Why do I feel like I was the only one jumping for joy when news came of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s election to the papacy?

Considering the outpouring of sentiment that followed John Paul II’s death, I would say the reception was rather tepid. This puzzled me, because I was in tears when Pope Benedict XVI emerged from the Vatican balcony. Ecce homo, I said: Behold the man who has just given me back the life I thought I had lost forever.

“You are speaking in Latin again.” This would be the wife. She had, for days, laughed at what she called my “paranoid fear of being the next pope.”

I had patiently explained to her that under the rules of the papacy, any “baptized Catholic man, who is not a heretic, in schism or notorious for simony” was qualified to be elected pope and that, at least three times in the past, laymen had assumed the office: Benedict VIII (1012-24); John XIX (1024-32); and Benedict IX (1032-44; 1045; 1047-48).

“What happens then if I did get elected?” I asked. “I don’t think I can take you or my children with me to the Vatican.”

But she had laughed. There she was, about to lose her husband to the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and she was laughing.

“The last layman pope was elected 958 years ago,” she said. “They’re going to undo close to 1000 years of history for you? And for what? Just to make you attend mass?”

For days following the death of John Paul II, there were signs everywhere, pointing to the possibility that I was the chosen one. My wife, for instance, asked me why I had a second name, and wasn’t made a “Junior”.

“I was named after John XXIII…” I said, my voice trailing off, my eyes widening as I looked at her, beseeching her once again to allay my fears of losing her for the sake of the Holy Mother The Church.

She just laughed. I was dragging so heavily on my cigarette that she said: “I can’t even breathe in here with all this smoke.”

“White smoke…” I said, my eyes still wide.

Then April 15 came. I had labored to meet the deadline for filing taxes, knowing that Richard Gomez was being prosecuted for failing to. They’re going after tall, dark and handsome men, I said, and by some logic that my mother (and my mother only) would understand, I just knew that I was next.

“I wish I didn’t have to pay taxes,” I told my wife.

“I know,” my wife said. “With what you earn, you won’t be anywhere near contributing to solving the budget deficit.”

I wish I were tax-exempt, I said. “I would be if I were part of the clergy…” My eyes were the widest she’d ever seen it.

But Pope Benedict XVI is here at last. I celebrated with what was left of my money, after taxes. My two daughters were there, horsing around, and I just knew what was on their minds.

“Habemus Papa,” they seemed to be saying. Yes, my dear girls, you’ll have to deal with Vatican’s loss for the rest of your lives.

SunStar Cebu
28 April 2005

Filipinos rise up

Filipinos are among the world’s earliest risers. Which confirms the suspicion I’ve held for so long that I was born in the wrong country.

The research firm AC Nielsen a month ago released the survey results that officially alienated me from at least two-thirds of my countrymen. Sixty-nine percent of Filipinos wake up before 7 a.m., the survey said, a respectable third to Indonesia (91 percent) and Vietnam (88 percent).

The results were carried in front-page stories of the major national broadsheets. I know, because on that particular day, someone who belonged to the 69 percent strategically spread the broadsheets on the floor when I got out of bed.

It was a bit disorienting, such that instead of the usual “Good Morning”, I kissed her and said: “What’s the margin of error?”

Later accounts have it that I slogged to the bathroom mumbling “methodology”. I was offered coffee and I thanked her by giving her a lecture on “sampling error, non-coverage error, non-response error and measurement error”.

It didn’t work. She said something about whether I knew the difference between the snooze button on my alarm clock and the TV remote control; that maybe I should stop thinking that waking up is just a “commercial interruption” between dreams.

AC Nielsen ruined what seemed to be a plausible cultural reason for waking up late. Now we’re not just lazy; we’re actually un-Filipino. Yes, the Filipino can, so why can’t you?

I’ve worked with alarm clocks all my life. I’ve tried the old ones, the ones that involved actual bells and hammers, but that didn’t work. The distressing noise teaches your body, in Pavlovian fashion, to compensate. Your body clock actually tells you to wake up just moments before it actually rings, so that you can preempt it and go back to sleep.

By the time those electronic alarm clocks started coming into fashion, I was pretty much a hopeless case. The low sound it emitted I actually found hypnotic.

Then the snooze button came. Great. Alarm clocks that are open to negotiations.

So I’m thinking of giving up on alarm clocks, I told her.

“More like the alarm clocks gave up on you.”

A few weeks after that survey came out, came another survey by the Asian Development Bank which showed that the Philippines had the second most corrupt government in the world.

Not only that. The top three early rising countries – Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam — were also the top three most corrupt. When you’re running out of arguments, you see connections everywhere.

So it was my turn to spread national broadsheets on the floor. “So you see,” I told her, “maybe this waking up early business is bad for the country.”

And I glided through the air triumphantly, as if to say – the early birds do get the most worms.

SunStar Cebu
7 April 2005

Go figure

You tend to rethink your attitude towards alcohol when you wake up and there are black-and-white figures and patterns plastered all over your room, like a hangover rendered on paper, in high-contrast graphics.

“What the…” you whisper, and you stop there, because right above you there’s a checkered flag signaling you to finish whatever it was you were starting.

What’s this all about? Why has this room been invaded by diagrams?

Call it paranoid, you think, but maybe this is the wife communicating symbolically, conveying in visual metaphors where words had apparently failed. Some kind of marital sign language.

That initial suspicion is fed when you see that on the wall to your side of the bed, there are concentric circles with a dot right in the middle. Like a dartboard with a bullseye.

What am I on target for this time?

Let’s see. On your closet is a figure resembling piano keys, white and black. What could she possibly be saying? Notes? Tune? Perhaps you’ve been needing some tuning lately? Chords? Harmony?

You open your closet and in that jumble of articles of clothing, you see that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean she’s not really going after you. Maybe your wife is making a point about harmony.

This is not good. To your left you see a drawing consisting of two dots and a curve, making up a smiling face. Hey, maybe it isn’t that bad. But it’s part of a three-part series. Beside it, a pattern that looks like a thatched roof. And, to its side, a figure of the setting sun.

Smile. Roof. Sunset. In your mind, there are subtitles: “I’ll be happy if you make it a point to be home by sunset”.

You bury your face in your hands, your shoulders hunched. Bad husband. And while you’re in this state of dejection, the door opens and your wife calls out: “Hey, did you see the patterns I printed out for the baby?”

“Prints…? Baby…?”

“Yes,” she frowns. “Those prints. They stimulate the mind. Create synapses responsible for learning.”

“Synapses…” you say blankly.

“Yes,” your wife says, “especially for math. And it increases concentration skills.”

“I’m sorry, can you repeat that? I wasn’t paying attention.”

“And they calm the baby when she’s bored.”

“Calm? But this dartboard here nearly knocked me out of my senses!”

“They’re supposed to enhance curiosity in infants.”

“Well, it certainly did arouse my curiosity.”

“It’s good for the baby.”

“But I thought they were for me.”

No, she says. It’s too late for that. You’re sort of a hopeless case. Your mother should have printed out these drawings before you turned three.

SunStar Cebu
17 March 2005

There’s the rub

I would say the Conde Nast Traveler citation was not at all undeserved.

I have not read the citation itself, but I figure that if Cebu was chosen one of the ten best destinations in Asia, it had to be because of our malls.

It doesn’t matter which one. Either of the two major ones will prove the point. You feel it at once: this friendliness; this feeling of being welcome, the moment you walk in.

Actually, just before.

“Good morning, Ma’am/Sir,” the security guard sings. (I guess in these days of blurring genders, it has become necessary to say both “Ma’am” and “Sir” in the same breath. Mercifully, they still omit pronouncing the “slash”.)

How nice. But then security guards hardly stop at obligatory pleasantries. It isn’t enough to welcome you. They feel it their duty to make you feel at home.

And so – words not being enough – they proceed to stretch out their arms, as if to say “Hey, it’s good to have you back”, encircling the middle region of your body, both palms inching closer until they rest on the sometimes non-existent boundary between your hips and your waist.

“Welcome to Ayala Center,” the man in blue says, rubbing your sides to make sure you fully appreciate this supreme gesture of intimacy.

And so awed are you that, if it weren’t for the long queue of people pushing you beyond this zone of friendship, past that table of understanding on which rest handheld radio transceivers and log books, you might have stopped to reciprocate, if only to say: “I’m not sure I got your first name, but say hello to the wife and kids.”

I don’t know how many times I’ve walked into a mall with my head turned back to the security guard, trying to recall that forgotten place and time when he and I became brothers.

I’ve been telling my friends about this wonderful experience at the malls and I’ve been struck by the cynicism that usually greets me. “That’s for security,” they invariably say. They say this with an incredulous look on their faces. “They’re checking if you have a gun tucked to your side.”

How cynical. How sadly it trivializes the tremendous significance of the hip rub.

And it’s not that believable either. I figure if it were for security, how easy it would be – in those few moments it takes for the security guard to stretch out his arms and rest both his palms on your hips – to grab the gun holstered to his own hip. Faster than he could say, “Welcome to SM City Cebu”.

So let’s not be cynical. Let’s take hip rub for what it is, and return the warm and friendly gesture.

I do. These days, when I walk into a mall and the security guard does his thing, I throw my arms up and say: “I know, I’ve grown maybe one or two inches since the last time.” You never call me. Let’s do lunch.

SunStar Cebu
27 January 2005

My last confession was. . .

And then you hesitate. Should you tell the truth? But what would the priest say if he learned that the last time you confessed, it was over Vivian Velez? In her prime?

Or maybe you should lie a bit, and then after the priest gives you the go-ahead to recite your sins, you include “I lied, Father”? Would your confession be valid? Is this within the intent of the Council of Trent?

If there’s one sacrament Catholics dread most, it is confession. It’s that “face time” with the priest, you see. It’s embarrassing. It’s so… analog. We have come to embrace the virtual anonymity of the digital world, and here you have to say your passwords out loud.

I remember that a few years ago, somebody suggested confessions by fax. List your sins and transmit them to your priest’s fax machine, and receive penance on yours. Reconciliation and redemption at a baud rate of 9600 bits per second.

Of course the proposal was quickly shot down by the Vatican. It tends to be absolutist on the matter of absolution. You need a personal interview to get a tourist visa to the United States, why shouldn’t you need one to get a green card to heaven?

You’d think that was the last of it, but someone came up with the idea of an ACM. The automated confession machine. If you don’t believe me, look it up on the Internet. And why should I lie? I’m the one who’d have to get some “face time” with some priest if I did.

The ACM is set so low you’ll have to kneel to confess before it. Then you key in your PIN, I guess. What kind of automated confession machine wouldn’t require you to key in your PIN? You don’t want the wrong people to mess with your permanent record in heaven.

Then the machine deftly guides you from one step to the next. Press “venial” or “mortal”. In the “venial” sub-menu, I guess there must be a listing there of minor offenses to choose from. The “mortal” sub-menu has options consisting of the Seven Deadly Sins and the Ten Commandments. You just key in your choices.

At the end of the transaction, the screen flashes your penance. I’m sure it would offer the option: “Would you like a printed receipt?” Then you go home. Forgiven.

If the idea hasn’t been shot down already, I’m sure it will be soon. But you can’t help thinking of the advantages. For one, as concepts go, the computer’s binary logic blends perfectly with the good/evil, black/white dichotomies of our creed.

And it does away with a lot of the arbitrariness that comes with penance. No more: “What? You only got 3 Hail Mary’s? I got 5! How much does it cost to get impure thoughts nowadays?”

The ACM can keep a record of recurring sins, and give you more Our Father’s for repeated offenses. And the Church can set some sort of a credit limit for mortal sins so that incorrigible sinners could have their accounts closed when they draw against an insufficient balance.

Then maybe their ACM cards can be captured so that they’ll have to apply for new ones once they’ve reestablished their credit.

And you can’t lie about the date of your last confession.

Hey. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.

SunStar Cebu
13 January 2005

Claus for alarm

I don’t worry at all that my six-year-old daughter will soon learn that Santa isn’t real. As of Sunday, she still believed him, and this article of faith has been most expensive to her mother and me.

No. That is the least of my worries. Frankly, there are a million other questions about Santa that I dread more.

“Papa, is Santa obsessive-compulsive?” That should be difficult to answer. He makes lists and checks them twice. Normal men don’t make lists, and never check anything twice. Santa, on the other hand, would seem to obsess.

“Papa, wouldn’t you say that Santa has a rather Manichean view of the world?” I would not go so far, my child. But to the extent that he sees everyone in terms of “bad or good” and “naughty or nice”, and acts on the basis of those judgments, let’s just say George W. Bush comes to mind. There is only black or white. The grays don’t get gifts either.

And I will save you the need to ask the question: Yes, my child, it would seem that there are no clear-cut standards of what is “bad” or “good” or “naughty” or “nice”. Santa’s discretionary powers to grant or withhold a bequest do not seem to be, as Justice Cardozo puts it, “canalized within banks to keep them from overflowing”.

Santa Claus, his agents, successors-in-interest and assigns, and all those acting for and in his behalf, such as, but not limited to, Vixen, Blitzen, Pranzer and Dasher, always run the risk of being challenged on the ground of due process.

“Papa, is trespassing illegal in the North Pole?” This is a trick question. This is what lawyers call “laying the predicate”. You know there’ll be a follow-up, and you’ll have to think of a convincing defense for Santa’s rather unconventional means of ingress and egress. “Down the chimney, broad and black, with his pack he’ll creep,” reads rather like the charge sheet in a criminal indictment.

“Papa, under fairly standard stalking laws, wouldn’t Santa be in danger of prosecution?” You would have to clear your throat. How long can you continue defending this man? He sees you when you’re sleeping, and knows when you’re awake. He knows when you’ve been bad or good. He’s a menace, for goodness’ sake.

So you better watch out.

“Papa, why doesn’t Santa outsource his toy-making?” Ah, but, my child, he already uses little people and makes them work round-the-clock, free from scrutiny in the North Pole. Nike and Wal-Mart never had that advantage.

Such difficult questions. You never thought Christmas carols would bring so much anxiety. And not just about Santa, either. It’s the whole Christmas “thingy” that seems to raise so many questions in our kids.

“Deck the halls with boughs of holly/ ‘Tis the season to be jolly,” the song pipes in, innocently enough, or so you thought.

“Papa, did they have Queer Eye for the Straight Guy makeovers in ancient times?” What? Where did this come from?

“Don we now our gay apparel. . .” the song continues.

Hey, kid. We don’t say “gay apparel” anymore. These days, it’s called “metrosexual”.

SunStar Cebu
23 December 2004

Fair warning

In the first place, why should a pack of condoms come with accompanying literature? That’s why they’re called literature. Men don’t read them unless they’re required reading.

And if they don’t stop men from plugging appliances straight into sockets, anyway, what makes condom manufacturers think situations requiring the use of prophylactics should be any different? It is a superfluity heaped on something that men, deep inside, feel is a superfluity, in the first place.

Maybe the world is just getting so complicated. Manufacturers feel the urgent need to warn everybody about their products, to protect themselves from liability. I once bought a car freshener that carried the warning: “Do not eat!” So I didn’t.

On the manual that came with a flat iron, it said: “Caution: Do not iron clothes on body.” “May irritate eyes,” said the can of self-defense pepper spray. The Christmas lights were tagged: “For internal or external use only.”

And on a box of rat poison, the thoughtful warning: “Warning: Has been found to cause cancer in laboratory mice.”

In all fairness to manufacturers, there must be some segment of the population that doesn’t already know these things but is smart enough to read, and another one that is smart enough to read but don’t already know these things. It may be that twilight zone that is a rich source of tort liability.

Because we are told by several Internet sites, and are assured that this is not apocryphal, that on the body of a Boeing 757, it is written: “Fragile. Do not drop.” Pilots are busy people; they need to be constantly reminded.

So when I heard that condom manufacturers were catching on, I bought myself several packs of different brands. Solely — if I may just make it clear — for research purposes. For column material. Not to be used for its intended purpose. I have kept them in their unused state, for evidence.

The most helpful instructions were those of this hip new line of condoms that seems, from its packaging, targeted to the young market. So you can understand the high sense of social responsibility that underlies the thoughtful tip: “How to use: Wear condom before intercourse.”

On the instruction manual that accompanied a Malaysian-manufactured condom that prides itself in being “ultra sensitive” is written: “Don’t return used condoms to the distributor through the mail.”

I will, due to the condom’s “ultra sensitive” nature, withhold this incredulous snicker. Perhaps, in Malaysia, there is this phenomenon we don’t know about. People everywhere returning used condoms by mail. Something we should guard against.

Which leaves me with just one question. What does it say about a condom manufacturer that feels the desperate need to implore people not to return used condoms by mail? What kind of marketing pitch is that? Why advertise the fact that apparently unsatisfied users are resorting to their own return policy?

Let’s just say it doesn’t really inspire much consumer confidence. “Dear Manufacturer: As you can see from attached product…”

But maybe they’re banking on the fact that nobody really reads these things. Me? But I just bought them for research purposes.

SunStar Cebu
16 December 2004

Help wanted

There must be a lot of earthmoving going on in there.

Which is the only logical explanation, if you’re wondering why a local motel in the northern part of this city has a sign outside that says “Dump Truck Drivers Wanted.”

Which is a great way to advertise your motel, and what a three-hour stay might do to the earth under your feet. So it may not be that funny, after all. So maybe I should just stop snickering.

We tend to underestimate the marketing skills of motels. We don’t expect them to go beyond billboards advertising three-hour specials, with rates shouting for attention as if someone with the urge really stopped to consider the prices.

I am in the grips of passion, Maria, and I know I must have you now, but the other place we passed cost 20 pesos less. Going back on your tracks is unlikely, and not out of superstition.

Looking at those billboards, you’d think they were gasoline stations with pump prices and oil change rates… And maybe I should just stop there because I’m not going there, where the naughty possibilities are about to lead me. Suffice it to say that these are filling stations of an entirely different kind. You don’t have to start zero-zero, Sir. You can pretty much start anywhere you want.

So you can understand how refreshing a “Dump Truck Drivers Wanted” sign can be, marketing-wise. “Guaranteed No Brownouts” was getting a bit old. And a bit odd. People with the urge to enter a motel are worried about power failures of an entirely different kind.

And everybody’s having midnight specials. So that was getting a bit tired, too. And people were beginning to question why a motel should reward people who stay overnight instead of go home, unless it was for stamina. They should be charging these showoffs more and subsidize the rates of those who are honest enough to confess to needing just a short time.

And not one motel has ever taken up the very intelligent suggestion to advertise its great food. That would give people a great excuse for going there, so maybe they’ll stop ducking in taxis when they’re about to make that sudden turn. I went there for the fricassee. It’s like reading Playboy for the articles.

I used to wonder why motels didn’t make themselves more discreet. I mean, why all the lighted signs and billboards to welcome couples who are about to remove themselves from the state of grace? Don’t clients prefer the anonymity?

I got my answer last week and once again, I was wrong about motels. You see, I live in the southern part of the city, and there’s a very discreet motel nearby. If you didn’t know it was one, you’d never suspect it was there. No lighted signs. No shouting billboards. In fact, if you’re going there, you’re liable to miss the entrance. Even in daylight.

Which was exactly what happened to that taxicab we were following along that road. It missed the entrance. In broad daylight. So it stopped in the middle of the street, a few feet from the entrance. It didn’t know whether to back up or to make a U-turn. The cars behind were honking their horns. And the distressed lovers were ducking in their seat.

I know. But the embarrassment was only half the problem. Inside our own car, my wife and I were imagining the conversation of the lovers. We should have gone north, the man was saying. The woman would have none of it: Maybe it’s a sign, my love. Maybe it’s not God’s will.

And you thought a power outage was your biggest problem.

SunStar Cebu
18 November 2004

Girth control

People who worry that Filipinos are losing their competitive edge in English should just go and buy an abdominal binder. And I recommend this medical supply shop in front of Chong Hua Hospital.

I know. I didn’t know there was such a device myself. Never thought you could grab your flab, tuck your tummy in and hold it all together with Velcro. What a remarkable feat of girth control. Such solid waist management.

Last week, I bought one for someone who had just delivered a 7-pound girl. That 7-pound girl filled this world in such a big way she must have left a big void where she came from. Hence the need to pack the slack and put it all back.

Best of all, it’s from Korea.

At least the one I bought was. Nice, unintelligible characters on the packaging. A picture of a slim Caucasian model who looked like she only needed the abdominal binder to make her waistline look bigger.

Then, a smart looking trademark of a Korean orthopedic company that boasted, in English: “Special in Health Care and Orthopedic Soft Good.”

So there you go. I had purchased not a mere abdominal binder. I had, in my hands, a special “orthopedic soft good”.

So you can understand the complex literature that not surprisingly came with this intricate product. Apparently, for products like this, it is not sufficient to say it is for women who had just given birth. “To use the belly getting weak from numerous pregnancy” is, I guess, more appropriate to the magnitude of this invention.

I read on. “Due to flexible support pad of the product is curved by your body shape, the product makes you be convenient.” I know. You have to read it maybe three times. But I just know that in that purgatory where Korean characters wait to be transported into English, that statement would sound comforting.

Besides, it “protects from rolling for continuous clean.” And it is made of high density sponge, “which is different with general sponge don’t grow its shape smaller or shrink.” And because of that, it contains “fibrils which make air circulate well supply the belly region a suitable compression with itself elastic materials.”

That — you would have to agree — certainly makes up for whatever linguistic difficulties you’ve had to contend with so far.

And the possibilities hardly end there. The abdominal binder works “to make warm getting cold in your belly.” “And”, it continues, “also it keeps beautiful silhouette of your body.” How it achieves that without a lot of backlighting, it doesn’t say. Effects not included.

The amazing thing, of course, is that the abdominal binder does this without losing sight of its main objective. Which is – and you will have to bear with the technical language involved here – “to make normalization your belly hanging down more than the other persons.”

So you hand this abdominal binder to its intended recipient. She reads the packaging. You ask: “How’s it hanging?” And she says: “I guess, more than the other persons.”

And you both get a good laugh. A good belly laugh. Such a deep belly laugh your belly hurts from all that laughing.

And then it hits you. Aha. So that’s how this whole thing works.

SunStar Cebu
11 November 2004

Kerry, that wait

So John Kerry lost.

I sat up the whole day yesterday, waiting for returns to come in from Ohio because it said there on CNN and NBC and even in Fox News that the fate of the whole planet itself hung on whether Ohio voted for Bush or for Kerry.

That, you would have to admit, is reason enough to stay indoors, to skip work and to forego a bath, and to extend a deadline for a column. I care enough about this planet. I didn’t want to be out there, doing inconsequential things, like work, while Ohio messed around with the planet’s future.

But John Kerry lost.

Just when we were having trouble with one of our toilets in the house, and were hoping that a Democratic presidency would provide the best atmosphere for fixing it.

I could have fixed it. I can be your regular handyman when inspiration strikes me. But not — and let me make that very clear — not under a Republican administration. All these fittings, these assemblies, these what-do-you-call-these-little-round-things will have to wait, on a matter of principle.

“We waited four years for this victory,” vice presidential candidate John Edwards said, in an effort to justify their refusal to concede. “We can certainly wait one more night.” Tell me that didn’t come like a breath of fresh air. You go, John, I said. And your partner John, too. If this planet can, there’s no reason why this toilet can’t.

But it appears that John Kerry lost. So what do I tell my wife now? That we were short of electoral votes to ensure unhampered flushing in the next four years?

She had prayed hard for a Kerry victory. I just know that. I knew that from the way she looked up to high heavens when there was another light bulb to change that had to wait for a change of administrations.

And when she threw her arms up in the air, as if in supplication, when the doorstopper for the flinging screen door lay there, waiting for George W. Bush’s concession speech.

Or when she bowed her head and closed her eyes when I refused to install the telephone extension because the Democrats had a better plan.

I’m reading her mind and it’s saying: “Nothing’s going to happen in this world unless Kerry wins.” So there. CNN is right. NBC couldn’t have put it better. Fox News is right on the money. The fate of the planet hung on this election.

But Kerry lost. NBC all but said it.

CNN was more cautious. Wolf Blitzer bit his tongue, and so did Larry King. Maybe that’s why my wife tuned in to CNN and hid the remote control, took out the lightbulbs, the doorstopper, the phone extension and the plumbing tools. There was hope in her eyes.

The sight of tools and things to be done moved me enough to say to her: “ Maybe we should switch to NBC now? Tim Russert really made a lot of sense with all those Bush numbers.” But my wife, and the remote control, were immovable. And so were those tools and things.

But Kerry lost. A new direction for this planet will have to wait. We will just have to put this behind us and move on. I did. I went to take a bath and told the toilet: Four more years. Ohio really did you in.

SunStar Cebu
4 November 2004

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