Author Archives: Ashley

About Ashley

horror, cartoons, makeup junkie i dislike boys

On Madness and Art: An Art Dump

There’s a strange social narrative surrounding bipolar depression, formerly known as “manic depression.” The sickness is often associated with artistic types, as many famous artists had (or are thought to have had) bipolar depression: Sylvia Plath, van Gogh, Kurt Cobain, etc. Sometimes artists themselves perpetuate the idea that the illness helps fuel their art. There’s even a very interesting book, Touched with Fireon this subject that I really want to finish reading someday.

As a person who sometimes makes art and is also bipolar depressive, this narrative annoys the shit out of me. When I was in the hospital I journaled a lot about how frustrating and dangerous this romanticizing is. Obviously I can’t speak for everyone, and sure, it’s totally possible that the boundless energy that comes with a manic phase could result in a lot of work getting done. For me though, mania also gave me panic, paranoia, and a complete inability to focus that energy on any one thing. And the thing about mania is that you can’t have it without the depression. So, I get to go from being unable to get anything done because I’m hopped up on mania to not being able to do anything because I’m so depressed I can’t even function.

Despite the fact that sometimes mania feels good because at least it’s not depression, bipolar depression is still not a good or functional disease, and it doesn’t lend itself well to getting shit done. Any and all art I am able to create is in spite of my illness, not because of it.

During my hospital stay, I was worried that the amount of art I was churning out would somehow reinforce the idea that bipolar depression and creativity are linked. I made more art in the week and a half I was there than I have in the rest of the year combined. But being in a mental hospital is not quirky or cute or fun. The only real reason it was more conducive to creativity for me is because there was literally nothing else to do. I didn’t have my phone, there were no computers, and we had limited access to phones or televisions or even radios. From the time we woke up to an hour or two before lights out we were either in group/individual therapy or eating as a group. We spent our entire days in the group room which, as I’ve mentioned before, is the only room where we were allowed pens, pencils, and crayons. I had the time, safe space, and tools to spend entire days making art. It was a crucial aspect of my recovery and in no way motivated by my illness itself.

I’m very proud of the art I made there and am happy to share it now, knowing that it’s a sign of my recovery rather than my illness.

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“Zipper Girl,” the last piece I made in the hospital

Lyrics from Tom Waits' "9th and Hennepin"

Lyrics from Tom Waits’ “9th and Hennepin”

I learned that colored pencils are fun

I learned that colored pencils are fun

This isn't as done as I want; maybe I'll come back to it someday. Skirts are made from wallpaper.

This isn’t as done as I want; maybe I’ll come back to it someday. Skirts are made from wallpaper.

Another Zipper Girl; she was really popular among other patients and they all wanted their own. I got really good at drawing her.

Another Zipper Girl; she was really popular among other patients and they all wanted their own. I got really good at drawing her.

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Men I Met in the Hospital

I guess it was silly of me to think I’d be safe from sexism in the nut house. Beyond the fact that there’s an long history of institutional sexism in mental health facilities themselves, there’s a simple reason why I should’ve known better: men would be there.  Men don’t stop participating in sexism or perpetuating microaggressions just because you’re all sick.

The most overt example was the man who told me how beautiful and sexy I was every chance he got. Who waited until we were alone in the group room to tell me how much he “liked me” and that he was single and I was far away from my partner so, you know, if I need a hug or even a kiss that could happen. Gross as his aggressive come-ons were, he was the easiest to deal with. His explicitness made it easy to report him to the techs. I felt his wide eyes moving over me even though he stopped speaking to me. I watched him move on to a patient who was more receptive to his grossness. I listened to him in group sessions rage against the mother of his child for refusing to take him back. I was relieved  that he’d stopped talking to me.

There were other men who were more difficult to deal with. Their bullshit existed on a more subterranean level that can often be difficult to make others see or believe.

One man, a white guy who rapped about “the man” (“the man” being a conspiracy theorist’s idea of the government), took my joking that bigfoot wasn’t real as a cue to talk at me about it for an hour. An hour. About bigfoot. As I stared straight ahead, giving no acknowledgements or signs of interest, he talked at length about (extremely shoddy, easily debunked) science that proved bigfoot was real. All the reasons why the government covered it up. All about his bigfoot website, which he encouraged me to visit so I could learn “the truth.” In general, I’m exhausted with men who think they have something to teach me (and assume that I want or need to be taught in the first place). And here I sat next to a man who wore a shit-eating grin while implying that I’m some kind of rube for not believing in bigfoot. I only took my eyes away from the craft I was working on long enough to say, “I bet you watch Ancient Aliens.”

And I swear to you, this man said yes, excitedly, and proceeded to tell me more now that the subject of aliens had come up.

Other men had infuriating tendencies to insert themselves in conversations they shouldn’t be in. I never got emotional in any of the group therapy sessions until the day before I left. Another girl had come to The Meadows a few days before, and we clicked: we were both students at Penn State, had similar histories and symptoms. In our last group together we had an intense conversation specifically about the pressures young women feel and how difficult it is to deal with. While this incredibly cathartic, intimate moment was happening, several of the men in the group felt it appropriate to throw out their defensive opinions.

“I don’t even like skinny girls!” “Yeah, same, I like women who eat, haha.”

I was furious. How dare they choose this moment, a clearly painful bonding moment between women, to shove their “not all men” bullshit at us. I turned towards them, eyeliner running down my face.

“It doesn’t matter what you like. The pressures still exist for us and telling us that you like something else is just a different kind of pressure.”

The worst one, the one I hated more than all the rest, is only named Mr. Toxic in my journal. (If I try, I can remember his name but I choose not to.) Imagine Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: an interloper, an instigator, someone who thinks he has all the answers. Now imagine him as a real person in a real hospital where real people are trying to get better.

Mr. Toxic was a con man. He was at the hospital to avoid jailtime, which is not uncommon and also not something that is inherently bad. But he made it quite clear at every chance that he didn’t want to be there and thought it was all a waste of time. Not just for himself but for the rest of us as well. In-session, he talked endlessly about how he didn’t need medication or therapy because all you need is a “higher power.” He tossed out bullshit truisms and always sat with a smug smile on his face, uninterested in anyone else’s discussions. Out of sessions, he glorified his past drug use and made general commotion around the hospital. He shit-talked all the therapists (who were, admittedly, a mixed-bag; we had 10-12 groups sessions a day so our group leaders varied from very skilled therapists to newbie techs) and sneered at the idea of medication for treating mental illness.

Essentially he was every anti-med, anti-therapy, “it’s all in your head” shit stain who’s ever told you to just get out of bed and change your perspective as if you’ve never fucking tried that before.

Unfortunately, he was also a strong enough personality that many of the other patients were drawn to him. When you’re mentally ill, sometimes you want to believe that the doctors are all quacks, that you don’t need your meds, and that you really can just power through it without help. Even if you know from your own experiences that it’s not true. Which is why I hated him so much–he indulged every maladaptive habit the patients had and validated our harmful thoughts.

I tried, for the sake of relaxation, to abstain from calling him out. But in or out of the hospital I can’t change my nature. And my nature is calling pompous, arrogant men on their bullshit. He spent a lot of time rolling his eyes when I pushed back against the idea of a higher power being necessary or something that can fix you. Same with my insistence that some people actually fucking do need their medication. But it all really came to a head the day he was set to finally leave.

He’d been saying loudly for days that if they didn’t release him soon he’d do something drastic so I was pleased they were discharging him. In one of our midday groups, one of the younger guys who rarely talked was actually opening up about his addiction problems and how he wanted to get better.

I spent most of my time at the long table in the group room drawing, crafting or journaling. (Only in the group room were we allowed pens and pencils; there are large sections of my journal written in marker because that’s all I could have in my room.) For certain therapists I would join the group circle but most of them were content to leave us at the table, and that’s where I wanted to be anyway. So that’s where I sat, drawing, when I heard Mr. Toxic say to this kid, “You’re not done yet. You’re too young; you gotta leave here and live more before you’re done.”

I fucking lost it. For nearly a week I’d listened to this asshole put on fake godly bullshit in groups while constantly belittling our attempts to get better and simultaneously encouraging our worst behaviors.

“I cannot believe you’re telling him that he’s not done. He’s trying to get clean and you’re encouraging him to leave here and go right back to doing the same things. You don’t get to do that. That’s disgusting.”

And he lost it too. I guess he was tired of it after a week of me calling him out.

“You don’t know shit about anything! You don’t know anything about him or me or about life!”

And because I’m spiteful, I laughed and asked, “If you know so much, if you have all the answers then what the hell are you doing in here with the rest of us?”

At that point, the therapist broke us up. Mr. Toxic left a few hours later and I never saw him again.

I resent all these men. I resent them for invading the already limited physical and mental space I had there. I resent being sexually harassed in a place where I was supposed to be safe. I resent being expected to feign interest in their bullshit or tolerate their entitlement or allow them to damage other patients. I resent them for trivializing my illness and my recovery. I resent being reminded, even in a place of rest and comfort, that I can never be safe from this kind of bullshit.

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It’s Alive!

If not obvious by the new post, Pussy Goes Grrr is back! This space has been more or less dormant for a few years. But things are different now: I’m not in college, I moved states and I’ve got a lot more free time on my hands than I used to. So keep an eye out for new content here over the coming weeks!

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That Girl is a Goddamn Problem: Girl Hate and Beyond in Harry Potter

J.K. Rowling has said that Pansy did not end up marrying Draco because Rowling always hated her: “I loathe Pansy Parkinson. I don’t love Draco but I really dislike her. She’s every girl who ever teased me at school. She’s the Anti-Hermione. I loathe her.”

The more I think about this the more furious I get. If I had to sum up most of my problems with the J.K. Rowling’s approach to writing, I would start with this quote.  This is at the bottom of the Harry Potter wiki page about Pansy Parkinson, a page that is literally nothing more than a list of all the mean things Pansy ever did. Because that’s all she did. That’s all she existed to do.

There’s a very overt thread of girl hate woven throughout the Harry Potter series. It becomes most noticeable in Half-Blood Prince, where teen girls in love become crazy, jealous and dangerous. But from Sorcerer’s Stone it’s there: we know right off the bat who are the nice girls and the mean girls, and we know who we’re supposed to root for. J.K. Rowling is often praised for her “strong female characters” and I would be lying if I said that Hermione Granger isn’t one of the most pansyparkinsonimportant characters that ever happened to me.

But as I reread and reevaluated the books over the years with a more critical, feminist lens I began to recognize clear patterns of sexism, gender essentialism and, yes, girl hate. I was shocked when I realized that, in these books that I’ve read countless times, there are no strong relationships between any of the women characters. (The fact that it took so long for me to realize it speaks to how normal the absence of women-centered relationships is in media but that’s for another time.)

It’s not even just that there are no strong woman-to-woman relationships: most of the women, especially the secondary characters, exist to act as a  foils for one another. Hermione in particular has two distinct foils. Pansy Parkinson, her enemy from the start and then, come Half-Blood Prince, Lavender Brown, who commits the crime of being a teen in puppy love. Cho Chang is a foil of Ginny Weasley (who is praised as “rarely weepy”); Fleur Delacour and Tonks (who are explicitly compared in-text by Molly and Ginny); even Molly Weasley and Bellatrix Lestrange. What a disservice these books do to these women. They could be characters who live and breathe instead of existing to be compared to one another.

But I find myself particularly offended at her use of Pansy Parkinson, which is a place I never thought I would be. It may be petty or silly but I find myself wondering: why Draco and not Pansy? Why couldn’t Harry’s schoolyard nemesis be a girl, why not Pansy? Why does Draco get the redemption arc?  The back story? The capacity for sympathy from the audience? Why, in a magical world, must J.K. Rowling cling to the “realism” of teenage girl cattiness? Simple: revenge.  J. K. Rowling writes teenage girls based on real teenagers who hurt her solely to exact some sort of literary revenge. She creates a caricature of teenage girl meanness that is then read by real, live teenage girls. And it’s not just that mean teen girls exist in these books: they deserve lifelong punishment for their meanness or badness.

The fate of Marietta Edgecombe is an especially sadistic example of this. Marietta Edgecombe, who at 16 or 17 made a poor decision in a school that was under tyrannical rule from a powerful political interloper. We’re meant to interpret the embarrassing pustules as something she deserves and Hermione as clever for having the foresight to put that vicious curse in place. What happened in the long term? According to J.K. Rowling, while the pustules faded Marietta had lifelong scars because she “loathes a traitor.” What a horrifying implication: girls who make mistakes as teenagers deserve punishments that expand into their adult lives. The same with Pansy: she is deprived of a hypothetical relationship with Draco simply because J.K. Rowling hates her, because she is the “anti-Hermione.” There is no room for sympathy. There is no chance at redemption. These girls are not significant enough for that.

And maybe I could be more forgiving if it weren’t for the fact that the seeds of girl and woman hating bullshit J.K. Rowling plants come to full, forceful bloom when fandom steps in. Fandoms are notorious for their hatred of women characters, even ones that aren’t set up in-text for hatred. Pansy is a literary punching bag in many fanfictions: she’s typically a slut, a home wrecker, a bitch that no one likes. Including Draco. He’ll fuck her, cheat on someone (better and nicer) with her, date her, maybe even marry and have children with her but rarely like or love her. Draco, who committed actual war crimes beyond “being mean” and “being so afraid of Voldemort that she suggested they should give Harry over to him in an attempt to protect herself and her housemates.”

But Pansy doesn’t get that kind of nuanced motivation. Her yelling “There he is, get him!” is just another way to show the reader how awful she is. Complicated back stories and motivations are typically reserved for evil and morally ambiguous male characters (I say typically because Narcissa Malfoy exists). Draco, Snape, Voldemort–we spend a lot of time with their histories and emotions. But hey, these are mostly secondary characters. No author should be expected to flesh out all of their secondary characters. Archetypes and foils serve a very real literary purpose.

But I take issue with so many of the secondary characters in the Harry Potter series being women who fall into insidious, damaging stereotypes. Obviously J. K. Rowling is not the first or the last writer to do this. And it’s unfair to expect her to fix it or be perfect in this regard. But my resentment is not just because J. K. Rowling never intend for these characters to be more than vicious bullies, weepy depressives or annoying girlfriends. It comes from a deeper, more internal place. An ugly place that understands her desire to hate and punish literary proxies of real life girls. I remember being that kind of woman, full of hate and resentment for other women even as I claimed to be a advocate for them. And it scares me to think of young minds (like my own young self’s) being further shaped by that kind of mentality.

Ultimately, I’m tired of the long, harmful tradition of normalizing girl hate. Of making it common place. Of reminding us that it’s typical and expected. I want YA writers to shake up these shitty, false ideas of girlhood and girl friendships. I want a world, literary and otherwise, that teaches women how to be friends, how to support each other, how to critically engage one another. Where mean girls don’t begin and end at their meanness. I want stories about how wonderful we can be to and for each other. We shouldn’t have to unlearn how we’ve been taught to hate each other. Imagine if girl hate tropes disappeared from young adult novels. That would be real fucking magic.

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The Pataki Files: The Beeper Queen

(I started this series over a year ago! It’s been a sluggish trek but I have not abandoned this series! For any newcomers, read the intro here!)

“The Beeper Queen” opens with Miriam reaching into a wine-stocked cabinet for her Tabasco sauce, the key ingredient of her obviously alcoholic smoothies. Helga sits at the kitchen table making herself a lunch for school the next day, frustration at her mother simmering just below an impassive surface. These first 30 seconds sets the stage for what is, in my opinion, the most tragic Pataki-centric episodes of Hey Arnold!

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Helga mothers herself while Miriam’s priorities are elsewhere

After Miriam breaks a shelf, Bob steps up to do a “man’s job” and pulls out his back, laying him up for the next few weeks. Miriam volunteers to substitute for him at meetings and in the office, an offer that her husband and daughter originally meet with derision. It’s easy to feel bad for Miriam because her family thinks she’s incompetent, but in reality she’s never given them a reason to believe otherwise. Against his better judgment, Bob allows Miriam to go to an important meeting, and it turns out that she’s a powerhouse  of executive decision-making and wooing clients.

Suddenly Miriam is super-mom: working diligently, making Helga nutritious lunches, taking her to school, and spending the evenings with her while she does her homework. And therein lies the tragedy of “The Beeper Queen.” During this brief hope spot, we see the mother that Helga needs—and desperately wants—but just as quickly, through the power of montage, it all falls apart. Miriam’s newfound energy goes from being evenly distributed between daughter and job to one-track and work-centered. She essentially becomes a gender-reversed Big Bob Pataki: absorbed in work with little interest in her kid.  Once again, Helga is left with an emotionally unavailable parent who doesn’t see her sadness or her yearning for love and attention.

The rapid rise and fall of Miriam's maternal skills

The rapid rise and fall of Miriam’s maternal skills

As Miriam discovers that she thrives in a high-energy, high-responsibility executive position, we’re shown that she’s no better a mother than she was before. Eventually, Miriam sees the error of her ways and quits her job. This seems like a sweet, motherly gesture until you realize that it means that things will return to how they were at the beginning of the episode. It’s doubly troubling because, although throwing herself into work saves Miriam from depression and alcoholism, it’s more damaging for Helga—at least her depressed, alcoholic mother was there.

The episode seems to end on a happy note, but due to the power of status quo we know that Miriam’s behavior won’t change for good. She’s incapable of being a good mother regardless of her personal circumstances—unreliable alcoholic or responsible businesswoman—and ultimately Helga is the one who suffers.

Previous editions of The Pataki Files:

Olga Comes Home

Helga and the Nanny

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Spooky Specials: “Sugar Frosted Frights/Ed is Dead: A Thriller!”

Good evening. Tonight’s selection is a chilling tale of mayhem, shrubbery, and a wallaby who knew too much.” —Heffer introducing “Ed is Dead: A Thriller!”

My previous foray into childhood Halloweeny goodness was pretty gentle; Rugrats wasn’t really one to push the boundaries of children’s television. Rocko’s Modern Life, the subject of this week’s Spooky Specials, did nothing but push those boundaries. Along with the equally disgusting, adult-pitched Ren and Stimpy, Rocko was a media watchdog’s worst nightmare: brimming with crude toilet and nudity humor, thinly veiled sex jokes (the damn restaurant was named the Chokey Chicken for nearly four whole seasons before someone figured out that it was a masturbation joke), and absurdly adult themes and situations. (Does anyone else remember when Rocko was a phone sex operator? ‘Cause I sure do.) So, it follows suit that the Rocko’s Modern Life Halloween special is strange, disturbing, and very obviously not for kids (but fuck if we didn’t watch the hell out of it anyway).

The first segment really typifies the average Rocko episode. It starts off with a normal premise (Rocko and Heffer are going trick-or-treating!) before rapidly spiraling into a cacophony of screaming and toned down expletives. Then begin the non sequitur plot points, the plethora of adult jokes and references, all concluding with an out-of-nowhere or unsatisfying (or both) ending. Since the first segment sticks very closely to this kind of unstructured style I find it the weaker of the two. The plot (and I use that term loosely) has Rocko, Heffer and the ever-petrified Filbert going trick-or-treating and crossing paths with a Headless Horseman-esque ghoul (The Hopping Hessian). There’s a strange sub-plot about Filbert’s childhood Halloween trauma and him cracking out on candy, followed by a completely incomprehensible ending. “Sugar Frosted Frights” works for sheer manic spooky fun, but when it comes to constructing  an actual scary story “Ed is Dead: A Thriller!” just gives me goosebumps.

“Ed is Dead” is one of those great over-kids’-heads episodes that I’m sure many parents got a kick out of. For starters, the segment’s plot is an homage to Rear Window and the whole thing is a Hitchcock pastiche, which I’m pretty sure most kids in my age bracket didn’t catch. Also, the segment centers around Ed and Bev Bighead, two of the least child-friendly characters on the show: middle-aged toads whose embittered bickering and simmering-just-below-the-surface contempt for one another is only outweighed by the amount of disturbingly passionate sex they have. Ed is curmudgeonly and insensitive to his always horny, often frustrated wife, which brings us to the comedy of errors in “Ed is Dead.” A cursory familiarity with Rear Window (or any of its many parodies) is all you need to know the plot of this segment, as Rocko thinks he sees Bev brutally stab Ed to death from his window and begins searching for answers. The truth, of course, is that Ed was fine all along, merely away to get a bothersome wart removed from his ass.

For a child unaware that it’s just a wacky Rear Window parody, however, this shit was actually pretty horrifying. The disturbing sounds of the Bev “stabbing” Ed, the lightning and darkness that surround the Bigheads’ house, the tense moments where Rocko is in the house and Bev arrives home… it was all very scary but when coupled with exaggerated cartoon elements it was also silly and funny. I believed that Ed was actually dead but was still laughing all the while. And therein lies the twisted joy of Halloween specials and the holiday itself. They expose children to terrors that are normally hidden—and they make it fun. “Ed is Dead” makes marital murder into a game, tightly packed in a bright, frenetic bundle, and ready for juvenile consumption.

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Spooky Specials: “Candy Bar Creep Show”

I was an absolute Rugrats junkie from around ages 3-8. It was my all-time favorite cartoon on Nickelodeon or any other channel. Unlike so many of the other Animation Renaissance cartoons I grew up watching, Rugrats wasn’t riddled with adult themes and double entendres. It had a pureness that other shows lacked. It was just babies misinterpreting the world around them, as babies do. With Mark Mothersbaugh’s tinkering, tumbling soundtrack and the soft-colored environments and characters, it captured an essence of early childhood that I’ve rarely seen outside of a Miyazaki film.

Accordingly, Rugrats’ Halloween special isn’t bizarre or full of disturbing imagery. Instead, it shows how very small children might interpret spooky happenings. The special follows the traditional Rugrats format—two 11-minute segments—but only the first,”Candy Bar Creep Show,” is specifically about Halloween. We start with a classic Rugrats close-up that turns out to be an internal view of a pumpkin being carved up. It’s Halloween night and the adults are preparing the house for trick-or-treaters. Tommy, Chuckie, Phil and Lil all watch curiously as the grown-ups don costumes and construct a strange tent in the backyard. Once Angelica comes to tease them about how they won’t get any Reptar bars, they become even more curious about what the adults are up to (Angelica mentions that it’s Halloween and that she gets to go trick-or-treating, but when they ask her what that means, she says she doesn’t know other than she gets candy out of it).

This childhood naïveté and the curiosity that results fuel most of the Rugrats’ best episodes. The babies have no real concept of fabricated fears like ghosts and zombies and haunted houses; babies don’t understand what Halloween is. That’s why you can wheel a 6-month-old around on Halloween night and they’ll be unfazed but some 5-year-olds get paralyzed with fear when they see scary costumes. And the segment plays upon this beautifully. Once the babies see kids screaming and running out of the haunted house holding Reptar bars, they deduce that screaming in there will get them Reptar bars too. (Occam’s razor, ya know?)

So they go on a mission to obtain their own Reptar bars, unknowingly setting Angelica and her friends and even Grandpa up for the scare of their lives. They don’t have the learned fear of fake eyeballs, worms, or skeletons, so to them the haunted house is just another playhouse. But when Angelica sees the twins’ distorted, spaghetti covered hair and Tommy covered in a ghostly sheet, she runs screaming into the night. Grandpa comes to investigate and gets the same treatment while yelling the most hilarious old-man lines ever. (“LEAPIN’ LIBRARIANS!”) At the end of the night, the babies come out on top, lugging huge bags of candy into their playpen while everyone else warily eyes the haunted house, wondering what specters might lie within.

Rugrats may not hold up to repeat adult viewing as well as some of its contemporaries, but certain episodes manage to strike just the right sweet, nostalgic nerve for me. It’s hard for me to remember a time when I wasn’t preoccupied with things that were considered over my head. Rugrats gives me that feeling of childlike sweetness in my belly and this Halloween episode in particular reminds me of all the innocent curiosity I had in toddlerhood.

Next week, however, things get a bit (read: much) darker with Rocko’s Modern Life’s “Sugar Frosted Frights/Ed is Dead! A Thriller.” Stayed tuned, boos and ghouls!

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