamer, making doodles and odd idiosyncratic drawings while I was supposed to be paying attention in school.  They were wildly elaborate and the nuns took to referring to these leaves of absence as going to “Tony World.”  I’d make constant, ever-evolving drawings on my school papers; snakes, choppy arrow shapes, blood drops and networks of circles and airplanes and skulls– just whatever and it would make my teachers nuts.

In fourth grade, I had a miserable old bitch named Mrs. Loversky who took special umbrage and used to take my pens away when she was talking, so then I would just daydream without doodling.  One time she was running her head about fractions, “blah,blah, blah,” and I was thinking to myself,  “Why don’t you just fucking die you old bitch.”  Only I wasn’t just thinking it.  I’d actually said it without knowing it until after it was out.


She went mental, waving her big flabby arms over her head like a mental patient, screeching until the nuns came in and had to calm her down.  It turned out she had half a load on.  Mrs. Loversky used to go to the restaurant at lunch and power down three or four brandy drinks to get through the day.  This did not get me out of trouble.  The brides of Christ took turns in the hall kicking the holy dogshit out of me.  But they sent Mrs. Loversky to the Acorn Academy to dry out for four weeks and when she came back, she never took my pen away again.  She told me, “If drawing while I’m talking helps you to learn then go ahead.  I’m sorry I yelled at you.”  After she did that I felt bad for what I’d said.  She was much nicer to me after that and I began to kind of like her and feel bad for her.

I thought of this because of the peace I got as a kid from just drawing nothing in particular, sometimes just filling page after page of my notebook with marks and slashes and shapes and smears and continuous lines that seemed to hypnotize me while I made them.    Etching entreats that same kind of sublime feeling for me; mark-making for the joy and curiosity of mark-making, letting my subconsious out to walk around and guide me  a bit.

When I first stopped making etchings eight years ago, one of my fears was that they’d gotten a bit “pretty”–that the grit and grime had filtered out.  Not to worry here.  This one has grit and grime to burn.  I had a lot going through my head when I made it.  The hobo, the battlefield, the men without language making marks with which to communicate, the boy lost in his lines and wanting to stay lost.

This is a new 5-color etching.  It is for sale.  Let me know if you would like one.

Published in: on April 28, 2011 at 6:47 pm  Comments (2)  

The Song of the Devil (El Canto del Diablo)

The Song of the DevilThe term “murder ballad” always sounded somewhat comic to me.  I’m not sure the first time I ever heard that term.  I’d known about “corridas,” which people tell me are different, though “murder ballads” are considered “Corridas.”‘  Huh?  Now you know how I feel parsing the English to Spanish dichotomies that are like night and day on the border.  Corridas are not unique to Mexico.  Almost every culture has them, including my own.  One needs to look no further than the lovely Irish weepie, The Long Black Veil to see what I mean. Death songs are not uncommon the world over.

Death songs by the murderer himself?   Bragging and justifying his actions?  The corridas of gangs and the criminal cartel culture started showing up some 20 years ago in the LA gang culture.  The Mexican Mafia and MS 13 were known to traffic and trade them amongst their membership, along with “ponyos,” sometimes beautiful drawings made on handkerchiefs by Hispanic inmates in prisons throughout the Southwest.

Law enforcement were horrified by the murder ballads; at least in America they were.  Mexican authorities, not so much.  They’d seen death cults and ritual as a matter of cultural course pretty much their whole lives.

The Day of the Dead, or as the Catholic religion calls it, AAll Souls Day,” is a big deal in Mexico and the dead come back and drink, fornicate, and dance over their own graves.  It is a colossal “fuck you” to the great beyond and, some will tell you, to the idea of a deity itself.  It is celebrated with tequila, skulls made of sugar, and dancing skeletons.  The corazon and calavera present everywhere in sight.  In Latin cultures, death is as important as birth and its visitation is sometimes viewed as the coming of an old atavistic friend. . .or at least this is what the folktales and old stories attempt to weave into the mythmaking.

The murder culture so prevalent in Mexico right now  is not part of any musical or poetic narrative.  It is a full-on war and the country is losing itself.  The murders of thousands of women, cops, citizens and witnesses that happen with utter impunity hints at a greater madness–a plague of sorts.  Years ago, the great Spanish novelist, Jose Saramago, wrote a novel called, Blindness, in which a whole city lost its sight at the same time; with one exception.  It was damn near the kind of thing that the great Stephen King has perfected in fiction; an arresting and somehow almost plausible fictional device.

This is what Juarez now brings to mind.  It is like something out of a Stephen King novel come to life, except it is all actually happening.  People calmly walk up to others on busy streets, in broad daylight, and blow their fucking brains out. . .and walk away.  In Juarez, it sometimes takes the cops two hours to show up and claim the body.  There are NO investigations.  In fact, there is know human count, no official record of the dead and the disappeared.  I overheard one law enforcement officer say out loud, “It’s mutts killing mutts.  It’s bugs eating bugs.  Who gives a fuck?”  This was a Chicago policeman, who are in fact known for the tender mercies they extend to the local citizenry here.

Can you imagine if this happened in Malibu?  Or Westchester county?  Or Lake Forest?  Of course you can’t. The reason it’s happening at all is because it’s happening to people of color, who happen to be poor.  And it happens within spitting distance of America.

I saw my friend Penn Jillette in the last few days.  Penn is the reason I was able to start my etching studio 20 years ago.  I’d just been famously ripped off by the dealer Vrej Baghoomian and was broke with a three-week old son.  I called Penn and told him if he backed me in Big Cat Press, I’d give him an etching every time I made one for the rest of my life.  He replied, “How much you need, Baby?”  I told him and the next day I had the money.  He now has one of every etching I’ve ever made and will get one every time I make a new one.

Penn and I are very different politically, but the one thing we agree on is we ought to just open the borders.  Anyone who wants to be an American should just come on over; we both believe this, as well as anyone who wants to leave, should do so.  Penn is more Libertarian than anything else, but not in a doctrinaire way.  I just believe what we wrote on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your poor, your tired, your hungry. . .”  I don’t believe there are words written about our country anywhere else that make me as proud to be an American than those words on that Statue.  Beyond this, Penn and I disagree on other principles politically, but on the big important issue of who gets to be an American, we agree completely.  I think if you can look at the Brooklyn Bridge or the Grand Canyon or the skyline of my beloved Chicago. . .if you can look at those things and see yourself as part of it, well, this is all of the birthright one need have.  Come on over, take our hand, make this stolen property we live on a better place for your fellow man.

What I’m getting at is we should give sanctuary and comfort to our neighbors from Mexico.  If we believe the words we wrote on the Statue of Liberty; then let the light of freedom shine.

Published in: on April 23, 2011 at 11:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Volver (For the Daughters of Juarez)

Mexico is a word composed of  metztli (moon), xictli (navel) and co (place): the place in the navel of the moon.  That is, in the navel of the lake of the moon, as the Lake of Mexico is called.

I learned this from a poem by Octavio Paz, perhaps the greatest poet Mexico ever produced.  It is his poetry that first led me to Mexico and the many trips I made there at different junctures in my life.  I’ve always loved this country.  My friend, Rodrigo, used to tell me, “We Mexicans?  We are surrealism.”  He was a guy I knew who studied philosophy and poetry at the University in Mexico City.  He was full of stories about Diego Rivera and the Trotskyites of Mexico City. . .of Pancho Villa and Zapata.  Much of what I learned about Mexico early on was from him.  It was he who pointed me to Paz, Rugama and Galleano; writers who changed the way I saw the world.

The more I read about the current lawlessness and anarchy in Mexico,  the more I wonder how it got that way.  Was it the abject poverty, NAFTA, our stupid, fruitless and continually tragic “War on Drugs?”  Or is it, more likely, the inevitable intersection of all of these events.  It is a bit like watching three speeding cars  all headed for the same corner–in slow motion.

In Charles Bowden’s  Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields, the Mexican army is finally called in to combat the narco-cartels and the inevitable happens.  The soldiers are eventually killed or lured into bodyguard jobs for the cartels.  At one point, all of the cartel kingpins wind up with police or military  protection.  Soldiers wind up clipping informants and Mexican cops for money.  Anyone who attempts to keep a list or facts about the missing and “disappeared” are marked for death.  The end result is that Juarez has the highest murder rate in the world; higher than Baghdad.

This city is a pressure cooker. . .there is no escape.  Mexicans cannot legally flee to America and there is nowhere else to go in Mexico that offers anything like safe harbor from the long reach of the cartels.  What the President of Mexico cannot say out loud is that he no longer has control of his country.  Even tourists are being kidnapped and ransomed for 5 or 10 grand in places like Tijuana.  The outlaw cultures like La Linnea, Los Rebeldes, and the Aztecas are now better armed than the army in Mexico.  There are states in Mexico, like Chihuahua, that are completely lawless.

Still, the maquiladora culture with its poverty-wage jobs, flourishes along the border of Texas and the marijuana-methamphetamine business is roaring forward.

American bigots hold all of this up as an argument for tightening our borders, not realizing that the lion’s share of those coming over the border illegally are doing so to escape the madness.  The narcos do not want to come here where they’d be subject to the much more harsh Texas Rangers or DEA or ATF.  Mostly, it is the folks who want jobs and to unburden themselves from the abject poverty and insanity of Mexico and what it has become since the cartels and NAFTA have had their way with their culture.

Octavio Paz lived abroad for many years as an ambassador and traveling academic before returning to Mexico City in 1971 and he damned near didn’t recognize his home.  It had become an urban mess mired in poverty and crime.  Paz died about five years ago and one is almost happy he was not around to see the rapid disintegration of his homeland’s rule of law.  His  suite of four long poems, Return, from 1976, were poems of rage and  disaster about the Mexico he came home to.  They are his “Mexican” poems and actually among my favorites of his long and luminous body of work.  I don’t think there is a poet out there who had a better role than the one Paz had from 1957 to 1987.  There was no better poet in any language on this planet than Mexico’s former Ambassador to India, Octavio Paz.

I missed a chance to see Mr. Paz read at the Mexican Fine Arts Museum here in Chicago about a decade ago, too my everlasting regret.  A friend who went later told me he read one of the poems from Return and, like an asshole,  missed it.  One of the greatest things about Paz’s poems is how much they reward re-readings.  They are like those great works of art that reveal themselves fully over time.  Paz employs no devices, no tricks, just rich radiant language that keeps beginning.  The Return poems are layer upon layer of revelation, much like one of those pinhole camera images where one can see inside and outside at the same time.

In these poems, he warns us of the soldier and his mortal pride; the snake and his rattle.  The poems now seem, to me, to be an eerily prescient foreshadowing of the Mexico that was waiting to be born in the ruinous blood of this new century.

Published in: on April 15, 2011 at 7:25 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Black Sheep

Black SheepWhen he was  in his 30’s, my friend, Vince Solano, could hit a golf ball 300 yards.  He was thick, had huge arms and the strength of a weightlifter.  Now, 35 years later, he is trim, much slimmer and still loves to golf.

I’ve known him since I was 12 years old and possibly the worst caddy in the history of golf.   Oh, I knew my yardages and carried the bag well enough–often two bags–and I actually had a great deal of acuity reading greens; planes made sense to me because I drew a lot and this helped.  I just didn’t give a fuck about golf.

I liked caddying because it was cash money, right now; because golfers told dirty jokes, bitched about their bosses, wives, kids and politics and, in a very real way, exposed the secret life most men live.  On the golf course, guys didn’t have to keep their guard up or be polite.  They could (and did) gamble with abandon, drink, swear, and in four-hour increments, be free men.  They could walk out in nature without their phones ringing or their bosses carving on their dicks.  It was a place to shut out the noise.

I learned a lot from these guys–how to win with grace and how to lose with honor.  Guys who won or lost badly were often left only to play with each other.  On Saturday morning, the good guys were never wanting for a foursome; they were always welcome, whereas the assholes would be nagging everyone in the locker room wondering if they needed a fourth?

I met characters I’ll never forget:  Joe “Rotten Red” Solari who, rumor had it, gargled with toilet water every morning to insure a tart and vulgar vocabulary and discourse throughout the rest of the day.  I once saw him whisper something into a  lady golfer’s ear, and after he walked away snickering, she turned pale and said, “I think I’m going to be physically ill.”   So profanely vulgar was Joe that I once heard another golfer say, “This is a guy who should wipe his MOUTH with toilet paper after every sentence.”

Naturally, I loved this guy.  He would give us beer and cigarettes and warn us about the perils of the “clap” and “snatch-crickets.”

There was Vince Castelli, whom I caddied for steadily through puberty and beyond.  He looked like someone shaved a gorilla and his conversation was one’s assurance that they hadn’t shaved the smartest gorilla.  He was a 36 handicap who took four-foot divots with a golf swing that called to mind an Eskimo beating a baby seal to death.   Every time he’d walk by the greenskeeper, the man would mutter “fucking menace. . .”  Castelli was a hairy guy; so much so, it looked like he had fur from a distance.  Rotten Red used to say he had hair in his farts.  He was a purely awful golfer who would hack the shit out of the course, each luckless swing ending with, “Where’d the ball go?  I never saw it!”   And often times neither had I because the ball would ricochet off nine or ten trees.  He would often ask me what he was laying to which I’d wise-ass him,  “Count the cuts in the fucking ball,” to which he would shout, “WHAT AM I LAYING?”    And I would double-down with,  “Probably someone like Helen Keller.”  And he would laugh and tell me I was a shitty caddy.  I’d then tell him he was a shitty golfer and we deserved each other.

There was George Hammerschmitt or just “Hammer” who was a funny and charming guy who played with Rotten Red and Vince Solano and would cringe every time Rotten Red opened his mouth.  After one putrid remark, Hammer shook his head and said, “Joe, you’re the William F. Buckley of filth.  Really.  Do you EAT with that mouth?”

Then there were our caddymasters.  My first one an Irish alcoholic named Jack Smith who’d tell us if we swept the shack, “I’ll get’cha’s all out, no shit, you’ll see.”   Jack was not a proponent of higher education (like high school) and would encourage us to ditch and park his car nearby school to hustle truant caddies off to the course.  He’d tell us,  “Hey, somebody will go to school and save the fuckin’ planet.  It won’t be any of YOU assholes, but somebody will.  So in the meantime you’s might as well make some scratch.”

Then there was Mayno.  He was tough, fair and the best friend troubled young kids ever had.  He knew if I wasn’t caddying I’d be running the streets.  He knew I wanted to be an artist and he let me paint murals on the caddyshack walls–portraits of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Cat Stevens and anything else my deviate mind could think up.  He understood every kid was different and had the patience of a saint.  He’d also tell you to straighten the fuck up when you were being a jerk.  I don’t know anyone who was not better for having had him in their lives.

The guys I caddied with are still, to this day, among my best friends.  I wish I saw them more often.  The guys I caddied for were a different breed as well.  For every doctor or lLawyer, there was a self-made business guy who was a working guy  like Bob Rivan, an immigrant from Germany who worked his way up from tool and die maker to having his own shop.  Tony Junta sold fruit and produce, Jimmy Kozinski was a butcher.  there were all kinds of guys and they each measured ideas about success differently and I learned something from all of them.  “Free your ass and your mind will follow” and “Decide right now kid. . .who is going to say what you do with your time?  You. . .or somebody else?”

Most of those guys are gone now.  My friend, Vince Solano, misses those days.  The country club started accepting the spoiled yuppie class; the butt-wipes who think that dollar bills and brain cells are the same thing.

So Vince opened his own course.  The drive way is about a quarter mile up from a giant rock.  Nobody who is a pain in the ass gets past the rock.  This is the Black Sheep; it’s a bit about golf and a whole lot more about freedom..

Published in: on April 11, 2011 at 6:07 pm  Comments (1)  

The Tiger Koi

The Tiger KoiOver eight years ago, at the completion of The Autumn Etchings, I stopped making etchings.  I’d made them for 12 straight years and made over 400 images.  I love making them; the ink, the acid, the alchemy of all of it. . .the knowledge that no matter how well you plan, about 20 percent of it is up to the fates.  My etchings were well-collected (and thank you for that).  They are in all of the major museums and led me to places I never thought I would get.

After The Autumn Etchings, I was tired.  I’d made very little one-of-a-kind work during those years and I was more and more curious about combining drawing and collage.  I also felt like maybe my tank was empty.  I needed a break and made myself the quiet deal that when I had something I felt was new to bring to etching, I’d make more.

I can’t count the times in the last few years while making something particularly graphic, I’d thought to myself, “This would make a remarkable etching.”  I began to realize how much I missed it.   Last fall, I made a piece with the peerless Teresa James, with whom I’d worked for ten years and we made a lovely five-color piece called, The Spider Music.

A month ago, I picked up the phone and bought an etching press. . .a Takach.  the only kind I use.  I hired Will Sturgis, a first -rate etching printer and Glenn Hendrick, also a terrific printer, and then Lauren LeVato, a wonderful artist who also does sales and PR and I started Black Shamrock.  So I’m hacking up copper like a banshee and I am one happy Mick.

One of the compelling lures back to etching was visiting Tokyo, a little over a year ago.  Land of Hokusai, Hiroshige, and all of the other Floating World artists who’ve made such magnificent etchings.  Tokyo itself– its odd, other-worldly order and quiet.  Ueno Park, a huge sprawling public green with ravens and storks and cicadas.  The huge koi ponds with monstrous koi, some as old as 225 years, gliding like luminous ghosts in the brackish water.

Koi are primarily carp with a better paint-job; glorious yellows, oranges, golds, pinks and in some cases, iridescent whites, floating in the ponds like ancient apparitions.

I loved standing there and feeding the koi.  At first I gave them “koi food,: which they ate politely enough. The next day I came back with a sack of Big Macs from McDonalds and started tossing them hunks of that and the koi went  bat-shit for those.  Everytime I came near the water they’d put their mouths up to the surface and make slurping noises with more gusto than Jenna Jameson.

One day, the pond-keeper walked up to me and I thought I’d get in trouble for feeding them McDonalds.  I sheepishly said, “I probably shouldn’t be feeding them these burgers.”

He smiled and said, “It’s fine.  They eat shit.  How much worse could those be?”

I realized feeding those koi and sitting in that park that for the first time in a long time, I was happy.  Whatever else was going on in the world around me; it could wait.  Taking a moment or two to marvel at the natural world around you was well worth it.  The respite re-energized me and it was good.

This is a new five-color etching and it is for sale.  The pre-publication price is $1500.00.  In 30 days the price will be $1800.00

It is in an edition of 40.


Published in: on April 8, 2011 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Whispering Women (For the Daughters of Juarez)

The Whispering Women (For the Daughters of Juarez)

Yesterday was the birthday of Cesar Chavez, the heroic leader of the Mexican migrant workers throughout the 1960’s and 70’s.  Mr. Chavez would have been 84 years old; he passed away in 1993.
Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, through non-violence, Cesar Chavez fought for immigrants, working people, and the dignity of those who do the jobs we Americans think we are too good for.  I read the notice of his birthday with the ironic thought that I am glad that he is not alive to see what has happened to towns like Juarez and Tijuana and to some extent, Mexico itself.  That through the bloody vagaries of the drug wars and the human trafficking, Mr. Chavez’s country has devolved to an almost primal state of insanity and murder.

Of course, Mexico had help getting here.  The North American Free Trade Agreement, which was supposed to lift impoverished Mexicans out of their desperate state, brought only more poverty by paying stoop-labor and starvation wages in the maquila-style factories scarcely paying more than 40 dollars a week for 50 hours of work.  The maquilas hire women almost exclusively for the seamstress piece-work and circuitry jobs, because their smaller hands and fingers are better suited to the fine, close work.

It also helps that they are more docile than the men–easier to exploit and jerk around.

A great many Mexicans believe the mass murders of women in and around Juarez has its genesis in the bosom of the Capitalist system of the Maquladoras.  Hire the women and they become the family breadwinner, while the men are left to the streets and the narco-cartels like La Linnea, the Aztecas and Los Rebeldes.

When the wives get home and assert some new-found independence, the men kill them.  Alcohol and methamphetamine-fueled rages are often cited as the cause.  Some of the younger women go the party-girl route and are murdered by the cartels if they hear too much or say too much or are perceived as indiscreet–any goddamned reason, really.  Women are expendable in Juarez.  You can kill them all day and not get arrested. . .men too.

In Charles Bowden’s great, if grim, story of Juarez, Murder City:  Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields, the author carefully presents several stories of individual Mexican citizens and their fates until a portrait from whole human cloth emerges of a city in the grips of a genocidal insanity.  What is remarkable about this account is how Bowden was able to complete a whole portrait of Juarez with so few facts available.  It is just good feet on the ground journalism; talking to one person at a time, until he has the story.  It is also worth mentioning that many, many journalists have been murdered in Juarez.  In fact, Bowden dedicated this book to one of them:

For Armando Rodriguez, who was gunned down on November 13th, 2008, after filing 907 stories on the murders of that calendar year.

Bowden reports that people used to keep “lists” of the dead and then the list-keepers became targets themselves;  the killers knowing that the most dangerous thing to these predators were facts.  Bowden’s careful crafting of these stories help us understand the city of Juarez’s descent into madness.

One of his subjects is a hitman, now eroded by drugs and alcohol and perhaps his own conscience.  In his desperation, he tells Bowden, “You don’t know me.  No one can forgive me for what I have done.”

Mr. Bowden also tells us the story of “Miss Sinaloa,” a party  girl from the west coast of Mexico (Sinaloa) who, in becoming involved with drug dealers, is used, drugged and raped into a state of madness, finding sanctuary (such as it is) at a makeshift asylum in the desert run by a worldly convict known as the “Pastor” who has taken it upon himself to care for all of the broken psyches of Juarez.

He also details stories of murdered police officers–many in bed with the dealers–and tells stories of police that refuse to leave the station for fear of drive-bys, and with good reason; over 40 officers were murdered in one calendar year.

After reading Bowden’s account, one wonders why the government has not appealed to the U.N., for troops.  Their own army is clearly out-gunned and probably out-manned.  Mexicans I know say it is out of fear for their sovereignty.  Asking an occupying force, especially a foreign one, to enforce order is never an ideal choice.  But clearly President Calderon no longer has control of his country, nor can he protect its citizens. It is the wild west.

I had planned a trip to Juarez.  Two men I know in Texas, who were former employees of Blackwater–a security firm who famously deployed soldiers-for hire in Iraq–turned down top-dollar to accompany me for two afternoons.  One of them telling me he’d “rather be in downtown Baghdad, than fucking Juarez.”   A high school friend, Kevin Crowder, whose company outfits security devices for high-risk places in the world told me he would feel safer in Qatar; that Juarez was probably the most dangerous place on earth.  To quote Charles Bowden’s book, “They kill people on the way to the mall.”

We have a murky relationship with Mexico, each country a dark mirror of the other, each country in possession of what the other wants. . .each country, sadly, the worst thing possible for the other.

Published in: on April 1, 2011 at 7:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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